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The Lower Sioux Agency near Morton saw the first engagement of the U.S.-Dakota war

The Lower Sioux Agency, or Redwood Agency, was built by the federal government in 1853 near the Redwood River in south-central Minnesota Territory. The Agency served as an administrative center for the Lower Sioux Reservation of Santee Dakota. It was also the site of key events related to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Four bands of Dakota — the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton — ceded most of their homelands in southern Minnesota with the 1851 treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota. They moved to reservations along the Minnesota River in exchange for food, supplies, and regular payments from the U.S. government.

In 1853 the U.S. created the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton to issue these goods to the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands. An agency for the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands was built north of the Lower Agency at the mouth of the Yellow Medicine River.

The Lower Agency compound was made up of about a dozen buildings clustered around a council square. Four traders’ stores stood nearby. Laborers, teachers, merchants, and missionaries lived on-site. The Agency housed officials and provisions to meet the Dakota people’s needs related to the treaties. It also built manual labor schools, mills, and blacksmith shops.

Agency workers tried to persuade the Dakota to conform to Euro-American customs. They encouraged them to give up hunting and gathering and to rely on farmed crops and livestock for food. Several factors, however, stalled the Agency’s program. Funding was unreliable. Administrators neglected their duties. Indian Agents served out short appointments before moving on. Many Dakota families continued to practice their traditional lifeways, which sustained them spiritually and socially. As a result, only about 150 of the 3200 Dakota on the reservation became farmers.

A poor harvest in 1861 followed by a harsh winter ravaged the Dakota on the reservation. In 1862, many were starving. Tribal leaders looked to Agency officials to meet the government’s treaty obligations: food, supplies, and money. Previous payments had been made in June. When that month passed without a delivery of gold from Washington, Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith promised to issue the goods and money together by July 20.

In early August, Mdewakanton leader Ta Oyate Duta (His Red Nation, also known as Little Crow) met with Galbraith and the traders to persuade them to open their stores. Ta Oyate Duta asked the agent to give out food right away and pay the money later. He spoke of the stores filled with food while Dakota people remained hungry. In response, Agency store keeper Andrew Myrick exclaimed, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”

After Myrick’s remark, frustration that had simmered within the Dakota for years boiled over. On the morning of August 18, Mdewakanton warriors attacked the traders’ stores. Many of the traders and staff of the Agency were killed, including Myrick and Galbraith’s clerk. Buildings were looted and burned down. Some of the Agency’s residents fled to nearby Fort Ridgely.

The attack at the Agency was the first organized incident of the U.S.-Dakota War. The six-week series of battles took the lives of more than six hundred white civilians and soldiers and an unknown number of Dakota. In October of 1862 the trials of 392 Dakota prisoners started at Camp Release and then were moved to the Agency and held in the cabin of trader Francis LaBathe. Thirty-eight of the men tried were later executed in Mankato.

Acts of U.S. Congress passed in 1863 exiled the Dakota from Minnesota. They dissolved their reservations and agencies, including Lower Sioux. A few families judged to have been “loyal” to the United States were allowed to stay.

Dakota people gradually returned to the Lower Sioux area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1883 six Dakota families lived there. By the time of the 1936 census, its population had grown to thirty-nine families, including twenty of Mdewakanton heritage.

In 2014 the Lower Sioux Agency is a historic site managed by the Lower Sioux Indian Community, one of the four federally recognized Dakota tribes in Minnesota. Its campus includes an interpretive center and the only original Agency building still standing — a stone granary built in 1861. The surrounding community is home to 145 Dakota families and a total population of 982.

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

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