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Setting the Scene


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Setting the Scene | Chronology – 1862 War | Resources for the U.S.-Dakota Conflict | Monuments

Setting the Scene: The History of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict

History taken from The U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862: A Self-Guided Tour

Long before Europeans made their first forays into the territory now known as Minnesota, Native American tribes regularly crossed the Minnesota River at a fording place 14 miles north of the present city of Mankato, half a mile north of St. Peter. Early French explorers gave the site its present name, Traverse des Sioux (Crossing Place of the Sioux People).

The solid river bottom through shallow water provided a natural gateway between the dense woodlands on the east and the prairies and bison on the west. As a well-traveled junction, it became a natural convergence point for commerce both for the Native Americans and for European traders and trappers.

By the 1820s, Louis Provencalle, a Frenchman working for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Co., had set up a permanent fur-trading post at Traverse des Sioux. Soon a settlement sprang up around the post.

On July 23, 1851, one of the most significant Indian treaties in our nation’s history was signed at Traverse des Sioux between the U.S. government and the Wahpeton and Sisseton bands of the Dakota. Two weeks later at Mendota, a treaty was signed with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands. These treaties were instrumental in opening the American west to European settlement.

Some 24 million acres in Minnesota were ceded by the Dakota in exchange for reservation lands and for $3,075,000 to be paid over a 50-year period in annual annuities of goods and money – about 12 cents an acre for some of the richest agricultural land in the country.

Before ratifying the Treaty, the U.S. Senate added amendments that weakened the Dakota position. Even with the changes, the terms of the treaty were not entirely honored by the U.S.

The treaties left about 7,000 Dakota with two reservations, each 20 miles wide and about 70 miles long, with a 10 mile strip on each side of the Minnesota River. In 1858 the strip of land along the north side of the river, nearly a million acres, was also ceded to the U.S. The government established two administrative centers, the Upper and Lower Sioux agencies.

Delayed and skipped payments drove the Dakota to increasing desperation with each passing year. Through deceptive business practices, unscrupulous traders and government agents took much of what the Indians did have. Poverty, starvation and general suffering led to unrest that in 1862 culminated in the U.S. – Dakota Conflict, which launched a series of Indian wars on the northern plains that did not end until the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890.

Colonel Henry H. Sibley commanded the military. A well-known fur trader, Sibley was the Minnesota Territory’s first delegate to Congress and the state’s first governor.

With most of the able-bodied men away fighting the Civil War, the Indians seized their opportunity and very nearly succeeded. After first advising of the futility of challenging the white man (“Kill one, two, ten and ten times ten will come to kill you,” he said), Mdewakanton Chief Little Crow was persuaded to head the Dakota effort.

Before the Conflict (or Sioux Uprising, as it is often called) could be brought under control, at least 450 white settlers and soldiers were killed and considerable property was destroyed in southern Minnesota. There were uncounted numbers of Dakota casualties because of the Indian custom of removing all dead and dying warriors from the battlefield.

A five-man military commission was appointed to try the Dakota who had participated in the outbreak. The commission settled up to 40 cases in a single day. Some were heard in as little as five minutes. In all, the commission tried 392 prisoners, sentenced 307 to death and gave 16 prison terms. Many historians today feel the trial was a travesty of justice.

Authority for the final order of execution was passed to President Lincoln. He was pressured by politicians, military leaders, the press and public for immediate execution of the 303 still on the condemned list. Interceding on behalf of the Dakota was the Episcopalian Bishop Henry Whipple, known to the Indians as “Straight Tongue” for his fair dealings. The Rev. Stephen Riggs and Dr. John P. Williamson, Presbyterian missionaries to the Dakota, wrote letters to the press calling for a fair trial.

Lincoln approved death sentences for only 39 of the 303 prisoners. One of the 39 was later reprieved.

At 10 a.m. on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, the group of 38 ascended a specially-erected timber gallows 24 feet square and 20 feet high. More than 1,400 soldiers of the 6th, 9th and 10th Minnesota Volunteers and of the First Minnesota Mounted Rangers were on hand to keep order among the crowds of hostile citizens. The Indians sang as they left their prison and continued singing until the end. It was the largest mass execution in American History.