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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

A Large Massacre, The Largest Execution, 1862

by Gordon Thorsby

General John Pope

In August 1862, the Southern states were in full rebellion and Lincoln didn’t expect a problem from the Northern States. His problems were McClellan, failure in the Peninsula, a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and unknown upcoming major conflicts of 2nd Manassas and Antietam. That is, not until a telegraph was received with disturbing news of massacre somewhere in Minnesota.

In the chaos of fighting, the US government had failed to honor the Native American treaties and pay for the land taken. The money that Tribes were supposed to receive stopped and food promised was missing. The crops that Indians were growing also failed and tensions increased. When the agency head for the reservation, Andrew Myrick replied “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung," violence erupted.

It started where the Minneapolis and Minnesota Rivers diverge, and the settlements and farms dotted the area. On Sunday, August 17, a German man, his wife and daughter were having Sunday dinner in their home with two other German immigrants when four Indians barged in taking food and quickly killing all those in the gathering. The following day, Dakota warriors, led by an Episcopal Indian named Little Crow (Taoyateduta 1810-1863), began systematically attacking white settlements near the Lower Sioux Agency, along the

Minnesota River southwest and through the State. At the end of that first day, 200 settlers had been massacred and Myrick had been one of the victims, with, his mouth stuffed full with grass. Little Crow raised more warriors while he began an effort to clear every settler from the river valley. The next day, a fifty-man detachment from Fort Bridger marched to settlers’ aid and were ambushed by 200 warriors and where half of the detachment was killed.

In the next couple of weeks, village and settlement massacres were repeated. The numbers of settlers killed were said to be in the hundreds by large parties of warriors from 250 in one attack to as many as 1000 in another attack. At the town of Ulm, as many as 500 warriors attacked and burned the town killing approximately 300 whites. It is estimated that 150 warriors died in the fighting. Little Crow's new army was eventually repulsed. Hundreds of white and mixed blood settlers became captives and their lives were in danger. Military assistance was dispatched in the form of the 5th Minnesota Volunteers and while they were not slaughtered, they were besieged more than they were quelling. There were just too many warriors. The State Governor called on Col. Henry Sibley to assemble the militia.

Meanwhile, Lincoln foresaw peace in Minnesota unraveling, and he decided to intervene

with Federal control. With little knowledge of the situation on the ground, he dispatched Maj Gen. John Pope, fresh from his own form of chaos at 2nd Manassas was dispatched to restore order.

Col. H Sibley

In September 18, Sibley marched 1169 soldiers and militia and defeated Little Crow and 750-1200 warriors at the battle of Wood lake and after considerable fighting, Little Crow withdrew to begin raiding north. The word was out about the uprising and every town was ready for Little Crow.. The Dakota held council and recognized there was only one possible end. Three days later, 2000 Dakota warriors surrendered, 1658 non-combatants also surrendered. Little Crow was not among the surrendered.

At the end of the five weeks of terror, some 358 settlers were dead, 77 soldiers, 29 volunteer militia, and untold numbers missing and never found. Numbers of injured and homeless were also never identified. The total losses of Dakota tribesmen are unknown. On September 26, 1862 with the help of Ojibwe negotiators, 269 mixed-blood and white hostages, many of who were immigrants were released to Sibley.

Retribution and penalties by vengeful whites were swift and devastating. In less than six weeks, a military commission reviewed the 2000 arrested, 862 were tried, sentenced 303 Dakota men to death. Lincoln opposed the executions of so many and commuted the sentences. 38 were hanged in near Ft. Snelling while one received a reprieve. The others were imprisoned eventually released after four years. The United States Congress abolished the eastern Dakota and Winnebago reservations, their treaties were nullified and all members were sent to reservations in Nebraska.

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Lincoln’s political concern over the event was realized when in the 1864 presidential election, he nearly lost the state in votes. Told to him that if he had hanged more Indians, he would not have had a problem, Lincoln responded that doing one did not justify the other and walked away.

One day in 1863 southwestern Minnesota, a group of hunters saw two Indians picking berries. With Dakota bounties available, they fired killing one man. One year later, the other Indian who had been there that day confirmed that the man killed was his father Little Crow.

One of the largest if not the largest massacre was followed by the largest mass execution in American history.

Note: Though called Sioux, The Native Americans consisted of four bands of Dakota. There is a difference.


Lincoln and Sioux Uprising, Cox, Hank H., Cumberland House Publishing, 2005.

The Dakota War of 1862, Minnesota’s Other Civil War, by Carley, Kenneth, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

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