Monday, March 9, 2020

Review - "Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History" by Gary Clayton Anderson

[Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019). Cloth, 2 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,286/378. ISBN:978-0-8061-6434-2. $32.95]

The 1862-65 Dakota War began with the horrific massacre of hundreds of settlers in Minnesota by aggrieved factions of the Mdewakanton sub-tribe of Eastern (or Santee) Dakota reluctantly led by Little Crow. After several months of violence, the uprising in Minnesota was effectively quelled by the end of 1862. Spreading west out onto the Northern Plains, the 1863-65 phase of the war was a major U.S. military operation aimed at punishing the Dakota who committed crimes in Minnesota but escaped capture or voluntary surrender. What happened instead was the sparking of a wider conflict that created new enemies among the many powerful Dakota groups not involved with the original event.

The preponderance of popular and scholarly Dakota War studies still focus on the events of 1862. Among modern works, the 1959 publication of C.M. Oehler's The Great Sioux Uprising was followed by a steady stream of overviews displaying varying quality and points of emphasis. Some of the better-known works in this group are those from Kenneth Carley (1976), Duane Schultz (1992), Jerry Keenan (2003), and Hank Cox (2005). The settler killings (particular those that occurred during the first week) have been most comprehensively documented by Gregory Michno. Exploring 1863-65 events in Dakota Territory at greatest length are works from Micheal Clodfelter (1998) and Paul Beck (2013). Of course, this is just a sampling of the many books and articles available for the interested reader to consider. While, as stated above, a number of titles cover the tragic events of the second half of 1862, Gary Clayton Anderson's Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History clearly improves upon its general-approach antecedents in important ways. The author of a number of scholarly works associated with the topic, including biographies of Little Crow and Gabriel Renville, Anderson takes a fresh look at a host of underappreciated aspects of the Minnesota conflict and addresses significant gaps left in prior works of similar scope and type.

Though the uprising was sparked by a single incident of murder, every account of the 1862 Dakota conflict traces the fuel to the fire back to longstanding official corruption in the handling of treaty compensation and annuities. Without the means to buy food to supplement their failed crops, the Dakota living along the Minnesota River were facing dire straits in August 1862, their situation made worse by war-impacted delays in government payments and supplies combined with the indifference of traders who refused to issue further credit. Anderson's recounting of antebellum Indian relations and white settlement in Minnesota are much deeper than most, but his earnest depiction of the scale of corruption involved in the handling of the Dakota treaty in Minnesota really sets his book apart from prior studies. Though full documentary evidence is obviously unavailable, the author makes the case that a large percentage of treaty funds issued by the federal government were simply stolen by state politicians, Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, and traders. With some recent scholarship highlighting how Democratic Party corruption was a key (and apparently effective) wedge issue in the 1860 election, it is more than a little ironic that Republican war governor and staunch Lincoln ally Alexander Ramsey was allegedly one of the most egregious offenders in the matter.

While unexceptional in scope (certainly not on the level of Michno's grim, book-length study that is entirely devoted to the topic), Anderson's coverage of the Dakota massacre of settlers (a large proportion of whom were recent immigrants from northern Europe) that dominated the early days of the conflict nevertheless offers readers a more than adequate representation of the horrifying nature and vast scale of the event. The author accepts a figure of 600 deaths but does not explain in text or notes why he favors that particular number over other estimates found in the literature, which range between 400 and 1,000 men, women, and children. Coverage of the more military aspects of the conflict (including descriptions of the desperate fighting at Fort Ridgely, the town of New Ulm, Fort Abercrombie, and at the Battle of Wood Lake) is similarly solid. The ensuing panic from massacre and battles largely depopulated twenty-six Minnesota counties, creating an overwhelming refugee crisis in the state.

While the captive experience was traumatic in mind and spirit, especially for those who witnessed the killing of family members, an even worse fate awaited many young women and girls. Anderson is much more willing than most authors to directly address the controversial topic of rape, and his treatment of the subject is easily the most full, frank, and sensitive of the major Dakota War studies. Ties of kinship or friendship between captives and sympathetic Dakota mixed-bloods, Christian converts, and others who opposed the war protected some individuals, but other girls and women forcibly taken as Dakota "wives" were almost certainly raped. A few were subjected to serial sexual assault in the form of ritualized warrior bonding. In the subsequent military trials, only two Dakota defendants among those that willingly surrendered were convicted of rape, but outrage over the numerous reported acts committed by those still free undoubtedly prejudiced the conduct of judicial proceedings already far from legally sound.

The book's coverage of the military commission that tried the Dakota prisoners who did surrender is extensive, and Anderson joins the chorus of prior historians and writers in condemning the summary and completely irregular nature of the trial proceedings that eventually convicted over 300 men of capital crimes. Though many in the state fully expected all to die by hanging, religious advocates and the eastern press effectively lobbied against such an outcome. Eventually, President Lincoln assigned a pair of administration lawyers the task of sorting out the worst of the worst (i.e. those convicted of rape and/or the killing of settlers). The task was made difficult by the quality of evidence available, but 38 death sentences were confirmed in the end. In the most remembered event related to the war, these men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862. Though the author appropriately explores the trials and punishments in the twin contexts of ethnic animus and revenge, it might arguably have been worthwhile to also draw connections between the proceedings in Minnesota to the wider critique of the legal jurisdiction and conduct of Civil War military commissions as a whole.

In comparison to other general Dakota War studies, Anderson's book does draw more attention than most to the plight of the refugee victims of both sides. After being confined for many months in various places, the roughly 1,500 interned Dakota were temporarily relocated west in 1863 to the Crow Creek Reservation. The Minnesota treaties and annuities were abrogated, and the Dakota as a whole were banished from the state (even those bands that did not participate in the uprising or actively opposed it). Little Crow and most of the uprising's worst perpetrators escaped west into the Northern Plains, where they failed to strike a grand alliance with the Western Dakota. Also briefly traced in the book are the efforts on the part of Minnesota officials to obtain federal funds for property loss compensation and refugee care. Only a small fraction of what was needed or desired was obtained to enable settlers to return to their devastated homesteads, many of which were looted by opportunists. It appears to be unknown whether any state officials outraged over the paucity of federal financial and material aid felt any personal guilt over their own role in laying the groundwork of Dakota unrest.

As one can readily discern from this review, Anderson's study extends little beyond 1862. While it can be argued that coverage of the 1863-65 phase of the Dakota War lies beyond the scope of this particular book, at least some of the major actors were the same and readers wanting to know where all this directly led might have profited from a more informative summation than the very brief and selective one Anderson provides in the final chapter. It's a minor complaint, though.

The 1862 Dakota War was a tremendous tragedy all around, and it remains highly controversial today. The author himself says it quite well in his closing comments aimed at hero and victim advocates on either side, urging us to "finally remember that accounts that are designed to vilify or honor the actions of men and women who are undeserving of either only compound the problem associated with facing our past." Treating all aspects of the 1862 Dakota War with matching gravity, Gary Clayton Anderson's Massacre in Minnesota can justifiably lay claim to being the finest single-volume treatment of "the most violent ethnic conflict in American history." Highly recommended.


  1. Drew, I have read Michno and Beck, but there is a gap in coverage between the two books with Michno primarily covering August 62 and Beck covering 63 on. Do you have a particular favorite when it comes to the remainder of 1862?

    1. Chris,
      If you are referring to events as a whole, I like this book (Anderson's) now. But if you primarily mean military coverage (of Birch Coulee, Ft. Ridgely, Wood Lake, etc.), I don't have a preferred favorite that sticks out above the rest.



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