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The Minnesota Sioux Uprising of 1862

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The uprising as imagined by Henry August Schwabe, c. 1902.

The uprising as imagined by Henry August Schwabe, c. 1902.

Sioux Uprising of 1862: Betrayal of Trust

As white settlers moved West, Native American inhabitants were pushed off the land they had occupied for thousands of years. Compensation was promised through treaties but not always delivered; one such betrayal of trust led to the Sioux Uprising of 1862 and its bloody conclusion.

Land Surrender

The Sioux reluctantly surrendered 28 million acres of their land to the U.S. government in the newly formed state of Minnesota. They could no longer practice their traditional nomadic hunting way of life and were herded onto reservations.

In return, money and goods were supposed to arrive. Sometimes, these were diverted by corrupt Native American agents and the Sioux had to build up debt by borrowing money from traders to buy the goods they needed. When the cash did come through, the traders got most of it, leaving the Sioux destitute.

Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858, and the Sioux, under the leadership of Little Crow went to Washington. They wanted the federal government to enforce the treaties they had signed with the territory. What they got instead was the loss of more of their land.

Little Crow

Little Crow

The War’s Triggers

During the summer of 1862, an infestation of cutworms devastated the Sioux’s corn crops and starvation became a possibility. Little Crow went to see government agent Andrew Jackson Myrick to ask for credit to buy food for his people. Myrick’s response was “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”

“When men are hungry they help themselves."

— Little Crow

In mid-August, four Sioux men went on an unsuccessful hunting trip but stole some eggs from a white farm. A confrontation followed and the Sioux killed five members of the white settler’s family.

The Sioux warriors knew that retaliation would come so they decided to strike the first blows. Little Crow wrote to Henry Sibley, the former Governor of Minnesota: “For what reason we have commenced this war I will tell you. it is on account of Maj. Galbrait [sic] we made a treaty with the Government a big for what little we do get and then cant get it till our children was dieing with hunger—it is with the traders that commence Mr A[ndrew] J Myrick told the Indians that they would eat grass or their own dung.”

The Sioux Attack

Some factions among the Sioux wanted peace and took no part in the violence that followed. Others, under the leadership of Little Crow descended on white settlements in the Minnesota River Valley. One of the first white people to die was Andrew Myrick; when his body was found his mouth was stuffed with grass.

Settlements were attacked and burned and their residents slaughtered.

The militia was called out and engaged the Sioux at Redwood Ferry. It turned out badly for the militia, which lost 24 men. Emboldened by their early successes, the Sioux attacked New Ulm and burned parts of the town.

For several weeks, the skirmishes continued and the death toll among whites went above 500 (some accounts say 800), while the Sioux lost about 150 warriors. Eventually, a larger army force was mustered and, in late September 1862, the Battle of Wood Lake crushed the Sioux uprising. Most of the warriors surrendered by the end of September while Little Crow escaped to Canada.

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The attack on Ulm.

The attack on Ulm.

Reprisals Against the Sioux

Almost 400 Sioux warriors were put through the mockery of trials by a military commission.

They had little or no understanding of the white man’s legal proceedings, not that being knowledgeable would have made any difference; the outcomes had been decided before proceedings began. Vengeance was the only operating guideline; justice would have to take a seat outside for a while.

Guilty verdicts were reached with astonishing speed and 303 death sentences passed. President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the cases against the warriors and decided 303 hangings might be a bit excessive, so he commuted 264 death sentences. One more Sioux warrior was also given a reprieve, and that brings us to the town of Mankato, in southern Minnesota.

The Ultimate Price

It’s early in the morning of December 26, 1862 and we are in the company of Ben Welter of The Minneapolis Star Tribune. He is in the cell of the 38 Sioux who are to be executed shortly.

He describes how one old condemned prisoner “broke out in a most lamentable and unearthly wail; one by one took up the lay, and ere long the walls resounded with the mournful ‘death-song.’ The song seemed to quiet and soothe them . . . ”

At 10 a.m. soldiers arrived to escort the prisoners to the elaborately constructed scaffold that had been built just outside the jail. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people had gathered to witness the grim spectacle.

Welter writes that the men were assembled on the gallows platform, each with his own noose around his neck. The signal for the rope to be cut to allow the platform to drop was the third tap on a drum.

“All things being ready, the first tap was given, when the poor wretches made such frantic efforts to grasp each other’s hands, that it was agony to behold them. Each one shouted out his name, that his comrades might know he was there. The second tap resounded on the air. The vast multitude was breathless with the awful surroundings of this solemn occasion. Again the doleful tap breaks on the stillness of the scene. Click! goes the sharp ax, and the descending platform leaves the bodies of thirty-eight human beings dangling in the air.”

Minnesota Public Radio notes that “Their deaths scarred generations of native people and cemented Minnesota as home to the largest mass execution in U.S. history.”

Bonus Factoids

  • One of the warriors received a short reprieve. When the platform dropped his rope broke and the body fell “with a heavy, dull crash . . . ” Ever resourceful, the execution party found another rope, took the condemned man up to the platform, and dropped him a second time.
  • Little Crow returned to Minnesota from Canada and, in July 1863, he was shot and killed by a white settler, Nathan Lamson. He claimed the “The State reward for dead Indians [of] $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.” When Lamson dragged the body into town it was immediately recognized as Little Crow and the bounty was upped to $500. The dead chief’s scalp and skull were sent to St. Paul to be put on public display.
  • Naming confusion exists because what is referred to here as the Minnesota Sioux Uprising is sometimes also called the Dakota War, Little Crow’s War, and various other titles. The Sioux confederacy is made up of several tribes, of which the Dakota is one.
White refugees fleeing the violence of the Sioux Uprising.

White refugees fleeing the violence of the Sioux Uprising.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 11, 2020:

Char. In researching this story I found a determined effort to play it down and bury it. I suspect, although I have no proof, that those who screamed for revenge, once they had it, found it unsatisfying. Most of the whites were Christians and they may have reflected on the Biblical advice that “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” Perhaps, consciences were pricked and it was thought best to let the story slide from public view and into obscurity.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 11, 2020:

Gilbert. Lincoln was under pressure from General John Pope to act with maximum retribution, saying “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.” Lincoln was not a man filled with hate and he knew the trials had been a travesty, so he went through the testimony and threw out the convictions of those he considered unsound because of very flimsy or non-existent evidence. Even then, his leniency was met with protests and riots.

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on January 10, 2020:

Interesting. I was born in Mankato. Lived there on and off much of my life. I believe the monument is by the library, under the bridge, but i have not walked over and looked at it. It's not well publicized.

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on January 10, 2020:

It's amazing Lincoln was able to stay the execution of a number of Indian lives. I'm curious what saved them from those Sioux that were executed.

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