Battle of Birch Coulee, September 2, 1862
Introduction: At the Battle of Birch Coulee Minnesota militia, led by Colonel Henry H. Sibley, suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Dakota Sioux led by Chief Little Crow. They are pictured below. It was the Sioux's greatest victory in a five week war which led to over five hundred deaths among the white settlers and militia and U.S. Army troops and about sixty among the Dakota. In the end, which came only three weeks after Birch Coulee at the Battle of Wood Lake, the Dakota surrendered. Almost 400 were then tried for murder and rape by a military tribunal; over 300 were sentenced to death; and -- after President Lincoln reviewed the sentences -- thirty-eight were hanged on December 26, 1862.
The Dakota Sioux Conflict of 1862 began three decades of intermittent warfare between Plains Indians and the United States government. It also typified in its causes, course, and consequences those subsequent conflicts. The Sioux, prior to 1862, had lived in relative peace with French and English settlers.
- Why did the previous condition of peaceful co-existence change?
- How did the new condition of endemic warfare begin?
July 1851 - Treaty of Traverse des Sioux ceded to the U.S. lands in southwestern portions of the Minnesota Territoryfor $1.665 million in cash and annuities.
August 1851 - Treaty of Mendota ceded to the U.S. additional lands in southeastern portions of the Minnesota Territory for $1.41 million in cash and annuitities.
August 1851 - 7,000 Dakota move into two reservations bordering the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota.
1858 - Dakota cede additional land on the north bank of the Minnesota River.
August 1862 - Annuity payments are late; Dakota demand future annuity payments be made directly to them, rather than through traders. Traders refuse to sell provisions on credit. Andrew Myrick, spokesman for the traders, says: "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass."
August 17 - Four Dakota kill five white settlers.
August 18 - Bands of Dakota kill 44 Americans in attacks on the Redwood Agency and on federal troops heading for the Agency.
August 19 - Minnesota Governor Ramsey names Col. Henry Sibley to command American volunteer forces. Sixteen settlers are killed around New Ulm. Settlers crowd into a small barricaded area of New Ulm.
August 23 - About 650 Dakota attack New Ulm. Town is burned; 34 die and 60 are wounded, but the barricaded area holds out.
August 25 - 2,000 New Ulm refugees head for Mankato, thirty miles away.
September 2 - Battle of Birch Coulee, Dakota under Little Crow defeat Col. Sibley's forces.
September 23 - U.S. forces defeat Dakota at Battle of Wood Lake.
September 26 - Col. Sibley occupies the Dakota reservation and takes 1200 Dakota men, women, and children into custody. Later another 800 Dakota surrender.
September 28 - Sibley appoints military commission to "try summarily" Dakota for "murder and other outrages." In all 393 Dakota are tried. 323 are convicted, of whom 303 are sentenced to be hanged.
December 6 - President Lincoln orders only 39 of the executions go forward. The execution of one additional condemned man is suspended later.
December 26 - The thirty-eight are hanged in Mankato. It is the largest mass execution in American history.
A BRIEF NARRATIVE
On Sunday, August 17, 1862 four young Dakota Sioux were out hunting. What happened next, according to Big Eagle, a Dakota chief (pictured at right), follows:
You know how the war started -- by the killing of some white people near Acton, in Meeker county. I will tell you how this was done, as it was told me by all of the four young men who did the killing. These young fellows all belonged to Shakopee's band. Their names were Sungigidan ("Brown Wing"), Ka-om-de-i-ye-ye-dan ("Breaking Up'), Nagi-we-cak-te ("Killing Ghost"), and Pa-zo-i-yo-pa ('Runs against Something when Crawling'). I do not think their names have ever before been printed. One of them is yet living. They told me they did not go out to kill white people. They said they went over to the Big Woods to hunt: that on Sunday, Aug. 17, they came to a settler's fence, and here they found a hen's nest with some eggs in it. One of them took the eggs, when another said: "Don't take them, for they belong to a white man and we may get into trouble." The other was angry, for he was very hungry and wanted to eat the eggs, and he dashed them to the ground and replied: "You are a coward. You are afraid of the white man. You are afraid to take even an egg from him, though you are half-starved. Yes, you are a coward, and I will tell everybody so." The other replied. "I am not a coward. I am not afraid of the white man, and to show you that I am not I will go to the house and shoot him. Are you brave enough to go with me?" The one who had called him a coward said: "Yes, I will go with you, and we will see who is the braver of us two." Their companions then said: "We will go with you, and we will be brave, too." They all went to the house of the white man (Mr. Robinson Jones), but he got alarmed and went to another house (that of his son-in-law, Howard Baker where were some other white men and women (Jones, Baker, a Mr. Webster, Mrs. Jones and a girl of fourteen).
