On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota warriors killed five settlers near Acton, Minnesota. The killings would ignite the war between the Dakotas’ and the United States military, but tensions had been brewing long before that August day in 1862. The bodies of those five settlers would be brought, to what is now Litchfield, and buried at Ness Church.
I visited the church and the surrounding cemetery with one of C-to-C’s sponsors, when I was back in Minnesota this past spring.
In the back corner of the cemetery, close to the rows of corn, stands a monument. Buried underneath, in one grave, are the first five victims of the U.S. -Dakota War: Robinson Jones, Viranus Webster, Howard Baker, Ann (Baker) Jones, and Clara Wilson.
The Ness Monument was erected on 13 September 1878, by the State of Minnesota. It is the third oldest monument in the state.
In 1970, the church & cemetery were listed officially, as a Minnesota Historical Site.
The church was founded by Ole Halverson Ness and his wife Margit, who arrived in the area in 1856. Ole Ness was a member of the Acton burial party.
Also buried in the cemetery is Andreas Olson, another victim of the U.S. -Dakota War. Olson was killed on 22 September 1862.
The current church was built by settlers in 1874, a dozen years after the start of the U.S. – Dakota War. The church is said to be haunted by both Sioux Indians and the five settlers, in particular the young girl, Annie. The church historical society denies any haunting, although that has not stopped self-proclaimed ghost hunters from breaking into the church.
I witnessed no paranormal activity when I was there, but I did find the cemetery to be a very solemn place.
Camera for B&W photos: Kodak 66; Film: Kodak 120, Tri-X400
In December of 1862, 303 Dakota prisoners were convicted by military tribunal of murder and rape. More than 600 white people had been killed during the war, of which 70 were soldiers and 50 armed civilians. The remainder killed were unarmed, with many being women and children.
Minnesota politicians and settlers wanted to see all 303 prisoners executed, but there were calls for leniency, notably from the Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple, who went to Washington DC to plead for leniency from President Lincoln. Whipple argued that many of the trials lasted only 5 minutes, and that none of the Dakota prisoners had legal council.
Lincoln reviewed the trial records personally, trying to distinguish between those who fought against U.S. troops and those who murdered and raped citizens. When it was all said and done, the President commuted the sentences of all but 38 prisoners.
When the Republicans did not fare well in Minnesota in the 1964 election cycle, Minnesota Senator Alexander Ramsey, the former governor, told Lincoln that “more hangings would have brought more votes”. President Lincoln replied, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”
“The last act of the Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) War took place here in Mankato on December 26, 1862 when thirty-eight Dakota Indians died in a mass execution on this site. … “
At 10am on 26 December 1862, the 38 Dakota prisoners were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. It remains to this day, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. They were buried en masse in a trench along the riverbank. Within days, many bodies were taken out of the grave and distributed to area doctors to be used as cadavers.
The names of the 38 Dakota Warriors executed in Mankato. The monument is in ‘Reconciliation Park’.
The rest of the convicted prisoners were taken to Camp McClennan in Iowa, where they were held prisoner for the next four years. One third had died by the time of release.
By April of 1863, the U.S. Congress had declared all treaties with the Dakota null and void. The systematic removal of the remaining Dakota people from Minnesota had begun. A bounty of $25 was placed on the scalp of any Dakota found within the State.
Chief Little Crow
After the Battle of Wood Lake, Little Crow and many of his warriors went west. By spring of 1863, they were camped near the Canadian/US border. Having lost the war and his native land, Little Crow realized that his people would have to live a mobile existence to survive. Looking to steal horses, Little Crow and his son Wowinapa returned to southern Minnesota.
On the evening of 3 July 1863, Little Crow and Wowinapa were spotted picking strawberries (or raspberries) by Nathan Lamson and his son Chauncey. After a brief gunfight, Nathan Lamson was wounded, Little Crow was dead and Wowinapa had escaped.
Roadside marker near where Little Crow was killed
First Little Crow’s scalp was brought back to the town of Hutchinson, and eventually his body was dragged down main street, with firecrackers placed in his ears and nose. His beheaded body was thrown into a pit at the slaughter house.
It was not until Wowinapa was captured in the Dakota Territory in late July of 1863 that authorities learned that the dead Dakota in Hutchinson was Little Crow. The body was exhumed, and it was confirmed to be the body of the Dakota chief. Nathan Lamson received $500 for “rendering great service to the State”, and Chauncey received $75 for the scalp.
The Minnesota Historical Society received Little Crow’s scalp, skull and other bones over the years. In 1971, they were given over to Little Crow’s grandson (Wowinapa’s son) for burial.
Joseph Renshaw Brown was a politician, trader, businessman and Indian Agent. Born in Pennsylvania in 1805, Brown would marry Susan Freniere, a member of the Sisseton tribe of the Dakota.
