Massacre!

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The day was August 17, 1862, a Sunday when most of the settlers in southwestern Minnesota were taking a Sabbath rest in the midst of the farmers’ yearly race to get in the ripe grain while the weather stayed good. If it was like most days in a Minnesota harvest season, there was a blue haze along the prairie horizon and the dusty smell of dry grass and wheat stubble in the air.

It was, above all, a peaceful day, and the small band of a score or so of Sioux hunters passing the scattered farms of Acton Township in Meeker County, on their way home from the Big Woods to the north, added no note of menace. Beyond begging and petty thievery, the Sioux had given the settlers little trouble; even when most of their vast hunting lands were taken from them, they only complained and grumbled but did not resist. Of course, there had been the massacre five years earlier of thirty settlers at Spirit Lake just across the border in Iowa, but Inkpaduta and his small band, who were responsible, were outlaws, disowned by their own tribesmen.

The Minnesota hunting party, though, was in a rather snappish mood. Hunting had been poor, they were hungry, and there were still some forty miles between them and home, which was the village at Rice Creek, across the Minnesota River, ruled by Red Middle Voice. And at this time, the fates so arranged it that one of them should discover a nest of eggs in the grass beside the road, left there by a settler’s far-ranging hen.

One man began to gather up this unexpected gift of food; another cautioned him that they belonged to a white man and that trouble might ensue. The first thereupon smashed the eggs to show his disdain for whites and jeered at the other for being a coward. The argument became acrimonious, sides were taken, and finally the majority turned down a different road after boasting to the cautious one and the three who had taken his part that they were going to kill some whites, and daring the four to do the same.

It was a challenge the quartet did not know how to evade, and after some indecision they turned into a farmyard where three white families were gathered for a Sunday visit. The Sioux proposed a shooting match, and when the guns of the whites were empty, they turned on their hosts and killed three men and two women. Then, their brief spell of courage over, the four Indians stole horses and headed for home, arriving after dark.

When they told their story, messengers were sent at once through the night to other villages, summoning an immediate council at the house of Chief Little Crow, most important leader of the Lower Sioux. It was a bitter council, and came close to blows. Some chiefs called for war, arguing that the whites would extract reprisals indiscriminately and that the Sioux should strike first. Besides, what better time to redress their many grievances, when so many young white men were away fighting their own Civil War? Others, like Chiefs Wabasha and Wacouta, were eloquent champions of peace—and would remain so even during the fighting. Little Crow spoke at first, like the peace chiefs, about the certainty of defeat, but later, in a startling change of direction, said that he would lead them nevertheless.

It would prove to be a fateful decision, for the hostilities about to begin would continue to erupt into intermittent wars and ambuscades for almost three decades. There would be many setbacks for the white man, but in the end there would be nothing but complete and hopeless defeat for the Sioux; the inevitable conclusion at the euphemistically named Battle of Wounded Knee would see soldiers using rifles, bayonets, and artillery on ragged and starving Indians, largely women and children, who had already surrendered. But all this lay far ahead on that August night when the decision was made.

There seemed to be every reason why Little Crow should want to avoid war with the whites. After a dissipated youth, he had settled down and become a sober and responsible leader. He was gradually adopting some of the white man’s ways: he farmed a little, lived in a wooden house, wore trousers, and only the morning before the council had attended services at the agency chapel, although he did not profess Christianity. But other Sioux were beginning to sneer at him as a “cut-hair” and a lackey of the whites, and he had recently been defeated for re-election to the important position of speaker of the Lower Sioux. These things must have rankled deeply, and made him see in war a chance, even though a forlorn and desperate one, to retrieve his slipping reputation.