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Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862

Military Commission Appointed To Try Dakota Warriors, Were The Trials Fair?, President Lincoln Reviews The Dakota Cases

Defendants: 393 Dakota Sioux Indians and people of mixed racial background
Crimes Charged: Murder and "other outrages" against citizens of the United States
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Chief Prosecutor: None
Judges: Military Commission Officers Lieutenant Rollin Olin (judge advocate), Colonel William Crooks, Colonel William Marshall, Captain Hiram Grant, Captain Hiram Bailey, and Major George Bradley(replaced Colonel Marshall after the first 29 cases)
Places: Camp Release, Minnesota and Lower Agency, Minnesota
Dates of Trials: September 28-November 3, 1862
Verdicts: 323 defendants: Guilty; 70 defendants: Not guilty
Sentences: 303 defendants: Death by hanging (38 later hanged); 90 defendants: Imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The trials satisfied the vengeance demands of outraged white settlers for the Dakota Conflict (also known as the "Sioux Uprising"), which took the lives of nearly 500 Minnesota residents. The trials and harsh sentences bred resentment among the Dakota Indians, and American-Sioux conflicts continued for nearly 30 years, finally ending with the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.

In August 1862, about 7,000 Dakota Sioux lived on reservation lands on the Minnesota frontier. Many faced starvation because of failed crops. Annuity payments due to them for recent (and disputed) land cessions did not arrive on time, and Indian representatives pleaded with traders to distribute provisions held in agency warehouses on credit until the annuity payments finally arrived from Washington. Traders resisted the Sioux's pleas at an August 15 meeting. Andrew Myrick summarized his position in the bluntest possible manner: "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass."

Unbeknownst to the traders or the Indians, the long-delayed annuity payments—in the form of a barrel containing $71,000 worth of gold coins—were already on their way to southwestern Minnesota. The gold reached St. Paul the next day, then was sent to Fort Ridgely for distribution to the Sioux. The payments, however, arrived a few hours too late to prevent an unprecedented outbreak of violence that left nearly 500 settlers and an undetermined number of Dakota Sioux dead.

Two days after the meeting, four Indians from a breakaway band of young malcontents while on a hunting trip came across some eggs along the fence line of a settler's homestead. One of the four grabbed the eggs, while another warned him that the eggs belonged to a white man. The first young man became angry, dashed the eggs to the ground, and accused the other of being afraid of white men, even though being half-starved. Apparently to disprove the accusation of cowardice, the other Sioux said that to show he was not afraid of white men he would go the house and shoot the owner; he challenged the others to join him. Minutes later the occupants—three men, a woman, and a 15-year-old girl—lay dead.

Big Eagle, a Dakota Sioux chief, recounted what happened after the young men reached Chief Shakopee's camp late on that night:

The tale told by the young men created the greatest excitement. Everybody was waked up and heard it. Shakopee took the young men to [Chief] Little Crow's, and he sat up in bed and listened to their story. He said war was now declared. Blood had been shed, the payment would be stopped, and the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed. Wabasha, Wacouta, myself and others still talked for peace, but nobody would listen to us, and soon the cry was "Kill the whites and kill all these cut-hairs who will not join us." A council was held and war was declared. Parties formed and dashed away in the darkness to kill settlers. The women began to run bullets and the men to clean their guns.…

The Dakota Conflict, or "Sioux Uprising," began with an attack on the Lower Agency along the Minnesota River. One of the first casualties was trader Andrew Myrick, who was discovered dead, his mouth stuffed full of grass. Over the next few days nearly 200 settlers were killed, as the Sioux massacred farm families and attacked frontier fortifications. Southwestern Minnesota was largely depopulated, as refugees set off in wagons and on foot for larger towns to the east. Governor Alexander Ramsey mobilized the state's military forces to suppress the uprising. On September 6, Governor Ramsey sent a telegram to President Lincoln pleading for federal help: "It is a national war.… Answer me at once. More than 500 whites have been murdered by the Indians."

Lincoln dispatched General John Pope, the general having recently lost the second battle of Bull Run, to be the commander of the new Military Department of the Northwest. Six weeks after the fighting began, the military effort by the United States—assisted by "friendlies" (Sioux opposed to the war)—succeeded in quelling the uprising. The end of heavy fighting left 1,250 Dakota Sioux warriors as prisoners of the U.S. government.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882