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The U.S.-Dakota war of 1862 lasted just six weeks, but its effects are still felt today

The war devastated people throughout south-central Minnesota.

lithograph image of battle of birch coulee
Lithograph interpretation of the Battle of Birch Coulee, 1912.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Though the war that ranged across southwestern Minnesota in 1862 between settler-colonists and a faction of Dakota people lasted for six weeks, its causes were decades in the making. Its effects are still felt today.

In 1851, after the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux, the US government removed most of the Dakota people living in Minnesota Territory (their homeland, called Mni Sota Makoce in the Dakota language) to a reservation on either side of the Minnesota River. The Treaty of Washington (1858) confined them to a smaller area south of the river.

Being restricted to one place made it hard for Dakota people to practice their traditional lifeways, which involved hunting migratory game and moving their homes seasonally. The terms of the treaties and the work of missionaries focused on forcing them to abandon their culture — in effect, to stop being Dakota. To survive, some adopted European American farming methods, cut their hair, and converted to Christianity. Others resisted assimilation by, for example, continuing to hunt and practice ceremonies. Many assimilated in some ways while resisting in others.

Immigrants flooded into southwestern Minnesota Territory in the 1850s, especially eager to claim land near rivers like the Minnesota. The U.S. government, however, failed to fulfill its treaty obligations to the Dakota. It built few schools, offered insufficient education in farming, and charged exorbitant prices for homesteading goods. Many Dakota people used what money they did receive to pay off inflated debts and fraudulent traders.

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By the summer of 1862, Dakota people on the reservation were in desperate straits—many of them starving. Game was scarce. The corn crop of 1861 had been meager. Annuity payments, which would have covered the cost of food and goods, were late, but traders refused to extend credit. Lower Sioux Agency storekeeper Andrew Myrick told the hungry Dakota to “eat grass or their own dung.”

On August 17, the tense situation reached a climax when four Dakota hunters killed five settlers in Acton Township. In the middle of the night, a group of Mdewakanton men persuaded a reluctant Ta Oyate Duta (His Red Nation, also known as Little Crow) to continue the fight against the United States in an all-out war. In response, the Dakota divided into two main factions: the farmers, or “cut hairs,” who argued for peace, and others (particularly young Mdewakanton men) who supported violent resistance.

The following day, Ta Oyate Duta’s party attacked the Lower Sioux Agency and homesteads in Brown and Renville Counties. On August 19 it reached New Ulm, where the townspeople erected a defensive barricade after a protracted skirmish.

The state’s leaders hurried to organize an army from a population already depleted by recruitment for the Civil War. Governor Alexander Ramsey placed Henry Sibley in charge of U.S. forces that engaged the Dakota in battles at Fort Ridgely (August 20 and 22), New Ulm (August 25), Birch Coulee (September 3–4), and Acton, Forest City, Hutchinson, and Fort Abercrombie (September 3–4).

During the six-week conflict, the Dakota participants who chose violent resistance killed more than 600 settlers, including women and children; the number of Dakota casualties is unrecorded. Fewer than 1,000 Dakota, out of a population of more than 7,000, participated. Many saved settlers’ lives; some, like Gabriel Renville, joined a lodge dedicated to peace.

At the war’s final engagement, the Battle of Wood Lake (September 23), Sibley’s forces defeated the Dakota. Ta Oyate Duta and other Mdewakanton fled to Dakota Territory or Canada. On September 26, settlers who had been held hostage or protected by different Dakota factions gathered at a site that came to be known as Camp Release.

After the war, the US government nullified its treaties with the Dakota, dissolved their reservation, and publicly executed thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato at the largest mass hanging in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, it removed about 1,600 Dakota non-combatants to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where they remained imprisoned during the winter of 1862–1863. Though they had not participated in the war, nearly 2,000 Ho-Chunk people living at Blue Earth, along with the Dakota at the fort, were removed the following spring to a reservation in Dakota Territory and, later, Nebraska. The government allowed a few Dakota who had supported peace to stay, including the family of Wakinyanwaste (Good Thunder), who were close to Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Henry Benjamin Whipple.

The war devastated people throughout south-central Minnesota. Settlers mourned their dead and abandoned claims across southern and western Minnesota. For the Dakota, the grief was deepened by the prospect of exile from their homeland. It wasn’t until the 1880s that exiled families began to return to their relatives who had stayed in Mni Sota Makoce. Together, they built communities at Prairie Island, Shakopee, and the sites of the Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies.

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