Chief Little Crow

Minnesota Indian Massacre – Indian Wars

By a treaty made, at Washington, in 1837, with the various tribes of Sioux, the U. S. government obtained a title to a large portion of land within the present State of Wisconsin and all of Minnesota, on the east side of the Mississippi. In 1849 the territorial government of Minnesota was organized, and immigration flowed thither so rapidly, and extended so widely, that, in 1851, the government was obliged to secure as it did by the treaties made at Mendota and at Traverse des Sioux the possession of all the country in the State of Iowa, and in the territory of Minnesota, up to the present western boundary of the State. By these treaties the Indians were assigned to two large reservations on the upper Minnesota near the Yellow Medicine and Hawk Rivers; and provision was made for a large annuity fund amounting to more than three millions of dollars. Upon the ratification of these treaties, in 1853, the Indians removed to their new homes, locating their villages on the Minnesota near the mouths of the Bed Wood and Yellow Medicine Rivers, and at Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse at which places, also, were located the government warehouses, residences of the agent and employees of the government and various machine shops required by treaty stipulations. On the new frontier thus established was erected a military post, called Fort Ridgely, on the north side of the Minnesota, twelve miles from the agency. Immigration set in with wonderful rapidity; in 1858 another treaty was made by which the Indians relinquished their claims to that half of their reservation on the north side of the Minnesota, at a stipulated price per acre and provision was made for a “civilization fund,” to be taken from their annuities and expended in improvements on the lands of such as should abandon their wild ways and adopt the habits and modes of life of the white race they being also paid for their labor, and allowed to retain their crops. The number of those who availed themselves of these very liberal provisions augmented rapidly, until four years after, there were some one hundred and sixty who had become farmers, had farms opened and dwellings erected, many of which were of brick. Among these “farmer Indians” was “Little Crow,” the leader of the Sioux, and many of his warriors; but to the “blanket Indians,” as those were called who refused to adopt civilized modes of life, the subtraction from the general fund, of the money necessary to carry out this plan, was extremely distasteful. Another cause of irritation, also, arose out of the massacre at Spirit Lake, in 1857, of forty-seven whites, by a roving, outlawed Indian, named Inkpaduta and eleven thieving followers. The U. S. government demanded that the Sioux, under Little Crow, should deliver up the culprits, and withheld the installment of annuities due them, until the demand should be complied with. The Sioux disclaimed any connection with, or responsibility for the Inkpaduta band; finally made an unwilling and inefficient chase after them, in which three of the murderers were killed, and then assumed such a defiant attitude that the government yielded to their demand and paid them their annuities, without any further attempt to bring to justice the balance of the miscreants who had escaped Little Crow‘s warriors. It was a grave error for the Indians misconstrued it as weakness on the part of the whites, and from that moment Little Crow evidently began to agitate a scheme for driving the whites from the State of Minnesota, this scheme became known in history as the Minnesota Indian Massacre.

Fort Ridgley Burning
Oil painting depicting Fort Ridgely in 1890, by James McGrew

Circumstances favorable to his plan began to develop. The United States were on the eve of a Civil Rebellion soon that war-cloud burst upon the nation. The Indian tribes of Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees, occupying lands in the southwestern part of the Union, within the limits of the Southern Superintendency, were in charge of agents who sympathized with the new Confederate Government of the Southern States; and, after the inauguration of the new (Lincoln) administration, the new appointees were unable, in the confused state of public affairs, to reach their posts, or to hold any intercourse with the tribes under their charge. The defecting officials instigated these Indians to acts of hostility, as well as to joining the Confederate cause, and, indeed, claimed to exercise the same authority as before, under a commission from the Southern Confederacy. By their misrepresentations they partly succeeded in inducing a portion of the Indians to renounce the authority of the United States for that of the Confederate Government; two delegates from the Choctaws were allowed (by treaty) to sit in the Confederate Congress; while two regiments were raised and put in service in the Confederate army, and a third was organized in 1861. Lack of authentic information relative to the purposes of the new administration; the surrender of the United States military posts in their neighborhood; the withdrawal of Federal troops; and the fact that they themselves were slaveholders, all tended to give weight to the subtle influences and arguments which were brought to bear upon them by the Southern emissaries and the Chickasaws, then the Choctaws, and lastly the Cherokees (despite the firm and loyal attitude and efforts of their renowned leader, John Ross) yielded and transferred their allegiance from the Northern to the Southern Republic. The Oregon tribes were, also, similarly affected by the same influences; and the contagion spread through the Sioux tribes of Minnesota conspiring, with influences which we have heretofore detailed, to render them ripe for an outbreak of savage violence.

