In the Spotlight

News & Features

Broken promises lead to war
By Mark Steil and Tim Post
Minnesota Public Radio
September 26, 2002

Attack on New Ulm
Closeup of The Second Battle of New Ulm, by Anton Gag, 1904.
(Courtesy of Brown County Historical Society)

The war spread quickly. The main fighting was in the Minnesota River valley, but extended south to Iowa and west to the Dakotas. Major battle sites included New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee and Wood Lake.

The war lasted five weeks. U.S. troops finally broke the Dakota offense. It was a bloody end to years of turbulent relations. Dakota spiritual leader Gary Cavendar says one of the great lessons of 1862 is a simple one.

"We should learn that when you make a deal, you're making a deal. And hold to those deals, hold to those issues that you made in that deal," says Cavendar. "No matter if the man carries a rifle or a bow and arrow, you're on equal terms, because you both have something that the other one wants."

The Dakota signed several treaties with the government in the years leading up to the war. They were basically land for money swaps. But the Indians lost faith in the government after it reneged on promises. Six years before the war, a government farming supervisor on the Dakota reservation wrote of the resentment.

Gary Cavendar
Gary Cavendar is a Dakota spiritual leader in Prior Lake, Minn. His great-grandmother was marched, along with thousands of Dakota, to Ft. Snelling after the attacks. Cavendar says his great-grandmother told him horrible stories of what happened on the march. Listen to his story.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

"It cannot be wondered at that the Indians are dissatisfied and constantly complaining. They often go as far as to accuse the government of stealing their moneys. Nay, they have at times asserted the same thing of the President and all the officials under him," the report read.

Indians were not the only ones to condemn goverment treatment of the Dakota and other tribes. In 1867, Congress set up something called the Indian Peace Commission. Among its members was the famous Civil War general William Sherman.

In its report to the president, the commission said the federal government had treated Indians unjustly. One passage was especially critical of the federal bureaucrats who doled out the money and goods promised by treaty.

"That there are many bad men connected with the service cannot be denied. The records are abundant to show that gents have pocketed the funds appropriated by the government, and driven the Indians to starvation. It cannot be doubted that Indian wars have originated from this cause. The Sioux War in Minnesota is supposed to have been produced in this way," the commission report said.

But in Minnesota, after the war there was no sympathetic ear for the Indians. There was no acknowledgement of the role that broken treaties and corrupt bureaucrats played in the war. When the fighting ended, the worst was still ahead for the Dakota. They lost the war and would soon lose their nation.

More from MPR
  • Next: Hundreds of settlers killed in attacks
  • Back to main page