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Summer of 1857, Remembered by Citizens of Minnesota

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


The summer of 1857 was one, which will long be remembered by the citizens of Minnesota. It was opened by terrible massacres, which were all the work of a strolling outcast band of Sioux, not more 'than fifteen in number. They had been driven out of their tribe some sixteen years previous, and had been ever since then leading a wandering and marauding life. The beginning of the trouble was a trivial difficulty between one of the white settlers on Rock River and an Indian. The settler's dog bit the Indian, and the Indian shot the dog. For this the white settlers beat the Indian severely, and then went to the camp and by force took away all the guns of the band. This was at a season of the year when to be without guns meant simply to be without food, and the Indians were reduced at once to a condition of great suffering. By some means they either repossessed themselves of their guns or procured others, and, attacking the settlement, killed all the inhabitants except four women, whom they carried away with them, and treated with the utmost barbarity. The inevitable results of such horrors followed. The thousands of peaceable Indians in Minnesota, who did not even know of this outrage, were all held in one common terror and hatred by the general public; only the very great firmness and discretion of the military officers sent to deal with the outbreak saved Minnesota from a general uprising and attack from all the. Sioux bands, who were already in a state of smoldering discontent by reason of the non-payment of their annuities. However, they obeyed the demands of the Government that they themselves should pursue this offending band, and either capture or exterminate it. They killed four, and took three prisoners, and then returned "much jaded and worn," and said they could do no more without the help of United States soldiers; and that they thought they had now done enough to show their loyalty, and to deserve the payment of their annuities. One of the chiefs said: "The man who killed white people did not belong to us, and we did not expect to be called to account for the people of another band. We have always tried to do as our Great Father tells us." Another said: "I am going to speak of the treaty. For fifty years we were to be paid $50,000 per annum. We were also promised $300,000 that we have not seen. I wish to say to my Great Father we were promised these things, but have not seen them yet. Why does not the Great Father do as he promised?"

These hostilities were speedily brought to an end, yet the situation was by no means reassuring for the Indians. But one sentiment seemed to inspire the whole white population, and this was the desire to exterminate the entire Indian race.

"For the present," writes the superintendent, "it is equally important to protect the Indians from the whites as the whites from the Indians;" and this in spite of the fact that all the leading bands of the treaty Sioux had contributed warriors to go in pursuit of the murderers, had killed or captured all they could find, and stood ready to go again after the remaining eight, if the United States troops would go also and assist them. Spite of the exertions of one of the chiefs of the Lower Sioux, "Little Crow," who, the superintendent says, labored with him "night and day in organizing the party, riding continually between the lower and upper agencies," so that they "scarcely slept" till the war-party had set out on the track of the murderers; spite of the fact that the whole body of the Sioux, without exception, "received the intelligence with as much indignation and disapprobation as the whites themselves, and did their best to stand clear of any suspicion of or connection with the affair-spite of all this, they were in continual danger of being shot at sight by the terrified and unreasoning settlers. One band, under the chief Sleepy Eyes, were returning to their homes from a hunt; and while they were "wondering what the panic among the whites meant" (they having heard nothing of the massacre), were fired into by some of the militia volunteers.

The next day a white settler was found killed near that spot -presumably by some member of Sleepy Eyes' band. This excitement slowly abated, and for the next four years a steady improvement was visible in the Minnesota Sioux. Hundreds of them threw aside the blanket-the distinctive badge of their wild state; schools were well attended, and farms were well tilled. That there was great hostility to this civilization, on the part of the majority of the tribe, cannot be denied; but that was only natural-the inevitable protest of a high-spirited and proud race against abandoning all its race distinctions. When we see the men of Lorraine, or of Montenegro, ready to die for the sake merely of being called by the name of one power rather than by that of another, we find it heroic, and give them our sympathies; but when the North American Indian is ready to die rather than wear the clothes and follow the ways of the white man, we feel for him only unqualified contempt, and see in his instinct nothing more than a barbarian's incapacity to appreciate civilization. Is this just?

In 1861 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, visiting these Sioux, reports: "I was much surprised to find so many of the Sioux Indians wearing the garb of civilization, many of them living in frame or brick houses, some of them with stables or out-houses, and their fields indicating considerable knowledge of agriculture." Their condition, he says, affords "abundant evidence of what may be accomplished among the Sioux Indians by steadily adhering to a uniform, undeviating policy.

