Little Crow: Terror spreads across the prairie

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2012 - 8:38 PM

Little Crow's men hand white leaders one humiliation after another, killing hundreds of settlers and soldiers. But his control of the war begins to slip.

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Young Lt. Thomas Gere, 19, peered through a telescope perched atop Fort Ridgely's tallest building and spied hundreds of Dakota warriors approaching.

Suddenly, they stopped. An intense meeting began.

It was Tuesday morning, Aug. 19, 1862. A day before, the Dakota had gone to war, devastating homesteads across the Minnesota River valley.

At the Lower Sioux Agency nearby, about 20 traders and settlers had been killed. Among them was trader Andrew Myrick, who had insulted the starving Dakota by suggesting they eat grass. His body was found with his mouth stuffed full of grass. At the Redwood Ferry, 24 soldiers sent out from Fort Ridgely died in an ambush.

Now Chief Little Crow was calling a council of chiefs, lobbying hard to attack Fort Ridgely and take its cannons, horses and ammunition.

Success in war requires surprise, skill, luck and timing. In the first days of war, Little Crow and his fighters erased any doubts about their skill. Surprise also was their ally.

But during the next six weeks, it was luck and timing that would prove pivotal for the Dakota and settlers in the brutal war 150 years ago that defined Minnesota. In six key battles, both sides would exact a heavy price in lives.

To Little Crow, the time seemed right that Tuesday morning to attack the fort.

With no walls, Ridgely wasn't much of a fort. Its buildings were scattered on the prairie 20 miles northwest of New Ulm, in easy range of hills and gullies. Roofs of dry straw or shingles were easy targets for flaming arrows.

The fort was seriously undermanned, defended by only about 25 soldiers, untested teenagers and old men not yet mustered into the Civil War. More than 200 settlers had fled their farms and were crowded in the most formidable building, a stone barracks.

"We thought the fort was the door to the valley as far as St. Paul," Chief Big Eagle later recalled. "If we got through the door, nothing could stop us this side of the Mississippi."

Gere scanned the horizon. No sign of reinforcements.

The council debate raged for hours. While white leaders viewed Little Crow as commander of the Dakota, the role of order-giving general did not really exist in their culture. The council would decide the next move by consensus.

The influence of the chiefs among their people had eroded after they signed the treaties. In return for being crowded into the reservation along the Minnesota River, the Dakota had received little of what the chiefs thought they had negotiated in payment. What did get through was often late or grabbed by the traders to pay the debts they claimed.

Frustrated young Dakota men had broken away from the chiefs' villages, forming soldier lodges on the reservation. They ignored Little Crow's admonitions to limit attacks to soldiers and traders. Impatience from watching their own families suffer had hardened them against the settler families, who they saw as part of a giant wave of white people bent on eradicating the Dakota.

Eager for results, these young fighters argued to first swing southeast to New Ulm, where German settlers had no cannons, no soldiers and plenty to plunder for food to feed their families. They finally prevailed and the council broke up.

Through the telescope, Gere watched the Dakota turn and leave.

First battle of New Ulm

New Ulm, the closest city to the Dakota reservation, was the hub of Brown County.

Built on a double-terraced bluff along the Minnesota River, it was the largest city that far west in southern Minnesota and growing by the day.

"This morning seven emigrant wagons bound for Brown County passed through," a Mankato newspaper reported in June. Census figures for 1860 showed 2,258 newcomers, mostly Germans, living in the county, with 900 in New Ulm. By late July 1862, a newspaper account put the population at 1,200. Along with wooden houses, there were half a dozen brick buildings.

When word arrived that the Dakota had gone to war, residents formed a militia, barricading six downtown blocks with wagons and barrels, taking up shotguns and rifles. The Dacotah House hotel was so crowded with women and children that skirt hoops were removed and stashed out back.

Just after 3 p.m. that Tuesday, about 100 Dakota fighters swept in from the south and northwest. They jumped off their horses and began shooting from the crest of a hill.

