Fort Ridgley Burning

The Sioux Massacre, Minnesota

Escape of Rev. Mr. Riggs and Dr. Williamson

Chief Little Crow
Chief Little Crow

The couriers which Little Crow had dispatched to the various bands, had but to tell their story, and the savages were ready for action. At the Upper Agency, on the Yellow Medicine, there was some hesitation at first, whether they should kill the whites or send them away and seize their property. In the council that immediately assembled, “Other Day,” a civilized Indian, opposed all violence, and told them they were bringing ruin on the whole tribe. But when the news of Marsh s overthrow was received, all debate ended, and the war cry sounded. Other Day, seeing that the storm would soon burst on the Agency, secretly informed the whites, who were in pro found ignorance of what occurred, and assembling them, sixty-two in all, crossed the river, and conducted them in safety to the settlements. But for his bravery and devotion they would have shared the fate of the inhabitants of the Lower Agency. On the same night some Indians brought the news to the missionary and school station of Rev. Mr. Riggs and Dr. Williamson, six miles above the Agency.

Although Little Crow in his message had urged the chiefs to massacre the whites, they hesitated at first what course to take. Like those at the Yellow Medicine, they were more Christianized than the great majority of the tribe. Many of them were members of the church, and all had been treated with uniform kindness by the missionaries. In sickness they had been attended by them, and when in want had been fed and clothed. The missionary houses were to them like taverns, where they came and went as they wished, and were never turned away empty. Hence, they and their families, in total ignorance pf what was going on, went about their usual avocations in perfect security. On Sunday, when the massacre had commenced, they had religious services as usual, and it being the regular communion Sabbath, the Lord s supper was administered to the Indians who composed the church. Though the missionaries knew nothing of what was on foot, they noticed that the Indians acted strangely. Their usual meek and quiet demeanor was wanting, and a certain brusqueness and defiant manner was observed. Still, nothing serious was apprehended. But after service, an old squaw strode roughly in Mr. Riggs house, and demanded payment for the injury one of his hogs had done her potato patch. When asked what she wanted, she replied a calf. It being refused her, she went away, muttering that she would have it any way before long. Soon after, some Indians quietly walked in Dr. Williamson’s barn, and led out two of his horses; and when the Dr. called after them, they only laughed and galloped off. Two others, following their example, were about to take away those that remained, when he stepped up to them and demanded what they want by treating him in this manner, asking if he had not always been kind to them, giving them clothes when they needed them, and feeding them whenever they came to him hungry. They said yes, and that they did not wish to harm him, but the horses would soon be taken, and they might as well have them as any body else. All this looked very strange; still the missionaries thought it was only a passing mood of some discontented individuals, and retired to rest with a feeling of entire security.

The next morning, while the flames were wrapping the dwellings of the Lower Agency, and the inhabitants were falling or flying before the yelling, infuriated savages; the various members of their families went about their ordinary avocations. Some went into the hay-field, some into the woods hunting, others fishing, and some of the ladies went out to sketch. In the mean time, those who remained at home began to feel the greatest alarm. Some friendly Indians had told them of fearful rumors of the rising of the Indians down the river, and that the work of destruction had already commenced. The farmer Indians, instead of being at work, gathered in groups around the missionary house, and talked over the flying reports that kept reaching them. When the family assembled again that evening, the news of the day was eagerly discussed, and they were forced to admit that imminent danger threatened them. None felt like retiring, and the next tidings from below were anxiously waited for. Some of the Indians watched with them, declaring, come what would, they would stand by them to the last.

Chaska, Paul and Enos, Faithful Indians Aiding Riggs and Dr. Williamson in their Escape

Of these, however, Chaska, Paul, Ma-za-ku-ta-ma-ni and Enos, alone remained faithful. Towards morning, a messenger arrived, announcing that the massacre had actually commenced, and that the tide of destruction was rapidly sweeping towards them. The greatest alarm now prevailed, and some proposed immediate flight to the fort. Others, however, thought it was a mere “scare,” such as had occurred a year before when a warehouse was broken open by the Indians; and said it would blow over in a few hours. It did not seem possible that the Indians would dare to come into serious collision with the whites. But with daylight, evidences of hostile feelings multiplied; the Indians grew bolder; some of the squaws began to roam over the house, and seize such articles as they fancied, paying no heed to the questions asked them, what it all meant. At length they brought out the sugar barrel, and after helping themselves to what they wanted, distributed the rest to those around. Others, catching the contagion, pulled off the feather beds and ripping them open, scattered the feathers on the floor and ground, and sticking their heads through the ticking, walked away with them, laughing insolently at the wonder-stricken whites.

