Big Mound

 

Sand Creek. Little Big Horn. Wounded Knee. These places are well known to historians in the history of what is collectively known as the Sioux Wars. Big Mound. This place is obscure despite being one of the earliest conflicts in the Sioux Wars that began with the Grattan "Massacre" at Fort Laramie in 1854. The next major conflict would not come for another eight years and would lead to the events that took place on the plains of Dakota in July of 1863.

 

In 1862 relations between white settlers and Dakotas in Minnesota were deteriorating. Pushed onto small reservations along the Minnesota River the Dakota had lost most of their homelands to settlement through dubious treaties and now new settlers were pushing onto reservation lands. Crop failures and annuity payments that failed to arrive added to the tensions (1). Little Crow, a chief of the Mdewakanton band of Dakota, met with his agent, Thomas Galbraith, at the Lower Agency in an attempt to secure the annuity payments his people were owed, or at least some food from the storehouse. Galbraith, unsure what to do, turned to his traders for advice. One of them, Andrew Myrick, said, "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.(2)" This remark inflamed Little Crow but he returned to his village peacefully though empty handed.

 

It could be said that some chicken eggs set off the Dakota War of 1862 (also known as the "Sioux Uprising"). On a Sunday in August four Dakota came across a hen's nest with some eggs in it along a fence on the homestead of Robinson Jones. One of the Indians took the eggs and another warned him not to do so, for they belonged to a white man. This made the Indian with the eggs angry and he threw them on the ground proclaiming, " You are a coward. You are afraid of the white man. You are afraid to take even an egg from him, though you are half starved (3)." The other replied, " I am not a coward. I am not afraid of the white man, and to show you that I am not I will go to the house and shoot him (4)." The four Indians went to the Jones house to make good on their word. Jones became alarmed and went to a neighbors place; the Indians followed and eventually killed Jones and his neighbor. 

 

That evening the four rode into Little Crow's village and informed him of what they had done. Little Crow was angry but after holding a council decided enough was enough and it was time to go to war with the whites and try to drive them out (5). What resulted was attacks on white settlements across Minnesota. Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed Henry Hastings Sibley, a former trader that was familiar with the Santee Dakota, to the Sixth Minnesota Regiment to put down this "uprising (6)." The conflict ended on September 25 with surrender at Camp Release. (7) The result of Little Crow's war on Minnesota was an estimated 400 to 644 civilians killed by the Dakota, not to mention extensive damage (8). Those captured were subjected to a kangaroo court and 303 were sentenced to die by hanging. President Abraham Lincoln signed off on only 39 to be hanged, and one more was eventually pardoned. On December 26 the citizens of Mankato gathered around a gigantic gallows to watch these 38 men be hanged (9). It remains the largest mass execution in American history. 

 

The citizens of Minnesota were still not satisfied with the punishment of the Dakota following the uprising. In addition there were raids by Dakota Indians on settlements in Minnesota, Dakota, and Nebraska in the spring of 1863, making settlers concerned about more violence (10). Major general John Pope, commander of the Military Department of the Northwest, devised a plan to punish the Indians. It was a pincer move that involved on force, commanded by Sibley, to march from Minnesota towards the Missouri River via Devils Lake, driving the Indians ahead of them. The other force, commanded by General Alfred Sully, would push up the Missouri River from Fort Pierre and cut off the Indian's escape. The combined forces of Sibley and Sully would then destroy the Sioux (11).

 

While Sibley was preparing to head west the plains of what is now central North Dakota were seeing bands of Dakota and their Lakota cousins gathering to hunt buffalo for winter food stores. These were hunting parties consisting of young men and their families and the elders of the village. While the young hunters were also warriors this expedition was out only to acquire food and supplies. There were some members of the group that had participated in the violence in Minnesota the previous year, but most were peacefully intentioned Sioux who had never attacked any whites.

 

Sibley's brigade departed for Dakota in June 1863. On July 24 Sibley encountered an Indian camp north of present day Tappen, ND. Sibley made camp on the southeast shore of an alkali lake (present day Lake Kunkel). Scout Joe LaFramboise was sent to the Indian camp to give a message to Standing Buffalo, who was believed to be a peaceful chief, to parley with Sibley. While Sibley entrenched his camp more and more Sioux warriors could be seen to be gathering on a large hill about a mile away known as Big Mound (12).