New Ulm's self-proclaimed platzkommandant, Jacob Nix, shouted: "Fertig zum gefecht." Prepare to fight. Emilie Pauli, 13, ignored the warnings and tried to cross Minnesota Street beyond the barricade with an infant in her arms, going from the hotel to the Erd Building. She was shot and killed.

After being outvoted on his plan to attack the fort first, Little Crow had gone home. The skirmishes at New Ulm by a smaller, leaderless group only lasted about 90 minutes, failing to penetrate the barricades before a thunderstorm cracked open, ending the fight. Records show two Indians and six whites were killed and Nix's ring finger was shot off.

But Nix was sure that wasn't the end of it, that the Dakota would be back.

"Auf euer posten!" he hollered. To your posts. New Ulm's defenders huddled behind wagons, eyes on the river ravines. For four days they kept watch, bracing for another attack.

First attack on Fort Ridgely

Assuming the Dakota would return, Fort Ridgely's defenders had sent out messengers to plead for help.

Indian agent Thomas Galbraith turned around the 50 Civil War recruits he was escorting to Fort Snelling and hustled to Fort Ridgely. Lt. Timothy Sheehan was headed north to Fort Ripley with 55 men, but sped back.

Little Crow had lost the advantage of surprise. When he and his forces returned to the fort a day after diverting to New Ulm, they still vastly outnumbered the fort's defenders. But instead of just a few green soldiers, they now faced about 180 men.

The Dakota circled the fort and captured outbuildings where root vegetables, ice and grain were stored.

Soldiers responded with booming cannons when Chief Mankato's men swarmed up a ravine from the southwest. "My scalp tightened and the palms of my hands were wet with sweat," recalled Joe Coursolle, a teamster and fur trader who was inside Ridgely.

Little Crow sent warriors on an assault from the northeast, watching from a nearby hill.

"We were teasing the whites, shooting them through the windows of the fort and hearing them scream and cry like babies," Little Crow later recounted. "I lay with my head on a huge rock for a pillow, and hearing the boom of a big gun I woke suddenly and peered over the rock to see what the matter was and saw a cannon ball coming. I quickly dodged and struck my head on the rock."

The shell exploded right in front of him. Little Crow was led away to his house, his head aching. The next day, rain poured, delaying another attack and soaking the roofs, making them less vulnerable to flaming arrows.

Sheehan took advantage of the break in fighting to send Gov. Alexander Ramsey a report: "We can hold this place but little longer, unless reinforced. We are being attacked almost every hour, and unless assistance is rendered we cannot hold out much longer. Our little band is becoming exhausted and decimated."

Second assault on Fort Ridgely

A stylish buggy bumped along the prairie on Friday morning, Aug. 22, replete with a driver.

Chief Little Crow was the passenger, heading elegantly into battle via the spoils of war.

With the revolt in its fifth day, the Dakota were making another approach on Fort Ridgely. Arrayed around Little Crow was a swelling phalanx of nearly 800 Dakota fighters, their bodies painted with twisting lines of yellow, white and red. In the tall prairie grass, they could quietly drop and disappear instantly.

Bringing up the rear, women and children jostled along in wagons they hoped to load with food and goods after the battle. A celebratory mood carried them on their quest to recapture their land.

As the buggy crested the rise and came into view of the fort, Little Crow's splashy arrival would have made him appear deceptively powerful.

To settlers and the U.S. Army, he was emerging as a fearsome leader. Only a handful of Dakota fighters had been killed. But the death toll of settlers and U.S. soldiers climbed to 400 and would continue growing, dwarfing the toll at Gen. George Custer's last stand 14 years later. Mutilated bodies stabbed with hay scythes festered in the prairie sun for 140 miles, from Lake Shetek to Milford Township. Farmhouses were ablaze, smoke plumes climbing in the humid sky.

On one farm near New Ulm, a German family named Henle had left their children in the house and were out cutting hay at noon. Warriors descended with tomahawks and hatchets, killing two children, ages 4 and 5. They shot a grandfather in the field and cut off a brother-in-law's arm and ear. The mother hid in the woods, later finding two surviving babies with gashes to their heads and arms. She escaped with them by wagon to St. Paul.