"The number that live by agricultural pursuits is yet small compared with the whole; but their condition is so much better than that of the wild Indian, that they, too, are becoming convinced that it is the better way to live; and many are coining in, asking to have their hair cut, and for a suit of clothes, and to be located on a piece of land where they can build a house and fence in their fields."

Many more of them would have entered on the agricultural life had the Government provided ways and means for them to do so. In this same report is a mention of one settlement of two thousand Indians at Big Stone Lake, who "have been hitherto almost entirely neglected. These people complain that they have lived upon promises for the last ten years, and are really of opinion that white men never perform what they promise. Many of them would go to work if they had any reasonable encouragement."

The annuities are still in arrears. Every branch of the industries and improvements attempted suffers for want of the promised funds, and from delays in payments expected. The worst result, however, of these delays in the fulfillment of treaty stipulations was the effect on the Indians. A sense of wrong in the past and distrust for the future was ever deepening in their minds, and preparing them to be suddenly thrown by any small provocation into an antagonism and hostility grossly disproportionate to the apparent cause. This was the condition of the Minnesota Sioux in the summer of 1862.

The record of the massacres of that summer is scarcely equaled in the history of Indian wars. Early in August some bands of the Upper Sioux, who had been waiting at their agency nearly two months for their annuity payments, and had been suffering greatly for food during that time-so much so that "they dug up roots to appease their hunger, and when corn was turned out to them they devoured it uncooked, like wild animals"-became desperate, broke into the Government warehouse, and took some of the provisions stored there. This was the real beginning of the outbreak, although the first massacre was not till, the 13th. When that began, the friendly Indians were powerless to resist-in fact, they were threatened with their lives if they did not join. Nevertheless, some of them rescued whole families, and carried them to places of safety; others sheltered and fed women and children in their own lodges; many fled, leaving all their possessions behind-as much victims of the outbreak as the Minnesota people themselves. For three days the hostile hands, continually re-enforced, went from settlement to settlement, killing and plundering. A belt of country nearly two hundred miles in length and about fifty in width was entirely abandoned by the population, who flocked in panic to the towns and forts. Nearly a thousand were killed men, women, and children and nameless outrages were committed on many. Millions of dollars' worth of property were destroyed. The outbreak was quickly quelled by military force, and a large number of Indians captured. Many voluntarily surrendered, bringing with them over two hundred whites that they had, taken prisoners. A military commission tried these Indians, and sentenced over three hundred to be hung. All but thirty-nine were reprieved and put into prison. The remainder were moved to Dakota, to a barren desert, where for three years they endured sufferings far worse than death. The remainder escaped to the Upper Missouri region or to Canada.

Minnesota, at a terrible cost to herself and to the United States Government, was at last free from the presence of Indians within her borders Indians who were her enemies only because they had been treated with injustice and bad faith.

During this time the bands of Sioux in the Upper Missouri region had been more or less hostile, and military force in continual requisition to subdue them. Re-enforced by the Minnesota refugees, they became more hostile still, and in the summer of 1863 were in almost incessant conflict. In 1864 the Governor of Dakota Territory writes to the Department that the war is spreading into Nebraska and Kansas, and that if provision is not made for the loyal treaty Indians in that region before long, they also will join the hostiles. One band of the Sioux-the Yankton-has been persistently loyal, and rendered great service through all the troubles. Fifty of these Yankton Sioux had been organized by General Sibley into a company of scouts, and had proved "more effective than twice the number of white soldiers." The only cost to the Government "of this service on the part of the Yankton had keen fifty suits of condemned artillery uniforms, arms, and rations in part to the scouts themselves."

In 1865 the Government, having spent about $40,000,000 on these campaigns, began to cast about for cheaper, if not more humane methods, and, partly at the instance of the Governor of Dakota, who knew very well that the Indians desired peace, sent out a commission to treat with them. There were now, all told, some 14,000 Sioux in this region, nearly 2000 being the refugees from Minnesota.

