A man lost in history

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2012 - 8:40 PM

The darkest chapter in Minnesota's past, through the rise and fall of one Dakota leader.

As darkness cooled the thick August air, the creek-side village pulsed with excitement.

Drums thundered like heartbeats as men, women and children whirled around their fires and sang, feasting and shouting about the extraordinary events of the day.

It had been a long time since the Dakota people danced with such jubilation.

Chief Little Crow took advantage of the distraction and stole back through the 300 tepees and bark houses, to the new frame house the government had built for him. He secreted a family of prisoners up the stairs to the loft, hiding his hostages beneath buffalo robes and red blankets.

It was a risky move that might save their lives, but if discovered could get them all killed. Eager to talk, he kept his voice to a whisper.

The 1862 war between Little Crow's people and the white settlers and soldiers streaming onto their land was just two days old. Propelled by years of broken promises, insults and watching their children starve to death on the reservation, Dakota fighters had gone to war with historic vengeance.

Along the ravines and bluffs of the Minnesota River valley, homesteads smoldered in ruins. Mutilated bodies of more than 200 settlers bloodied the prairie. Thousands were fleeing in terror for the relative safety of New Ulm, Mankato, St. Peter -- anywhere they could reach.

Reluctantly leading the Dakota into battle was Little Crow. On Monday, Aug. 18, 1862, his fighters had swept down on the settlers with speed and surprise, killing nearly everyone in their path -- women, children and old people, as well as the swindling traders and soldiers Little Crow despised.

Before the six-week war and its aftermath played out, there would be brutality on both sides. The fate of the fledgling state of Minnesota and the Dakota people would be sealed, and the ill will ignited would reverberate for 150 years, to this day.

Some of the state's most prominent families would trace their fortunes to the war. Heroes and villains -- depending on which side was talking -- would be etched into Minnesota's history.

Many historians look back to that Monday morning as the day it all began. For the next 30 years, similar scenes would repeat, tribe by tribe, from Minnesota to Texas and points west, as native people struggled against a genocidal east-west tide of white settlement and federal policy. The era of the great Indian wars in the West would close three decades later at Wounded Knee.

But no other conflict between Indians and settlers would come close to the number of civilians killed in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. Estimates put the eventual toll of soldiers and settlers at 600, many buried where they fell in unmarked graves. If the same percentage of Minnesota's population were killed today, 15,000 people would be dead. The Dakota lost roughly 100 warriors on the battlefields. But a far greater toll was coming for them in the wake of the war.

Within a decade, a more benign portrayal of Minnesota's beginnings would take root in the life of a pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her charming accounts of her childhood would be read around the world and spawn the television series "Little House on the Prairie," overshadowing the grim legend of Little Crow and his followers. White leaders of the era, men such as Gov. Alexander Ramsey and Col. Henry Sibley, would be memorialized in grand statues, their names emblazoned on schools and counties across the state.

But on that summer night in 1862, it was Little Crow, whispering to his captives, who held the upper hand. Respected and reviled, bold and pragmatic, Little Crow's life spanned the last days of traditional Dakota life in Minnesota before a flood of settlers remade the state.

His power would rise and fall as he first tried to lead his people to adapt, and failing that, to then rebel. The many Dakota who chose not to fight would blame him for what happened to them all. White settlers would come to view him as nothing short of a terrorist.

A quest for allies

Dakota hostage Susan Brown, her mixed-blood children and her white son-in-law cowered in the second-floor loft of Little Crow's house as the chief laid out his case for why he finally went to war.

The first few days of fighting, he told her, had gone far more easily than he imagined was possible just a few days back, when he tried to prevent it from happening at all.

This was more than an attempt to merely reassure his captives. Susan, who at 43 years was a bit younger than Little Crow, came from the Sisseton band and had married the area's longtime government Indian agent, Joseph Brown. Little Crow thought she might be key to his eventual success.