The four went into the Baker house (shown in the sketch above), killed the occupants, took a wagon and team of horses, and went back to their village where they told what they had done. Big Eagle continued:
The tale told by the young men created the greatest excitement. Everybody was waked up and heard it. Shakopee [leader of their band] took the young men to Little Crow's house (two miles above the agency), and he sat up in bed and listened to their story. He said war was now declared. Blood had been shed, the payment would be stopped, and the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed. Wabasha, Wacouta, myself and others still talked for peace, but nobody would listen to us, and soon the cry was "Kill the whites and kill all these cut-hairs who will not join us." A council was held and war was declared. Parties formed and dashed away in the darkness to kill settlers. The women began to run bullets and the men to clean their guns.
The "payment" Little Crow referred to was that owed to the Dakota by the United States under the terms of the treaty, signed by Little Crow and other chief, which ceded most of southwestern Minnesota to the government. The Dakota, with their hunting range much diminished, were dependent upon the payment to trade for provisions. Most were deeply in debt to these traders. In preceeding years, the government had made the payment directly to the traders so that most did not receive any of the money themselves. This, along with bad harvests, had created deep discontent. The Dakota chiefs had declared that they would insist upon receiving the payment rather than allowing the traders to deduct the debts first. The traders, for their part, had made it clear that they would refuse to extend any further credit. One declared that if the Dakota were hungry, they could eat grass.
Once Little Crow and then others declared war, the Dakota attacked the Redwood Agency and then New Ulm and Fort Ridgely. The Fort was successfully defended but much of it burned. New Ulm experienced the same fate. Some 2000 refugees, mainly women and children, set off in wagons towards St. Paul and, it was hoped, safety. On September 2, Minnesota militia led by Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley lost the Battle of Birch Coulee with heavy casualties. Four days later, President Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope, the loser of the second Battle of Bull Run, commander of the northwest territory. Pope defeated the Dakota at the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23. While the battle raged, Dakota opposed to continuing the war seized and then released several hundred white prisoners, most of them women and children. Defeated in battle and without any prisoners to bargain with, the Dakota gave up the struggle. Col. Sibley took approximately 1200 prisoners. About 800 more surrendered. Others followed Little Crow north into Canada.
All told the Conflict lasted about five weeks. It claimed the lives of some 500 white settlers and U.S. soldiers, caused a general evacuation of settlers from the whole of southwestern Minnesota, witnessed the wholesale destruction of settlers' houses, barns, and property. Pictured above are some of the "refugees" camping out on the prairie on their way to St. Paul. About sixty Dakota died in the fighting. Almost 400 were put on trial for murder and rape. Of these 303 were sentenced to death. President Lincoln intervened and ordered a review of the sentences. He then commuted 265 to imprisonment. The decision was wildly unpopular among Minnesota's white settlers. On December 4 a mob armed with hatchets and other weapons attacked the camp where the Dakota prisoners were being held but were surrounded and disarmed by U.S. Army troops. On December 26 thirty-eight Dakota were hanged, the largest mass execution in American history.
As is often the case, most of the historical records come from the white settlers. A few Sioux did tell their side of the story, however. And several of the whites, most importantly the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, were sympathetic of Sioux grievances. Even so, it is difficult to tell the story fairly.
The closest we have to a first-hand account of what happened on the afternoon of August 17, 1862 is Big Eagle's. He was the leader of a band of Dakota and took part in the initial war council. There is, however, no corroborating testimony.
