A History of Minnesota
(v. 2)

William Watts Folwell

William Watts Folwell These pages:A History of Minnesota

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A History of Minnesota

Volume 2

Revised edition Copyright © 1961 by the Minnesota Historical Society

VIII. Causes of the Sioux Outbreak

Note (Hal’s): The following is part of a collection about the causes of the 1862 Dakota War. The whole set may be read in sequence by following links where indicated.

— end note

It should be said, however, that in their depositions made before the claims commission a year later both Riggs and Galbraith elaborated a catena of human causes so cogent that the importation of diabolical initiative seems quite superfluous. And it is not necessary to import any extraneous fundamental origin of the outbreak and its atrocities. That may be found in human nature itself. [...] The Dakota Indians were human beings who had never been subjected to a government of law and who found their remedy for injuries in rapine and murder. It was Indian nature to torture and kill people who had wronged them. Under such an indisputable major premise we may marshal the principal causes of the outbreak of I862.
Indian treaties were necessarily farcical. The disparity of power and interests reduced them to a grant to the weaker party of such conditions as it would stand without too much resistance. At the same time it must be remembered that our democratic sentiments and traditions made it impossible for us to establish over the American Indian a firm and beneficent guardianship for his good. Some one would have suggested “slavery” as the proper name for this. While keeping up the pretense that Indian tribes were independent nations, by means of the agency and annuity systems we reduced them in fact to the status of dependents, not to say beggars. [...] It was not to be expected that politician agents at fifteen hundred dollars a year should be men of high character devoted to the welfare of the Indian. Still less could that be looked for in the swarm of interpreters and employees about him. The salary of an interpreter was four hundred dollars a year. It might be expected that the traders would make it an object for him to look after their interests on the treaty ground. The missionaries had constantly to labor against the profanity, drunkenness, and debauchery of the people about their agencies. A Sioux Indian once asked Bishop Whipple if the Jesus of whom he preached to them was the same talked to by the white men at the agency when they were drunk.
If all the forms, safeguards, and sanctions of law in a civilized community should be abolished at a stroke, would it be long before it would sink into a state below that of the savage? In the Indian country there was no jurisdiction, no tribunal, no punishment for crime, and the Indian had no idea of obtaining redress for the white man’s crimes against him other than by the torch, the rifle, and the scalping knife. If we consider human nature and Indian nature, the traditional Indian policy of the United States was calculated to invite outbreaks of passion and revenge.
By the treaties of I85I the Sioux were induced to alienate their right of occupancy of a magnificent empire over which their ancestors had ranged and hunted and to consent to be concentrated on an insignificant shoe-string tract drained by the upper Minnesota. The story of how those treaties were made in I85I and were amended and finally ratified in I853 has been told. The Sioux, rightly or wrongly, believed at the time that they had been overreached in the transaction. In particular they resented the distribution of some four hundred thousand dollars in “hand money” among traders and half-breeds without any scrutiny of their claims. This transaction ever after rankled in the breasts of even their best chiefs. Further, it was commonly asserted among the tribes that at the time of the treaties they were assured that, besides the money they would receive, the Sioux people were to have all the good things “they wanted”: one blanket a year to every soul; a gun and ammunition to every hunter; coffee, tea, tobacco, pork, flour, and sugar “ota” — that is, in plenty; and white men to do all their work. That the treaty commissioners made or authorized any such promises is not believed; that persons who expected to get, and did get, a large part of the treaty money did so delude these Indians, as yet inexperienced in treaty-making, is quite credible. At any rate, the Sioux never ceased to reiterate these extraneous promises. Agent Galbraith says that they formed the text and the conclusion of nearly every Indian orator’s speech he had heard, and he had heard not a few.
In the spring of I858 delegations of chiefs and braves, appropriately selected from all the bands, were taken to Washington by Agent Joseph R. Brown and amid the allurements of the capital city they were induced to agree to a pair of treaties for the cession of their lands, nearly a million acres, as then estimated, on the north bank of the Minnesota, at a price to be fixed by the Senate. It is highly probable and there is some evidence that the Indians were again allowed to think that they would be placed beyond want. They were so confident of generous treatment that their delegations consented to treaties which completely transferred their rights to the lands but which left the purchase price to be fixed by the Great Council of the Great Father, the United States Senate. [...] When the Indians after three years of waiting found their lands gone and the beggarly proceeds largely absorbed by traders, there was a degree of exasperation among them which white men under similar circumstances might righteously have exhibited.
The farmer Indians were, of course, in large proportion those who had been impressed if not converted by the missionaries. Against them the hostility of the medicine men, who were still numerous and influential, was intense and bitter. [...] It must be remarked that as a general fact, with notable exceptions, the Indian traders were opposed to the civilization experiment and that the half-breeds did not render such aid as might have been expected. The experiment, which had promised so much, became a source of suspicion and dissension and instead of mitigating the Indian’s natural hatred of the paleface only inflamed it the more.

