As great a president as Abraham Lincoln may have been, he was astonishingly uninformed about some things, notably foreign relations. And closer to home, he knew virtually nothing about Native American affairs, an ignorance driven by the commonly held view that the U.S. government should disenfranchise Indians of their land because they were barbarians who were getting in the way of progress.
So it came as a very rude shock when Lincoln, absorbed in Confederate General Robert E. Lee's bold invasion of Maryland, learned that there was an Indian uprising in Minnesota that eventually took the lives of between 400 and 800 settlers, the largest massacre of whites in the bloody history of clashes between whites and Native Americans, and the hanging of 38 Indians, the largest mass execution in American history.
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The roots of the Minnesota conflict dated to two 1851 treaties in which Dakota Sioux leaders ceded large tracts of land in the then Minnesota Territory to the U.S. In return for money and goods, the tribe agree to live on a 20-mile wide reservation on a 150 mile stretch of the upper Minnesota River.
As the U.S. was to do so many times in its shameful dealings with Native Americans, it reneged on key articles in the treaties. Much of the promised compensation never was paid and much of it was stolen because of rampant corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
When Minnesota became a state in 1858, representatives of several Dakota bands led by Little Crow traveled to Washington, D.C. to insist on enforcement of the treaties, but the upshot was that the northern half of the reservation was lost. The stolen land was divided into townships for settlements and logging and agricultural interests interfered with the Dakota's annual cycle of farming, hunting and fishing by depleting their farmlands and wild game.
After the Civil War erupted in April 1861, payments guaranteed by the treaties stopped altogether while the Dakotas kept losing more land to settlers. A drought and famine brought tensions between the tribe and whites to a head in the summer of 1862.
Negotiations between several Dakota bands and Indian agents and traders made little headway. Andrew Jackson Myrick, a government representative for traders, reportedly replied to a plea from the Indians that they be sold food on credit by saying "so far as I am concerned, let them eat grass."
On August 16, a treaty payment finally did arrive, but it was too little too late. On the following day, four young Dakota men on a hunting trip stole food and killed five settlers. Soon after, a Dakota war council was convened and Chief Little Crow agreed to continue attacks on settlements in an effort to drive the whites them out.
On August 18, Little Crow led a war party that attacked the Lower Sioux Agency complex. Buildings were burned and then nearby settlements, including New Ulm, were attacked. A large number of settlers and 24 Minnesota militiamen were killed. Among the dead were Myrick, whose body was found with grass stuffed in his mouth.
A series of attacks and counterattacks by militiamen and regular Army troops followed with the Dakota holding the upper hand. Repeated appeals to Lincoln for reinforcements were rebuffed until he finally realized the severity of the situation and hastily appointed General John Pope, fresh from his second defeat at Bull Run, to lead a larger force against the Dakota.
Pope did not take kindly to the assignment, feeling that Lincoln had been "feeble, cowardly, and shameful" in failing to defend him from his critics, but once in Minnesota he deflected his hostility from the president to the rebellious Indians.
Pope's troops and the Dakotas clashed at the at the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23 with the federal troops overwhelming the Indians, who surrendered three days later.
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In early December, 303 Dakota prisoners were convicted of various charges by military tribunals and sentenced to death, some after trials lasting less than five minutes in which the charges were neither explained nor the Indians given representation. But before the sentences could be carried out, Lincoln intervened and instructed Pope to send him the trial records.His evolving view of blacks and slavery notwithstanding, like most whites at the time Lincoln considered the Indians to be mere savages who were getting in the way of progress, including the expansion of the territories and the growing rail and riverboat networks in the Midwest and beyond. But in reviewing the records, he made an effort to distinguish between those who had engaged in warfare against the Union and those who had raped and murdered civilians.
Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota and a fierce advocate for Native Americans, urged Lincoln to be lenient and he pretty much was. The president commuted the death sentences of 264 prisoners and allowed the execution of 38 others, who were hung en masse on December 26 in Mankato, Minnesota.
That winter, more than 1,600 Dakota women, children and old men were held in an internment camp on Pike Island near Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Living conditions were poor and disease struck the camp, killing more than 300 people. Then in April 1863, Congress abolished the Dakota reservation, declared all previous treaties null and void, and put a $25 per scalp bounty on any Dakota found within the boundaries of the state.
In May, the remaining Dakotas were forced on board steamboats and relocated to the Crow Creek Reservation in the drought-stricken Dakota Territory. In 1866, they were moved to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska, although some were allowed to return to Minnesota after the Civil War.Little Crow had fled to Canada the previous September, but returned to Minnesota where he was shot to death by a settler on July 3, 1863 while gathering raspberries with his teenage son on his ancestral lands.Based in part on the Wikipedia entry for the Dakota War of 1862IMAGES (From top): Chief Little Crow; Harper's Weekly depiction of the uprising; Settlers flee the Sioux; General Pope; Henry Whipple; Mass hanging at Mankato; A Sioux couple who returned to Minnesota after the Civil War.