At this time my village was up on Crow creek, near Little Crow's. I did not have a very large band -- not more than thirty or forty fighting men. Most of them were not for the war at first, but nearly all got into it at last. A great many members of the other bands were like my men; they took no part in the first movements, but afterward did. The next morning, when the force started down to attack the agency, I went along. I did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a friend that he did not want killed; of course he did not care about anybody's else (sic) friend. The killing was nearly all done when I got there. Little Crow was on the ground directing operations. The day before, he had attended church there and listened closely to the sermon and had shaken hands with everybody. . . . I was never present when the white people were willfully murdered. I saw all the dead bodies at the agency. Mr. Andrew Myrick, a trader, with an Indian wife, had refused some hungry Indians credit a short time before when they asked him for provisions. He said to them; "Go and eat grass." Now he was lying on the ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the Indians were saying tauntingly: "Myrick is eating grass himself."
When I returned to my village that day I found that many of my band had changed their minds about the war, and wanted to go into it. All the other villagers were the same way. I was still of the belief that it was not best, but I thought I must go with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I would lead them into the war, and we would all act like brave Dakotas and do the best we could. -- Big Eagle's Account in Anderson, Gary & Woolworth, Alan, Through Dakota Eyes (Minn. Historical Society, 1988) ]
Isaac Heard, who served as the recording secretary of the Military Commission which tried the Dakota after the Conflict, produced a full-scale History the following year. His discussion of the events of the war provides the white settlers' view.
The trials were elaborately conducted until the commission became acquainted with the details of the different outrages and battles, and then, the only point being the connection of the prisoner with them, five minutes would dispose of a case.
If witnesses testified, or the prisoner admitted, that he was a participant, sufficient was established. As many as forty were sometimes tried in a day. Those convicted of plundering were condemned to imprisonment; those engaged in individual massacres and in battles, to death.
If you think that participation in battles did not justify such a sentence, please to reflect that any judicial tribunal in the state would have been compelled to pass it, and that the retaliatory laws of war, as recognized by all civilized nations, and also the code of the Indian, which takes life for life, justified it. The battles were not ordinary battles. The attacks upon New Ulm were directed against a village filled with frightened fugitives from the surrounding neighborhood, and the place was defended by civilians, hastily and indifferently armed, and were accompanied by the wanton burning of a large portion of the town, and by the slaughter of horses and cattle, and the destruction of all property which came within the power of the enemy. A number of persons from the country, who endeavored, while the attack was progressing, to make their way into the town, where alone was possible safety, were shot down and horribly mutilated. The attacks upon the forts were also accompanied by similar acts.
The battle of Birch Coolie commenced with an attack, just before daylight, upon a small part of soldiers and civilians who had been engaged in the burial of the dead at the Red-Wood Agency, by over three hundred Indians, who started for the purpose of burning the towns of New Ulm, Mankato, and St. Peter, and butchering the inhabitants. The war party to the Big Woods marched a distance of eighty miles on a general raid through the settlements. They murdered and mutilated a number of unarmed fugitives, burned many houses, stole a large quantity of horses and cattle, killed a portion of Captain Strout's company at Acton, and partially destroyed the town of Hutchinson. On all these occasions, as they were attacked by largely superior numbers, the whites would have surrendered could "quarter" have been expected. It was with the utmost resistance and despair that the defense of Fort Ridgely and New Ulm was sustained after the burning of all the outbuildings, and an attempt to set fire to the fort itself. The timely arrival of re-enforcements alone saved the part at Birch Coolie from total massacre. One hundred and four bullet-holes through a single tent, the slaughter of over ninety horses, and the loss of half the party in killed and wounded, indicate the peril of their situation. The purpose of these Indians, as frequently stated, was to sweep the country as far as St. Paul with the tomahawk and with fire, giving the men "no quarter;" and these battles were but part of the general design, and rendered the acts of one the acts of all. The fact that those engaged in such a mode of warfare acted together in organized bands, and directed their attempts against a large number of whites, was not a matter of mitigation, but of aggravation, arising from increased ability and opportunity to accomplish their purpose.