The report of this commission is full of significant statements. There seems to be no doubt that the great majority of the Indians are anxious for peace; but they are afraid to meet the agents of the Government, lest they be in some way betrayed. Such bands as are represented, however, gladly assent to a treaty of peace and good will. The commissioners speak with great feeling of the condition of the loyal Yankton. "No improvements have been made on their lands, and the commissioners were obliged to issue provisions to them to keep them from starving. No crops met the eye, nor is there the semblance of a school-house."

Yet by Article four of the treaty with the Yankton Sioux the United States Government had agreed to expend $10,000 in erecting a suitable building or buildings, and to establish and maintain one or more normal labor schools; and it is to be read in the United States Statutes at Large that in each of the years 1860, 1861, 1862, and 1863, Congress appropriated $65,000, as per treaty, for the benefit of the Yankton Sioux.

"With the exception of a few miserable huts, a saw-mill, and a small amount of land enclosed, there are few vestiges of improvement. They are reduced to the necessity of hunting for a living, and, unless soon reassured and encouraged, they will be driven to despair, and the great discontent existing among them will culminate in another formidable Indian war."

Nine treaties were concluded by this commission with as many different bands of Sioux, the Indians pledging themselves to abstain from all hostilities with each other and with the whites, and the Government agreeing to pay to the Indians fifteen dollars a head per annum, and to all who will settle down to farming twenty-five dollars a head.

In the winter following these treaties all these Indians faithfully kept their promises, in spite of terrible sufferings from cold and from lack of food. Some of them were at the old Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota, where they were "kept from absolute starvation only by the issue to them of such scanty supplies as could be spared from the stores at Fort Sully, and from the agency." It is much to the credit of these Indians that, in spite of their manifold sufferings, scarcely a case of stealing occurred among them, they being determined to keep their faith to the Government.

"They will run like chickens to gather the offal from the slop buckets that are carried from the garrison kitchens; while they pass a pile of corn and hundreds of loose cattle without touching a thing, except when told they may gather up the grains of corn from the ground where the rats in their depredations have let it fall from the sacks," says the report of one of the commissioners.

In the summer of 1865 still further treaties were concluded with the Indians of the plains, and all the Sioux, with the exception of those in the British possessions, were now pledged to peace. This summer also saw the first recognition on the part of the Government of its flagrant injustice toward the friendly Minnesota Sioux who were moved to Crow Creek, Dakota, at the time of the massacre. There were nearly one thousand of these-mostly old men, women, and children-many of them the widows and children of those who had been hung or were in prison at Davenport. For three years they had been "quiet and patient in their sufferings."

The two hundred prisoners in Davenport had also shown "an excellent disposition and entire submission," although many of them were known and proved to have been "absolutely guiltless of any acts of hostility; and not only this, but deserving of reward for the rescue of white captives." Certificates, petitions, and letters showing these facts were forwarded from Iowa to the Department, but the commissioner says, in his report for 1866, that "they have been mislaid in their passage through the various departments, and cannot be found!"

There was still another class of these Indians deserving of help from the Government-some two hundred and fifty friendly farmer Indians, who were living in 1862 quietly on their farms, "who have acted as scouts for the Government; who never committed any acts of hostility, nor fled with those who did commit them," and have still remained friendly through these four years, "while compelled to a vagabond life by the indiscriminate confiscation of all their land and property."

"The crops belonging to these farmer Indians were valued at $125,000, and they had large herds of stock of all kinds, fine farms, and improvements. The United States troops engaged in suppressing the massacre, also the prisoners taken by them-in all, some 3500 men lived for fifty days on this property."

Strong efforts were made by Bishop Whipple and others to obtain from the Government some aid for these friendly Indians, and the sum of $7500 was appropriated by Congress for that purpose. The letter of Bishop Whipple, who was requested to report on the division of this sum, is so eloquent a summing up of the case of these Indians, that it ought to be placed on permanent record in the history of our country. He writes:

