With his people starving and treaty payments too late to help, Little Crow is pushed toward war. A bloody confrontation lights the fuse.
The hooves of Little Crow's horse crashed through the prairie.
His long hair, now flecked with gray, moved in unison with the horse's mane, flying and falling, flying and falling as they galloped west toward the Yellow Medicine River. He urged it up bluffs and through ravines.
It was Aug. 4, 1862. Little Crow would ride for about six hours from his house near the Lower Sioux Agency at one end of the reservation to the Upper Sioux Agency more than 30 miles northwest. The rocky sliver of land bordering the Minnesota River was now the sole refuge of the Dakota people in Minnesota.
A confrontation was underway at the Upper Agency, and Little Crow raced to get there.
Hundreds of starving Dakota warriors had broken past 100 U.S. soldiers ringing the agency's food warehouse, breaking down the door with an ax and hauling out sacks of flour. Some of the soldiers were hurt in the melee before Lt. Timothy Sheehan halted the pillaging by threatening to blow up the warehouse with a cannon. Then he agreed to distribute some of the food.
As Little Crow, now almost 50, rode toward the chaos, his hold on his position as spokesman for the Dakota was slipping. Conditions for his people, sequestered on this reservation by the treaties he had signed, were deteriorating, and many blamed him for their plight.
Man and nature had heaped indignities on the Dakota that year. Deer and other game were vanishing as settlers cleared the land. Winter had been harsher than usual, with temperatures sinking to 40 below in January. Four feet of snow piled up in Mankato by March. Discontent among the Dakota grew deeper than the drifts.
A plague of cutworms in the fall of 1861 had ravaged reservation crops that could have been stored. Late treaty payments made buying food impossible. Dakota women and children moaned with hunger, their muscles wasting, arms thin as sticks, abdomens distending with the classic symptom of extreme malnutrition. They began to die of starvation.
Dakota families ate whatever they could scavenge: unripe potatoes, roots, berries. When government officials agreed to pass out some soda crackers, one soldier described the scene in his diary as men scrambling "like wild cats" over each other.
"These poor creatures subsisted on a tall grass which they find in the marshes, chewing the roots and eating the wild turnip," wrote Sarah Wakefield, wife of the Upper Sioux Agency's doctor. "Many died from starvation or disease caused by eating improper food. It made my heart ache. I remember distinctly of the agent giving them dry corn, and these poor creatures were so near starvation that they ate it raw like cattle."
While Dakota parents watched their children starve to death, pork and grain filled the Lower Sioux Agency's new stone warehouse, a large square building of flat, irregularly shaped stones harvested from the river bottoms.
The imposing building still stands near modern-day Morton. A stone over the top window is carved with the year 1861 and the initials T.J.G.
Thomas J. Galbraith was President Abraham Lincoln's new Indian agent, a heavy drinker known for arrogance and a lack of experience with the Dakota. The political appointee brought a by-the-book bureaucratic approach to the task. He believed "that Christianity and its daughter, civilization, were at war" with the Dakota's ways. He was confounded "with what tenacity these savages cling to their habits and customs."
Galbraith barricaded himself in his office during the warehouse break-in at the Upper Sioux Agency, "drunk and rattled," according to Sheehan.
Little Crow arrived at the Upper Agency the next day and confronted Galbraith. He lifted his shirt to expose his emaciated torso. "See my ribs," he said to Galbraith. "We are starving."
'The very air was charged'
The frustration erupting on the reservation in early August had been building all year.
Back in January, Presbyterian missionaries Stephen Riggs and Thomas Williamson had sent an urgent letter to Congress, detailing how government agents and traders had cheated the Dakota and urging "some new legislation should be had speedily in order to guard as far as possible against a collision with the Indians on our frontiers."
They weren't the only ones who sensed the growing potential for catastrophe.
On July 1, 1862, Minnesota's first Episcopal bishop, Henry Whipple, escorted some family members and four wealthy women from Philadelphia through the hot weather and buzzing mosquitoes of southern Minnesota.
They were heading from his new church in Faribault to the Lower Sioux Agency, a ring of stables, stores and sleeping quarters near where the Redwood River feeds into the Minnesota. The Philadelphians were philanthropists and had been sending cash to support the Indian missions.
