United States-Dakota War of 1862: Causes & Results

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The American West was full of violent conflicts between the US government and Native American nations. In this lesson, we'll explore the United States-Dakota War of 1862 and see how it impacted the development of the Midwest.

The United States-Dakota War

If you drive through Minnesota today, you'll see billboards along major highways that say 'Minnesota Nice'. Honestly, what else would you expect from Minnesota? Well, friendliness might be a major priority of the state today, but its history has not always been so kind. In the 19th century, when Minnesota was on the frontier of American settlement, settlers often ran into conflict with Native Americans already living there. The results could be pretty terrible. Such was the case with the violent conflict between the United States government and the Dakota people of Minnesota in 1862. The United States-Dakota War of 1862 was not a great moment in Minnesotan history, but it did have some major impacts.

Early 20th century painting of the US-Dakota War


The background to the US-Dakota War really begins back in 1851, when the United States government and the Dakota people signed two treaties confining the Dakota to a reservation on the Minnesota River. The Dakota moved onto the reservation, but soon found that other aspects of the treaty would not be upheld. Money and supplies promised by the government never arrived, and the rations for the people to live on were being withheld by agents within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Once the United States entered its civil war in 1861, things only got worse for the Dakota. More and more reservation land was taken away, the annuities and compensations owed to the Dakota never arrived, and food was scarce. With their people starving, the Dakota in 1862 sent representatives to the Bureau of Indian Affairs agency office to negotiate for food, at one point even offering to purchase it on credit. Most of the groups were completely denied.

War Breaks Out

In August of 1862, four young Dakota men on a hunting trip killed five white settlers. That action prompted the rest of the Dakota to come together and form a war council dedicated to eliminating the threat of white settlers. Led by Little Crow, the Dakota warriors attacked the agency office and were able to hastily defeat the 24-man infantry sent to stop them. They moved along the Minnesota River Valley, killing or scaring off white settlers. The citizens of the Minnesota town of New Ulm managed to form a barricade and fight off the attacking Dakota, who moved onto other settlements and defeated additional US troops.

Chief Little Crow of the Dakota

Eventually, the United States army managed to muster together a sizable force, although this took some doing since they were busy fighting the Civil War. In September, the Dakota and US armies met at the Battle of Wood Lake. In the end, the Dakota were defeated. Most of the Dakota formally surrendered on September 26, 1862, while some fled to Canada. Little Crow was eventually killed by a white settler who wanted to collect the bounty on the Dakota leader.

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