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History of Minnesota’s State War and the Battle of Wood Lake, September 23, 1862

by Dr. Elden Lawrence
Ehanna Wichohan Oyake

The Wood Lake Battle Site, is actually a misnomer, for Battle Lake or Lone Tree Lake, is the location where the final hostile actions of the Lower Sioux occurred.  It ended the outbreak of hostilities that began on the early morning of August 18, 1862; following an extended period of hopeless reservation confinement, and existence.  The U.S. government largely ignored the growing signs of frustration and dissatisfaction among the Indians and did nothing to quell the possibility of an outbreak of hostilities.

A Soldier’s Lodge was set up to discuss the possibility of going to war as a last option. There were much heated debates between factions for war and those opposed to hostile actions. The Lower Sioux’s democratically elected leader, Traveling Hail, refused to give approval to go to war and the determined hostile faction asked Little Crow (Ta-o-ya-te-ta-duta) to lead them. Cut Nose was selected as War Chief, and the war commenced; spreading throughout the settlements in the major portion of the Minnesota River Valley.

Minnesota governor, Alexander Ramsey, appointed Henry Sibley, a former political rival, to put down what he believed to be a minor outbreak. Sibley had no military experience and his only qualifications for dealing with Indians, was that he was a fur trader and knew them well. Sibley’s lack of experience and slowness left the settlers unprotected and for almost six weeks, they suffered death and destruction of their properties. The warrior faction believed the settlers were benefitting from their unjust treatment and taking advantage of the government’s conspiracy to starve them out and take their land. On September 19, Sibley and 1,619 troops left Fort Ridgely; eventually arriving at Wood Lake on September 22, where they camped for the night. They established light security, thinking the Indians were nowhere near.

Little Crow and his warriors considered three plans of attack: attacking at night (which was Little Crow’s idea), attacking in early light before the troops were awake, and attacking the column as it spread out on the road, cutting the force in two and neutralizing the cannons. The third plan was chosen; although any of them would have probably worked. At daybreak, a group of soldiers, acting against orders, decided to go to the Upper Sioux Agency to dig up potatoes. Some of the wagons traveled off the road and right into the path of awaiting Indians. The warriors had to rise and commence firing, then alerting the troops in camp. Only the warriors closest to the camp did any fighting, the others being too far way to join. Losing the element of surprise and being no match for the numbers and firepower of the soldiers, Little Crow called off the attack and returned to their base camp near present day Montevideo, Minnesota.

During the closing weeks of the outbreak, Little Crow moved his people in close to the Upper Sioux who were not involved in the war, except for a few young men who had gone against the advice of their leaders. In the event of an all-out military attack, Little Crow was probably considering mingling his people and the white captives, taken at the beginning of the outbreak, with the so-called friendly Indians for protection or, in the event many of the friendly Indians were killed, those left would then join him. The friendly camp moved away from Little Crow only to have his warriors move near again.

Little Crows white captives had been taken for security; the thinking being that while the soldiers would probably not care much about which Indians they killed, they would be cautious about killing some of their own. Several times during the conflict, Christian leaders and friendly Indians made bold attempts to get the warriors to turn the captives over to them. They believed that the soldiers were reluctant to attack the Little Crow camp because of the captives. If they could get the captives freed and back to their people, the military would have only the combatant Indians to concern them The Christian and friendly Indians took great risks to save, protect, and care for the captives during their six week ordeal. When the warriors left for Wood Lake, the friendly Indians took possession of the captives and placed them in a spot where they could best be protected. Rumors were high that the captives would be killed after the return of the warriors and their defenders prepared to die with them. Upon their return, Little Crow saw that the captives were taken. He now faced a risk of confronting his own kinsmen in a civil war of their own, and the possibility that the soldiers were not far behind.

After reprimanding them for a poor showing against the soldiers, he told warriors to disperse. They made a quick exit to the plains and north to Canada, abandoning any effort to regain possession of the captives. The friendly Indians sent word to Sibley to come for the captives but it took two more days before he approached their camp. Finally, on September 26, Sibley made his “triumphant” entry and “rescued” the captives. In truth, Sibley never encountered the warriors, they had found him and there had been no surrender, for the ones who needed to surrender were far out on the plains or into Canada before Sibley even arrived.

As is the situation, whenever Indian history is written, Indians are always the bad guys and the Americans the heroes.  Ramsey was charged for instigating a bogus 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, but was cleared because there was no way the United States would give back the lands it had taken, regardless of how they had been taken.  Instead, like the twenty Medals of Honor given the soldiers for the Wounded Knee massacre of hundreds of innocent women and children, Ramsey secured his political career and Sibley became a hero.  Sibley and Ramsey have streets, towns, counties and parks named after them, while the remains of Little Crow’s decapitated body was thrown into an offal (refuse) pit and his scalp retained for over a hundred years in the Minnesota Historical Society.  Some 109 years later, his remains were secured by relatives and ceremoniously buried at Flandreau, South Dakota.  And while Sibley and Ramsey live on in history books, Little Crow, who died for what he believed in, lives on in the hearts of the people…like I…of his Red Nation.


References

Through Dakota Eyes - Anderson, Gary C. and Woolworth, Alan R. 1988
The Dakota War of 1862 - Carley, Kenneth 1961
Little Crow Spokesman for the Sioux - Anderson, Gary C. 1986
Henry Hastings Sibley, Divided Heart - Gillman, Rhoda R. 2004
The Peace Seekers - Lawrence, Elden 2005


Minnesota’s State War and the Battle of Wood Lake, September 23, 1862

by Alan R. Woolworth
Independent Historian

The Dakota War of 1862 erupted with attacks at the Lower Sioux Agency on the morning of August 18, 1862. About twenty-five white men were killed. Next, Captain John Marsh’s small unit of forty-six soldiers from Fort Ridgely were ambushed at the nearby Redwood Ferry and about one-half of them slain. Hundreds of refugees fled to the fort for protection. Two attacks were made on New Ulm on the Minnesota River below Fort Ridgely. Fort Ridgely, the key to the Minnesota River Valley, was also attacked twice. Fort Ridgely and New Ulm held out, but elsewhere the Dakota Indians were victorious. The entire river valley was aflame, and twenty-three southwestern Minnesota counties were deserted.

