Another IAGenWeb Project
THE MINNESOTA MASSACRE—HOW IT BEGAN—AMBUSH OF CAPTAIN MARSH—THE BATTLES OF FORT RIDGLEY AND NEW ULM—THE INDIAN DREAD OF ARTILLERY—COLONEL SIBLEY PLACED IN COMMAND—THE BATTLE OF BIRCH COULEE —THE PRISONERS—SIBLEY'S EFFORT TO GET THEM WITHOUT FIGHTING A FAILURE—BATTLE OF WOOD LAKE—SIBLEY MAKES ANOTHER DEMAND FOR THE PRISONERS—INDIANS DIVIDED—THE LARGER PARTY WITH THE PRISONERS SURRENDER AT CAMP RELEASE—LITTLE CROW WITH HIS BAND ESCAPES UP THE RIVER—LITTLE CROW VENTURES TO THE SETTLEMENT THE FOLLOWING YEAR AND IS KILLED—THE INDIAN PRISONERS TRIED BY A MILITARY COMMISSION AND THREE HUNDRED AND THREE SENTENCED TO BE HUNG—PRESIDENT LINCOLN INTERFERES—ORDERS THIRTY-NINE OF THE LEADERS HUNG—THE BALANCE SUBSEQUENTLY PLACED ON A RESERVATION—THE EFFECT ON THE WILD TRIBES.
EVENTS now followed each other on the northwestern frontier in rapid succession which more than justified the meager and insufficient measures which had been inaugurated for frontier defense.
The Indian outbreak on the western frontier of Minnesota in the summer and fall of 1862 is so closely connected with the history of northwestern Iowa, and especially of this county, that it is entitled to a somewhat extended notice. That the destruction of the settlements here and along the Des Moines River was a part of their original plan has been pretty clearly established, and this fact renders the story of the Minnesota massacre more interesting to Iowa readers. Judge Flandrau's account of the commencement of the trouble, written several years later, is about as clear and concise as it could well be made and is as follows:
"Everything about the agency up to the eighteenth day of August, 1862, presented the usual appearance of quiet and security. On the seventeenth of August a small party of Indians appeared at Acton and murdered several settlers. Whether these Indians had previously left the agency with this intention is doubtful, but on the news of these murders reaching the Indians at the Upper Agency on the eighteenth, open hostilities were at once commenced and the traders and whites were indiscriminately massacred.
"The missionaries residing a short distance above the Yellow Medicine Agency and their people with a few others were notified in time by a few friendly disposed Indians, and to the number of about forty made their escape to Hutchinson. Similar events occurred at the Lower Agency on the same day where nearly all the traders and whites were butchered, and several who got away before the general massacre commenced were overtaken and killed before reaching Fort Ridgley, thirteen miles below, or other places of safety to which points they were fleeing. Nearly all of the buildings at both agencies were destroyed and such property as was valuable to the Indians was carried off and appropriated by them. The news of the outbreak reached Fort Ridgley about eight o'clock A. M., August eighteenth.
"The fort was in command of Captain John S. Marsh, Company B, Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He had eighty-five men in his company from which he selected forty-five, leaving the balance under the command of Lieutenant T. P. Gere to defend the fort. This little squad under the command of Captain Marsh, with a full supply of ammunition, provisions, blankets, etc., accompanied by a six mule team, left the fort at nine A. M., on the eighteenth of August, for the Lower Agency, which was distant about thirteen miles tip the Minnesota River and situated on the other side of the river from the fort, being reached by ferry from the agency.
"On the march up the command passed nine or ten dead bodies lying in the road, bearing evidence of having been murdered that morning by the Indians, one of whom was Doctor Humphrey, surgeon at the agency. On reaching the vicinity of the ferry no Indians were in sight, except one on the other side of the river who endeavored to induce them to cross. A dense chaparal bordered the river on the agency side, and tall grass covered the bottom on the side where were the troops. Suspicion of the presence of Indians was aroused by the disturbed condition of the water of the river, which was muddy and contained floating grass. Then a group of ponies was seen. At this point, and without a moment's notice, Indians in great numbers sprang up on all sides of the troops and opened upon them a deadly fire. About half of the men were killed instantly. Finding themselves surrounded, the survivors endeavored to make their escape the best way they could.