Besides, most of these Indians must also have been engaged in individual massacres and outrages. Those who attacked New Ulm on the second day after the outbreak, and Fort Ridgely on the third day, were undoubtedly parties who had scattered through the neighborhood in small marauding bands the day before. The extent of the outrages, occurring almost simultaneously over a frontier of two hundred miles in length and reaching far into the interior, and whereby nearly one thousand people perished, can not be accounted for without their participation. The fact that they were Indians, intensely hating the whites, and possessed of the inclinations and revengeful impulses of Indians, and educated to the propriety of the indiscriminate butchery of their opponents, would raise the moral certainty that, as soon as the first murders were committed, all the young men were impelled by the sight of blood and plunder--- by the contagion of example, and the hopes entertained of success--- to become participants in the same class of acts.
In at least two thirds of the cases the prisoners admitted that they fired, but in most instances insisted that it was only two or three shots, and that no one was killed; about as valid an excuse as one of them offered who was possessed of an irresistible impulse to accumulate property, that a horse which he took was only a very little one, and that a pair of oxen which he captured was for his wife, who wanted a pair. In regard to the third who did not admit that they fired, their reasons for not doing so were remarkable, and assumed a different shape every day. One day all the elderly men, who were in the vigor of manly strength, said their hair was too gray to go into battle; and the young men, aged from eighteen to twenty-five, insisted that they were too young, and their hearts too weak to face fire. The next day would develop the fact that great was the number and terrible the condition of those who were writhing in agony with the bellyache on the top of a big hill. A small army avowed that they had crept under a wonderfully capacious stone (Which nobody but themselves ever saw) at the battles of the fort, and did not emerge therefrom during the fights; and a sufficiency for two small armies stoutly called on the Great Spirit (Wakan-tonka), and the heavens and the earth (patting the latter emphatically with the hand), to witness that they were of a temper so phlegmatic, a disposition so unsocial, and an appetite so voracious and greedy, that, during the road of each of the battles at the fort, New Ulm, Birch Coolie, and Wood Lake, they were alone, within bullet-shot, roasting and eating corn and beef all day! A fiery-looking warrior wished the commission to believe that he felt so bad at the fort to see the Indians fire on the whites, that he immediately laid down there and went to sleep, and did not awake until the battle was over! Several of the worst characters, who had been in all the battles, after they had confessed the whole thing, wound up by saying that they were members of the Church!
One young chap, aged about nineteen, said that he used always to attend divine worship at Little Crow's village below St. Paul, and that he never did any thing bad in his life except to run after a chicken at Mendota a long time ago, and that he didn't catch it. The evidence disclosed the fact that this pious youth had been an active participant in some of the worst massacres on Beaver Creek.
All ages were represented, from boyish fifteen up to old men scarcely able to walk or speak, who were "fifty years old," to use the expression of one, "a long time ago, and then they stopped counting." Two of these old gentlemen were once brought in together, who were direct opposites in physiognomy--the face of one running all to nose, which terminated sharply, giving him the pointed expression, while that of the other was perfectly flat, and about two feet broad, and fully illustrated (which I always considered a fable) the fact of persons being in existence who couldn't open or shut their eyes and mouths at the same moment. This specimen was apparently asleep the whole time, with his lower jaw down; and closed eyes being his normal condition, he had to be punched up every two minutes, when the president of the commission was interrogating him, as he wished to look in his eyes to judge if he was telling the truth.
"Wake him up! stir him up!" was the continual injunction to the interpreter. This lively little proceeding kept the old gentleman's face in continued action, eyes and mouth alternately opening and shutting with a jerk. If he was simply told to open his eyes, the operation was slow. The lids peeled up like those of some stupid noxious bird gorged with carrion, and would shut again before they were fairly open, the mouth following suit pari passu. Nothing was proved against him, and the president said, in a loud voice, "Lead him out." The startled tones awakened him, but the eyes shut again, and they led him away wrapped in profound slumber.
