Massacre!

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A brief word about the geography of the situation. Southwestern Minnesota was filling with settlers, and the Sioux had been deprived of all their land except a shoestring reservation one hundred and fifty miles long and ten miles wide on the south side of the upper Minnesota River. The affairs of this long strip were administered from two centers, or agencies. Lower Agency was in the area where the villages of the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute tribes of the Sioux nation stood; Little Crow and the other Indians involved in the midnight council belonged to these tribes. Some forty miles up the river was Upper Agency, which took care of the affairs of the Wahpeton and Sisseton Sioux. Both agencies were busy communities with government offices, warehouses, schools, and traders’ stores. Little Crow’s hope was that the Wahpetons and Sissetons would join the war, and possibly even the Yanktons, Tetons, and other Siouan tribes from farther west.

The Indians had many legitimate grievances. Most of their hunting grounds had been taken away. They had been granted considerable sums of money for their various land cessions, but strange claimants were paid large amounts for various vague services, and many of the Indians received nothing. And each time the annual pay tables were set up, traders were present to demand money for goods sold to Indians on credit; the traders were paid oft without being made to present the most elementary proof of their claims. Things were especially bad this August of 1862 because the Indians had delayed a buffalo hunt into Dakota Territory to wait for the annuity payment which ordinarily came in early July, but still had not arrived.

The council had broken up very late, and not long afterward, well before full morning light, Indians came quietly into Lower Agency, splitting into groups which took up positions at the various buildings. Early-rising whites who saw Indians around so early were mildly puzzled but unsuspecting. It was one of the characteristics of this bloodiest of all Indian uprisings that so many of its victims knew no apprehension almost until they felt the shock of a bullet striking their bodies.

James Lynd, clerk in a trader’s store and sire of several children by Sioux girls he found plenty of time to woo but not enough to marry, met a bullet as he came to the door and so won the distinction of being the first to die. Upstairs, Andrew Myrick, Lynd’s employer, jumped from a window but was shot down before he could reach shelter in a clump of brush. The Sioux were especially interested in Myrick. A few weeks earlier, he had cut off further credit to Indians and had shrugged away remonstrances that some might starve. “Let them eat grass,” he had said. Many days later, when white forces were able to return to Lower Agency, they found Myrick’s body, the mouth stuffed with prairie grass.

Others were slain in those first minutes, but fortunately for the befuddled whites, the Indians became overwhelmed by the rich loot open to them and temporarily gave up killing in favor of pillage and arson. Most of the terrified whites made their way to the river ferry. The ferryman, a hero whose name is not even known for certain, might easily have escaped, but he stayed with his boat and carried perhaps fifty persons to safety before the Sioux noticed what was going on and put a stop to it by shooting and killing him.

Those who had been ferried to the north bank of the river headed toward Fort Ridgely, about fifteen miles to the southeast. Not all made it. Thirteen were killed at the Agency and another ten in flight; ten women were taken captive. Two or three persons were saved through the intercession of individual Sioux they had befriended, but more often old friends of the Indians were killed without mercy. Philander Prescott, for instance, had lived with the Sioux for more than forty years as an interpreter and good friend and was married to a Sioux woman. But he was overtaken while fleeing toward Fort Ridgely and shot down.

There was smoke and blood and the smell of death in many places that day. While Chief Little Crow personally led the attack on the Agency, other bands were ranging wide. In Milford Township, a good twenty miles south of the Indian villages, fifty German settlers were slain. On the north side of the river near present-day Sacred Heart, twenty-five were butchered and a number of women and children taken captive. As many as several hundred may have died that first day; no one will ever know because many died without any survivors to report their fates.

Adult males were killed, with few exceptions. Women were sometimes taken captive, sometimes slain, as suited the whim of the Sioux. Some children were allowed to go into captivity with their mothers, but others were brutally beaten to death. There were instances of atrocities and mutilations, but they appear to have been the exception to the general rule. Even so, death at the hands of a Sioux war party was as hard and bitter as death by violence always is.