Let Them Eat Grass

This year is the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War. Haven’t heard of it? Chances are very good you’re not alone. One of the things the U.S. is very bad at is recognizing the actions by which it became a single nation instead of several scattered across the continent.

We of the dominant culture teach that there were people here when our ancestors arrived. What we don’t teach is the specifics of how they were displaced and, frequently, killed. Part of the reason we don’t do this is that we live alongside the people whose land we took, and we treat history in part as a matter of tourism. This can lead to continued conflict.

A 150-year-old loop of rope, knotted into a hangman’s noose, sits in a climate-controlled case in the underground archives of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Some say it should be burned, buried or returned to the hands of the Dakota people.

Others argue it should be displayed, like piles of shoes at Holocaust museums, as a powerful artifact to help people confront the grim story of the U.S.-Dakota War, which erupted in Minnesota in 1862 and ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

The noose, and just what to make of it, is one sign of the historical reckoning looming this year as Minnesotans wrestle with how to mark the 150th anniversary of one its ugliest, yet often overlooked, episodes.

The noose won’t be displayed this year, but there are no plans to return it yet, either. If it were part of history we had learned and come to terms with, maybe that would be less of an issue.

Still, while the conflict over how best to handle the presentation of history goes on, there are resources you can use to find out more about the war. I recommend starting with Douglas Linder’s collection of resources on the trials. It includes a summary of events of the war from which the title of this post is taken.

Annuity payments for the Dakota were late in the summer of 1862.  An August 4, 1862 confrontation between soldiers and braves at the Upper Agency at Yellow Medicine led to a decision to distribute provisions on credit to avoid violence.  At the Lower Agency at Redwood, however, things were handled differently.  At an August 15, 1862 meeting attended by Dakota representatives, Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith, and representatives of the traders, the traders resisted pleas to distribute provisions held in agency warehouses to starving Dakota until the annuity payments finally arrived.  Trader 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 those gathered at the Lower Agency, the long delayed 1862 annuity payments were already on their way to the Minnesota frontier. On August 16, a keg with $71,000 worth of gold coins reached St. Paul.  The next day the keg was sent to Fort Ridgely for distribution to the Dakota.  It arrived a few hours too late to prevent an unprecedented outbreak of violence.

This site also contains numerous speeches and letters of the time, as well as contemporary news coverage and the account of the recorder for the trials. Because much of this material is contemporary, it does reflect the prejudices of the day. However, the words of both the Dakota and the settlers and military are included.

One contemporary account of the conflict (also known as Little Crow’s War), written by the son of Mankato leader, is available here.

As a young man, Little Crow was always ready to serve his people as a messenger to other tribes, a duty involving much danger and hardship. He was also known as one of the best hunters in his band. Although still young, he had already a war record when he became chief of the Kaposias, at a time when the Sioux were facing the greatest and most far-reaching changes that had ever come to them.

At this juncture in the history of the northwest and its native inhabitants, the various fur companies had paramount influence. They did not hesitate to impress the Indians with the idea that they were the authorized representatives of the white races or peoples, and they were quick to realize the desirability of controlling the natives through their most influential chiefs. Little Crow became quite popular with post traders and factors. He was an orator as well as a diplomat, and one of the first of his nation to indulge in politics and promote unstable schemes to the detriment of his people.

When the United States Government went into the business of acquiring territory from the Indians so that the flood of western settlement might not be checked, commissions were sent out to negotiate treaties, and in case of failure it often happened that a delegation of leading men of the tribe were invited to Washington. At that period, these visiting chiefs, attired in all the splendor of their costumes of ceremony, were treated like ambassadors from foreign countries.

Fort Snelling, where the Dakota prisoners were held in an interment camp over the winter after the trials and executions, also has information about its role.