More than 200 women and children had been taken captive. Rumors spread of captives being raped, fueling growing anger among the settlers, but only two cases ever led to convictions.

As horrific as the attacks were, settlers also later recounted friendly Dakota warning them of the coming violence and urging them to flee. A 43-year-old Wahpeton Dakota chief named Anpetutokeca, or John Other Day, helped protect 62 government workers and their families, including Galbraith's wife and children, leading them 55 miles to safety in Hutchinson.

After two days of battling at Fort Ridgely, the Dakota had failed to penetrate the barracks. "The defenders of the fort were brave and kept the door shut," Big Eagle said. The Dakota gave up on taking the fort and turned again toward New Ulm.

Despite the difficulty of taking New Ulm and Fort Ridgely, the Dakota seemed to be succeeding in their overarching goal to drive the whites out of southern Minnesota. Thousands of settlers had abandoned their homesteads.

Yet Little Crow's triumphant approach in the buggy for the second strike on Fort Ridgely belied his growing unease that the war was slipping from his control. Ammunition was running low, he told hostage Susan Brown, and the number of whites resisting was growing "numerous like the grass on the prairies."

Second strike on New Ulm

On Saturday morning, Little Crow stopped to set a series of fires northeast of New Ulm. The pause was not to rest or cook food. It was strategy.

Charles Flandrau had heard about the first attack on New Ulm and rushed there with a group of men from nearby St. Peter. He was asked to lead the town's defense. Soon Flandrau saw columns of smoke rising in the distance. He dispatched 75 men to investigate.

The diversion worked. Little Crow's forces cut off the men as they tried to return to New Ulm. That left only about 250 guns in the city as the second assault began.

On horseback, Little Crow directed his foot soldiers to fan out on the hillsides above New Ulm. They outnumbered the white fighters two to one.

"There is a snakelike stealth in all their movements that excites distrust and uncertainty which unsteadies the nerves," Flandrau said later. "Their advance upon the sloping prairie in the bright sunlight was a fine spectacle and, to such inexperienced soldiers as we all were, intensely exciting ... they came upon us like the wind."

To deny the Dakota cover, the German settlers set much of their town ablaze. More than 190 buildings -- a third of New Ulm -- would burn that day.

Little Crow ran through thick smoke directing the operations. On the body of a dead white man, he left his totem -- a piece of crow's skin signifying he was still in control.

Before it was over, 32 New Ulm defenders died and 60 were injured. Tending the wounded was 43-year-old Dr. William Mayo, who commandeered the Dacotah House hotel for a field hospital. He and his sons would later establish the renowned Mayo Clinic.

They saved their town. But everyone left alive soon fled. Over the six weeks of war, towns from Mankato to St. Paul absorbed more than 20,000 settlers from 20 southern counties.

With the settlers gone, Little Crow moved his camp up the Minnesota River. He again confided to captive Susan Brown and her son, Sam, that he sensed the end was coming.

"Little Crow is fast losing his hold upon the young men and this fact worries him greatly and the old warrior is getting heartily discouraged," Sam wrote in his journal. "He told mother today that he intended to spend the coming winter in the Green Lake region of the Big Woods and kill as many whites as he could but if he should get killed himself it would be all right. He did not want to get caught and hung."

The battle of Birch Coulee

By the end of August, Little Crow's forces split. Chiefs Mankato and Big Eagle took their fighters to confirm New Ulm had been abandoned.

Little Crow and 110 Dakota headed to the Big Woods, the sprawling forest between the prairie and the Twin Cities and Fort Snelling. He planned to assault Henderson and Forest City, the largest towns still occupied that far west.

By chance, the first group surprised 150 U.S. soldiers and settlers trying to bury their dead at a ravine known as Birch Coulee on Sept. 2, 1862.

The Dakota were about to hand Col. Henry Sibley, Gov. Ramsey and the U.S. Army one more major humiliation.

Sibley had been roundly criticized for his slow pace responding. He was still inching toward the area with a massive contingent of soldiers, worried that acting too quickly might get the hostages killed.