It was now plainly time to leave, for there was no mistaking these hostile signs. Mischief was afoot, and there was no telling how soon the storm might burst upon them. A wagon of hay was standing by the barn, and quickly unloading this, they got in, and guided by Chaska, were driven to a ford of the river but little known. Dr. Williamson, however, with his wife and sister, determined to stay behind a little longer. In the mean time, Mr. Riggs had also taken the alarm, and with his party had crossed the river, and lay concealed in a thicket about a mile distant. The Indians had discovered their flight, and taken their wagon away from them, compelling them to travel on foot. These, after much search wore discovered, and the two parties joining, commenced their sad march over the prairie. The nearest place, which could afford them protection, was Fort Ridgely, and thither they directed their steps. But fearful of meeting warlike Indians on the main route, they turned off, and wandered hither and thither, keeping only the main direction. Dr. Williamson, with his wife and sister, soon became convinced that it would be certain death to remain longer, and taking an ox-cart, followed after. Two friendly Indians, Lorenzo and Chaska, accompanied them, driving the team, and telling all whom they met, and who inquired what was in the cart, that they were carrying away their own goods. On one occasion a war party met them, and being suspicious that they had something besides goods under the buffalo robe with which they had covered the three fugitives, advanced as if to lift it, when Lorenzo stepped in between, and bringing his gun to his side, declared that he would shoot the first man that touched the covering. The Indians, not liking an encounter with him, left, and soon after struck the trail of the first party. Supposing that all had fled together, they exclaimed, “Ah! the tracks of Dr. Williamson and Mr. Riggs! they can’t be far off; we will catch and kill them.” Wheeling, they dashed off on the open trail, and it seemed for a moment that the fate of these missionaries was sealed. But just then a heavy thunderstorm broke along the river, and the rain came down in torrents, completely washing out all traces of their march. Thinking that better plunder was behind, which could be secured with less trouble than to follow the blind trail of the poor missionaries, the Indians turned back towards the Big Woods. Coming upon a farmhouse in which were two men, they entered it and killed one and sent a bullet through the thigh of the other. The wounded man immediately made for the window, but as he was in the act of jumping out, they stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife. He, however, succeeded in reaching the ground, and made off with the energy of despair. The Indians chased him till exhausted with the loss of blood, he fell. Supposing he was dead, they turned back for the plunder. The wounded man, finding himself no longer pursued, got up and limping forward, succeeded in reaching the party which the Indians had left pursuing but a little while before. His wounds were at once bound up, and he was laid in the wagon and covered with a shawl. All that night, a cold, drizzling rain soaked the suffering women and children, yet they did not permit a complaint to escape them.

The next day they resumed their desolate journey, and when night again came on, the only provisions they had left, was a small piece of raw pork. Again the pitiless rain came down, and these women and children, who all their lives had been accustomed to the comforts of civilization, lay the whole night on the wet, dark prairie, watching for the day, which they still dreaded to see. The next morning they started off, and seeing a thicket in the distance, made towards it through the wet and mud, in the hopes that they could there find some sticks with which to cook a breakfast, for they were now entirely out of provisions, except they killed one of the cattle they took the precaution to bring- with them. But they soon discovered that several marshy creeks lay between them and it, over one of which they had to draw the wagon and cart by hand, after making a sort of bridge by bending down the reeds and grass. There were only six men in the whole party of forty, and they had to carry over the women and children as they best could. But alas, as they approached the thicket, they found that a marsh three miles wide lay between them and it. The prospect of a breakfast looked dim enough, but some of the women joined the men, and passing for the whole three, miles over the springy, and at times almost floating sod, brought back on their shoulders, sufficient wood to build a fire. They then killed a calf, and roasting some of the meat, assuaged the pangs of hunger. It was three o’clock in the after-noon, however; before this hard-earned breakfast was ready to be eaten.

Arrival at Birch Cooley

The next day, Friday, about noon, they reached a spot known as Birch Cooley, about twenty miles from Fort Ridgely. Here, Dr. Williamson, with his wife and sister, in the ox-cart, overtook them. Here, too, they came on the track of the destroyer. Beside the fence near them, lay a mother and three children, dead, their bodies gashed and mutilated by the tomahawk. A little further on, stood a solitary house in which a sick woman lay when the tidings came that the Indians were approaching. Unable to leave her bed, her two sons took up the straw mattress on which she lay, and putting it into a wagon, drove of as fast as they could, but all too slowly for their pursuers. The shouts and yells of the Indians were borne to the ears of those two sons, and though escape was hopeless, they refused to leave their sick mother. The Indians dashing up, murdered them both, and then pulling the mattress on to the ground, piled some brush around it, and setting it on fire, burned the poor woman alive.