"Several desperate hand to hand encounters occurred with varying results and the remnant of the command made a point down the river about two miles from the ferry, Captain Marsh being of the number. They attempted to cross, but the Captain was drowned in the attempt. Only thirteen of the command reached the fort alive. * * * Having massacred the people at the agencies, the Indians at once sent out marauding parties in all directions. They covered the country to the northeast as far as Glencoe and Hutchinson, to the southeast nearly to St. Peter, and to the south as far as Spirit Lake, Iowa. They carried death and devastation wherever they went, murdering men, women and children to the number of one thousand. The settlers being accustomed to their friendly visits, were taken unawares and were shot down in detail without an opportunity for defense."
In addition to the engagement at the Lower Agency, as above described, which was really nothing more nor less than a brutal massacre, there were engagements between bodies of Indians and organized forces of soldiers and settlers at Fort Ridgley, New Ulm and Birch Coulee in the order named. It will be remembered that the action at the Lower Agency was on the afternoon of the eighteenth of August. Two days later, or on the afternoon of the twentieth, the Indians made their first attack on Fort Ridgley. Fort Ridgley was at this time garrisoned by the remnant of Captain Marsh's company that had been so fearfully cut up in the ambush at the Lower Agency, and one company of the Fifth Minnesota Infantry, under Lieutenant Sheehan, who arrived there on the nineteenth, having made a forced march of forty-five miles in nine and one-half hours.
The balance of the forces were volunteer organizations and not in the military service of the United States. Ridgley was in no sense a fort, but simply a collection of houses built for the accommodation of the troops.
As before stated, the first attack was made on the afternoon of the twentieth, and lasted about three hours, when the Indians were driven back. Two attacks were made on the next day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, lasting about a hour and a half each, but without any decisive result. During the night of the twenty-first the Indians were largely reinforced by the arrival of their head chief, Little Crow, with about five hundred additional warriors.
On the morning of Friday, the twenty-second, the savages seemed determined to carry the post at all hazards. They made repeated assaults and were as often driven back. These assaults continued for nearly five hours, when the Indians, finding all of their efforts baffled, drew off, and concentrating all of their forces started down the river for New Ulm for their final and most desperate effort, which place they reached on the morning of the twenty-third. New Ulm is situated thirteen miles from Fort Ridgley down the river, while the Lower Agency is about the same distance above, and the Upper Agency some distance above that, near the month of the Yellow Medicine River.
The southern boundary of the reservation was but a few miles from New Ulm, making it the most exposed point on the Minnesota frontier. No government forces were stationed there, and after the outbreak at the agency on the eighteenth, it was evident that probably New Ulm would be the first settlement to be attacked. Apprehending this the adjacent settlements at once took measures for defense. At St. Peters a company of one hundred and sixteen men was at once raised and the command given to Judge Flandrau. Other places raised such forces as they could and instinctively they all seemed to gravitate toward New Ulm as being the place where their services would be soonest needed, and by the morning of the twenty-second the force numbered about three hundred, but very poorly armed. Judge Flandrau was at once chosen to command, and he proceeded as rapidly as possible to get things in a manageable condition.
Nothing of serious consequence occurred until the morning of the twenty-third, when at about nine-thirty A. M. the Indians came down upon them seven hundred strong. At first the advantage was slightly with the Indians, but the settlers soon rallied and after recovering from the nervousness incident to the first attack held the Indians off in good shape. The savages soon surrounded the town and commenced firing the buildings on the windward side. By two o'clock the fire was raging on both sides of Main Street in the lower part of town. About this tune a squad of about fifty men charged through the burning street and drove the Indians out beyond the houses. They then burned everything that could serve as a protection to the savages, and the day was won. The loss on the part of the inhabitants was about sixty. The number engaged was nominally three hundred, but they had not arms for more than two hundred to be on duty at a time. About one hundred and ninety houses were burned all told, partly by the Indians and partly by the settlers. The fighting continued all Saturday night, with some firing Sunday morning. The Indians then drew off to the northwest in the direction of their reservation.
There were in the town at the time of the attack from twelve to fifteen hundred non-combatants, men, women and children, and these would all have been massacred had the Indians succeeded in carrying the town. One fact which was developed at the battle of Fort Ridgley and which proved of inestimable value to the white troops during the remainder of the Indian campaign, was the superstitious dread the savages had of artillery and more especially of shells. The unearthly whizzing and shrieking of these mysterious monsters as they howled through the air was something new to them and inspired them with a terror wholly uncontrollable. The second explosion or bursting of the shell was to them something wholly unaccountable and the effect was demoralizing in the extreme.
