Dakota War of 1862
Throughout the late 1850s in the lead-up to the war, late annuity payments caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota. Traders with the Dakota previously had demanded that the government give the annuity payments directly to them, as payment for purchases the Dakota had made on credit. In mid-1862, the Dakota demanded the annuities directly from their Indian Agent. The traders refused to provide any more supplies on credit under those conditions, and negotiations reached an impasse.
A massive influx of immigrants began to encroach on the Dakota reservation established by the Traverse Des Sioux of 1851. The government redrew the boundaries of the reservation which severely crowded the Dakota yet allowed most settlers to stay. Traders continued to hold the Dakota beholden to their services and the debts of the Dakota rose again. Prices were high, government payments were often late, and food subsidies were all too frequently rotten. On March 13, 1858, twenty-six Dakota chiefs were taken to Washington to meet with President James Buchanan. They were held in Washington for four months before being told they had to move off another portion of the reservation. According to Indian accounts, most of that money went to the traders as well. A blight severely damaged Dakota crops in the spring and early summer of 1862. Food shortages coupled by late annuity payments from the government caused widespread hunger since most traders ended Dakota credit. Frustration and hunger led to foraging.
One Indian foraging party attacked a family of settlers near Acton, MN on August 17th, 1862. Tribal members convinced the Dakota leader Little Crow (Taoyateduta) that the time to go to war against the settlers was at hand. Thus began the Dakota Conflict. On August 18th, 1862, a Dakota force struck the Lower Sioux Agency killing the inhabitants and taking control. They then surprised a forty man relief party of United States Army troops from Fort Ridgely, Minnesota, killing nearly all the troops. Attacks on Fort Ridgely and New Ulm took place over the course of the next week. Stiff resistance from settlers and soldiers prevented complete Dakota victory but New Ulm was so badly burned the inhabitants abandoned it and fled for safety.
The Dakota War of 1862 is a complicated and important part of Minnesota history. To learn more, check out these other resources:
- Voice in Education: 1862 Dakota Conflict
- Archival Collections at the Minnesota Historical Society
- US-Dakota War
- US Dakota War in Minnesota: County by County
Encounters with Native Americans
“Truth to tell, her fear of the Indians was very natural. She and Syvert had heard the tale of the terrors of ’62 so often that they could have repeated it word for word, as if from an open book. When they were living in Fillmore County, Minnesota, two refugees from the Norway Lake massacre had drifted into the place; the story of the horrors they had undergone had taken on new and gruesome details as it passed from mouth to mouth; out here now on the open prairie, where no hiding place could be found, the form in which Kjersti remembered it had assumed the fantastic proportions of a myth.”–Ole Rølvaag, “Giants in the Earth,” page 72
Andrew Berdahl’s Account
It was not only the war in the South, but the Indians in the west that continually stirred the people with fear.
We heard of the massacres by the Indians of settlers at New Ulm, Norway Lake, and in Jackson Co. As far as I know our community thought themselves safe from the Indians, as they were now so far to the west of us.
But all of a sudden one morning, the first week in September, a messenger came, I think on horseback, crying that the Indians were killing people on the prairies west of us and burning farm homes only 10 to 15 miles away and that we must flee for our lives to Caledonia, our county seat.
Father and Uncle Lars Exe had gone that morning west on the creek bottom to mow grass for hay with their scythes, the only mowing machine in those days. Erick and I of course started on a run to notify them, 1 to 2 miles away. Father’s orders were to get the oxen home, and in a wonderful short time they were home and yoked and hitched to the wagon. Mother and the smaller children together with Aunt Anna Exe and two children loaded into the wagon, – the rest of us walked of course – leaving everything that we owned to the depredations of the Indians. I did not at that time, though in my 14th year, realize what that meant… No one, it seemed, doubted the report. It was one of those calm, hazy or smoky days caused, we learned later, by forest fires. But off we trudged as fast as we could make the oxen go. We, living the farthest west out on the South Fork creek ridge, were I suppose the last to be notified, so when we came along neighbors to the east of us had gone, all the places along the road were deserted.
For some reason or other we decided to go by way of Sheldon, a little town with a store, a blacksmith shop, a mill and a saloon. This was not the shortest way to Caledonia, but sure enough, here we caught up with most of our neighbors who were being detained there by a recruiting officer telling the people to go back home, – that there were no Indians within 150 miles of us – that these stories were probably started by horse thieves, etc….
There were a lot of people in Caledonia that day and we stayed on listening to discussions whether this was just a false scare or not until about sunset when wiser counsel prevailed and the people decided to turn towards home again.
Berdahl family autobiography, page 12-13
Erick Berdahl’s Account
In 1862, in July, Aug., or Sept., a report came to us that the Indians were on the war path and had formed in 2 or 3 large battalions, and one of them was coming right on us. They were at a village called Riceford, which was burning about 6 miles west of us. And all go to Caledonia, the county seat, where we would get together for protection.
Father and Uncle Lars Exe were down on the bottom cutting hay, and Mother said that me and Andrew must run down there and immediately get them home. And I can assure you that we did some racing to get there, and were so out of breath that it was difficult to tell them our errand. The scythe was soon thrown aside and home was made in a short order. The oxen soon hitched to the wagon, a few bedclothes and a basket of food thrown in, and off we went, pounding the poor oxen on their backs to get away in a hurry.
The day was very smoky and that was supposed to be from the burning villages and farm homes. When we came to Sheldon, they tried to plead with us not to go any farther, that it was not possible for the Indians to get through all the large settlements west of us and get close to us, before we got any knowledge of it, but of no avail, the rumors of those burning villages were so strongly set in their minds that they must go where there was hope for protection.
In the meantime, some more cool-headed men with horses had taken a ride westward to see how things did look. They found Riceford alright and places claimed to be burned by the Indians were not touched, so they were able to overtake this large caravan that was heading for Caledonia and got them to stop and turn homeward, but the oxen were pretty well played out by this time, so it took quite a while to get home.
It was claimed by some that this scare was started by a gang of horse thieves, and that many horses were stolen during this wild rampage.
The fact, though, remains that in western Minnesota, in Jackson and Murray counties, the Indians were on the war path, burning and killing the pioneers all over in the western country, so it might have spread and got to us in that way, but, however, it came about it was a genuine scare that never will be forgotten by those who were in it, and it swept all over eastern Minnesota and Iowa.
Berdahl family autobiography, page 14-15
Giants in the Earth
The band of Indians crawled slowly toward them out of the west. Per Hansa counted the teams–fourteen in all, he made it–but he couldn’t be certain of the exact number; they drove close together and were headed straight in the direction of the settlement. . . . No doubt about it any longer–here lay an old Indian trail!
Just then, however, Sörine’s cow, which was still grazing some distance off on the prairie, suddenly seemed to go crazy. She bellowed loud and long, lifted her head and tail high in the air, and galloped away toward the wagons of the newcomers. All watched her in amazement. Sörine burst out crying, blaming herself for being so shortsighted as to forget all about her precious cow. . . . As he saw the beast gallop away, Per Hansa cursed it from the bottom of his heart…
Giants in the Earth, page 77-80
Explore other resources
- “Norway’s Organized Response to Emigration” by Arne Hassing
- “Homesteading and Indian Land Dispossession”
- Linked Histories: Immigrants and Indigenous Peoples