Never were a people so suddenly awakened from a dream of security, and plunged into such hopeless terror, as the inhabitants along the Minnesota, and throughout the adjoining country, during the three or four days after the massacre at the Lower Agency. Down towards New Ulm, a large village of 1,500 inhabitants, situated only about thirty miles above St. Peters, and towards Fort Ridgely, the Indians streamed in crowds. When the news reached St. Peters, the alarm bells were rung, and the people assembled in the most intense excitement to consult on what course to pursue.

In the mean time, Little Crow, the next morning after the destruction of the Lower Agency, assembled three hundred warriors in the neighborhood of Fort Ridgely, preparatory to an attack upon it. Had he advanced at once, it must have fallen, for it had a garrison of only thirty men, and was totally unprepared for a sudden assault. But that night, Galbraith, with a company of men from St. Peter’s, and Lieut. Shehan, with a squad who had been turned back on their way to Fort Ripley, succeeded in getting into the fort, thus giving it a sufficient force to offer a stout resistance.

Attack On Fort Ridgely

About one hundred warriors only stayed with Little Crow, near the fort, while the others roamed over the country, plundering and slaying. About four hundred gathered around New Ulm, and began to burn the buildings in the suburbs, and sent their shots into the streets of the place, killing several of the citizens. The utmost consternation prevailed, for the place was full of women and children, nearly five hundred fugitives having arrived from the surrounding country. The utter want of organization and proper leadership, showed, that at the first bold dash, that crowded population would be at the mercy of the savages. The sun was stooping to the western horizon, and when darkness should envelope the town, its terrible doom would be sealed. But at this critical moment, a Mr. Boardman from St. Peters, broke on a wild gallop into the place with fifteen mounted men. Moving instantly outside of the mere apology for a barricade, which the terrified inhabitants had thrown up, they boldly attacked the Indians, and by their steady and deliberate firing, at dark drove them back, and saved the town. About nine o clock, Judge Flandrean, from St. Peter’s, arrived with a hundred more men, and the people took courage. The savages, baffled here, went to rein force Little Crow, who now thinking himself strong enough, boldly attacked Fort Ridgely. The shouting, yelling, painted horde, swarmed like demons around it, and would doubtless have swept over its frail defenses with a bound had it not been for two howitzers, commanded by Sergeant Jones. As the shells of these began to burst among them, they grew cautious, for they had the terror common to all savages, of the big guns. But from behind bushes and trees, and log-houses in the vicinity, they kept up a perfect hailstorm of bullets, at those working the guns, which steadily thinned the garrison. At length, heaven seemed to interfere in their behalf, for a heavy August thunderstorm arose, and broke with terrible fury over the fort. The successive peals crashed louder than the cannon, while the rain came down in a perfect deluge.

The savages, alarmed for their ammunition, wrapped their blankets around their guns, and uttering yells of rage, scampered off for the shelter of the woods. This was the same storm that saved Mr. Riggs and Dr. Williamson. This respite gave the garrison time to get the women and children more thoroughly protected, and to throw up stronger barricades. The next day, Little Crow renewed the attack, but with diminished numbers, as many had gone away on the pleasanter and safer business of plundering and massacring helpless women and children, and ravishing such as suited their lusts. They scattered up and down the Minnesota for a hundred miles, committing every act of fiendish atrocity, which their diabolical natures were capable of conceiving. The family at Red Wood, hearing that the Indians were coming that way, fled in two wagons, taking different directions. The Indians, meeting one party, killed them all, and leaving them dead in the road, drove back to the house. Finding it deserted, they applied the torch to it, and started off after the party in the other wagon, which consisted of three girls and a hired man. Overtaking them, they butchered the man and one of the girls, and struck a knife into the breast of another. They then drew lots how many should have each of the girls. The wounded one died from the alternate abuse of sixteen. Seven little children, huddled together in one bed, were all ruthlessly murdered. Not content with killing, they horribly mutilated the bodies. They cut off one farmer s head after they had killed him, and laid it on a table, and bracing open the mouth, filled it with milk. They shut up another dead body with a hog, which devoured all but the bones.

Little Crow Renewing The Attack

Little Crow c1862
Little Crow c1862

On Thursday night, after the second attack on Fort Ridgely, Crow returned to the Agency, where he found arrived a large body of Indians from up the river, who had answered his summons. Strengthened with these, four hundred and fifty in all, he set out next morning to renew his attack on the fort. But this time the garrison was prepared for them. The savages commenced the attack with great fury, and kept to their work with unflinching tenacity. Half the resolution two days before would have captured it. They fired all the buildings around it, shot fire-arrows on to the roofs of the buildings within, climbed up the walls, poured in their destructive volleys wherever a head appeared, but all in vain. But since Monday the garrison had had no communication with the outside world. They were getting worn out, and it began to be a serious question how long they could stand this siege.