Little Crow c1862
Little Crow c1862

The summer of 1862 brought, at last, the opportune moment. Only thirty soldiers were at Fort Ridgely, thirty at Fort Ripley, and one company at Fort Abercrombie while the whole effective force for the defense of the entire frontier did not exceed two hundred. The annuity money was daily expected, and, except about one hundred men at Yellow Medicine, no troops had been detailed, as usual, to guard the expected payment. The Indians knew that the whites were weak, that they were engaged in a great war among themselves, that their attention was turned toward the South. Little Crow, fertile in expedients and strategy, knew that this was the golden moment for his ambitious scheme and called a grand Indian Council, or “Soldiers’ Lodge,” at his village, near the Lower Agency. At this secret council, held August 3rd, were matured the details of a conspiracy which, for atrocity, has seldom been equaled on the pages of history. On Sunday, the 18th of August, 1862, Little Crow, Inkpaduta, and Little Priest attended Church at the Lower Agency, seeming to listen attentively to the preaching of the missionaries; and in the afternoon of the same day the “Soldiers’ Lodge” attended an Indian Council at Rice Creek, sixteen miles off. Little Crow presided, and it was then and there decreed, that a general massacre of all white men was to commence at the Agency, on the following morning, and at as many other points, simultaneously, as could be reached by the dawn of day, radiating from that point as center. The advantage gained by the suddenness of the attack, and the panic that would result, was to be followed up by the taking and destruction of Fort Ridgely, both the Agencies, New Ulm, Mankato, St. Peters, and all the river towns, the devastation of the whole country, and the driving of all the whites, who were left alive, beyond the Mississippi River and out of the Valley of the Minnesota. The first blow, however, fell at Acton, Meeker County, on the afternoon of this Sunday, (17th,) and four persons were wantonly murdered. On the next, the fatal Monday morning, the attack was made at the Lower Agency. From house to house the torch soon followed the hatchet; the flames enveloped alike the dead, dying and wounded. A few escaped through back doors, over fields, down the side of the bluff to the river those fortunate enough to get over by the ferry, or otherwise, hastened with utmost speed to Ford Ridgely. Others hid among the bushes, in hollow logs or holes, behind stumps, or in the water. Maddened with unresisted success for not a shot, not a blow had yet been aimed at them with fiendish yells the Indians followed or sought new victims among yet unsuspecting settlers. Those that escaped spread the alarm. As they heard it, people fled precipitately, scarce knowing whither they went. After them followed the Indians through the entire line of settlements, over a frontier of hundreds of miles, committing such barbarities as could scarce be exceeded if all hell were turned loose. They overtook various fugitive parties, killed all the men and children, and led away the young women and girls for fates worse than death. As soon as the first refugees reached the fort, and communicated the tidings, a handful of soldiers a part of a company were sent out under Captain March ”to quell the disturbance.” With utmost speed, in Government mule-wagons, they started for the Lower Agency, passing members who were escaping from the scene of carnage; seeing mangled bodies and blazing or smoldering houses, but not a single Indian. Finding the ferry unoccupied, Captain Marsh left twenty of his men to guard it, and with about forty took a raft and commenced to cross. Midway of the stream, amid deafening yells, a raking volley was poured into them from all sides by lurking Indians. Not a soul on board that raft escaped. The guard on shore retreated, firing behind them as they went but half of their number fell before reaching the fort. Those who fell by the roadside were stripped, hacked and mutilated. The refugees from the settlement kept pouring into the fort, bringing with them marks and incidents of horror innumerable. The fort was crowded to its last available inch the stock of provisions was limited, the amount of ammunition small. The loss of Capt. Marsh’s Company had left thirty soldiers, eleven half-breeds and one twenty-five and another six-pound howitzer as a defense for five hundred women and children. And then followed a five days terrible siege of the fort, during which the Indians tried every means of defiance, attack, fire and intrigue to gain possession of it and its trembling sufferers who were entirely cut off from all communication with their friends, or hopes of succor. Meanwhile war-parties, slaughtering, plundering, and burning traversed the whole surrounding country, rehearsing the bloody scenes of the Lower Agency.