The rest of the approximately 1,600 Dakota and “mixed-bloods” who surrendered at Camp Release (mostly women, children and the elderly) were removed to Fort Snelling where they spent the winter of 1862-63 in an internment camp, sometimes referred to as a concentration camp, below the fort (located in the present-day Fort Snelling State Park) to await forced relocation to western reservations.  According to reports in local newspapers and Dakota oral histories the prisoners endured assaults and violence at the hands of soldiers and local civilians. “Amid all this sickness and these great tribulations,” remembered Tiwakan (Gabriel Renville), a Sisseton Dakota man held in the camp, “it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning.”

Many detainees sold personal possessions in order to purchase food to supplement the military-issue rations they were given. Some of the “mixed-blood” people owned land vouchers that had been granted them in treaties with the U.S. government. These vouchers granted each head-of-household up to 640 acres of any unsurveyed, non-federal land in exchange for giving up claim to land in Minnesota. Many sold these vouchers to local businessmen at deflated prices in order to have cash in hand to provide for their families while in the stockade. Businessmen, such as Franklin Steele, profited by purchasing these vouchers and later selling them to land developers for large profits.

A definitive number is unknown, but it is estimated that somewhere between 130 and 300 people died within the camp, due mostly to malnutrition and disease resulting from the conditions inside the camp. Those remaining were taken by steamboats to western reservations in May 1863.

The narrative doesn’t mention this, assuming that those reading will know the area, but the camp was on river flats that would have been extra miserable in both winter and spring.

The Minnesota Historical Society also has a page centralizing information on the war. Most of the primary sources are not online, but one outstanding exception is the collection of images related to the war. They also recommend a number of books, several of them published by the Historical Society itself, including Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862.

With this wealth of information available, and particularly as more attention is paid to the war on its anniversary, if we remain in ignorance of these events, one can only conclude that we do it by choice.

Let Them Eat Grass
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12 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Grass

  1. 1

    I have heard of that war, but only because we visited the area for another purpose (genealogy) a number of years ago. It was of course overshadowed in the history books by the Civil War. A very sad series of events indeed.

  2. 2

    Here in Minnesota (at least in the 1970s and currently), schoolchildren were taught about this (although it was called the Sioux Uprising in the 70s). We were not taught about the Trail of Tears, other than in passing. I would hope that there are regional differences in what we are taught, but that we are all taught about the shameful things in our history, as well as the glorious things.

  3. 3

    … if we remain in ignorance of these events, one can only conclude that we do it by choice.

    As with (e.g.) Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, South Africa, Vietnam, Iran, Greece, Okinawa, Liberia, Palestine, the Philippines, Kosovo, Libya, Angola, Grenada, the Congo, Panama, Cambodia, Colombia, Indonesia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Laos, China, Mexico, Cuba, Somalia, Honduras, Chile… the US public chooses ignorance with such regularity that we should take the current roster of presidential wannabes as absolutely typical, perhaps archetypal.

  4. F

    Something else that bothers me is that even without knowledge of the specifics of history, we Euro-descendant people, even if our ancestors weren’t on the continent during the majority of the expansion, know that we did the Native cultures wrong at every turn, yet still seek to excuse it.

    And then there is what Pierce R. Butler notes. And we still never have stopped.

  5. 5

    Rache Maddow regularly says that the Afghan War is the longest war the US has ever fought. Everytime she does I mutter, to the long suffering annoyance of my wife, “only if you don’t count the Plains War and the Apache War.”

    All imperial powers have the same contempt for their conquests of smaller, weaker peoples. It’s not even correct to call it whitewashing. You’d have to think there was something wrong that need to be hidden to engage in whitewashing. Imperial conquests involve pushing aside inconvenient peoples who are in the way of the rightful spread of “civilization,” a concept that means us, not them. It has been so as long as writing has existed.

  6. 6

    I always knew (or suspected, at least) that American history was largely revisionist, and I usually take what’s considered to be common knowledge with a grain of salt. I’d never even heard of a US-Dakota War before today. Thanks for my history lesson.

    [note type=”side”]
    I read this on the train on the way to work this evening, and my first thought (other than how Nazi-esque it sounded to me) was what a great film this would make. I’ve got ideas for half of a screenplay in my head right now, in fact. “Let Them Eat Grass” would be a pretty awesome title for it, too.