Agent Flandrau continued his requisitions for a mounted force sufficient to follow Inkpaduta to his retreat, but it did not please the authorities at Washington to grant it. Instead, the Indian office adopted a scheme of requiring the loyal Indians to capture the outlaw and, to stimulate their activity, announced that no annuities would be paid until he should be brought in a prisoner. To relieve his people of the hardship thus imposed upon them, Little Crow volunteered to lead a party of Indians in a man hunt. It was a futile chase of a hundred miles and more into South Dakota and back. The Indian office was now obliged to recede from its perfectly absurd scheme and used the convenient pretext that as the loyal Indians had done what they could they need not suffer.

The unfortunate result was not merely that the murderers remained at large but also that the Great Father had shown himself incapable of apprehending them. Either he had not warriors enough, or those that he had were too cowardly to fight the unconquerable Sioux. It was the deliberate judgment of Dr. Thomas S. Williamson, the experienced Sioux missionary, that the “utter neglect” of the government to punish the Spirit Lake murderers was the “primary cause” of the Sioux massacre.

For half a century Indian commissioners and friends of the Indians had harped upon the importance of “concentrating” them on reservations of moderate extent. There was sense in the proposition when understood to involve the civilization of the red man, his abandonment of war and the chase, and his subsistence from the fruits of the soil. The concentration of wild Indians could work nothing but mischief and ruin. [...] The close neighborhood of the villages and camps made it easy for malcontents to assemble frequently to growl and fret together over grievances — the bad faith of the Great Father in making and keeping treaties, the shortcomings of the agent, the sharp practices of the traders, the abuse of women by white men generally; all these were constant themes for oratory in the councils. The Pond brothers foresaw this in I852 and decided not to follow the lower Sioux, among whom they had labored for eighteen years, to the reservations.

Another desideratum much discussed from year to year by those who in good faith wished to protect the Indian from his friend the white man was his isolation as complete as possible. Reservations, therefore, were to be remote and to consist of solid areas of land, with natural boundaries if possible. All these conditions were ignored in laying out the Sioux reserves. Together they were originally one hundred and fifty miles long and twenty miles wide, and later they were half that width. They nearly solved the problem of embracing the smallest area within the longest boundaries. An hour’s walk brought the Indian to the edge of his country, to meet his deadliest foe, the white man with his whisky jug.

In the season of I86I the corn crops of the Sisseton were totally destroyed and great damage was done to those of the three other tribes by cutworms. The agent was obliged to buy on credit flour and pork to eke out the living of all. He fed a thousand and more women and children and old and infirm men of the Sisseton from the middle of December, I86I, until nearly the following April. But for this assistance they would have perished. With the opening of the new season all the bands, in particular the farmers, planted extensively. This done, all awaited the payment, which custom gave them the right to expect so soon as the prairie grass was high enough for pasture. [...] The provisions and goods for the payment had been received and were stored in the large brick warehouse at the agency. The money had not come and there were no advices in regard to it. It was the established custom to make the payments of provisions, goods, and money at the same time, probably because of the saving of time in making a single count and in filling up and signing a single set of rolls. The agent thought he could not depart from the custom, but he did so, as will be seen. For three weeks he doled out provisions enough to keep the hungry crowd alive, along with their fishing and root-digging.

With a fine disregard of red tape the Indians could not understand why they should go hungry when the flour, pork, lard, sugar, and other provisions which belonged to them were locked up in the warehouse.

It was the established custom for deductions to be made from cash annuities to reimburse white people who had suffered losses of property by depredations of individual Indians. As the amounts were usually small, little objection was made. In I860 claims for such depredations were lodged in the Indian office in Washington and were allowed to the amount of nine thousand dollars. Of this sum fifty-five hundred dollars were awarded to a partnership at Big Stone Lake for loss by robbery of its store. At the payment of I86I the amount was deducted from the annuities, which were forty-five thousand dollars, against the protest of the Indians, who alleged that the loss was not over three hundred dollars [...]

Note (Hal’s):
Folwell here repeats Winifred Barton’s account of the exchange in which her father served as translator for remarks by Little Crow and the trader Andrew J. Myrick. In addition to Barton’s published account, Folwell cites supporting documentation in letters from several Williamson family members, as well as an allusion to grass-eating in Little Crow’s first letter to Colonel Sibley.