On August 19th, Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed Henry H. Sibley to lead an expeditionary force to relieve Fort Ridgely with its 300 refugees. Next, he had to organize ill-equipped volunteer Minnesota militia into an army; find Little Crow’s Dakota warriors and destroy or drive them out of Minnesota. Also, he must free more than 100 captive white women and children, and about 160 mixed blood Dakotas.

The fort was relieved on August 28th by Volunteer cavalry. Colonel Sibley’s main force of the Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment reached the fort the next day. Soon, most of the mounted men returned to their homes. Now, Colonel Sibley lacked mounted scouts to find the Dakota Indians and cavalry to scout and guard a column of marching infantry with its long caravan of artillery and supply wagons. He also needed modern rifled muskets, ammunition, uniforms, military equipment and food.

On August 31st, Colonel Sibley sent out a burial party of about 250 men with infantry, horsemen and wagons with teamsters and many volunteers. They buried dead at the Lower Sioux Agency, Redwood Ferry and the vicinity. Then, they camped at Birch Coulee near wood and water, but poorly located for defense. On the morning of September 2nd, the camp was surprised by Dakota warriors. Twenty-three men were killed or died of wounds, many others were wounded, and ninety valuable horses killed.

This surprising Dakota Indian victory convinced Sibley that he needed cavalry to scout and guard his army and that he must meld it into a better-trained military force before he could fight Dakota Indian warriors.  By mid September, his army was ready to take the field against the hostile Dakota Indians.  He had the Sixth Minnesota Regiment; five companies of the Seventh Minnesota Regiment; a company of the Ninth Minnesota Regiment, nearly forty Renville Rangers, mounted civilian guards, sixteen civilian artillery men, and two hundred seventy men of the Third Minnesota Regiment for a total of 1,169 men.  There were also many friendly and mixed blood Dakota Indian scouts.

Colonel Sibley planned to meet Little Crow’s Dakota Indian warriors above the Yellow Medicine River on open plains where massed rifled musket fire out ranged the Dakota’s double barreled shot guns, and artillery fire with exploding shells would break up Dakota charges or concentrations. Thus, his more organized and equipped forces would be used to an advantage on the grassy prairies.

Late on September 22nd Sibley’s army camped to the east of a small lake drained by a creek that ran northeast to the Minnesota River.  The Third Minnesota camped along the crest south of the creek, and the sixth Minnesota was next to the small lake.  The Seventh Minnesota was at the right rear behind the creek’s ravine.  All units and the wagon train and artillery were partially enclosed by trenches.  The next day, Sibley intended to cross the wooded Yellow Medicine River valley and go to the ruined Upper Sioux Agency using the Government Road.

Little Crow planned to place his nearly seven hundred fifty warriors in ambushes along the road where Sibley’s troops would be strung out in a long, poorly defended column.  Perhaps, he might be able to trap them at the Yellow Medicine River gorge.  Little Crow divided his warriors into three groups.  One was across the road in the timber along the deep Yellow Medicine River gorge; another unit was concealed in a line along the east-side of the road; the third was hidden in the ravine opposite Sibley’s right flank.

On the morning of the 23rd,  members of the Third Minnesota decided, without orders, to go to the Upper Sioux Agency to look for potatoes.  They crossed the bridge over the creek, ascended the ravine and were about 100 yards into the high prairie.  En route, they nearly drove over concealed Dakota Indians who then fired at them.  Thus, the battle began prematurely to the surprise of Little Crow.

More of the Third Regiment ran to the aid of their comrades.  Advancing, they were about a half mile from the camp.  The Dakotas formed a fan shaped line to threaten the flank of the Third Regiment who were aided by the Renville Rangers   Sibley saw the Indians moving toward the deep ravine on the right, and ordered Lt. Colonel William R. Marshall with six companies and an artillery piece, to repulse them.  Charging down the ravine, they met and drove away the Dakota warriors hidden there.  On the extreme left, with artillery shelling the warriors, Major Robert N. McLaren lead his men around the lake and defeated a Dakota flanking attack.

The Battle of Wood Lake ended after about two hours as Dakota warriors withdrew in disorder.  Sibley’s losses were seven men dead, and thirty-four seriously wounded.  The exact Dakota losses are unknown, but their effective resistance was ended. 

While Little Crow and his men were absent, the Dakota peace faction had taken most of the prisoners to their fortified camp  A number of Dakota leaders such as Wabasha, Taopi, Gabriel Renville, Red Irons, and Antoine Joseph Campbell, kept the captives against Little Crow’s will and later released them to Sibley.  Broken hearted, Little Crow, with many Mdewakanton Dakota warriors and their families rode off into the prairies of the northern Dakota Territory.

With these major goals met,  Sibley had succeeded in his mission.  Hereafter, the large scale Dakota participation in the war ended, and the frontier was harassed only by many small-scale raids into 1865

In retrospect, it is easy to see that Colonel Henry H. Sibley did not have a plan for the Battle of Wood Lake.  Instead, it was a spontaneous event caused by the accidental discovery of Dakota warriors hiding in tall grass along the government road to the Upper Sioux Agency.  There, they planned to make a surprise attack on the long military column of men and wagons as they moved slowly toward the Yellow Medicine River bridge.  This conflict would have been bloody, but we will never know for sure who would have won it.