The Dakota War of 1862

“The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. The sum is more than all the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth."
The Daily Republican, Winona, MN 1863

The Dakota War of 1862 was a brief conflict between the Dakota people of Minnesota and settlers. Lasting only five weeks, the conflict had a profound impact on not only the Dakota, but Native Americans across the state. The conflict can be viewed as one of the genocidal efforts to forcibly remove the Dakota from Minnesota, which also included the internment of hundreds of women, children and elderly on Pike Island below Fort Snelling.     

Viewed in a larger historical context, the Dakota War was part of a series of conflicts that have been called the American Indian Wars. These caused, together with starvation and disease, a massive decimation of the Indian population across the United States. Following these repeated attempts to destroy Native American populations, the United States government embarked on a policy of assimilation towards indigenous people into Euro-American society. These policies would remain in effect until well into the second half of the twentieth century.    

The Dakota People before the War

The Sioux settling in North and South Dakota, Western Minnesota, and Northern Iowa are known as the Eastern Dakota. Although culturally related to the Western Dakota and Lakota, several differences exist to distinguish the tribal communities.

The Eastern Dakota had been a part of Minnesota for centuries. The bluffs where the Minnesota and Minneapolis Rivers diverge, near present day Fort Snelling, play a critical role in the tribe’s origin story. According to Dakota legend, the first members of the tribe came out of rock. The Dakota call this place Bdote. This makes Fort Snelling State Park an important place in Dakota culture, history, and religion.

The likely first encounters with Europeans began in the mid-to-late seventeenth century, as mostly French fur traders began exploring Dakota lands. The land itself would remain largely unsettled by Euro-Americans until the early nineteenth century when the tribe began signing treaties with the United States government.

For more information on the Dakota people before the war, check out:

  • The Bdote Memory Map: Maps depicting the Dakota connection to Minnesota. 
  • Dakota Life in the Upper Midwest by Samuel Pond: Pond's recollections of Dakota Indians after the disastrous war along the shores of Lake Calhoun. 
  • State of Minnesota Indian Affairs Council: The state maintains information about tribes living in Minnesota and information about the four Dakota communities in Minnesota.

Broken Treaties

The first treaties signed by the Dakota tribes came in 1805 when the Dakota signed a treaty with Zebulon Pike that gave the US government a significant amount of land where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet. In 1825, the tribe agreed to define its borders, along with several other tribes, at a meeting at Prairie du Chien, what is now Western Wisconsin. This would make it easier for the government to purchase tribal lands in the future.

Between 1837 and 1858, the Dakota tribes agreed to a series of treaties that exchanged Dakota land for money and food. At the same time, the US government passed a number of policies encouraging settlement along the western frontier, including the creation of the state of Minnesota.

Eventually, the Civil War meant the US government had fallen seriously behind on its payments and delivery of food, leaving the Dakota on the verge of starvation. This, combined with an influx of American settlers, meant the Dakota had no way of feeding themselves. The situation would come to a head in the summer of 1862.

For more information about the treaties between the Dakota and US government, check out:

  • MN–Dakota Treaties: Copies of many of the treaties the US government and Minnesota signed with Native American tribes, including the Dakota.
  • Why Treaties Matter: Exploration of the legacy and impact of broken treaties on the Ojibwe and Dakota people.  

The War

On August 17, a Dakota hunting party stole eggs from settlers in Acton Township, located in Meeker County. The raid led to the deaths of five settlers. Little Crow, a chief of the Mdewakanton band of Dakota, decided to continue the raids. The day after the raid in Acton, Little Crow led another raid against the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton, MN in Renville County. A relief force, led by the Minnesota Militia, was routed by the Dakota.

In the subsequent days, Dakota warriors led raids against New Ulm and Fort Ridgley, both of which had limited success. Because of the Civil War, the US government was slow to send troops to quell the uprising. Instead, military forces were primarily comprised of volunteer groups, led by former Governor Henry Sibling.

On September 23, federal forces defeated the Dakota at the Battle of Wood Lake in Yellow Medicine County. Three days later, the Dakota surrendered, releasing nearly 300 captives. The Dakota who surrendered were held until military trials could take place that November. Hundreds of Dakota were held at Camp Release, near Montevideo.

For more information on the war itself, check out:

  • The Dakota War of 1862: Analysis of the conditions before, during, and after the war as well as its lasting legacy (Minnesota Historical Society).
  • Historic Fort Snelling: Examination of Fort Snelling’s role in the Dakota War.
  • Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics by David A. Nichols: Description of the government's treatment of Native Americans during the Civil War. 

The Dakota Trials and Their Aftermath

In November 1862, the trials of the Dakota held at Camp Release began. Of the 498 trials held, more than 300 men were sentenced to death, for crimes ranging from rape to murder. The defendants were not allowed legal representation and the trials themselves were brief, with some lasting less than five minutes.

President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed the convictions of the Dakota men. Proponents and opponents of execution alike lobbied Lincoln on behalf of the settlers and the Dakota. In the end, Lincoln commuted all but 39 sentences, deciding only the Dakota involved in civilian massacres should be executed. On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, an event which remains the largest single execution in American history. The men who had received a commuted sentence were sent to Camp McClellan in Iowa where they would remain interned for four years.

Another nearly 1600 Dakota women, children and elderly were held during the winter of 1862-63 on Pike Island, not far from the Bdote and within sight of Fort Snelling. Disease quickly spread, killing hundreds in the camp. In April 1863, Minnesota voided its treaties with the Dakota and sent those living in the camps to Nebraska. Soon after, Congress passed legislation making it illegal for the Dakota to live in Minnesota. It remains a law to this day.

To ensure the Dakota were totally driven from Minnesota, a bounty was created, awarding money for every Dakota scalp turned in. Little Crow, who had led the first raids, was killed and his scalp collected for bounty. His skull was kept as a memento until 1971. The last Dakota executions took place in 1865.

For more information on the Dakota Trials and their aftermath check out:

The Legacy of the War

In the years following the Dakota War, a number of memorials were established honoring the white settler casualties of the conflict. In Mankato, a memorial to mass execution existed until the early 1970’s.

One hundred and fifty years after the war, Governor Mark Dayton formally apologized, declaring August 17, 2012 to be a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.” The Minneapolis and St. Paul City Councils formally declared 2013, “The year of the Dakota” and employed the term “genocide” in their resolutions.

The war and its aftermath are explored in a number of artistic representations amongst Native American and white artists alike. Many of the memorials recognizing the American experience within the conflict are being replaced to better reflect the experience of the Dakota people.

Even today, the Dakota War of 1862 continues to be a difficult period of history for many Minnesotans to explore.

For more information about the legacy of the Dakota War today, check out:

In addition to the items listed above, there are many more resources available to bring the Dakota War of 1862 to students.

Educator Resources

Documentaries