How much this simple circumstance may have had to do with the Indians changing their plans and abandoning their Iowa campaign altogether, we can only conjecture, but there is no doubt it had something to do with it. The following extract from a description of the battle of Fort Ridgley by an eye witness and published in the Minneapolis Journal, is given in this connection:
"Realizing that the cannon were their worst foes, the Indian sharpshooters had exerted themselves to get Sergeant Jones. Every lineal foot of timber along the line of the barricade which protected his gun was splintered by a close and accurate fire. But still the gun was worked and the shells continued to fall among the warriors at the shortest possible range. McGrew dropped the first shell from the big gun in dangerous proximity to the party that was swinging around from the northeast. Training his gun to the west, he dropped the second shell exactly at the point where this party had joined a group of squaws, ponies and dogs west of the main body. Yelping dogs, shrieking squaws, wailing children and frightened bucks ran in all directions and sought shelter behind every inequality of ground. McGrew then directed his fire between this force and the main body, and succeeded in preventing a consolidation. The reports of the big gun were as demoralizing to the Indians as its frightful execution. In the meantime, in front of Jones' position there was a lull in the fire and across the space separating the combatants, the whites could hear Little Crow exhorting his warriors to take courage for the last fierce rush. While the general of the Indian forces tried the effect of oratory, Jones arranged a very effective counter argument by double shotting his piece with canister. Spurred on with the inspiring words of their chief, a band of desperate warriors rushed straight Inward Jones' barricade.
"The Indian doesn't always fight behind trees. Sometimes he delivers an assault in the open as bravely as white troops. * * * On came the painted, yelling warriors, brandishing their weapons and leaping madly in their rage and hatred. A cloud of smoke belched from the black muzzle of the gun, a band of flame shot forward and eighteen warriors fell to the ground in the agonies of death or gaping wounds. This terrible blow completely unmanned the savages. They fell back in disorder, pursued by shrieking shells thrown through the flames and smoke of the burning buildings. The fight was over."
The following description of the wonderful mirage that was observed after the battle is by the same writer.
"Suddenly a strange and weird spectacle caught Lieutenant Sheehan's eyes as he glanced up at the smoky clouds. There in the skies occurred a phenemenon that in a more credulous age would have been taken as a sign of grace direct from God Himself. On the screen of the clouds, as though thrown by some great stereopticon, a mirage repeated and revealed the whole battle scene. The outline of the fort and the disposition of its defenders was clearly shown, with all at their places and the guns still throwing shells into the valley where the retreating Indians, as shown by the retreating images in the clouds, were in the greatest confusion. Tepees were being torn down, goods were being packed on ponies, papooses were strapped to backs and hurried retreat begun, while the sullen warriors held back to guard the rear. In their turn the Indians could see reflected the confident aspect of all within the fort. It cannot be doubted that to their superstitious minds it was an unmistakable omen of the wrath of the Great Spirit."
The news of the outbreak reached Governor Ramsey at St. Paul on the nineteenth. He at once communicated with Ex-Governor Sibley and requested him to accept the command of such forces as could be put into the field against the Indians. He immediately accepted the position with the rank of Colonel of the Militia. A great many troops were at that time mustered into the United States service .at Fort Snelling expecting to be sent south. Their destination was changed, and Colonel Sibley soon found himself in command of quite a respectable force. He reached Font Ridgley on the twenty-eighth, or five days after the battle of New Ulm. Upon the arrival of the government troops, the volunteer organizations disbanded .and went home. Two days after his arrival at the fort Colonel Sibley dispatched a force of one hundred and fifty men, under the command of Major Joseph R. Brown, up to the agency to bury the dead and bring in such information regarding the movements of the Indians as he could obtain.
This expedition left the fort on the thirty-first of August, and on arriving at the agency found the buildings all destroyed. Then they went through the Indian settlement, visited the home of Little Crow and of other Indians, .and made a general reconnoissance of the vicinity in that locality, but saw no signs of Indians. On the evening of the second day, which was the first of September, they went into camp near the head of a ravine known as Birch Coulee. Not having seen any Indians or any signs of any, they were heedless of danger, and selected their camp more with a view to convenience than safety. It would seem that the experience of Captain Marsh's company in that immediate vicinity only two weeks before would have taught them the necessity of extreme caution. But such it seems was not the case. Even the usual precaution of throwing out pickets was neglected.