Whipple's guests oohed and aahed during Dakota dances performed for them at the reservation.
But Whipple felt a palpable tension in the air. During three years in Minnesota, he had heard plenty of complaints about broken treaty promises and traders swindling money.
But the atmosphere on the reservation that day was different. Edgier.
"They were in a querulous mood," Whipple later wrote. "It seemed as if the very air was charged with materials for the cyclone of death."
Missionaries had more interaction with the Dakota than most whites. They set up missions with the intent of converting the Dakota to Christianity and teaching them skills they would need to live like white people. The settlers and U.S. Army officials also arrived with strong notions that the Dakota should become farmers, go to church, cut their hair and dress like the settlers.
"The whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like the white men," recalled Chief Big Eagle, a Little Crow contemporary, in the 1890s. "It seemed too sudden to make such a change. If the Indians had tried to make the whites live like them, the whites would have resisted, and it was the same way with the Indians."
Little Crow tried to co-exist in both worlds. He held onto his traditional spiritual beliefs, but began visiting an Episcopal chapel. He sometimes slept in the frame house the government built for him, sometimes in his old tepee.
As he straddled the changing landscape, he became the target of grumbling among the people in his band and others. The Dakota were not then, and are not now, a monolithic group. They were a diverse amalgam of villages, families, bands and lodges, with an array of chiefs and spokespeople. The seven distinct Dakota bands sprawled from the Black Hills to the Mississippi River valley.
Many blamed Little Crow for selling them out in the 1858 treaty that relinquished even more of their land. The gold payments promised in the treaties rarely materialized. When money did flow, the traders hovered over the pay tables and grabbed most of it, claiming debts were owed. Those traders, including Henry Sibley, James Lynd and Andrew Myrick, stoked the acrimony by fathering children with Dakota women.
"The white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them," Big Eagle said. "Surely there was no excuse for that."
In the summer of 1862, $71,000 in gold annuity money owed didn't arrive when it was due in June. Or July. The buffalo hunts were delayed as thousands of Dakota awaited their annual payments. They waited and they stewed.
Rumors swirled that the gold might be replaced with greenback paper money -- if it ever arrived at all -- because the Civil War was tapping out the federal treasury. At the trading posts, newspapers arrived with stories about Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson forcing Union soldiers to retreat across the Potomac River.
If the South won, what would become of the gold annuities and the food?
Even as they wrote their letter of warning to Congress about the explosive situation developing among the Dakota, missionaries Riggs and Williamson knew the Civil War was dominating affairs in Washington. They signaled that they understood how relatively inconsequential the growing frustration of the Indians in Minnesota must seem. "When our nation is engaged in a terrible struggle to put down a most wicked rebellion we cannot hope for all the legislation that is desirable in reference to the Indians," they wrote.
They were right. Their letter was ignored.
On Aug. 14, nearly 50 New Ulm residents sent a frantic petition to Gov. Alexander Ramsey warning that their families were "in imminent danger" of a potential massacre because the Dakota were "exceedingly exasperated" by the late annuity payments "and threaten to overwhelm these frontier settlements with Indian Warfare."
An incendiary insult
After the Dakota stormed the Upper Sioux Agency warehouse for food, Little Crow argued that the other warehouse at the Lower Sioux Agency should also be opened.
But citing protocol, Galbraith refused to do that until the gold money arrived. He didn't want to have to organize the pay-table lineup and check the rolls twice.
Little Crow protested: "We have waited a long time. The money is ours but we cannot get it. We have no food but here these stores are filled with food."
He asked Galbraith to arrange for credit with the traders until the annuity payments arrived "or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry, they help themselves."
Listening to Little Crow speak through a translator, Galbraith asked the shopkeepers what he should do. They shrugged and turned to store owner Andrew Myrick. Disgusted by the whole mess, Myrick walked away until Galbraith demanded a response.
"So far as I'm concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung," Myrick said.
As those bitter words were translated, all grew silent. Then, amid what witnesses described as whoops and wild gestures, the Dakota disappeared.
