In 1862, Minnesota was still a young state, part of a frontier inhabited by more than one million Indians.
Times were hard and Indian families hungry. When the U.S. government broke its promises, some of the Dakota Indians went to war against the white settlers.
Many Dakota did not join in, choosing to aid and protect settlers instead. The fighting lasted six weeks and many people on both sides were killed or fled Minnesota.
Former Minnesota governor Henry Sibley led an expedition of soldiers and Dakota scouts against the Dakota warriors. The war ended on December 26, 1862, when 38 Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Afterwards the government forced most of the remaining Dakota to leave Minnesota. For white Minnesotans, their experience of blood and terror negated all promises they had made to the Dakota. Stories and history books told about the great "Minnesota Massacre," but for many years the Indian side of the story was ignored.*
On the 150th anniversary of the start of the war this week, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Chairman Stanley Crooks spoke with Minnesota Public Radio about the war and their ancestors, who were starving in 1862 because promised payments and food had not been delivered by the U.S. government.
Crooks told MPR there was a division among the Mdewakanton over whether they should attack the European settlers.
Stanley Crooks: Either we're going to change our life and be confined to the reservation and have to work or farm, or we're going to try to take back our land and continue to be hunters and gatherers. And they said, 'That's not going to be possible. It's too late.'
But they said, 'Then we would rather die.'
Now, there's a lot of them said they didn't want to die. But I think there was such a clamor that, 'We're going to go out fighting.' And that's what happened.
MPR: Do the consequences of 1862 still linger for the Dakota people?
Crooks: Yes, I think it does. I know because we celebrate yearly at the Mahkato Wacipi. That's a remembrance, a yearly remembrance.
We have a group of people that just focus on the atrocities committed against the Dakota people. Because of a few, all were punished, and they don't think that was ever fair. And, in fact, they don't even agree that most of those who were hung should have been hung. Most of them were defending their homeland and defending their people. Some did some horrible acts. That was done on both sides, but no one was punished on the other side.
I don't want to discuss all the atrocities, we both did them. Let's look at the outcome. Minnesota just became a state, albeit through a little scandalous acquiring of the land and the treaties.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is calling for a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation on this anniversary and said he is appalled by then-Governor Alexander Ramsey's words and encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people:
On September 9, 1862, Alexander Ramsey proclaimed: "Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . .”
DAYTON: August 17, 1862 marked a terrible period in Minnesota’s history. The first victims of the “U.S.-Dakota War of 1862” lost their lives on that day, 150 years ago. The ensuing attacks and counter-attacks killed hundreds more U.S. soldiers, Dakota braves, conniving traders, and innocent people. Tragically, those deaths started a vicious cycle of hate crimes, which continued long after the war was ended.
I ask everyone to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.
"Minnesota Tragedy: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862" opened at the Minnesota History Center June 30. Inside, visitors can examine evidence from the war: documents, images and artifacts from the Society’s collections.
*Historical information on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 from the Minnesota Historical Society.