What became known as “the Great Sioux Uprising,” which led to years of Indian Wars throughout the Great Plains and Western states, actually began in the East — or at least the eastern most edge of the Western states: It began in 1862 in Minnesota.
(For my source on this account and an excellent resource for information about some of the little known events in the Old West, I direct you to an excellent book by the editors of “True West” magazine. I have listed information and a link to that book just below this paragraph:)
Crop failures in 1861 made times hard for the Sioux living on reservations in Minnesota, and the annuity from the government they were expected to live on never came in late June or early July of 1862 as it was scheduled to do. Nearing starvation, the Sioux started showing up in August at agency headquarters begging for, then demanding food.
Some officials gave the starving Indians food as they could, and some were less than charitable. A famous quote of the day came from recalcitrant storekeeper Andrew J. Myrick: “If they’re hungry, let them eat grass.” According to the “True West” account in the book, Myrick’s words were not appreciated and were remembered by the Sioux, earning Myrick a place among the casualties when armed conflict broke out.
The fighting itself was sparked by a theft of chicken eggs from a white settler’s property. Four starving Sioux in August found the eggs, and one took the eggs. His companion warned him of trouble if he were to take the eggs, prompting an argument among the four. They began to goad each other to show the courage to steal eggs when they were starving. From there, they escalated egg theft to a plot to kill the settler and his family.
The four Sioux braves concocted a plan to call the settler, his neighbors, and their families out and challenge the men to a marksmanship contest. They all shot at targets until they were out of ammunition — at which point the Sioux quickly reloaded, then shot the white settlers and families, killing them men and one of the wives and a daughter.
Although the Sioux Chief Big Eagle quickly identified the four braves who did the deed and was quick to try to find them and bring them to justice, angry whites were not ready to get along with angry and starving Indians. Violence escalated into a 6-week “war” that left 450-800 white settlers and soldiers dead, with a couple of dozen Indian warriors dead.
The “Great Sioux Uprising of 1862” as it was dubbed, culminated in a September 23 battle near present-day Echo, Minnesota, between a force of 1,619 soldiers led by Col. Henry Sibley and approximately 1,000 Sioux. Chiefly because of superior weaponry (howitzers), the Army forces won a decisive victory, ending any further organized warfare by the Sioux in Minnesota.
Some interesting details about the entire uprising:
1. Shortly after the fighting started, storekeeper Andrew Myrick was found dead near his home with his mouth stuffed full of grass.
2. A true hero of the slaughter and fighting was a Christian Indian named John Other Day. He led 62 whites across a river to safety from attacking Sioux. In retaliation, the Sioux burned his farm and destroyed his crops. Following the uprising, he was honored by the government and awarded $2,500 for his bravery.
3. Following hostilities, some 2,000 Sioux were taken into custody and tried by a military tribunal. Eager to see “justice” done quickly, the tribunal handled as many as 40 cases per day, prompting an historian in 1976 writing for the Minnesota Historical Society to say:
“Reading the records today buttresses the impression that the trials were a travesty of justice. … many of the proceedings were too hasty and quite a number of prisoners were condemned on flimsy evidence.”
Of 392 Sioux Indians tried by the tribunal by the time it ended its work on November 5, 307 were sentenced to hang and 16 given prison terms. Col. Sibley approved all but one of the deaths, that exception being the brother of John Other Day.
Sibley was uncertain of his authority to carry out the executions so he forwarded the information and the list of those sentenced to death to Washington, where President Lincoln himself reviewed the matter. Despite popular opinion in Minnesota that executions should be swift and widely carried out, Lincoln reduced the list to 39 who should be hanged. He sent a hand-written listing of those names back to Minnesota. (One man on the list later gained a reprieve, according to the “True West” article, leaving 38 to hang.)
A public hanging of the 38 Sioux took place in Mankato on December 26, 1862. The event has gone down in history as America’s greatest mass execution.
Of course, warfare against the Sioux and other Plains Indian tribes only began with this incident. Over the next 3 decades, battles spread well beyond Minnesota. The so-called “Indian Wars” which grew from the seeds of this violence in Minnesota only ended in 1890 with the Battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota — with cultural and legal “battles” related to America’s reservation systems, and concerning tribal recognition and land rights continuing today.