Chief Little Crow
Chief Little Crow

At the Upper or Yellow Medicine Agency, the same tragic history was being enacted. A large party of forty, mostly women and children escaped by wagons and, with smaller parties, were followed hotly by the Indians, but a thunder-shower fortunately came up, obliterating their tracks, and at the same time saving the fort from a conflagration caused by the Indians who were besieging it. Approaching the fort, after a four days’ journey, full of privations and horrors, they were amazed to find it besieged by the Indians, and turned off towards Henderson and St. Peters, which they ultimately reached in safety. Meanwhile, on August 23rd, the savages, despairing of taking the fort commenced to transfer their main attack to New Ulm. Fiercely’ the battle raged in the streets of that village during the day for the settlers made a brave defense but the Indians succeeded in firing the stores, mills, warehouses, barns, stacks of hay, &c.. and all seemed lost; when, toward evening, Judge Flandrau providentially arrived with hastily gathered reinforcements from St. Peter charged with his mounted men upon the Indians and after a brisk fight routed them and entered the village, but not until carnage and destruction had completely ruined it. Hastily burying the dead, and putting the wounded into wagons, the surviving inhabitants prepared to evacuate the village, and the next day after seeing sights that chilled the strongest hearts, they started for St. Peter leaving their home in possession of the Judge’s troops, who were soon reinforced by a detachment of Col. Sibley’s men. The entire country, from Fort Ridgely, New Ulm and the Norwegian Grove, almost to St. Paul, was completely panic-stricken. Harvests, homes, everything was abandoned in the medley race for St. Peter and St. Paul, whose streets were glutted with the wagons and temporary shelter of refugees from even within ten miles around while the wave of massacre had not approached within a hundred miles of the latter place. Two days of murder, a week of fighting and burning and alarm and a population of thirty thousand scattered over some eighteen counties in the western border of the State were rushing in dismay from the terrors of savage warfare and the panic, almost depopulating the neighboring Territory of Dakota, reached even farther Eastward. Over two thousand whites were killed, and over two million worth of property destroyed. We have already mentioned the rescue of New Ulm by Judge Flandrau’s command the tide had now turned another force of volunteers from St. Peter relieved the besieged Fort Ridgely, and St. Peter, itself in danger from the alacrity with which it had sent forth help to its beleaguered neighbors, was set at comparative rest by the arrival of Col. Sibley with fourteen hundred men and attention was promptly given to the organization of proper means for feeding and caring for the thousands of fugitives who had thus suddenly been thrown upon their hands. In this good work, every part of the Union liberally shared. Then followed the pursuit of the Indians by Col. Sibley’s command, which reached Fort Ridgely, Aug. 28th, afterwards reinforced by other detachments and many companies of mounted citizens were organized throughout the State and sent to different endangered points. A severe battle occurred at Brick Coolie, Sept. 1st, with a heavy loss to the troops, but with the result of defeating the savages, and the undoubted saving of the towns of Mankato and St. Peter. Little Crow‘s band now retreated up the valley of the Minnesota, and was hotly followed by Col. Sibley’s force, now increased by the 3rd regiment of Minnesota volunteers, lately returned from Tennessee, as paroled prisoners. On the morning of Sept. 23d, this force was attacked, while in camp at Wood Lake, near Yellow Medicine by about three hundred Indians. A desperate and well-contested fight ensued, ending in the complete discomfiture of the savages whose leader, Little Crow, now lost all hope in the success of his cherished plans. His warriors were disheartened many of his chiefs were in open rebellion against his scheme of war upon the whites and on the same day of the battle of Wood Creek, a flag of truce came to Col. Sibley, from the Indian camp, sueing for peace. As the result of this surrender, and of the un-intermitting pursuit which was kept up by the white troops, under Col. (now Brig. Gen.) Sibley, until the 1st of November, 1862, over fifteen hundred Indians, who had been directly or indirectly engaged in the massacres, were taken prisoners, and over three hundred white prisoners released from their hands. After a long and careful trial by a military commission, three hundred and three of the miscreant Indians were commended to the General Government for capital punishment, and were closely confined at Camp Lincoln, between Mankato and South Bend, in the Minnesota River. Thirty-eight of these were subsequently hung (Dec. 5, 1862) together, at Camp Lincoln the remainder, thanks to a mistaken public sympathy brought to bear upon the Government, were pardoned. Meanwhile all existing treaties made with these Indians, were declared by Congress as annulled; and a portion of the annuities due them was appropriated to indemnify the white sufferers by the war. They were, also, removed from the limits of Minnesota in May, 1863, to the upper Missouri, above Fort Randall. A few lodges of fugitive Indians committed several unprovoked murders and defied the troops sent after them but no general panic ensued and the campaign of 1863, planned by Gen. Pope and conducted during that and the succeeding year by Gens. Sibley and Sully had the effect of transferring the war into the Dacotah territory beyond Missouri River. Little Crow himself was finally shot, July 3d, 1863, at Scattered Lake, near Hutchinson. He was a man of great ability, cunning and ambition and an eloquent speaker.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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