The utmost anxiety was felt all over the country for their safety, and every day the people of the state expected to hear of its overthrow, and the massacre of all within. But discouraged by the failure of his prolonged and desperate attack on Friday, in which he had lost many warriors, and narrowly escaped death himself, Crow drew off his bands towards New Ulm, thinking it would be an easier prize. Since the arrival of Flandrean, the Indians had left this place unmolested.

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

This sudden abandonment of Fort Ridgely, was most providential for Rev. Mr. Riggs and Dr. Williamson, and their party of forty from above the Yellow Medicine. Pushing out from Birch Cooley, they had on Friday night arrived near the fort, wholly unconscious of the siege, and rejoicing that their dangers and toils were almost over. Just after dark, they saw a rocket go up from the fort, and ignorant that it was a signal of distress to any force that might be approaching, they rejoiced in the fond belief that it was to light them in. One of the party crept on his hands and knees, through the line of fire, into the fort. The commander of the garrison, surprised to see him, told him to hurry back, and tell the rest not to attempt to enter the fort, for it would be certain death. Their hearts sunk in despair at the message, and rather than turn away to the open prairie again, filled with Indians, they at first resolved to make the attempt to get in. But at last they gave it up, and moved sadly off into the night, feeling that a horrible death menaced them at every step. Behind them the sky was red with the burning buildings around the fort, and they pushed on into the gloom, not knowing what was before them. Reaching a creek, a prolonged scream in the bushes, sent the blood curdling back to every heart. However, there was no other course left them but to keep moving forward, for worse evils were behind them. Crossing the creek, they went on a little way, when the exhausted teams gave out entirely. Their journey had come to an end for the present, and placing a guard they sank down in the wet grass and slept. At daybreak they started on, and though the appearance of two Indians, who narrowly watched them, showed that they had been discovered, the sudden departure of the main body for New Ulm, prevented pursuit. The vast booty at that place was a more tempting prize than the little they carried.

Early that morning the people of New Ulm saw huge columns of smoke ascending along the banks of the river.

One after another they shot up into the air, each one nearer the town than the other, showing that the Indians were approaching, burning the farmhouses and barns as they came on. Judge Flandrean, thinking he could fight them to more advantage on the open prairie, led his two hundred and fifty men out and awaited the attack. About ten o clock, the savages, several hundred strong, appeared in view, moving slowly over the plain, and well packed together. When they came within a mile, they began to spread out swiftly, and increasing their speed as they advanced, at length gave a wild yell, and came down like a whirlwind. The assault, so sudden and bold, and accompanied with such unearthly yells, unnerved the raw volunteers at first, and they fell rapidly back beyond the outer houses of the town.

They, however, soon rallied, but they had given a great advantage to the Indians, in leaving behind, the houses as a cover to their approach. It now became a regular Indian fight, and those western men having got their mettle fairly roused, effectually resisted every attempt of the savages to get into the town. The battle raged for several hours, without any decisive result, when the Indians made a desperate charge. The whites received them with a cheer, and charging in turn, drove them helter skelter to cover. The fighting, how ever, was kept up till dark, when the savages withdrew. The next morning they renewed the attack, but not with the same determination as before, and at noon abandoned it altogether.

While these struggles with large bodies of the enemy were going on, detached parties and single Indians were roaming through the settlements, murdering men, women and children, and committing atrocities of the most diabolical kind. Pregnant women were violated again and again, and even little girls abused till they lay lifeless on the earth. One young woman was ravished by sixteen. In succession, who then sharpened a stake and drove it into her body, leaving her to die in the most horrible agony. Multitudes were taken prisoners and hurried away into captivity.

Evacuation Of New Ulm

Though New Ulm at present was saved, the people did not know how soon the Indians might return, and being nearly out of ammunition, and the dead carcasses around, under the hot August sun, filling the air with disease, it was thought best to abandon the place; and the two thousand inhabitants left in a body, and with a train of a hundred and fifteen wagons, safely reached Mankato.


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

1 thought on “The Sioux Massacre, Minnesota”

  1. The Story of My Capture and Escape During the Minnesota Indian Massacre of 1862: With Historical Notes, Descriptions of Pioneer Life, and Sketches and Incidents of the Great Outbreak of the Sioux Or Dakota Indians as I Saw Them
    by Helen M. Tarble 1904. 65 pages

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