The whole party of tired soldiers threw themselves on the ground .and slept soundly, regardless of the fact that they were in the enemy's country. From this sleep they were rudely awakened about four o'clock the next morning by the sharp cracking of hundreds of rifles in the hands of invisible foes. It was the same old story of ambush and slaughter, so often repeated in the history of the country. As was .afterwards ascertained, a large force of Indians had assembled with the intention of making a descent on St. Peter, and if successful there, of sweeping up through Mankato and the Blue Earth Valley, and had that morning started down the river for that purpose, but on seeing Brown's force go into camp, changed their plan and determined to cut him off. They accordingly waited until after dark, when they quietly surrounded his camp, and in the early twilight made a furious attack. The slaughter was terrible. Twenty-three were killed, and forty-five severely, and several more slightly, wounded in the first hour and a half. There were ninety horses and these were all killed.
The survivors now succeeded in forming a kind of breastwork of the wagons, of which there were seventeen, and the dead horses, which served as a partial protection against the deadly fire of the Indians. There were four or five spades and shovels with the command, and with these and their sabres some of the men succeeded in digging pits or holes in the ground into which they crawled for shelter. No Indians were in sight, and yet let any one of the party show himself he was sure to draw the fire of several rifles in the hands of the unseen foe.
In this way the day was passed and the succeeding night, and it was not until near noon of the second day that they were relieved by Colonel Sibley, who, becoming impatient of their delay and alarmed for their safety, started out with the main body to meet them. Upon the approach of Colonel Sibley, the Indians drew off and retreated up the river. It was now two weeks since the commencement of the troubles, and the Indians were known to have with them between two and three hundred prisoners. They had massacred or killed in action fully one thousand people.
The all-important question with Colonel Sibley now was how to get possession of the prisoners. Having this question upper-most in his mind he left on the battle ground of Birch Coulee the following communication attached to a stake driven into the ground:
"If Little Crow has any proposition to make let him send a half-breed to me and he shall be protected in and out of camp. "H. H. SIBLEY."
The letter was found and answered by Little Crow on the seventh, but all mention of the prisoners was evaded, when Colonel Sibley sent a second letter, as follows:
"Little Crow: You have murdered many of our people without cause. Return me the prisoners under a flag of truce and I will talk with you then like a man. H. H. SIBLEY."
This was also answered in an evasive and unsatisfactory manner, when Sibley sent a third communication stating that no peace could be made without a full surrender of the prisoners, and charging them with the commission of nine murders since the receipt of Little Crow's last letter. He informed them that he was now strong enough to crush any force they could bring against him, and gave them three days more in which to deliver up the prisoners.
Upon receipt of this letter a large council was called, at which nearly all of the annuity Indians were present. The council was hopelessly divided. One portion was in favor of surrendering the prisoners and making the best terms they could. The other were in favor of holding out to the bitter end and taking the consequences. One of the leaders of the party favoring peace and surrender was Paul Mazaintemani, one of the party sent out by Major Flandrau in 1857 for the rescue of Miss Gardner, one of the prisoners taken at the lakes and held by the Indians at that time. It was he who warned the missionaries, giving them a chance to escape. He was instrumental in preventing the massacre of many of the prisoners, and was a true friend to the settlers through the entire affair.
The correspondence with the Indians was kept up for several' days, but with no satisfactory results. Deeming further delay worse than useless, Sibley now determined to move against the Indians. Accordingly on the eighteenth lie broke camp at Fort Ridgley, crossed the river and started iii pursuit of the savages, coming up with them on the morning of the twenty-third of September, between Yellow Medicine River and Wood Lake. The attack was made at once, and the battle soon became general, and continued about an hour and a half, when the Indians were routed and retreated in confusion. It was afterward learned that before the commencement of the action Little Crow detailed ten of his best marksmen with orders to kill Colonel Sibley at all hazards, but a shell from the howitzer exploded in the midst of this special band and killed a part of them and hopelessly demoralized the rest.
This was known as the battle of Wood Lake, and was the first action in which the whites met the Indians on anything like equal terms. After this fight Colonel Sibley proceeded up the river and camped opposite the mouth of the Chippewa, where it empties into the Minnesota. A large force of Indians were camped just a short distance away. They were composed of both upper and lower Sioux, and had been engaged in all the massacres that had taken place, and the desire on the part of the troops to attack and punish them was intense, but Colonel Sibley kept steadily in view the fact that the rescue of the prisoners was his first duty and he well knew that any demonstration of violence just at this time would be followed by the immediate destruction of the captives. Ike, therefore, wisely overruled all hostile demonstrations.
