When we planned the 2012 LauraPalooza, we missed the fact that 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of an event that had direct bearing on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Dakota Conflicts.
In Little House on the Prairie, Mrs. Scott tells Ma that she “can’t get those Minnesota massacres” out of her head. Ma makes a sharp sound, saying, “Little pitchers have big ears.” That tells Laura that whatever a massacre was, it was something that little girls shouldn’t know about.
The obvious issue, however, is that those “massacres” had everything to do with why Laura and her family were in Kansas, and later, able to homestead in Minnesota.
In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, opening many territories formerly held by American Indians for settlement. In Minnesota, the Lakota and Dakota Indians–commonly, and derogatively, collectively called the Sioux– had earlier signed a treaty that ceded some of their lands to the U.S. government in exchange for money, food, and reservation lands. It’s important to note that while the Lakota and Dakota were and are related, they are not the same tribes.
In lieu of the gold promised for their lands, by 1862, many received luxury trade goods such as top hats, unsuitable for life on prairie and wood reservations. Many were angry, but particularly the Dakota. New white settlement had driven off much of the game that the Dakota relied on for protein, and a Dakota crop failure in 1861 had led to much hunger among the people. Their children, in particular, were suffering from vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition.
Their ways also were changing. New Indian agents in Minnesota were forcing many Dakota to exchange their established patterns of crop-raising and hunting for Euro-American ways, and the agents offered special privileges to those who made those changes. This made many of those who refused to change their ways angry; in many ways the Dakota war was a civil war among Dakota into which their white neighbors were drawn.
The young men formed soldier’s lodges at Shakopee, and began, in the summer of 1862, to agitate for war against the whites. Many Dakota disagreed with the move, especially those Christian Dakota from the northern tribes. Chief Little Crow, in talks with these young men, counseled patience, but in the end, he was persuaded to act as the chief of war. In Council, the Dakota present at Shakopee officially declared war. Some say Little Crow knew the war could not be won.
The Dakota were not a military organization. They did not have a structure such as the U.S. military, and individual warriors could choose to fight nor not; could choose to follow orders or not; could and did act on their own. When the annuity payment in August of 1862 failed to show up on time, Dakota warriors acted across south central Minnesota, routing the Little Sioux Agency and burning and pillaging their way through the homesteads of white settlers.
Witnesses to the destruction and brutality wrote of bodies hacked to pieces lying within steps of their homes; of dinner tables freshly laden with food that looked untouched, as settlers were startled from their meal times. White prisoners, mostly women and children, were taken, and later letters wrote of children being tortured, and women being raped by many Dakota in one evening.
When word reached Fort Ridgely that the Dakota had risen up against the white settlers, it was ill-prepared for any kind of assault. The fort’s young captain, who had the mumps, gathered up a detail to reinforce the Little Sioux Agency, despite being warned that he was riding into a trap.
He and his men were ambushed at Red Ferry. Most were killed.
The remaining soldiers at the fort began preparations for defense by creating barricades and breastworks. The fort had served as an artillery school, and it had cannon, but no walls. It was bare to the prairie around it.
Refugees from the country began pouring into the fort. Defenders expected that the Fort would be the next spot attacked, but fearing defeat, Little Crow went around the fort to attack the small German village of New Ulm.
New Ulm’s citizens, German farmers, had very few weapons, but they did have Jacob Nix Plat, a former soldier who urged all citizens behind hastily constructed barricades in a three-block area downtown. (Three buildings from this time survive.) Many were killed, and as the Dakota left the area, citizens of New Ulm buried their dead in the street and fled to Mankato.
In the end, more than 300 Dakota men, women and children were captured and marched to Fort Snelling, held responsible for the slaying of the white settlers. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the death sentences of all but 38 of the warriors being held. They were executed in the town square of Mankato on December 24, 1862. The remaining Dakota were driven out of Minnesota.
These events happened just five years before Laura was born, and certainly, the memory of the conflicts colored Caroline’s interactions with American Indians. These events also color relationships between whites and American Indians in Minnesota today, with conflict over reconciliation and memory in the commemoration of the tragedies of 1862.
Learn more about this and other related history this summer, at LauraPalooza 2012. Take a tour of the area by car with a map from the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which conveniently points the way to major battle sites and interpretation. It’s well worth the effort.