by Rosie Court
St. Joseph Historical Society
Minnesota’s heritage is rich in historical and cultural events. To preserve these events, monuments were constructed throughout the state at designated sites. Located in St. Joseph near Centennial Park is a monument built in 1941 by the federal Works Project Administration. The structure commemorates a blockhouse erected as a defense to protect settlers from the Indian attacks during the Dakota Conflict of 1862. The State of Minnesota Department of Highways and Minnesota Historical Society funded the monument.
2012 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of a period plagued by conflict and violence that remains a truly sad and tragic part of our history. One-hundred-fifty years ago, most of the nation and Minnesotans were caught up in the horrors of the Civil War. Many Minnesotans enlisted and were serving the Union Army in the East. Some military men were left behind to face another civil war, between the settlers and the Native Americans known as the Dakota tribe or Sioux nation. The “Dakota Conflict,” also known as the “Sioux Uprising,” was fought primarily along the Minnesota River Valley from Aug. 17, 1862 to Sept. 26, 1862.
In 1862, Minnesota was still a young state, established in 1858. Minnesota was given its name by the Dakota “Mhishota” referring to the lakes and rivers in Minnesota. Central Minnesota was inhabited by the Dakota (Sioux) and Chippewa (Ojibway) tribes prior to the arrival of the immigrants. The Dakota were woodland Indian tribes that first moved from northern Minnesota in the 1700s. In 1825, a treaty divided Stearns County between the Dakota and Chippewa. The Dakota were steadily pushed back to the South and West by Chippewa rivals whose leader was Chief-Hole-in-the-Day.
The spark that ignited the Dakota Conflict began on Aug. 17, l862. Four young Santee Sioux were returning from an unsuccessful hunt for food. They came across a hen’s egg nest. One Indian took the eggs and was warned by the others they were white man’s eggs. During a quarrel he was then called a coward. He replied, I am not afraid and I will show you how brave I am. They stopped at a settler’s farm in Acton located in Meeker County. They asked the owner, Robinson Jones, who was also a postmaster and storekeeper for liquor, but Mr. Jones refused. After asking the Indians to leave, he went to a neighbor, Howard Baker, followed by the Indians. At the Bakers’ farm, the four Santee invited the white people to a round of target practice and then violently turned on them and shot Baker, Jones, his wife, Mr. Webster and Jones’ adopted daughter. Mrs. Webster and a daughter survived by hiding in the cellar.
Following the attack, the four braves went to their band located near the Lower Sioux Agency (Redwood Falls). They informed their leader, Red Middle Voice, who was friendly with the whites, as to their actions.
They met in council with Chief Little Crow and other tribal elders. Realizing they had killed white men and women, Little Crow knew they would want vengeance on all the Indians for a crime done by a few.
Believing he had no choice, he made a fateful and ultimately disastrous decision. Despite deep divisions on the issue, he declared an oath of war against the white settlers, hoping to drive them out of the Minnesota River Valley. It was now time to reclaim their land. The majority of the Dakota opposed the uprising and chose not to join in the attacks.
The unplanned shooting at the Baker farm began a revolt. The following morning, 1,500 braves under Little Crow’s command led a large-scale attack and seized control of the Lower Sioux Agency. Breaking into the warehouse, they took food and killed 44 troops assigned as a relief regiment. Andrew Jackson Myrick, the agency director who refused to extend credit for food, was the first white man killed. His dislike for the Indians was widely known. Myrick had commented, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” When Myrick’s body was found, his mouth was stuffed full of grass. Troops that escaped later were ambushed at Redwood Ferry and 24 more troops were killed, including Captain Marsh, their commander who drowned crossing the river.
When word of the uprising spread to the Lower River Valley, terrified settlers erected stockades in the communities of St. Joseph, St. Cloud, Paynesville, Fairhaven, Maine Prairie and Clearwater. Several farms were burned in Richmond and Paynesville. Preparing for danger, the town of St. Joseph built defenses as a refuge from attacks. Three pentagonal blockhouses of green timber from Joseph Linneman’s flourmill were built in various locations. The fortifications were one foot thick and the sides were 50-feet long. In St. Cloud, three blockhouses were built in different locations. Most citizens remained unharmed and were never attacked in St. Joseph or St. Cloud.
Stearns County had no organized militia in 1862. St. Joseph organized its own with a company of volunteers to further protect residents from harm. The members included Capt. Andrew Schroeder and Lts. Thomas Schoffen and Mathias Zimmer.
Originally, St. Joseph had assembled a company of 16 men under Father Eberhard Gahr, O.S.B., to join a company of mounted men from St. Cloud to relieve Paynesville and New London. The men of the St. Joseph command had only three horses among them. They stayed with the settlers in Paynesville until a rider from Richmond announced the Chippewa were going to attack St. Joseph and St. Cloud. That attack never happened, and the militia returned to St. Joseph. Upon their return, guards had been organized and posted for watch duty.
Chief John Other Day remained friendly with the residents in Stearns County and refused to take part in the conflict. Some Indians often risked their lives helping many settlers to safety.
Minnesota Gov. Ramsey commissioned Col. Henry Sibley as commander of the state militia in charge of suppressing the uprising. There wasn’t enough military available due to thousands enlisted in the Civil War. The Dakota Conflict resulted in an estimated 600-700 civilians, soldiers and military personnel losing their lives in the attacks. An estimated 300 men, women and children were captured during the rampages. There are disputes and no true estimates as to the Dakota losses. Estimates range from 30-100 casualties, but the exact number remains unknown. Hundreds were wounded or injured. Throughout the conflict, considerable property was destroyed and hundreds of horses killed in southern Minnesota. On that first day of violent action, as many as 200 whites died.