Another equally antiquated specimen, but by no means terrific in appearance, and not of the smallest account to himself or any body else---sore eyed, and of lymphatic temperament---astonished the court by stating that he was the sole cause of the Sioux difficulty; that he was living near New Ulm upon the charity of the whites; that the whites were, in fact, lavishly kind to him, and to such an extent that the other Indians were jealous of him, and became so excited thereby that they brought on the war.
Two semi-idiots were tried. Nothing was elicited concerning one of them except that he was called "white man," and was picked up when an infant alone on the prairies. He claimed to be a white, but looked like a "Red" at that. The other had wit enough to kill a white child, and, unfortunately for him, the plea of idiocy was not recognized by the commission.
An innocent-looking youth was tried was tried on a charge of robbery. The following examination took place:
Ques. "What goods, if any, did you take from Forbe's store?"
Ans. "Some blankets."
Q. Any thing else?"
A. Yes; some calico and cloth."
Q. Any thing else?"
A. Yes; some powder, and some lead, and some paint, and some beads."
Q Any thing else?"
A. Yes; some flour, and some pork, and some coffee, and some rice, and some sugar, and some beans, and some tin cups, and some raisins, and some twine, and some fish-hooks, and some needles, and some thread."
Q. "Was you going to set up a grocery store on your own account?"
A. A stupid and inquiring look from the Indian, but no words.
Ten years in prison was given him to meditate on his reply.
Let it not be supposed, because facetiae were sometimes indulged in, that the proceedings were lightly conducted. The trial of several hundred persons for nearly the same class of acts became very monotonous. The gravest judge, unless entirely destitute of the juices of humor, sometimes a while
"Unbends his rugged front
And deigns a transient smile."
Many cases there were where there was occasion enough for display of solemn sorrow.
The most repulsive-looking prisoner was Cut-nose. . . . He was the foremost man in many of the massacres. The first and second days of the outbreak he devoted his attention particularly to the Beaver Creek settlement, and to the fugitives on that side of the river. I will give a single additional instance of the atrocity of this wretch and his companions. A part of settlers were gathered together for flight when the savages approached; the defenseless, helpless women and children, huddled together in the wagons, bending down their heads, and drawing over them still closer their shawls. Cut-nose, while two others held the horses, leaped into a wagon that contained eleven, mostly children, and deliberately, in cold blood, tomahawked them all---cleft open the head of each, while the others, stupefied with horror, powerless with fright, as they heard the heavy dull blows crash and tear through flesh and bones, awaited their turn. Taking an infant from its mother's arms, before her eyes, with a bolt from one of the wagons they riveted it through its body to the fence and left it there to die, writhing in agony. After holding for a while the mother before this agonizing spectacle, they chopped off her arms and legs, and left her to bleed to death. Thus they butchered twenty-five within a quarter of an acre. Kicking the bodies out of the wagons, they filled them with plunder from the burning houses, and, sending them back, pushed on for other adventures.
Many of those engaged in the Patville murder were tried. Patville started from Jo. Reynolds's place, just above Red-Wood, for New Ulm, on the morning of the outbreak, with three young ladies and two other men, and on the way they were attacked by the Indians, as detailed by Godfrey. Patville was killed near the wagon, and the other men at the edge of the woods, while trying to escape. One of the girls was wounded, and all three taken prisoners and brought to Red-Wood. Here the three were abused by the Indians; one, a girl of fourteen, by seventeen of the wretches, and the wounded young lady to such an extent that she died that night. Jo. Campbell ventured to place her in a grave, but was told that if he did so, or for any of the other bodies which were lying exposed, his life should pay the forfeit. The two other young ladies were reclaimed at Camp Release, and sent to their friends, after suffering indignities worse than death, and which humanity shudders to name.
Others were tried who belonged to a band of eight that separated themselves from the main body which attacked the fort in the second battle, and went toward St. Peter's burning the church, the Swan Lake House, and other buildings, and murdering and plundering. They attacked one party, killed all the men, and them one of them caught hold of a young girl to take her as his property, when the mother resisted and endeavored to pull her away. The Indians then shot the mother dead, and wounded the girl, who fell upon the ground apparently lifeless. An Indian said she was not dead, and told her first captor to raise her clothes, which he attempted to do. Modesty, strong in death, revived the girl, and she attempted to prevent it, but as she did so the other raised his tomahawk and dashed out her brains---a blessed fate in comparison with that which was otherwise designed.