The result was a general surrender of the main body, together with all the prisoners. The place where the surrender occurred has since been known as Camp Release, and is situated nearly twenty-five miles above the Upper Agency, and nearly seventy miles above Fort Ridgley. Previous to the surrender Little Crow, with a few followers, escaped up the river. After the safety of the captives was secured then the serious question arose, What should be done with the prisoners? They had murdered men, women and children ruthlessly and without cause or provocation, and to treat them as prisoners of war would be simply a burlesque. On the other hand they could not be executed like so many wild beasts without some kind of trial.
In this dilemma Colonel Sibley conceived the idea of organizing a military tribunal and trying the leaders and those who had been most active in the depredations and outrages, by court martial. Accordingly, on the twenty-eighth of September an order was issued convening this extraordinary court. It was composed of five officers, and entered at once on the discharge of its duties. The first session was at Camp Release, where several cases were disposed of. From there it adjourned to the Lower Agency, and from thence to Mankato, and finally wound up its work at Fort Snelling on the fifth of November, during which time it investigated four hundred and twenty-five cases, of which number three hundred and twenty-one were found guilty, and three hundred and three sentenced to be hung. These prisoners were brought from the reservation to Mankato chained together and under strong military guard, where they were confined in, a large log jail built for that special purpose and guarded by a strong command of troops.
While this court martial was in session news of its proceedings reached the eastern cities and a great outcry was raised that the state of Minnesota was contemplating a great outrage in the massacre of her Indian prisoners. Intelligent bodies of well-intentioned but ill-informed people besieged President Lincoln to put a stop to the proposed executions. The President sent for the records of the trials and turned them over to his legal advisers. As a result of his investigation, the President, on the sixth day of December, issued an order designating thirty-nine of the ring-leaders, against whom the death penalty should be enforced, and directed that the balance should be held subject to further orders, "taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence."
The President's orders were obeyed. Thirty-eight of the murderers were executed by hanging at Mankato on the twenty-sixth of December, 1863, one having been pardoned by the President. The balance of the prisoners were kept in confinement in their log prison until the opening of navigation the next spring, when they were put aboard of a steamer and sent to Davenport, Iowa. After being kept in confinement there for some time they were placed on a reservation on the upper Missouri. Whether or not this was the wisest disposition that could have been made of them is an open question and one upon which there is a wide divergence of opinion. It is boldly asserted by those who have made a careful study of the subject and are perfectly familiar with the relations between the Indians and the general government, that nearly if not quite all of the trouble the government has had with the Dacotahs since the liberation of these prisoners has grown out of the evil counsel of these same savages. Judge Flandrau remarks:
"An Indian never forgets an injury, real or fancied, and never forgives an enemy, and the advent among the Missouri River tribes of this large body of desperadoes, fresh from their scenes of murder and carnage, would be well calculated to incite them to acts of similar violence."
It is well known that many of the same Indians that planned and executed the ambush and massacre at the Lower Agency and at Birch Coulee were afterwards identified with the force that on the twenty-fifth of June, 1876, ambushed and destroyed General Custer and his entire command on the Little Big Horn in Wyoming. Up to the time of the release of these prisoners the Indians on the upper Missouri had had but limited intercourse with the whites and there is no doubt but the enmity and evil counsels of these Minnesota Indians has made the whole Indian question vastly harder to solve.
Judge Flandrau, writing on this subject in 1892, says:
"It is my opinion that all of 'the troubles that have transpired since the liberation of these Indians with the tribes inhabiting the western plains and mountains have grown out of the evil counsels of these savages. The only proper course to have pursued with them when it was determined not to hang them was to have exiled them to some remote post, say the Dry Tortugas, where communication with their people would have been impossible, set them to work on fortifications or other public works and have allowed them to pass out by life limitations."
It will be remembered that Little Crow escaped after the battle of Wood Lake and was not with the prisoners at Camp Release. On the third day of July, 1863, he ventured in the neighborhood of the settlements, and while in a field picking berries, was seen by a farmer who recognized him and shot him dead on the spot. His scalp is held by the State Historical Society of Minnesota. The state of Minnesota has recently erected monuments at Fort Ridgley, New Ulm, Birch Coulee and Camp Release.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DICKINSON COUNTY MAIN PAGE