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The last Dakota-Ojibwe battle: Shakopee, 1858

On May 27, 1858, the last in a long series of violent conflicts between Dakota and Ojibwe people took place on the banks of the Minnesota River.

Black-and-white photonegative of the site where the Dakota and Ojibwe fought the Battle of Shakopee in 1858. Photographed c.1875 by William H. Jacoby.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The last in a long series of violent conflicts between Dakota and Ojibwe people took place on the banks of the Minnesota River north of the village of the Dakota leader Shakpedan (Little Six) on May 27, 1858. Dozens of Ojibwe and Dakota warriors engaged in fighting that claimed lives on both sides but produced no clear victor.

The Ojibwe and Dakota shared an uneasy coexistence throughout their history in the territory that became Minnesota. Early white explorers to the region wrote of fighting between the two groups occurring as far back as the fifteenth century. Both moved seasonally to hunt deer, gather wild rice, and make maple sugar. They sometimes competed for these resources, especially in the border region. Periods of peace and goodwill marked by treaties, trade, and intermarriage were often broken up by bloody skirmishes, usually on a local scale. This on-again, off-again pattern of fighting continued for hundreds of years.

White immigration and reliance on the fur trade intensified the two groups’ competition for resources. The addition of guns made the fighting even more deadly. By the late 1850s, treaties with the U.S. government had confined the Dakota to a reservation straddling the upper Minnesota River and the Ojibwe to lands further north and east. This nominal separation did not prevent Ojibwe–Dakota tensions from turning violent again in 1858.

Details of the May 27 battle can be found in newspaper articles written by white reporters who observed the event from afar. Though their explanations of the battle’s cause contradicted each other, many stated that the Ojibwe looked for retribution against the Dakota for a recent series of attacks on their people. In one such attack in April, a family of eleven women and children near Crow Wing were killed while they slept.

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On May 26, 1858, between 150 and 200 Ojibwe warriors approached an encampment of Dakota on the Minnesota River near Shakopee. They stopped in the woods on the river’s north side and waited to ambush the unsuspecting Dakota the next morning. The Dakota, with no more than seventy men in their party, were greatly outnumbered.

Sometime between four thirty and five o’clock on the morning of May 27, shots rang out from behind the cover of nearby trees. The Ojibwe killed a young Dakota man fishing from a canoe along the south side of the river. Hearing gunshots, between forty and fifty Dakota warriors gathered their weapons and raced to the river to engage their attackers in battle.

The two sides faced off on either end of the river and began firing upon each other. Because their attackers were beyond the range of their weapons, the Dakota climbed aboard Murphy’s Ferry and began to cross the river. Once they were across, the battle began in earnest.

The sounds of the battle brought out the townspeople of Shakopee. They watched the fighting from the safety of the bluffs above. At around ten o’clock the fighting stopped. The Ojibwe, reportedly leaving behind four dead, retreated toward Lake Minnetonka. The Dakota, having lost three men, returned to their encampment to fortify it against a follow-up attack.

While the numbers were clearly in the Ojibwes’ favor, a significant group of Ojibwe held themselves in reserve in the event the others were to perish. This meant that nearly equal numbers of combatants faced off in battle. Ojibwe Indian agents later reported on the behalf of tribal leaders that only thirty-four of the warriors from their group fought that day-a number corroborated in subsequent written accounts of the battle from onlookers.

After the fighting had stopped, the Shakopee community speculated that the Ojibwe would regroup and attack the Dakota again. The long history of conflict between the two nations had shown a pattern of attacks and counter-attacks. Governor Henry Sibley decided that separating them was the only way to keep this from happening. A few days after the battle, he demanded that the Dakota still in the valley pack up their belongings and return to their reservation land. While there were unconfirmed reports of both tribes assembling in the area for battle, a second attack never came to be.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.