 

Under an ominous sky on a small hillock about 400 yards from Sibley's camp a group of Sisseton, Wahpekute, and Yanktonais Dakota gathered and signaled they wished to talk with Sibley. Hearing mixed reports of the true intentions of these Indians Sibley sent word he would only talk with Standing Buffalo in the soldier's camp. Dr. Josiah S. Weiser, the surgeon of the cavalry regiment, sighted several Sisseton friends from a more peaceful time back in Minnesota and rode out to greet them (13). While Dr. Weiser was talking in Dakota to several Indians a warrior named Tall Crown approached from behind and shot and killed him (14). It is believed Tall Crown, who participated in the events in Minnesota the previous year, feared the soldiers were there to arrest him. It is also believed he may have mistook Dr. Weiser for Sibley (15). The killing of Dr. Weiser commenced what was known as the Battle of Big Mound.

 

The scouts and the Indians that were meeting on the hill immediately began firing at one another. Sibley directed Colonel McPhail to take three companies of Mounted Rangers to recover Dr. Weiser's body. Sibley's soldiers advanced on Big Mound with rifle and howitzer fire, which began to drive the Indians towards the west (16). McPhail's Rangers advanced to a high peak to cut off the retreating Sioux. It was on this small hill (later known as McPhail's Butte) that the brooding skies had opened up and lightning struck and killed Private John Murphy (17).

 

At the Indian camp to the south the sound of gunfire alarmed the Sioux and they began to break camp to flee. At this point the warriors were only concerned with stalling Sibley and McPhail's troops while their women and children could take off towards the Missouri River. Through the evening McPhail continued his pursuit of the Sioux finally breaking it off at a slough known as Dead Buffalo Lake. McPhail intended to make camp but a bungled message from Lieutenant Frederick Beaver made McPhail believe Sibley wished him to return to camp. This allowed the Sioux an additional day to continuing fleeing towards the Missouri rather than be annihilated by McPhail in the morning (18).

 

On July 25 Sibley moved to a place he called Camp Whitney. It was here that Dr. Weiser was buried. Part of the camp is preserved as a tiny state park and Dr. Weiser's grave is marked by a cairn and headstone (19). Over the following days Sibley skirmished with the Sioux at Dead Buffalo Lake and Stony Lake. As with Big Mound the warriors were primarily trying to stall Sibley's troops in order to give their families time to escape across the Missouri River. After reaching the Missouri Sibley looked for any sign of Sully advancing from the south (low water and dry conditions had slowed his advance). Seeing none Sibley declared success in driving the "hostiles" out of eastern Dakota and headed back towards Minnesota. After Sibley was gone the Sioux promptly crossed the river to continue their buffalo hunting (20). In their flight to the Missouri the Sioux had lost much of what they had gathered up that summer along with numerous other personal items.

 

Charles Eastman was a young child at the time of these battles and recalled the retreat from Big Mound: "In our flight, we little folks were strapped in the saddles or held in front of an older person, and in the long night marches to get away from the soldiers, we suffered from loss of sleep and insufficient food. Our meals were eaten hastily, and sometimes in the saddle. Water was not always to be found. The people carried it with them in bags formed of tripe or the dried pericardium of animals (21)." 

 

Big Mound became indicative of the battles and massacres that were to follow in the west. As with Big Mound the military would be used again and again to "punish" the Indians, regardless of if they were guilty of anything or not, and push them out of the way of white settlers. 

 

These pictures are meant simply to be a survey of Big Mound and the surrounding landscape as it appears over 150 years after the Sioux were pushed out. The grassland has been mostly replaced by farm land, and trees are growing where there were previously few to be found. The alkali lakes remain and are just as salty as they were when Sibley was trying to find fresh water for his men and horses. Monuments and signs have been erected to indicate where Dr. Weiser was killed, McPhail's Butte, and the battlefield, however there's no indication that any Indians were ever killed there or what they were doing there in the first place.

 

While perhaps not as important as the Little Big Horn or the Fetterman "Massacre" Big Mound still has its place in history.  

 

1. Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1961), 2-6

2. Brown, Dee. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. (New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1970), 39-42

3. Carley, 7.

4. Brown, 43.

5. Brown, 42-45.

6. Clodfelter, Michael. The Dakota War. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1998), 49.

7. Clodfelter, 57.

8. Clodfelter, 66.

9. Carley, 70-75.

10. Clodfelter, 71-79.

11. Gilman, Rhoda R. Henry Hastings Sibley. ( St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2004), 193.

12. Clodfelter, 94-95.

13. Clodfelter, 95.

14. Beck, Paul N. Inkpaduta: Dakota Leader (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 2008), 121.

15. Clodfelter, 95.

16. Clodfelter, 97.

17. "McPhail's Butte Overlook State Historic Site" <http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/sibleysully/mcphail.html> (14 February 2016). 

18. Clodfelter, 99-101.

19. "Camp Whitney State Historic Site" <http://history.nd.gov/historicsites/sibleysully/whitney.html> (14 February 2016).

20. Clodfelter, 101-114.

21. Eastman, Charles A. Indian Boyhood. (New York: Dover, 1971 edition), 13.