The Dakota War, and Gov. Henry Sibley in retrospect

Sibley as painted by Thomas Cantwell Healy
Henry Hastings Sibley as painted by Thomas Cantwell Healy in 1860.
Courtesy Minnesota Hostorical Society

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Dakota war in Minnesota. Over the next nine months we'll hear more about what led to the conflict that ended in December 1862, when 38 Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

As we head into the somber commemoration of the Dakota War this year, we thought it appropriate to call in historian Annette Atkins to help us learn more about Minnesota's first governor, Henry Sibley, his times, and the events that laid the groundwork for the war.

Atkins said the "really painful" chapter in Minnesota history began with two treaties drawn up in 1851 between the government and the Dakota, in what the Dakota erroneously assumed to be good faith land-for-money swaps.

"Those treaties in 1851 were really a disaster, from so many points of view. One outrage of those treaties was that, at the conclusion of the signing of those treaties, the Indians were led from one signing table to another signing table," Atkins said. "And at that table, where many of them thought were just another set of treaty papers, were in fact what have come to be called the traitor papers, in which they were pretty effectively swindled out of much of the money they had agreed to receive."

To make matters worse, the Indians thought they had signed treaties that entitled them to government payments in perpetuity. But Congress, unbeknownst to the Indians, cut the payments back to just 20 years.

By 1858, as Minnesota celebrated statehood, Dakota people were moving onto reservations in the between New Ulm and the South Dakota border where, by 1862, times were particularly hard. Crops had failed the previous fall, the winter of 1861-62 has been especially hard, and people were starving. Tensions built throughout the summer.

At one point, hundreds of Dakota began carrying off food from a settler storehouse. They were stopped by soldiers armed with cannon. And not long after that, the killings began on both sides, with settlers outraged that they had been attacked while the federal government was embroiled in the Civil War and had its back turned.

Sibley, born on this date 201 years ago, was a key player in the conflict. He began his long, colorful career in the state as a fur trader with good relations among local Dakota people for the American Fur Company near Fort Snelling at Mendota. The distinctive stone house and trading post he built still stands in Mendota.

But after he served as the state's first governor following statehood, he led an expedition of soldiers and Dakota scouts against the Dakota warriors.

"Sibley, we now know, had at least one child who was part Dakota," Atkins said. "And he stays connected with that daughter for many years. He oversees her education -- he removes her from her Indian family and puts her into a sort of white Catholic girls' school to protect her."

He thought of Dakota people as his friends, "but when he becomes governor, his position shifts," Atkins said.

His successor, Gov. Alexander Ramsey, taps Sibley to lead an effort to quell the Indian uprising, and Sibley marches troops down to the New Ulm area.

"He's paralyzed. I think he doesn't know how to march troops onto people, many of whom he cares about," Atkins said. "He has to be feeling both his connection to the many Dakota people, as well as this fearsome responsibility that's been put on his shoulders to defend white people."

Hostilities come to an end with the mass execution of captured Dakota on Dec. 26. Congress revoked all the Dakota treaties, all Dakota land was confiscated, and the Dakota were expelled from Minnesota.


Read more about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1812 at the Minnesota Historical Society website.

Minnesota Public Radio also produced "Minnesota's Uncivil War," in 2002. It offered an in-depth look at the conflict.

Part 1: The remnants of war
Part 2: "Let them eat grass"
Part 3: Broken promises lead to war
Part 4: Hundreds of settlers die in attacks
Part 5: Execution and expulsion
Part 6: The Dakota - still a divided people

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News