The Joseph R. Brown Wayside Park near Sacred Heart, MN
Joseph Brown had built a mansion of a home after losing his post as Indian Agent in 1861. The three story, pink granite structure overlooked the Minnesota River Valley, near what is now Sacred Heart.
Brown was away from Minnesota on business when the Dakota warriors raided his home early in the War of 1862. Brown’s wife and 11 children were taken captive, but were not harmed due to her Dakota heritage. The Brown’s three-story home was then set ablaze and the mansion was gutted by the fire.
Brown’s family was later released with the rest of the captives at Camp Release.
The granite ruins of the impressive home still possess a beautiful view of the Minnesota River Valley. The site is now a state wayside park along Renville County Road 15 near Sacred Heart.
The Joseph R. Brown monument in Brown Cemetery near Henderson, MN
Joseph Brown died in New York in 1870, and was buried in Henderson, MN.
After the Battle of Wood Lake, a group of Dakota chiefs released prisoner Joseph Campbell, with instructions to tell Colonel Henry Sibley that the remainder of the captives were safe. Sibley & his troops would meet with the Dakota Peace Party on September 26, at what is now known as Camp Release.
269 captives of the Dakota, 107 white settlers and 162 mixed-bloods, were handed over to Sibley’s troops.
Many of those released had been held captive for close to six weeks, and a large number of them owed their lives to Dakota Indians who were not in support of the war, and who went out of the way to keep the captives safe. Mary Schwandt was one of these captives. The Schwandt family had all been killed in a raid on 18 August, while Mary was away from the family farm. She was taken captive later that day by a warrior from the Lower Sioux Reservation. Snana, a 23 year old Dakota woman, arranged for Mary to be released to her, and for the remainder of the war, Snana kept her safe from harm. Often Mary dressed in Dakota clothing in order to not attract unwanted attention. Both women wrote memoirs of the events after the war.
1200 Dakota Indians were taken into custody at Camp Release. Eventually, 2000 were captured or surrendered, and they faced mass trials at the Camp Release facilities.
On the 18 August 1862, the Schwandt family farm was one of many attacked by roving Dakota warriors. Six members of the Schwandt family were killed, along with one family friend. Young August Schwandt escaped by crawling away through the tall grass, and daughter Mary was away from the farm at the time. Mary was soon taken captive, however.
The victims were buried in scattered, unmarked graves about the farm where their bodies were found. The Schwandt Monument was erected in 1915 by the state of Minnesota. It is located off of Renville County Road 15 south of Sacred Heart.
” ‘Till the war drum throbs no longer,
And the battle flags are furled
In the parliament of men
And the federation of the World.’ ” — Spoken at the monument dedication in 1915
Colonel Sibley attempted to negotiate a surrender from Chief Little Crow at the beginning of September, 1862. Little Crow was interested in ending hostilities, but was unwilling to surrender. The stage was set for one final battle.
After a delay, which caused great consternation among the settlers and newspapermen of the time, Sibley finally left Fort Ridgely with 1500 men on 19 September. Sibley’s troops camped near Lone Tree Lake, although at the time they thought they were camped next to Wood Lake, which is 3-1/2 miles further west. So, in effect, the battle is misnamed. Sibley was unaware that the Dakota warriors were assembling near his encampment.
With less than half the numbers of Sibley, Little Crow meant to attack the soldiers in the early morning hours of 23 September, after the soldiers broke camp and were filing along in a long, thin line. Sibley did not break camp as early as the Dakotas expected. In fact, it was well past sun-up when several soldiers left the camp without their superiors’ knowledge, in order to look for more food. It was reported that the group of soldiers had planned on going to the Upper Sioux Agency to dig for potatoes. When the small group of soldiers left in their wagons, they ran straight into a party of Dakota. When the shooting started, the main body of Dakota warriors were not ready for the attack, and Sibley’s force was alerted to the possible ambush.
Battle of Wood Lake obelisk
The battle lasted only two hours, and the Dakota suffered major losses, including the death of Chief Mankato by cannonball. Sibley’s force suffered 7 dead and 34 severely wounded.
According to the caretakers of the historic battle site, there are still 14 Dakota warriors buried in the battlefield. It should be noted, as tempting as it is, one should not drive through the gate and onto the grass.
“The Battle of Birch Coulee”, by Dorothea Paul, circa 1975
Colonel Henry Sibley sent out a burial party of 170 men from Fort Ridgely on 31 August 1862 in search of dead settlers. Captain Hiram Grant led the party, which buried 54 bodies by the end of the day of 1 September. At that time, Chief Little Crow was leading 110 warriors from New Ulm, and Gray Bird was coming down the south side of the Minnesota River with 350 warriors. The burial party was unaware of the Dakota warriors, but the Dakota were well aware of the soldiers.
