Little Crow's legacy

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2013 - 1:31 PM

He travels far in a failed effort to recruit bands to join the revolt. With a bounty on his head, a decision to slip back into Minnesota proves to be a fatal error.

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A blackbird takes flight in the First Presbyterian cemetery near Little Crow's grave.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Snow drifted over the grass on the Dakota plains and the horses grew gaunt, their once-muscular flanks now a bony landscape.

Exiled into this harsh terrain in the winter of 1862-63, Little Crow and his followers watched the animals they relied upon for hunting and fighting grow listless in their hunger, making them easy prey for bitter winds. Some froze, their massive bodies finally collapsing in the deep snow. Others starved to death.

Little Crow had ridden west to recruit more bands to join his war against the white invaders, but they refused. Then he had turned north to Canada, hoping to revive an old Dakota-British alliance his grandfather forged during the War of 1812. That, too, failed.

By spring, his once-grand ambitions to retake the land pilfered through broken treaties had shrunk to this: Little Crow was on foot, slipping back into Minnesota to steal half a dozen horses for his children.

His followers had dwindled to fewer than 20, including his son, Wowinape, 16.

Even as his profile among the Dakota declined, Minnesota officials became obsessed with tracking down the man they viewed as leader of a rebellion that had proven humiliatingly difficult to put down. While Little Crow and his son walked east from what would become the northern edge of North Dakota toward the Minnesota River valley, Henry Hastings Sibley was riding west, intent on capturing him.

"I shall take no backward step until I have secured Little Crow and his band of murderers," Sibley told a crowd in the summer of 1863. He had been promoted to brigadier general for finally quelling Little Crow's bloody revolt the previous summer, in which roughly 600 settlers and U.S. soldiers were slaughtered.

Hanging 38 Dakota warriors early that winter had done little to satisfy the enraged public. Gov. Alexander Ramsey insisted that all Dakota "must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state."

It was a politically popular move, catering to public sentiment of the moment and the roar of newspaper editorials across the state. For two years after the war, reported sightings of Dakota -- often inaccurate, but occasionally true -- created mass hysteria in the Twin Cities and across southern Minnesota. The idea that many Dakota were innocent, had resisted the war and had protected settlers was utterly lost in the panic.

A rat exterminator's ad in the Mankato Record newspaper suggested using his "speedy vermin relief recipe in Sibley's war of extermination." The Winona Daily Republic opined that a state bounty of $200 "for every red-skin sent to Purgatory is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth."

With that vengeful mood as a backdrop, Little Crow and Wowinape were just northeast of Hutchinson as evening fell on July 3, 1863, checking for fresh horse tracks. They stumbled upon a raspberry patch and laid down their guns. The father and son stood munching red berries in the twilight.

Nathan Lamson, out deer hunting with his son Chauncey, didn't know the elder Dakota he saw near his land was Chief Little Crow. But the 62-year-old farmer knew there was a state bounty on Dakota caught wandering in the Big Woods if a private citizen brought in a scalp.

So, Lamson could legally shoot this Indian and collect a handsome sum. He and Chauncey ducked behind a poplar tree about 35 feet from the Indians.

Two fathers and two sons out together on a summer evening, in the aftermath of a bloody war.

Lamson's first shot hit Little Crow just above the hip. Little Crow grabbed his gun off the ground and returned fire, then fired Wowinape's gun. He caught Lamson with buckshot in the left shoulder.

Little Crow headed toward the gunsmoke near the poplar tree, his gun cocked against his shoulder. Chauncey jumped from behind some cover and they both fired. Little Crow's shot whizzed by Chauncey's head. Chauncey's bullet struck Little Crow's gun stock and ricocheted into his chest.

Knocked to the ground, Little Crow asked for water and told his son to try to get back to his mother near Devils Lake.

Little Crow died gazing up at the sky above the land he loved.

Wowinape wrapped his father in a blanket, crossing Little Crow's arms over his chest. He placed new moccasins on his father's feet to ease his way in the afterlife. Then he fled.

Remains on display

The July 4 celebration in Hutchinson turned macabre as Chauncey led a party through the woods to the corpse.

Someone promptly cut off the dead Indian's scalp of flowing hair. The body was tossed in a wagon and brought to town, where boys stuck firecrackers in the nose and ears.

A doctor told them to knock it off and disposed of the body in a slaughterhouse offal pit. Before long, a cavalry officer used his sabre to behead it. The doctor soaked the skull in lime solution while the sheriff brought the scalp to St. Paul for the bounty.

Rumors started to fly, but no one was sure the dead man was Chief Little Crow. They studied the deformed arms "that had been wounded by a shot and never set at all," a newspaper reported, and examined eagle wrist tattoos and a rare double set of teeth.

