Minnesota Sioux Uprising, August 1862
By 1862, the Santee Sioux had given up their traditional homelands, which comprised most of southern Minnesota, in exchange for a narrow reservation on the southern bank of the Minnesota River. As compensation for their lands, the Sioux were to receive cash annuities and supplies that would enable them to live without the resources from their traditional hunting grounds. Because of administrative delays, however, both the cash and food had not arrived by the summer of 1862. Crop failures the previous fall made the late food delivery particularly distressing to the Indians. Encroachment by settlers on reservation land and the unfair practices of many American traders also fueled Sioux suspicions and hatred. Furthermore, the Sioux were emboldened by the Minnesotans’ relative weakness, brought on by the departure of many of their young men to fight in the Civil War. This combination of hunger, hatred, and the perceived weakness of the Minnesotans and the local military created an explosive situation that needed only a spark to bring on a full-scale war.
The spark came on 17 August 1862 when four Sioux warriors murdered five settlers near Acton, Minnesota. On 18 August, Indians at the Lower Sioux Agency rebelled, killing most of the settlers on their reservation. A few escapees managed to reach Fort Ridgely and warn its commander, Captain John S. Marsh, of the rebellion. Marsh and 47 men subsequently sortied from the fort only to be ambushed at Redwood Ferry, where half of them, including Marsh, were killed. Twenty-four soldiers managed to return to Fort Ridgely.
News of the rebellion spread quickly through the settler and Indian communities. For the Sioux, this was a catharsis of violence; for the settlers, a nightmare had come true. Most settlers in the Minnesota River Valley had no experience with warring Indians. Those who did not flee fast enough to a fort or defended settlement were at the Indians’ mercy. The Sioux killed most of the settlers they encountered but often made captives of the women and children. In response, the Army marshaled its available strength, 180 men, at Fort Ridgely, where well-sited artillery helped the soldiers fend off two Sioux attacks. At the town of New Ulm, a magnet for settlers fleeing the rebellion, defenders also repulsed two Indian attacks. The stout resistance of the settlers and soldiers effectively halted the spread of the rebellion.
Now, the military seized the initiative. A relief expedition under Colonel Henry H. Sibley arrived at Fort Ridgely on 27 August 1862. Sibley’s command consisted largely of green recruits with second-rate weapons. The Sioux surprised and inflicted a tactical defeat on Sibley’s men at Birch Coulee on 2 September. This minor setback, in any case, did not change the course of the campaign. From 2 to 18 September, Sibley drilled his soldiers and received supplies and reinforcements, including 240 veterans of the 3d Minnesota Infantry Regiment. On 19 September, Sibley resumed his advance. This time, the expedition encountered and defeated the Sioux at Wood Lake on 23 September 1862. Three days later, hostilities ended when some of the Santee Sioux surrendered and released their 269 captives. However, many of those that had participated in the uprising fled west into the Dakotas. Outraged over the uprising, state authorities executed 38 Indian prisoners and banished the other captive Sioux to reservations outside Minnesota.
The Sioux Campaigns of 1863 and 1864
In late 1862, the Army lacked the resources to pursue the Santee Sioux who fled west into the Dakotas. It wasn’t until the summer of 1863 that General John Pope, Commander of the Department of the Northwest, managed to collect enough resources to continue the campaign. He directed his subordinates to conduct a two-pronged campaign to find and punish the fugitive Santee Sioux and to threaten both the Yankton and Teton Sioux who had begun to support their Eastern brethren. Pope’s overall goal was to secure Minnesota’s western border from any Indian threat.
Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley commanded a 3,000-man column that marched west from Camp Pope, Minnesota. Brigadier General Alfred Sully commanded the second column. His command of about 1,200 men consisted of volunteer cavalry units from Iowa and Nebraska and some supporting artillery. He marched north from Fort Randall, South Dakota. The plan called for the two columns to rendezvous near Devils Lake in North Dakota.
Sibley’s large column departed Camp Pope on 16 June 1863 and reached the vicinity of Devils Lake around mid-July. There he established a base camp and then commenced pursuit of a large band of Santee and some Yankton moving toward the Missouri River. On 24 July, Sibley’s column caught up with the Sioux at Big Mound. The Indians escaped after fighting a desperate rearguard action that lasted most of a day. On 26 July, Sibley came close to overtaking the Sioux again at Dead Buffalo Lake when the Santee, reinforced with some Teton buffalo hunting groups, attacked Sully’s column. Sully’s troops cut short the Sioux attack with howitzer fire and then counterattacked driving them from the field. Sully pursued and caught up with the Sioux at Stony Lake on 28 July. Again, the Sioux fought a desperate rearguard action that allowed their families to escape over the Missouri River. In the course of the three fights, the Indians had lost an estimated 150 warriors and a large portion of their food supplies and equipage-a devastating loss. Though Sibley’s losses at Big Mound had been minor, he was critically short of supplies. So after 3 days of searching unsuccessfully for Sully’s column, Sibley decided to return to Minnesota reaching Fort Snelling on 13 September.
Delayed by low water on the Missouri River, Sully’s command didn’t arrive at the campaign area until the end of August at which time he learned that Sibley had returned to Minnesota. He also gained information that the uncaptured Santee Sioux had moved to the vicinity of the James River to hunt buffalo. Taking pursuit again, Sully caught up with the Indians near Whitestone Hill on the evening of 3 September. There he found a large village that may have contained as many as 1,000 warriors. In the confusion of a chaotic night battle, most of the Sioux managed to escape. However, the fighting was fierce; Sully lost 20 killed and 38 wounded, and the Army estimated Indian casualties at 150 to 200. In the ensuing pursuit, the Indians lost the majority of their equipage and 250 women and children captured. Sully had achieved a major victory and, being low on supplies, decided to return to Fort Randall.
In 1864, despite the decisive victories scored against them, a collection of free Santee, Teton, and some Yankton gathered together on the Little Missouri River and once again threatened the eastern Dakota settlements. In June 1864, Sully gathered over 3,000 men and marched up the Missouri River to disperse this conjoined band of Sioux. After establishing Fort Rice near present-day Bismarck, he turned his column west and commenced his pursuit. On 28 July 1864, he attacked the large Sioux contingent at Killdeer Mountain. During the battle, Sully formed his command into a British-style square and slowly advanced against the Indian encampment. In the day-long fight, the Indians suffered heavy casualties and were forced to abandon their village and most of their supplies. After the battle, Sully continued west to the Yellowstone River to intimidate the Teton, then returned to Fort Ridgely, Minnesota, in early October.
The campaigns of 1863 and 1864 had been highly successful in pushing the frontier further to the West. With the Santee Sioux decisively crushed, the Minnesota settlements no longer had any fear of an Indian threat. Anyway, the Teton Sioux participation in the hostilities had been minor. Only 2 years later, along the Bozeman Trail, the US Army directly challenged the Teton with very different results.