A Minnesota Century: The Battle of Sugar Point
By Annie Feidt
January 24, 1999
Americans often remember the battle at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890, as the last armed conflict between the U.S. Army and American Indians. But a forgotten battle that took place on Minnesota's Leech Lake Indian reservation eight years later actually holds that place in history.
Letter reading: We, the undersigned chiefs and headmen of the Pillager band of Chippewa Indians of Minnesota, respectfully represent that our people are carrying a heavy burden, and in order that they may not be crushed by it, we humbly petition you to send a commission, to investigate the existing troubles here.The U.S. Government did little to respond to the Ojibwe's concerns. Meanwhile, in an unrelated event, a U.S. Deputy Marshal arrived on the reservation with orders to arrest two band members for a crime related to a liquor violation. As many as 40 Indians quickly overtook the Marshal and freed the pair. The Deputy Marshal went back to his base in Walker, Minnesota and sent a telegraph to St. Paul asking for military assistance to arrest everyone who helped free the men. On the morning of October 5th, a company of about 80, mostly inexperienced, U.S. soldiers ate a breakfast of bacon and eggs, then boarded boats for Sugar Point.
Mckeig : Nobody anticipated it would turn into a real battle.Cecelia Mckeig is writing a book on the battle and is helping to develop an interpretive center at Leech Lake to memorialize the conflict.
Mckeig: These soldiers were sent to support the marshals in their attempt to serve the warrant. Once they got to Sugar Point, they didn't anticipate that battle. This was more of an adventure, in the style of going off to the frontier. There was a lot of laughing, joking by the soldiers, they didn't take it seriously.When the soldiers arrived at Sugar Point, they spent nearly three hours trying to find the suspects.
Mckeig: Soldiers had specific men in mind to serve warrants to. There were Indian men who had weapons. Soldiers saw them but did not attempt arrest. Those warriors also did not make any effort to take the offensive. So it was a standoff. One of the Indian men approached the soldiers and asked him why they were there. They said they were there for sport. Duck hunting.The soldiers gathered in a small clearing to have lunch. According to newspaper accounts, when a young recruit went to stack his gun, it fell out of his hands and fired off a shot as it hit the ground.
Mckeig: When the gun went off, the Indian men surrounding it could not see what happened. They took it as a signal to return fire, and that's what happened. That's when a lot of the causalties happened. Because the Indians shot into the clearing and the soldiers didn't have time to even take cover, it was just a reaction.
Brill: The Indians were in the underbrush and our little band of 70 soldiers fought stubbornly all day. We had lost nine killed including Captain Wilkinson who was in command, and 14 severely wounded. We had been unable to dislodge the Indians.William Brill, a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter, followed the troops into battle. The commander in charge felt confident enough about the incident to allow four reporters from the major dailies to witness the action first-hand. The officers and reporters took refuge in a log hut, while soldiers slept in the trenches around it.
Brill: The log house, the abode of an old Indian, was dirty and ill-smelling. We carried the bodies of the dead into the house and layed them in one corner. The wounded were placed in another corner and everything possible was done for them, but the lack of medicines and appliances made it impossible to assist them to any great extent.
Mckeig: There was preparations being made on both sides for a much larger conflict. What probably happened is that after the initial conflict, the Indian warriors did not pursue their advantage even though boats left the soldiers on shore without provisions, without blankets, food, ammunition. There must have been decisions made by the Indian warriors at the site that they were not going to push this advantage.Boats came to rescue the troops and most of the warriors eventually turned themselves in and faced trial in Duluth. A judge sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from 60 days to 10 months, but no one in the group served out their entire term. A missionary from a neighboring tribe negotiated for the men to receive full pardons from President McKinley in early January of 1899. By 1902, Congress had passed a law requiring Timber companies to pay for any tree that was taken from the reservation.
But the battle did more than just halt destructive timber practices on the reservation. It marked a relatively quiet, and largely forgotten, end to almost three centuries of warfare that had decimated Indian populations and forced tribes onto smaller and smaller parcels of land. The battle of Sugar Point, with its accidental beginning, handed a small victory to a group of American Indian warriors who had already lost the larger battle to preserve their way of life.
This story was produced by Annie Feidt, with help from Sasha Aslanian and Kate Kuhn. We had reporting help from Tom Robertson in Bemidji. Jim Northrop read the Ojibwe letter, Dan Hopman read the part of reporter William Brill.
The music used in this presentation is from the movie soundtrack "Brother's Keeper". The music was composed and performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
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