Accounts of what happened next vary, but historians agree that Dakota leaders soon met in a heated council and ousted Little Crow as chief speaker for the Mdewakanton tribe. In a three-way race, Little Crow and Big Eagle were beaten out as spokesman by a minor chief named Traveling Hail, who had been forced by treaties to move his villages from Lake Calhoun and Bloomington.
"Little Crow felt sore over his defeat," Big Eagle later recalled.
The fuse is lit
On Sunday morning, Aug. 17, 1862, Little Crow attended church. A new stone Episcopal chapel was under construction at the Lower Sioux Agency. He lingered in the sunshine to shake hands with many of the congregants.
That same morning, four young Dakota men were returning from a failed hunting trip in the Big Woods, frustrated that they would arrive home to their hungry families with nothing to show for their efforts, still stung by the remark that they should "eat grass."
On the road back, at Acton Township, they came upon a hen's nest with eggs near the fence of a trading post and inn.
One of the hunters warned the others to leave the eggs, because they belonged to the white man. The others heckled him, calling him a coward. They headed over to the home of innkeeper Robinson Jones on a dare about how to dispel the "coward" crack, they later explained.
Jones and the Dakota traded words and the hunters followed him to his neighbor Howard Baker's cottage nearby. A shooting contest ensued, with everyone firing at a target affixed to a white oak tree.
Unlike the hunters, Jones and Baker failed to reload their guns.
More than a dozen versions of the Acton showdown have twisted through 150 years of history, including accounts from surviving settlers and the Dakota version Big Eagle heard from the hunters. This much is clear: Three white men, one of their wives and a daughter were shot and killed.
Their bodies rest nearby in a common grave at the Ness Lutheran Church. The tombstone simply reads "FIRST BLOOD."
A small child and two women survived to spread the alarm across the prairies and into the Big Woods.
The hunters stole some horses and rushed 40 miles to their village between the upper and lower agencies to recount what they had done.
A heated debate erupted about how to respond, stretching through the night. The white men would likely hang the culprits. Before they did, maybe the time was ripe to strike first, exacting revenge for insults and broken promises, while most of the able white men were far off waging war against the Graycoats.
As dawn eased the darkness, they knew they needed a leader whose oratory skills and reputation could rally other Dakota bands behind a full-scale war. They rode and marched to Little Crow's house.
Awakened by the commotion, still smarting from being voted out, Little Crow first asked: "Why do you come to me for advice? Let Traveling Hail tell you what to do."
But he listened as they repeated all the reasons justifying war: the broken promises, the late treaty payments, the abuse of their women by the traders, the cheating and corruption, and their starving families.
Little Crow remained unconvinced that war was the Dakota's best option. He had been to Washington twice and seen the white man "like locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm."
"Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count," he told the crowd.
One of the young warriors called him a coward. Little Crow reminded them how he had covered their backs "as a she-bear covers her cubs" in battles with the Ojibwe.
"Taoyateduta is not a coward and he is not a fool," Little Crow said of himself, in a speech his teenage son, Wowinape, would later recall.
He told them they were like rabid dogs "when they run mad and snap at their own shadows."
Yes, he agreed, most of the white soldiers were two moons away, fighting in the South.
"But if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and children just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day."
Finally, Little Crow predicted they would "die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them."
But his chance to lead, so recently stripped from him, had suddenly reappeared. The taunt of being a "coward" pushed Little Crow toward his destiny.
"Taoyateduta is not a coward," he concluded. "He will die with you."
A roar went up from the crowd and the women set about making bullets.
A day too late
Galbraith, unnerved by the confrontations over the food in the warehouses, knew the situation in the area where he was supposed to be in charge was extremely volatile.
He sent his wife and Sarah Wakefield, the doctor's wife, down river from the Upper Sioux Agency to the Lower Sioux Agency, closer to Fort Ridgely.
Then he decided it was a good time for him to leave as well. So he headed toward Fort Snelling, accompanying some Civil War recruits.
No one knew that just to the east near St. Peter, a stagecoach loaded with a strongbox containing $71,000 in gold government annuity payments was jostling along the road.
It would arrive a day too late to forestall what was coming.
Coming Wednesday: Fury burns across the prairie. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767