An old man, shriveled to a mummy, one of the criers of the Indian camp, was also tried, and two little boys testified against him.
One of them, a German, and remarkably intelligent for his years, picked him out from many others at Camp Release, and had him arrested, and dogged him till he was placed in jail, and when he was led forth to be tried, with the eye and fierceness of a hawk, and as if he feared every instant that he would escape justice.
These boys belonged to a large party, who came from above Beaver Creek to within a few miles of the fort, where the Indians met them, and said if they would go back with them to where they came from and give up their teams, they should not be harmed. When they were some distance from the fort, they fired into the party, and killed one man and a number of women, and took the remainder prisoners. The old wretch was made to stand up, looking cold and impassable, and as stolid as a stone, and the boys, likewise standing, placed opposite. The stood gazing at each other for a moment, when one of the boys said, "I saw that Indian shoot a man while he was on his knees at prayer;" and the other boy said, "I saw him shoot my mother."
Another was recognized by Mrs. Hunter as the Indian who had shot her husband, and then took out his knife and offered to cut his throat in her presence, but finally desisted, and carried her away into captivity . . . .
The female sex was represented in the person of one squaw, who, it was charged, had killed two children. The only evidence to be obtained against her was a camp rumor to that effect among the Indians, so she was discharged. Her arrest had one good effect, as she admitted she had taken some silver spoons across the river, and ninety dollars. . . , which she had turned over to an Indian, who, being questioned concerning it, admitted the fact, and delivered the money over to the general. -- from Isaac Heard, HISTORY OF THE SIOUX WAR AND MASSACRE (1863)
Stop and Consider:
- How persuasive do you find Big Eagle's version of what happened?
- What specifically in his account rings true or fails to ring true?
- Choose two or three phrases used by Heard which, in your view, best reveal his overall view of "Indians." Given his view, how reliable do you think his account of the trials is? Remember, much of what he wrote described what happened during the trials.
- What is Heard's explanation for why the Conflict began?
Henry B. Whipple, Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, brought the cases of the Dakota condemned to hanging to President Lincoln's attention. He also wrote a pastoral letter to the white settlers in which he sought to explain why the Dakota had gone to war and in which he condemned any mob action or other form of retaliation.
As Heard indicated, after the military tribunal had established to its own satisfaction what had happened during the Conflict, it moved very rapidly through the trials of the accused. Here, for example, is Case # 241 in its entirety:
Case 241: Pay-pay-sin
Prisoner states-- I was at Fort Ridgely and stood near the stable. I fired three shots.
The Tribunal found him guilty and ordered he be hanged.
This makes the first case heard, that of Godfrey, a mulatto married to a Dakota woman, particularly important. Further, Heard explained that the tribunal came to rely heavily upon Godfrey as the other trials went on. This accounted for the decision to commute his sentence from death to ten years' imprisonment. Here is Heard's description of Godfrey's role:
Godfrey . . . stated . . . that he was at the fort, New Ulm, Birch Coolie, and Wood Lake, but was compelled to go; and that he had struck a man with the back of a hatchet in a house where a number were killed, and that he spoke of killing in the Indian acceptation of the term, as before explained, and boasted of the act in order to keep the good will of the Indians.
He had such an honest look, and spoke with such a truthful tone, that the court, though prejudiced against him in the beginning, were now unanimously inclined to believe that there were possibilities as to his sincerity. His language was broken, and he communicated his ideas with some little difficulty. This was an advantage in his favor, for it interested the sympathetic attention of the listener, and it was a pleasure to listen to his hesitating speech. His voice was one of the softest that I ever listened to.
The court held his case open for a long time, and while the other trials were progressing, asked every person who was brought in about him, but could find no person who saw him kill any one, although the Indians were indignant at him for having disclosed evidence against a number of them, and would be desirous of finding such testimony.
