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The Santee Sioux massacre in Minnesota was avenged by a mass execution

Posted in America, Anthropology, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 27 June 2012

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This edited article about Little Crow and the Santee Sioux originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 742 published on 3 April 1976.

The small church was crammed full of farming folk that August day, most of them of British or German stock. They listened to the Reverend Samuel Hinman’s sermon with strict attention, as well they might, for many of them would never hear another.

There were some traders and government employees present, too, for this was the church of the Lower Sioux Agency near Fort Ridgely, Minnesota, U.S.A. Some Sioux sat in the pews, and one of them – Little Crow – sat near the back, brooding deeply. His clothes were those of a white man, the Sunday best of a country farmer in 1862, but his hair hung down in two long braids and he wore moccasins. His heart was sick as he thought of his people, not of the word of God. Some say that he had already determined to massacre the whites, that when he shook the Rev. Hinman’s hand at the end of the service it was the handshake of a Judas.

What did he think about during that service, the last he would ever attend? No doubt of his people, the Santee Sioux. They had been starved and robbed by the white man, who had made a treaty with them some years before and broken it as they had earlier treaties, and who, as settlers flooded west, were now crowding on to land that was allocated as Indian land “for ever”.

The Santees were being crowded out. They lived on the edge of the forests and the lakes in what had become white men’s farming land, and there was no longer a place for them to hunt and roam. It was the government-backed traders they hated most, corrupt men who cheated them of their supplies, who sometimes stopped their rightful food even when the barns were groaning with grain.

The biggest rascal of all was one Andrew J. Myrick. Just a week earlier, some chiefs had gone to him to beg for government stores to be opened to them, to allow them a little food on credit, and Myrick had answered their plea with: “If they’re hungry, let them eat grass for all I care.”

That Sunday night after the service, there was a bitter meeting at Little Crow’s house. Several Santees broke in and told him how four young warriors had killed a white family. Little Crow, who was the war chief of the Santee Sioux, knew there would be trouble and he warned his friends of white vengeance. They urged him to lead them against the whites before the soldiers could come. Were not many of them fighting a great civil war far away in the East?

Little Crow had been to the East, to Washington itself, and again he urged caution. He alone knew that the white man’s power was almost limitless because of his sheer numbers, but his chiefs called him a coward as he argued with them. Finally their taunts were too much for him, and his pride as an Indian forced him to acknowledge that his people had suffered too much. Choosing his words carefully, he said: “I am no coward. I will die with you.”

Orders went out from him during that long hot summer’s night for an uprising all along the Minnesota River Valley. The Agency was to be destroyed and every trader killed. Some Indians decided to save white friends who had been kind to them, but most were soon to be out of control.

The massacre began at dawn on the Monday and soon there was hardly a trader left alive. Every white person in the Agency would have been butchered had not the Sioux looted food and ammunition instead of concentrating on killing. As it was, some fifty escaped down the river, of whom a few finally reached the temporary safety of Fort Ridgely.

For miles around the Agency, small bands of warriors roamed through the countryside killing their victims. As far as the Indians were concerned, they were at war with the whites, a totally justified war, against men who had robbed and cheated them of their freedom and their land.

No one will ever know just how many whites died in the Minnesota Massacre, news of which rang round the world, but it is believed that more than 600 perished.

Many refugees poured into Fort Ridgely, only to find that half the small garrison, including the commander, young Captain Marsh, had been killed in a vain attempt to reach the Agency. Next day the Indians under Little Crow attacked and it seemed certain that the fort would fall, as they were soon within the walls. The soldiers prepared to make a last stand on the parade ground when salvation came from a handful of rusty old cannon that a grizzled veteran, Sergeant Jones, managed to get into action. The “wagon guns” were too much for the Sioux, who beat a hasty retreat. The defenders could breathe again.

The Indians’ failure to take the fort was the turning point of the uprising, and when the settlement of New Ulm survived a mass attack, by 500 Sioux warriors, which left half the town in flames, it was clear that the white man would remain master of Minnesota. There was more fighting as soldiers from the East at last arrived in large numbers, led by Colonel Henry Sibley. The last act of the drama began when more than 300 Sioux were sentenced to be hanged. Far away in Washington, the humane President Abraham Lincoln, taking time off from the great war he was waging with the Southern States, studied reports and refused to allow such wholesale punishment. Only 38 were finally hanged at a mass execution.

Soon the Sioux were driven westwards out of their homeland for ever, as the whites howled at them and threw stones, and a steamboat carried them to a barren reservation. All previous treaties were torn up, although they had not been kept in the first place.

And Little Crow? His influence had waned rapidly before the end arrived, and he became a fugitive. He was shot down on sight by two settlers, who knew that Minnesota was now paying 25 dollars for an Indian scalp. They had no idea that he was the most feared Indian in America until they were awarded a bonus of 500 dollars for their pains.

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