The entrance to the Whitestone Hill Battlefield state historic site, in Dickey County, is charming. Passing between stone gateposts flanked by stately spruce and blooming plum, the road curves along the edge of a slough, full and clear and teeming with birdlife, and leads to a suite of stone buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The eye is drawn toward the hilltop to the east, where a white stone monument topped by a white stone bugler perches. This is the memorial to twenty US soldiers who fell here in a battle against a mixed village evidently containing people the state historical society describes as “Yanktonai, some Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota, and Blackfeet (Sihasapa Lakota).”
Some of these Indians may have been involved with the 1862 troubles in Minnesota; certainly some of them had fought against Henry Hastings Sibley in 1863. Since the 1980s it has been fashionable to depict the Indians attacked at Whitestone Hill by troops under Alfred Sully as unsuspecting innocents. I suspect the truth is more complex than that. Their attackers on September 3, 1863, were elements of the 6th Iowa Cavalry, the 7th Iowa Cavalry, and the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry, along with an artillery battery.
The Indians were in rest and supply mode, having made a good kill of buffalo. They were processing and preserving, and relaxing by the water, when Sully’s command appeared. There ensued a running fight that resulted, according to officers’ reports, in the killing of 150 or more natives, with 156 taken prisoner. The soldiers destroyed the Indians’ property, including their preserved buffalo meat.
The visitor to Whitestone Hill Battlefield monument encounters multiple memorials, but does not find the materials needed in order to reconstruct just what happened at the site. It takes research in sources not readily available to figure out where the Indian camp was and where the main fight took place.
The soldier memorial was placed on the hill with an impressive dedication ceremony in 1909. A generation later, in 1942, the commissioners of the park added a memorial to the Indians. The commissioners are named, but the Indians are referred to only by tribe. In the meantime, the Civilian Conservation Corps had built the lovely little museum building of rubble stone. It and the Indian monument are near the lake; the soldier memorial occupies the heights. Sometime later, too, a cairn of stones with a bronze plaque honoring local pioneers and friends of the park Tom and Mary Shimmin was added.
The Whitestone Hill Battlefield is a lonely and powerful site. It lies at the end of a gravel road; visitation is sparse. It is, however, a highly significant historic site. More famous, or infamous, attacks on Plains Indian villages date from subsequent years. By my recollection, Whitestone Hill was the most serious infliction of casualties on Plains Indian people by a US fighting force to date. It marked the beginning of a newly aggressive era in Indian-fighting on the plains. The battle had serious repercussions and consequences.
Similar sites of comparable consequence in other states of the plains are national monuments. In my estimation, the Whitestone Hill Battlefield deserves such status, too. The question will arise, what is this a monument to? That will be a difficult question. And that is exactly why a national monument at Whitestone Hill would be a good thing.
Photos of Whites Hill are posted here. http://travel.webshots.com/album/572423620TplfrU