  7. 7

    My great-great grandmother was Lakota. I’ve just started getting some of the genealogy from my mom (who’s done most of the research to this point) and I would like to learn more about the history of the area.

    The US government still owes tribes billions in land use and other fees that it probably never intends on paying. I’m most familiar with the southwest tribes, since that’s where I mostly grew up, but I’m sure the issues are similar for other nations.

  8. 8

    The Trail of Tears…. So I’ve got an interesting anecdote about that.

    When I was 13, I lived in Maryland. It was a nice liberal area about 30 miles outside of DC. I had just recently discovered my own (somewhat tenuous) Cherokee ancestry, and when assigned a report on ‘any subject in American history I chose’, I chose the Trail of Tears. I ended up doing a 15 minute presentation (when it was supposed to be 5) and got the best grade in the class and serious thumbs up and kudos from several teachers.
    Then, that summer, my family moved to Pennsylvania. And not some liberal outpost like Pittsburgh or Philly, either, but waaaay in the boonies, about 40 miles from the infamous Dover that had a trial recently that you probably heard of. (My father REALLY wanted to get away from those filthy liberals before they corrupted his kids, perhaps not realizing that it was too late for at least two of his sons…)
    Being the enterprising young lad that I was, I realized quite early on that I could recycle that presentation for use in my NEW American History class (which was incredibly boring BTW as PA curriculum was exactly 1 year behind the MD one, so all the classes I was taking were the exact same classes I had taken the year before – earth science, algebra, American history, and others).
    But when I told my new teacher that I intended to do a report on the Trail of Tears, I was told that it was ‘not an appropriate subject for school’. That there were ‘certain aspects of American history that weren’t covered until students were old enough to handle them’ (that is, college), and (most infuriating) that ‘there were students with Native American ancestry in the class that would be offended by the subject’. My protestations that I WAS one of those ‘potentially offended’ students did not seem to matter, and I was ‘encouraged’ to pick a different subject.
    Being a disagreeable sort, I chose the Japanese internment camps that America set up out west in WW2. This also turned out not to be an acceptable subject, and, having demonstrated that I was not competent to pick out something myself, was assigned the subject of Benjamin Franklin.
    So at least I managed to squeeze some nice, offensive French whores into my report. That got me detention.

    I still maintain that THEY should have known better.

  9. 9

    If the civil war had not got in the way,,,,,this event would be bigger than custer’s last stand,,,the fetterman massacre,,,the sand creek massacre AND wounded knee ,,PUT TOGETHER !!!!
    If a movie should be made about the outstanding historical event ,,,It would put Dances with wolves to shame.
    ken burns and dayton duncan and I and all the rest agree an EPIC world scale event should happen on the big screen,,,,,lets get it done huh ?????

  10. 10

    I had US schooling, and I never heard of the US-Dakota war before this article, either.

    I HAD heard of the Trail of Tears… last year, from a friend with Native ancestry, in a D&D internet chatroom. *headdesk*

  11. 11

    …I’d never heard of Franklin Steele, either, and now I know (via Wikipedia) that the aforementioned Fort Snelling and the reservation land around it got turned into Minneapolis.



    The US paid the Dakota an annuity the equivalent of 3 cents an acre, and charged settlers $1.25 an acre The US set aside two reservations for the Sioux along the Minnesota River, each about 20 miles (30 km) wide and 70 miles (110 km) long, which later were made temporary.


  12. 12

    I knew about the Dakota War, but my early education was heavily biased; I was exposed to a great deal of Sioux culture as a child living in the Black Hills, and having parents that worked with Native American high-school and college students.

    I am completely unsurprised at the lacking of education in this country, and despite history being my least favorite subject (as taught. Rote memorization of places and dates… whee? The stories themselves were interesting, and they ruined them with ‘schooling’!) I know many of these things. Thank whatever for my liberal education?

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