Plains Folk

Thinking About the Dakota War


Last year the state of Minnesota convened observances in remembrance of the Dakota War of 1862. The Minnesota Historical Society opened a new exhibit devoted to the subject. To hear people there talk, the war concluded that same year of 1862, with the execution of Dakota prisoners providing the end punctuation to a bloody and costly conflict.


1862, however, was only the beginning of the war, for while the fighting ceased in Minnesota, it erupted in the Dakota Territory. The territorial phase of the war commenced with the Siege of Fort Abercrombie in the fall of 1862. It continued in 1863 with major actions around the invasions of Dakota by Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley’s force out of Minnesota and General Alfred Sully’s force coming up the Missouri River. The most violent and tragic of these actions was at Whitestone Hill, near present Kulm, on 3-4 September 1863.


The war culminated in 1864 with actions around Sully’s Northwest Indian Expedition, the most spectacular of which was the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, on 28 June—possibly the largest battle ever fought between US forces and American Indians. It overshadows action that I consider nearly as important, the Battle of the Badlands.


Recently I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Dakota historians about this chapter of history, and it’s evident we do history somewhat differently. Whereas we white guys think in terms of campaigns and battles, the native historians speak of families and communities. Moreover, neither has a very good idea who was fighting on the other side. The antagonists were fuzzy on matters of identity at the time, and we remain so today. There is a lot of work to do along these lines.


I’m going to suggest there may be an underlying reason why Dakota historians don’t talk much about the actual fighting in the Dakota War. We all have been sold a bill of goods as to matters of winning battles and claiming victory. The war overall was inconclusive as to aims, and tragic for all parties involved. Moreover, despite the claims of military commanders, the Dakota and Lakota fighters acquitted themselves well in combat with forces far better armed than they.


I think there has been a reluctance for Dakota to talk of the military aspects of the war because there is the impression they were defeated. I’m willing to argue that the Dakota might claim bragging rights for their military accomplishments in Dakota Territory.


This begins at Fort Abercrombie, where although the Dakota fighters did not take the post, they fought hard and executed an excellent plan of attack. As for actions in 1863 and 1864, I think we need to find new labels for what we have been calling the Sibley Expedition and the Sully Expedition. With the exception of Sully’s attack on Whitestone Hill, every action in these campaigns was planned by the Dakota strategists, and most were initiated by Dakota fighters. They had plans, they adapted to federal firepower, and they were not defeated.


The prerequisite to understanding these events, I keep telling my students, is to flip the agency. This is to say, stop assuming that the white guys made the decisions and drove the action. Open up to the possibility that the Dakotas made decisions and drove the action. And presume they were pretty smart and knew what they were doing. Make these changes in approach, ignore the opinions expressed in military reports, connect the dots, and things begin to make more sense.


I don’t know that we’ll ever see Dakota reenactment troupes dressing up and reliving the battles of 1863 and 1864, but I do think we will see Dakota historians become more willing to own the accomplishments of their fighting men.


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