Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History, by Gary Clayton Anderson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2019, $32.95
Gary Clayton Anderson, the author of a dozen books about American Indians and U.S. history, shares a new perspective on events leading to the 1862 Dakota War (aka Sioux Uprising) in Minnesota. Researching and documenting the treaties of 1851 and 1858 between the Dakota Sioux and the federal government, the author concludes both pacts failed, and he places the blame primarily on the corrupt practices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Only a fraction of the money Congress sent to the Indians ever reached them. Lack of money led to a lack of food, accompanied by famine and, finally, uprising and the war.
Anderson also refutes the longstanding belief Little Crow was the prime mover of the Dakotas’ decision to attack the whites, his stance in fact being more moderate. “Rather than a symbol of butchery—there is no evidence that Little Crow ever killed anyone—he was the ultimate example of the tragic nature of the Minnesota-Dakota War,” the author writes. Blamed for the uprising at the time, the chief suffered humiliation that did not end with his death. His killers became heroes and received a $500 reward, while Little Crow’s scalp, skull and forearms resided in the Minnesota Historical Society archives until repatriated to South Dakota for burial in 1971.
The author lavishes considerable attention on the dilemma President Abraham Lincoln faced regarding the fate of Dakota prisoners after soldiers finally crushed the uprising. Ultimately, instead of executing 303, as the Army wanted, the president ordered the execution of only 39, subsequently whittling it down to 38. Even then, it represented the largest mass hanging in American history.
Anderson lets the Indians relate their perspective, drawing on three dozen Dakota and mixed-blood narratives published in Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862, a collection he edited with Alan R. Woolworth more than 30 years ago.
Massacre in Minnesota provides a balanced understanding of how that state’s experiment with coexistence between Indians and white settlers failed. Readers interested in the history of the Indian wars stand to learn more about the Sioux’s bloodiest single conflict in this insightful book.