She had skirted death on the road to Fort Ridgely when a Dakota fighter recalled how she had saved him from freezing to death the winter before. He put down his tomahawk and shotgun, and agreed to take her party to Little Crow to add to a growing horde of hostages.

Ever the political pragmatist, Little Crow knew he would need the leaders of her clan, men named Standing Buffalo, Sweet Corn, Scarlet Plume and Red Iron, to join this battle if the Dakota people were to have any chance of prevailing.

The Dakota, which translates into "the Allies," were a sprawling nation dubbed the Sioux by French-Canadian fur traders in the 1640s. The term was troublesome because it was similar to words several tribes used for "snake" or "enemy." It offends many Dakota today, although some still use it.

What was known in Little Crow's days as the Great Sioux Nation included seven distinct tribes with a shared culture ranging from the Lakota in the Black Hills of what would become South Dakota to Little Crow's Mdewakanton along the Mississippi River.

Not all Dakota went to war against the encroaching whites. Only a few hundred warriors in the two eastern-most bands, the Mdewakanton and the Wahpekute, took part. Other Dakota warned their white neighbors of the danger and helped them escape. Always bubbling beneath the surface of the war was potential for a civil war between the militant and peaceful Dakota.

Susan Brown was from the Sisseton band that lived along the Minnesota-Dakota Territory border. They and the Wahpeton stayed neutral, though some of their young warriors joined the fighting on their own. Little Crow needed her band to enter the war.

He tried to persuade her of the rightness of his cause. In a hushed voice, he recounted years of reneged treaties, insults, corruption and mistreatment from traders, officials and white immigrants invading the land the Dakota had called home for generations.

Little Crow described to Brown all that had transpired that day. Her 17-year-old son, Sam, jotted down their conversations in his diary -- a captive's narrative providing intimate insights 150 years later into Little Crow's thoughts.

Two days in, only half a dozen Dakota were dead. Little Crow was pleased that 17 of the first 20 white victims were the corrupt traders he blamed for causing this clash. He also believed there was honor in his soldiers fighting U.S. soldiers, such as the two dozen ambushed and killed at the ferry crossing the first morning of war. Their captain, who with Civil War credentials was one of the few experienced soldiers in the area, drowned.

But Little Crow was enraged that his young warriors also had scattered and targeted immigrant families in the first hours of the war. In little Milford Township near New Ulm, 52 men, women and children were killed in less than five hours. Many victims were dismembered, a practice rooted in a Dakota belief that enemies could not pursue you in the afterlife without limbs or heads.

Dakota fighters struck far and wide that first day, from Renville to Nicollet counties. Among the first killed was 60-year-old Philander Prescott, who had lived among the Dakota for four decades. He pleaded for his life along the south bank of the Minnesota River, but was shot and beheaded, his skull impaled on a post as a warning the petrified settlers quickly heeded.

A vision to prevail

Little Crow began to describe to Brown his vision for how the war could unfold in the coming weeks.

Soon the Winnebago would surge up the Minnesota River from Mankato to St. Paul. Despite their historic differences, the Ojibwe up north would join in from the Crow Wing River. His fighters and other bands would swoop in between the rivers. All would then meet to attack the big stone Fort Snelling near St. Paul.

The whites who had invaded the land with their lies, insults and cruelty would be driven out. Time would return to before he was coerced into signing away vast Dakota lands to buy his people safe harbor on reservations in treaties quickly broken.

Little Crow's whispering was abruptly interrupted about midnight by an angry Dakota man at his door, demanding to know if the rumors were true. Was Little Crow hiding a white man and others in his house? He chased the man away, but Susan, Sam and son-in-law Charles Blair heard them through the stove-pipe hole upstairs.

Little Crow crept back up the stairs with some vermilion, smearing the red paint as camouflage on Blair's white face. He gave him red leggings, a blanket and a shawl to complete his Indian disguise.

He summoned a head warrior to smuggle Blair out of the village to escape along the dark banks of the Minnesota River. But first, Little Crow pulled off his own moccasins and put them on the jittery man's feet.

Part 2: Born to lead

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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