Finally, the court found him not guilty of the first specification, and sentenced him to be hung, accompanying the sentence, however, by a recommendation of a commutation of punishment to imprisonment for ten years. It was afterward granted by the President.
. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . the greatest institution of the commission. . . was the negro Godfrey. He was the means of bringing to justice a large number of the savages, in every instance but two his testimony being substantiated by the subsequent admissions of the Indians themselves. His observation and memory were remarkable. Not the least thing had escaped his eye or ear. Such an Indian had a double barreled gun, another a single barreled, another a long one, another a short one, another a lance, and another one nothing at all. One denied that he was at the fort. Godfrey saw him there preparing his sons for battle, and recollected that he painted the face of one red, and drew a streak of green over his eyes. Another denied that he had made a certain statement to Godfrey which he testified to. "What!" said Godfrey, "don't you recollect you said it when you had your hand upon my wagon and your foot resting on the wheel." To a boy whom he charged with admitting that he had killed a child by striking it with his war spear over the head, and who denied it, he said, "Don't you remember showing me the spear was broken, and saying that you had broken it in striking the child?" To another, who said he had a lame arm at New Ulm, and couldn't fire a gun, and had such a bad gun that he could not have fired if he desired, he replied, "You say you could not fire, and had a bad gun. Why don't you tell the court the truth? I saw you go and take the gun of an Indian who was killed, and fire two shots; and then you made me reload it, and then you fired again."
I might enumerate numberless instances of this kind, in which his assumed recollection would cause his truthfulness to be doubted, if he had not been fully substantiated. It was a study to watch him, as he sat in court, scanning the face of every culprit who came in with the eye of a cat about to spring. His sense of the ridiculous, and evident appreciation of the gravity which should accompany the statement of an important truth, was strongly demonstrated. When a prisoner would state, in answer to the question of "Guilty or not guilty," that he was innocent, and Godfrey knew that he was guilty, he would drop his head upon his breast, and convulse with a fit of musical laughter; and when the court said, "Godfrey, talk to him," he would straighten up, his countenance would become calm, and in a deliberate tone, would soon force the Indian, by a series of questions in his own language, into an admission of the truth. He seemed a "providence" specially designed as an instrument of justice.
Summary: The Dakota Sioux Conflict of 1862 began three decades of warfare between the United States and the Plains Indians. The greatest Sioux victory was at Little Big Horn. But all ended as the first, with a defeat of the Sioux. The final one was the Massacre at Wounded Knee. In most cases, the wars would break out as the first did. Sioux, aggrieved over treaties which took away their hunting lands, cheated by traders and agents for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, would attack individual whites. This would force the remaining Sioux to decide, as Little Crow had to, whether or not to join in the conflict. They knew, as Little Crow did, that whites would demand revenge. Sometimes the element of surprise permitted an initial victory, but ultimately the superior military power of the United States would prevail.
Reflect and Respond:
- Bishop Whipple was far more sympathetic to the Dakota than Isaac Heard (or the vast majority of white settlers in Minnesota). Choose two or three phrases used by Whipple which, in your view, best reveal his view of "Indians."
- Given his view, how reliable do you find his account of the causes of the Conflict?
- What is Whipple's explanation for why the Conflict started?
- Given the central role played by Godfrey in the military tribunal, it is especially important to assess his reliability. Why did Heard and the members of the tribunal decide to rely upon him in interrogating other accused?
- How credible do you find Godfrey's account of his own behavior? Cite specific portions of his testimony to support your answer.
- Who among the following, in your estimation, bears some measure of responsibility for the Conflict: The four young men described by Big Eagle? The Indian agents and traders? Little Crow? The white settlers? The federal government? Others?
- How would you distribute that responsibility
- How "just" was the military tribunal? In answering, address Heard's defense of the tribunal's proceedings.
Doug Linder's Famous American Trials site at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, Law School, includes a full treatment of the Dakota Sioux trial.
The Visual Resources Database of the Minnesota Historical Society contains numerous photographs, paintings, and other graphic materials dealing with the Sioux and with the Conflict.