He wrote to Ramsey about just what was at stake. "Unless we can now ... crush the rising, the state is ruined, and some of its fairest portions will revert of years into the possession of these miserable wretches, who, among all devils in human shape, are among the most cruel and ferocious. ... My heart is steeled against them, and if I have the means, and can catch them, I will sweep them with the broom of death."

Instead, the Dakota prevailed again. The burial party's white tents stood out like sentinels on the flat prairie in the moonlight. Just before dawn, the Dakota attacked. In the 36-hour siege, 60 soldiers and settlers were slain. Eighty horses were killed, and the survivors hid behind the carcasses, defending themselves until Sibley's forces finally arrived. Two Dakota were listed as killed.

After Birch Coulee, Sibley tried communicating with Little Crow to see if the attacks could be stopped. He wrote notes, tucking them in tree notches where Little Crow or his scouts would find them.

Little Crow sent a response five days later, explaining his justification for war.

"Dear Sir, for what reason we have commenced this war I will tell you. We made a treaty with the government ... for what little we can't get until our children were dying." He complained bitterly about Galbraith, the Indian agent, and the defrauding traders.

He didn't skirt responsibility for the war: "If the young braves have pushed the white man I have done this myself."

Despite his clarity on the reasons for war, Little Crow knew his position was weakening. He not only faced Sibley's mounting forces, but a potential civil war among the Dakota. Peace factions along the upper Minnesota River, including Chief Other Day, were pressuring him to give up the now 269 hostages. Little Crow had hoped they would be bargaining chips to broker peace with Sibley. But the reports of abuse made it less likely white leaders would negotiate over the hostages. Little Crow knew the officials would not see starvation of Dakota children and abuse of Dakota women as equivalent outrages.

Ramsey, reacting to the rising public fury, called for extermination of the Dakota.

Turning point: Wood Lake

In the third week of September, military leaders in Washington gave Sibley a boost, sending the grizzled, ornery veterans of the Third Minnesota Infantry west to deal with the Dakota.

They joined Sibley's 1,600 men near Wood Lake, close to the Yellow Medicine River. The Third Minnesota had been fighting the Civil War in Tennessee when their commander surrendered them, only winning their release by agreeing they would not return to the Civil War. They "had lost in a great measure their former high discipline and were quite unruly and anxious only to redeem in the field their wounded honor," Capt. Ezra Champlin recalled in an 1886 talk at the State Fairgrounds.

The Dakota had not encountered white soldiers this hardened before.

On Sept. 23, sick of Sibley's rations, they wandered off to forage for potatoes in the old Dakota gardens at the Upper Sioux Agency. Little Crow had his fighters hiding in the tall grass, silently waiting to ambush Sibley's forces.

But the potato scavengers' wagon startled 25 Dakota fighters, who jumped up and started shooting. The Third Minnesota's commander hollered, "All who want to fight, fall in."

These Civil War pros were itching to fight and knew skirmishing maneuvers. As one man dropped back to reload, his partner fired away.

Two hours later, more than a dozen Dakota were dead, including Chief Mankato, felled by a cannonball. Seven white soldiers were killed and 34 were wounded.

In context of the larger war, the casualties were not remarkable. Yet Wood Lake marked a psychological turning point for Little Crow.

Against the tougher white forces, more Dakota were reluctant to fight on. The Sisseton and Wahpeton chiefs who chose not to fight had managed to wrest control of the hostages from Little Crow during the battle of Wood Lake.

Little Crow assessed it all and concluded the Dakota could no longer win this war.

When he returned from Wood Lake, "he was despondent," hostage Sam Brown wrote. "He stepped outside his Lodge and spoke to the people. He told them that he was ashamed. 'Seven hundred picked warriors whipped by cowardly whites.'"

The next day, Little Crow and a few hundred supporters "folded their tents and stole away quietly," Brown wrote.

He paused on a hilly outcrop, looking down on the Minnesota River valley.

"We shall never go back there," he said.

Coming Thursday: Vengeance

Curt Brown • 612-673-476

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