"There is positive injustice in the appropriation of so miserable a pittance. A much larger sum would not pay the amount which we honestly owe these men. The Government was the trustee of the Upper and Lower Sioux. It held several millions of dollars for their benefit the joint property of the tribes. These friendly Sioux had abandoned their wild life, and adopted the dress, habits, and customs of civilization; and in doing this, which placed them in open opposition to the traditions of their tribes, they were pledged the protection of the Government. By a mistaken policy, by positive neglect to provide a government, by the perversion of funds due them for the sale of one-half their reservations, by withholding their annuities until two months after they were due (which was caused by the use of a part of these funds for claims), by permitting other causes of dissatisfaction to go on unheeded, we provoked the hostility of the wild Indians, and it went on until it ripened in massacre. These farmer Indians had been pledged a patent for their farms: unless we violated our solemn pledge, these lands were theirs by a title as valid as any title could be. They had large crops, sufficient to support General Sibley's army for a number of weeks. They lost all they had -crops, stock, clothing, and furniture. In addition to this, they were deprived of their share in these annuities, and for four years have lived in very great suffering. You can judge whether $5000 shall be deemed a just reward* for the bravery and fidelity of men who, at the risk of their own lives, were instrumental in saving white captives, and maintained their friendship to the whites.

"I submit to you, sir, and through you hope to reach all who fear God and love justice, whether the very least we can do for all the friendly Sioux is not to fulfill the pledges we made years ago, and give to each of them a patent of eighty acres of land, build them a house, and provide them cattle, seeds, and implements of husbandry?"

In 1866 all these Sioux were removed, and in spite of the protestations of the Nebraska citizens, settled on reservations on the Niobrara River, in Northern Nebraska. It soon became evident that this place was undesirable for a reservation, both on account of its previous occupancy by the whites and scarcity of timber.

In the fall they removed again to the mouth of Bazile Creek. Temporary buildings were again erected, and here they spent the winters of 1866 and 1867. In February they were cheered by the invitation sent their chiefs and headmen to visit Washington. They went, feeling sure that they should get a home for themselves and people. "All they got was a promise that a commission should be sent out to visit them the next year." They were told, however, to move to Breckenridge, on the west bank of the Missouri, plant crops there, and were promised that, if they liked the place, they should have it "se cured to them as a permanent home." Accordingly, the "agency buildings" were once more removed, and two hundred acres of land were planted. Before the crops were harvested the commission arrived, and urged the Indians to move farther up the Missouri. The Indians being averse to this, however, they were allowed to remain, and told that if they would cultivate the soil like white men-take lands in severalty-the Government would assist them. The Indians gladly consented to this, and signed a treaty to that effect. But in 1868 their agent writes: "That treaty is not yet ratified, and, instead of assistance to open farms, their appropriation has been cut down one half. After paying for supplies purchased on credit last year, it is entirely insufficient for clothing and subsistence, and leaves nothing for opening farms, procuring cattle," etc. These Indians, only five years previous, had been living on good farms, and had $125,000 worth of stock, implements, etc. No wonder their agent writes: "Leave them without a home a few years longer, and you offer strong inducements for them to become idle and worthless."

It is an intricate and perplexing task to attempt now to follow the history of the different bands of the Sioux tribe through all their changes of location and affiliation some in Dakota, some in Nebraska, and some on the Upper Arkansas with the hostile Cheyenne and Arapaho signing treaties one summer, and on the war path the next promised a home in spring, and ordered off it before harvest all the time more and more hemmed in by white settlers, and more and more driven out of their buffalo ranges by emigrations liable at any time to have bodies of United States soldiers swoop down on them and punish whole bands for depredations committed by a handful of men, perhaps of a totally distinct band the wonder is not that some of them were hostile and vindictive, but that any of them remained peaceable and friendly. Bandied about from civil authorities to military the War Department recommending "that all Indians not on fixed reservations be considered at war," and proceeded against accordingly, and the Interior Department neglecting to provide them with "fixed reservations," or to define or enforce the boundaries of even their temporary reservations-tricked, cheated on all sides-starving half the time-there is not a tribe of all the persecuted tribes of Indians that has a wore piteous record than the Sioux. Nevertheless, we find many of the bands, in 1870, advancing in civilization. In the Yankton band nearly one hundred children are in school, and eight hundred acres of land are under cultivation. The Lower Yankton are peaceful and quiet, although they are near the Brule, who are always roving and hostile. The Sisseton and Wahpeton, who were by a treaty of 1867 placed on reservations in Dakota, are "industrious, and fast advancing in agricultural pursuits." Four schools are in operation among them. The Yankton are "anxious to farm, and state that the Government has promised to assist and teach them to farm; that they are and have been ready for some time, but as yet the agent has not received any instructions or funds to permit of their accomplishing their desire."

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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