Three weeks later, a frustrated Sibley was still hunting for Little Crow west of Devils Lake "without discovering any Indians or fresh traces of them" when soldiers brought in a Dakota youth found half-starved and lice-infested, crawling and clutching rib bones from a wolf he had shot to stay alive.

When a scout asked for his name, the boy said: "Don't you know me? I am Little Crow's son.''

It was Wowinape, who confirmed that his father had been killed 26 days earlier. He handed over a double-barreled gun with a broken stock.

"He was the tiredest, hungriest Indian you ever saw," a soldier later recalled.

After personally interviewing the teenager, Sibley proclaimed in a note to military leaders: "There is no longer any doubt that the originator of the horrible massacres of 1862 has met his death."

Chauncey would get $75 for the scalp and his father would net $500 -- double the annual salary of the era -- from the 1864 Minnesota Legislature for "great service to the state in shooting Little Crow." The chief's scalp was tanned and displayed in a ringed frame, festooned with feathers, in the office of the state adjutant general, who tossed it in the garbage five years later.

A janitor plucked it out and gave it to the Minnesota Historical Society, which noted in its annual report receiving "what must always be looked upon with the greatest interest... a curious memento of that dark period in our state history."

The skull, hidden for years in a collector's plastered-over ceiling, eventually joined the scalp and one of Little Crow's mangled forearm bones in a glass display case at the State Capitol.

Not everyone approved. "Such a spectacle reflects sadly upon the humanity of Christian people," Dr. Asa Daniels wrote in 1908, noting that other states fought Indians but didn't display "the scalp of a fallen foe."

A decade later, Jesse Wakeman, Little Crow's grandson, walked into the Capitol and saw his grandfather's remains on display. He complained, and they were put in a storage closet for nearly 50 years.

'We're taking your spirit home'

On a crisp September day in 1971, Alan Woolworth lifted a copper box containing Little Crow's remains into his car. The Minnesota Historical Society archaeologist then drove them from St. Paul to a funeral home in Flandreau, S.D.

Woolworth, who turns 88 on Sunday, downplays his role in returning Little Crow's remains to his family. He just felt strongly that it was time and shared his thoughts with Russell Fridley, the late Historical Society director. A check was quietly cut to pay for repatriation of the remains.

Jesse Wakeman, then 88, who had seen his grandfather's remains on display as a young man at the State Capitol, examined the arm bone, skull and scalp. Then a hearse brought the copper box to the First Presbyterian Church cemetery north of Flandreau, overlooking the winding Big Sioux River.

"It was not so much that the whites killed Grandfather," he had told a reporter that day in 1971. "But more what they did to his body and remains that rankles me and our people."

Woolworth hired a cement truck to fill in the grave and prevent anyone from ever disturbing Little Crow's bones again. There had been problems with grave robbing and vandalism at the grave of a younger chief, Sitting Bull.

Little Crow's great-great-grandson Billy Gilbert stood at the grave early this summer, thinking back to that day when he was 14 years old and his great-great-grandfather was finally buried.

A 12-foot-high stake festooned with ribbons, dream catchers and crow feathers punctured the ground behind the tombstone. Red-wing blackbirds chittered and cars sped by on South Dakota Hwy. 13, oblivious to the tombstone that reads:

"TAOYA TE DUTA KNOWN AS CHIEF LITTLE CROW OF THE MDEWAKANTONS 'TOSTA NICI MATE KTE, THEREFORE I WILL DIE WITH YOU.' "

Unlike most tombstones, Little Crow's bears three dates. The first is his birth year, estimated as 1818. Then comes July 3, 1863, the day of his death in the raspberry bushes near Hutchinson. Finally, there is Sept. 27, 1971, the day his remains were buried.

Gilbert remembered that his mother and other women had collected gourds and pumpkins to decorate the grave that day. The autumn sun was shining on a few dozen family members.

The burial was private -- the family worried that far-flung tribes would make a big fuss if there was publicity. The cement mixer was parked nearby. Little Crow's great-grandson, the Rev. Floyd Louis Heminger, said a few prayers in Dakota and English.

Suddenly a cloud of hundreds of black birds rose from the Big Sioux River north of the graveyard.

"People watched in total silence as everybody's head turned and the birds came from the river, up this hill," Gilbert said, gesturing northeast.

"Then they flew around the people and headed east as if to say, 'We recognize you and we've come to get you and we're taking your spirit home where you were born, where you lived, where you walked and hunted, where you were just a father in your community, an everyday man and leader. We're taking you home now.'''

Gilbert remembers that his mouth opened wide in surprise and that he pointed as the birds disappeared toward Minnesota, and that his mother nodded that, yes, everyone sees this.

Then Little Crow's great-great-grandson looked up at his elders and saw the tears streaming down their cheeks.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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