— end note

The natural anxiety and suspicions of the Indians were heightened and inflamed by the behavior and language of whites and half-breeds among them. The traders generally had belonged to the “old moccasin Democracy” of the territory and state and had no expectation of better times under “black Republican” rule. [...] The absurd story, which later gained circulation, that secessionist emissaries penetrated the villages and poisoned the minds of the warriors was wholly devoid of truth. There was no need of importing rebel emissaries, since, as Galbraith said, “rebel sympathizers did all in their power to create disaffection among the Indians.”
There were two causes of delay. The first was the tardy action of Congress. The reader will properly wonder why congressional action was necessary, since the appropriations for I862 had been made in the previous year. The goods and provisions for I862 had been purchased and were in the storehouses of the two agencies. There were no separate items of money appropriations, but lump sums were named to include all dues for a year under the treaties. The reports of agent, superintendent, commissioner, and secretary throw no light upon the subject. The uncontradicted explanation of Riggs must therefore be relied upon. [...] The twenty thousand dollars expended for the extra issue of goods had to be replaced from the appropriations for the next year, I863. The bill for those appropriations, which was passed by the House on February 24, I862, was not passed by the Senate until May I6 and then with many amendments. Some of these were not agreed to by the House and the bill went to conference. The report of the conferees was not agreed to by the Senate and a second conference took place. The act was at length passed and approved on July 5, I862.

The other cause of delay arose in the treasury, when the question was asked why these Indians might not be paid with the United States notes later known popularly as “greenbacks.” More than a month passed before a decision was reached. Advised by the Indian officials concerning the risks attending a departure from custom if not from faith and honor, Secretary Chase on August 8 ordered the deputy treasurer at New York to deliver seventy-one thousand dollars in gold to the order of the commissioner of Indian affairs. A keg said to contain gold coin of that value reached St. Paul on August I6, whence it was dispatched on the next day to Fort Ridgely. It reached there at midday on the eighteenth, by which hour some hundred white people lay in or about their homes dead or bleeding from wounds. Had the arrival taken place a few hours earlier and been made known to the Indians, the Sioux Outbreak would have had no place in Minnesota history.

Note (Hal’s): Collected readings on causes of the 1862 Dakota War continue with The Peace Seekers by Dr. Elden Lawrence.

— end note

IX. Sequel to the Sioux War of 1862 The incongruity of abrogating all pecuniary obligation to the Sioux and still relieving sufferers out of their annuities as if still due and payable seems not to have occurred.


Logic (examples)

See the State Atlas (Minneapolis), November 4, I863, for criticisms of extravagant claims. Thousands of dollars were claimed for damages to rutabagas. If all the rutabagas claimed to have been destroyed by the Sioux “were evenly spread over the entire State, the whole surface would be covered to the depth of one foot.”
Governor Ramsey in his message of September 9, I862, had voiced a unanimous sentiment. “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota,” he said, “must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. The public safety imperatively requires it. Justice calls for it. . . . The blood of the murdered cries to heaven for vengeance on these assassins of women and children . . . amenable to no law; bound by no moral or social restraints — they have already destroyed . . . every pledge on which it was possible to found a hope of ultimate reconciliation. They must be regarded and treated as outlaws.” The newspapers, without exception so far as has been found, echoed this voice but enlarged its volume to include every Indian of every tribe in the State. The legislature addressed by Governor Ramsey seems not to have been greatly excited by his sanguinary counsel. [...] It is noteworthy that the same legislature industriously locked the door after the horse had been stolen, by passing a very drastic act forbidding the sale of intoxicating liquors to Indians.
Agent Galbraith proposed the establishment of a reservation on the north end of the Coteau des Prairies in North Dakota, also to be surrounded by a military reservation to keep the whites from penetrating the inclosed Indian area. He would have a code of laws for the Indians abolishing all the “accursed paraphernalia of Indian war” and enforcing the adoption of the habits and customs of enlightened Christian civilization. He would furnish the Indians with means for tilling the soil and would compel them to use them. No traders were to be tolerated but the government would supply needs in return for labor performed. The Indians would need no money. This scheme for a beneficial slavery could not be entertained by a nation just then at war for the liberation of slaves and its operation presumed a degree of virtue and honesty not yet possessed by any large body of citizens and an exalted purity of character in public officials not to be safely attributed. No notice was taken of the plan.
X. Indian Wars of 1863–65 A rapid march brought the detachment unseen to the Indian camp about three o’clock in the morning. “A short though decisive engagement ensued, and all was over,” says the historian of the battalion. “Several Indians were killed — passed to their ‘happy hunting grounds.’ ”  Had a party of Indians surrounded a camp of sleeping white men and shot them one by one as they looked out from their tents it would have been called an atrocious massacre. This was the only battle fought by Hatch’s Battalion.



text checked (see note) Jul 2008

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