The Birch Coulee Battle site today: Prairie
During the night, Gray Bird’s force crossed the Minnesota River and surrounded the soldiers’ camp. On the morning of 2 September, the Dakota attacked, wounding over 30 soldiers and killing almost all of the horses within minutes. Colonel Sibley could hear sounds of the battle from Fort Ridgely, which is 16 miles away. He sent a relief party of over 240 men and an artillery brigade immediately. The shelling from the artillery ended the attack, although the siege had lasted 31 hours.
U.S. forces saw their worst defeat of the US-Dakota War at Birch Coulee, 22 men were killed and 47 severely wounded. Over 90 horses were also dead.
The First battle of New Ulm, painting by Michael Eischen
On 19 August 1962, 100 Dakota warriors attacked the town of New Ulm, which lies at the confluence of the Minnesota and Cottonwood Rivers. Six settlers were killed, and five wounded from the gunfire unleashed from the bluffs behind the town. The residents had been warned of a potential attack, and had barricaded the town’s center.
Fort Ridgely in 1862
On 20 August, 400 Dakota warriors attacked Fort Ridgely and its 210 soldiers. Private Mark Greer, Co.C, was the first casualty. By the end of the day, five soldiers were killed and fifteen wounded.
Fort Ridgely ammunition storage hut
The next day, thunderstorms swept through the Minnesota River Valley, and the Dakota did not attack, although they did ambush a relief party that was sent from the Fort to New Ulm. When the rains subsided on the 22 August, the Dakota ranks had swelled to 800 warriors. The first attack was repelled, and several smaller attacks on the fort continued throughout the day. Another all out attack came in the evening hours, which was eventually repelled by setting the outer buildings on fire keep the Dakotas from making their way through the defenses.
Fort Ridgely today
Fort Ridgely remained in siege until the 27th, when Colonel Henry Sibley arrived with 1400 militia.
A remaining foundation at Ft Ridgely
On 23 August Dakota warriors once again attacked New Ulm, this time in enough numbers to surround the town. By now over 1000 residents were barricaded in the town center, along with around 300 citizen soldiers. The defenders of the town started to burn down buildings outside of the town center. In all, 190 buildings were torched in order to create an open space without cover. By afternoon of the 24th, the Dakota had withdrawn, and on the 25th the residents of New Ulm left for Mankato under military escort.
The Frederick W. Kiesling house in New Ulm, MN. One of only three buildings to survive the Dakota attack in 1862. Today, it is the only wood-framed building of the war, to still be standing in its original location.
On August 17, 1862, the late annuity payments had reached nearby Fort Ridgely, but it was too late. On that same day, four young Dakota men were out hunting, they came upon Robinson Jones, the Acton Township postmaster at his farm. The young hunters followed Jones towards Howard Baker’s farm, where they shot and killed Jones, Baker, Viranus Webster, along with Jones’ wife and daughter.
The four hunters fled 40 miles to Rice Lake Village to plead for help. The Dakota were ready for war, and Little Crow reluctantly agreed to lead the Dakota into battle.
This was the one site on The Sioux Trail that had a log book for visitors to enter their names. I found the number of European visitors intriguing. I didn’t expect many people to search out this monument, which sits in the yard of a private home, surrounded by Minnesota farm land.
In 1851, the Dakota ceded 24 million acres of land to the United States government. In exchange, the Dakota were moved to two reservations that extended 10 miles out along both banks of the Minnesota River for 150 miles from the present day border of South Dakota to just northwest of New Ulm, MN.
After years of breaking the treaties, ineffective government policies, and the flood of settlers into Dakota lands a perfect storm for conflict was created by late summer of 1862. Just months before the August start of the war, George E. Day, a federal government official, wrote a report to President Lincoln documenting the rampant corruption in Indian Affairs. With the Civil War dominating the Nation’s attention span, nothing was done to ease the tension.
Upper Sioux Agency Duplex
The Upper Sioux Agency’s responsibility was with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota, while the Lower Sioux Agency operated the “lower” reservation which was occupied by the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands.
By late summer of 1862, the Dakota were desperate after crops failed and annuity payments had been delayed. Dakota leaders demanded that provisions be distributed directly to them, cutting out the traders. The Upper Sioux Agency allowed supplies to be dispersed on the credit of the coming annuities, but on 15 August, Thomas J. Galbraith, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent at the Lower Sioux Agency, refused to distribute food on credit, even though he had distributed some supplies on August 4. It was at this time that Andrew Myrick, a trader on the Lower Sioux Agency, made the infamous comment in a confrontation with Dakota leaders and U.S. Government employees, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”
A marker showing the location of Myrick’s Trading Post
A friend of mine, the CEO of MAO, Inc, had already followed the trail of this influential period in Minnesota history this past summer. We decided to follow the trail one more time, over a couple of weekends, in order for me to explore this part of our history.