Momentum continued for a month as Little Crow swept down the Minnesota River Valley. Women and children were murdered under horrible circumstances, and many were captured and tortured. The deadly violence involved seven battles, with the most intense fighting happening at New Ulm and Fort Ridgely. New Ulm was almost completely burned and destroyed. In 37 days, settlements in 23 counties were attacked along 200 miles of the Minnesota River Valley. Some settlers, who had established relationships with the Indians, had their lives spared. In some areas there was no pattern as to those killed or taken hostage.
The terrorized pioneers fled to the safety of Fort Ridgely, which was attacked twice. They evacuated to larger settlements that offered better protection. On Aug. 25, there was a mass exodus of 153 wagons, 2,000 refugees – mostly women, children and wounded men. They traveled 30 miles to Mankato through hostile territory.
On Sept. 2, American troops suffered their greatest casualties in the Battle of Birch Coolee near Morton. Gen. Sibley’s camp was surrounded and ambushed by the Indians. After a 40-hour battle, 28 soldiers were killed and 60 severely wounded.
The Battle of Wood Lake was the final engagement of hostile action that ended the uprising on Sept. 23, 1862. With a force of 1,400 men and after inflicting heavy casualties, Sibley forced the Dakotas to surrender. That final action led to the release of white captives held by the Dakota (now known as Camp Release.) Little Crow escaped to Canada. He later returned and was shot and killed by a farmer while picking berries on July 3, 1863 near Hutchinson.
The outbreak was a culmination of many factors that frustrated and angered the Indians.
Prior to the uprising, the Sioux were forced to cede half their ancestral lands due to the westward expansion of the white settlers. The homesteaders took up claims, built cabins and cultivated land for farming. In 1851, with pressure from the U.S. government, the Eastern Dakota signed the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.” The agreement included selling 24 million acres of land in southern and western Minnesota, including Stearns County. Between 1851 and 1858, due to other cession land treaties, the Native American population ceded 90 percent of their land to the U.S. government. In addition, they also lost their rights to quarry their sacred stone in Pipestone.
Approximately 7,000 Native Americans were forced to live on government-assigned reservations. The area included a 20-mile wide, l50-mile stretch bordering the western upper Minnesota River. In exchange, government officials guaranteed them gold payments and supplies provided by a variety of traders, often unscrupulous ones. Much of the promised compensation never arrived or was lost or stolen due to corruption. A portion of the money was designated for building schools, mills, shops and farms, and education.
Reservations contained U.S. government centers for administration and trading posts overseen by bureaucrats who were often corrupt. Tensions were building as often the Indians were abused and mistreated.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs taught them the ways of the white man, intending them to be farmers. For the Dakota Sioux, that was a rapid change from their traditional way of life. They clung to their old ways, surviving by living off their abundant land, hunting and fishing for their food. Living on the reservations, they suffered and many died from diseases that spread rapidly from the white settlers.
With resentment and no hope for change, they became discontent, tired of a lifestyle reducing them to subordinates. Due to a severe, harsh winter, poor harvests and crop failure, they were living in starving conditions, becoming desperate for food. Payments were long past due from the government. In Washington, they debated over whether they would make payments owed to the Indian nations in gold or in paper currency. Reservation stores were overflowing with food and despite widespread hunger the agents refused the Indians credit or distribution of food until money arrived from Washington. After many futile attempts to receive food, they became more angered with the unfair, dishonest treatment received and broken treaty agreements. White observers had warned the government offices there was possible trouble brewing.
Following the Dakota surrender, trials were conducted in Mankato. A military court was established by Sibley to try those engaged in the uprising. They had no opportunity for defense council since the government felt the Indians had no rights. After trials and sentencing in Mankato, 307 Dakota were to be executed. President Lincoln had a strong sense of justice. He had the trial records reviewed by two lawyers. As a result, the number to be executed was reduced. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Sioux were executed by a mass hanging in Mankato. It was the largest execution in American history. President Lincoln’s “Act of Clemency” led to many protests by the settlers.
In the aftermath of the Dakota conflict, more than 6,000 Dakota were expelled from the state, relocating to lands in Nebraska and South Dakota. More than 1,000 were jailed in Fort Snelling. Another 700 men, women and children not accused of any crime were transferred to Fort Snelling. That first winter, 160 died due to the conditions they lived in. Eventually they were shipped to Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota Territory with unbearable conditions and no tribal unity. The area had a scarcity of wild game, and the water was unfit for drinking. Many died of disease and starvation. The United States Congress seized all the Indian lands, declaring all former treaties null and void.
The panic from the uprising left whole counties abandoned. For fear of being attacked, as many as 50,000 pioneers left their homesteads in the Minnesota River Valley. Their dreams of homesteading vanished as the refugees never returned.
After their expulsion from Minnesota, major Indian wars, battles and conflicts occurred throughout the Dakota Territory. Included was the massacre of cavalry troops and Gen. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 in Montana. That bloody and tragic episode of the Dakota conflict did not end until 1890 with the Battle of Wounded Knee, located in South Dakota. That conflict ended all resistance between the U.S. and the Dakota. After that massacre, the Dakota Sioux’s hopes of retaining their old ways of using natural resources to survive were gone. It was the final consequence of the Dakota Conflict that began 28 years ago in Minnesota and had an impact on the St. Joseph and surrounding communities.
By the 1880s a number of Dakota had moved back. Today the Chippewa and Dakota live in bands in 11 reservations in Minnesota.
It is vital to preserve the monument that represents St. Joseph’s history. The monument is a visible time-honored reminder of the historical trauma suffered by the residents of this town. It is an essential landmark. It commemorates and honors bravery; it defines conflict; it is part of our ancestry, relating to the early settlers who immigrated to St. Joseph.
The monument is a landmark linking our past to the present. It is important to maintain its legacy for future generations.