Several of the great Dakota or Sioux tribes have become well-known through history and legend. The Hunkpapas with Sitting Bull, the Oglalas led by Red Cloud and later Crazy Horse, the Brule under Spotted Tail, and the Santees with Little Crow, are familiar names to many people. But the Yanktonais and Hunkpatinas, however, have received little attention in history books and have remained relatively obscure. Likewise, the battle at Whitestone Hill has been given little notice in American frontier history despite historian Elwyn Robinson's observation that it was "the bloodiest ever fought on North Dakota soil."
While doing research for a novel that highlights the Minnesota Uprising of 1862, I made plans to visit the areas involved with my story. These areas included southwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota. As I looked over the North Dakota map, by sheer chance I happened upon the Whitestone Hill Historic Site. I'd never heard of it but was about to find out its special significance to the American frontier. It was the largest mass execution ever to take place in the United States, and it was carried out in retribution for the most brutal Indian uprising in the nation's history. In less than one week in August, the Dakotah-Sioux went on a rampage throughout Minnesota that left hundreds of white settlers dead.
But the uprising had ramifications that went far beyond the killing ground. It marked the outbreak of a series of wars between whites and Indians over the Great Plains that did not end until 1890, almost thirty years later, at a place called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. These conflicts became the longest war United States troops would ever fight.
The autumn of 1863 saw the Yanktonai and the Hunkpatina Sioux camped at Whitestone Hill doing as they had for generations, hunting buffalo and preparing the meat for winter. On September 3, General Alfred Sully traveled into Dakota Territory hoping to locate and punish the Santee Sioux who had fled after the Minnesota Uprising. What he found instead was nearly 4,000 peaceful Indians camped at Whitestone Hill. They were Yanktonai and Hunkpatina, and they had played no part in the rampage in Minnesota. Yet this mattered little to General Sully. His mission was to eliminate Indians, and if they were peaceful, "it only made the job easier."
Looking back, it is believed that the battle at Whitestone Hill represented a type of Army-Indian warfare that became common on the western frontier, a method of warfare that had a devastating effect on the Indian way of life. When the 1863 Battle at Whitestone Hill is viewed in conjunction with the 1864 Sand Creek massacre, the 1868 Washita River massacre, and the massacre at Slim Buttes, its significance in the history of the American West becomes obvious. In November, 1863, Sam Brown, a 19-year-old interpreter at Crow Creek, wrote to his father regarding the Whitestone Battle: "I hope you will not believe all that is said of "Sully's Successful Expedition," against the Sioux. I don't think he aught to brag of it at all, because it was, what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them, worse a great deal than what Indians did in 1862, he killed very few men and took no hostile ones prisoners...and now he returns saying that we need fear no more, for he has "wiped out all hostile Indians from Dakota." If he had killed men instead of women and children, then it would have been a success, and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever, the Nebraska 2nd pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa 6th were shaking hands with them on one side, the soldiers even shot their own men."
Our trip to North Dakota started at Fort Abercrombie, nestled in the famous Red River Valley. The historic site and museum were nearly deserted on this day, leaving us to explore the area freely. I don't know if it was the site itself or the way the breeze came up off the river that made it so easy for me to picture those early days of Dakota. I could see the riverboats docked along the shore and hear the swinging of hammers as laymen worked steadily inside the fort. But most of all I could picture the Wahpeton-Sioux camped across the river and their white-birch canoes cutting through the still water.
In the early days, Fort Abercrombie formed the gateway through which pioneers passed on their way to the Dakotas. It was also the starting point for navigation down the Red River to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet it is best known for the Siege of 1862, a continuation of the Minnesota Uprising. Hunger had stalked the reservation for years, but especially during the spring and summer of 1862. The crops had failed and malnutrition was widespread. Many Indians looked hollow-eyed and gaunt. Because leaving the reservation was frowned upon, they had been reduced to eating horses and dogs and roots and shriveled ears of corn. Little Crow, the Sioux chief who preached harmony with the whites, was forced to sell his weapons to feed his children. A few Indians had already died.
This was not the first year the Indians had known hunger when spring turned to summer, but in the past they had been saved from total starvation by the arrival of the federal annuity payment. They had believed that they had only to hold out until the end of June and the provisions specified in the latest treaty would be distributed. But June turned to August with no sign of payment. As the weeks passed, the traders and store merchants grew more anxious about the money. Although the Sioux depended on them for food and supplies, the traders suddenly cut the Indians' credit. By then, they had heard rumors that Washington might fail to pay the annuity as the Nation was locked in Civil War.
As it was, the Sioux rarely had the chance to ever see their money. Each year, as they lined up to be paid by the Indian agent, the traders would step forward with their account books, filled with pages of symbols that were meaningless to the Indians, and tell the government representative how much each man owed. No one checked the accuracy of the traders' records, and the agent simply handed over the requested funds. As Duane Schultz writes from his novel, Over the Earth I Came, "The Sioux had become economic prisoners, constantly being told they owed more and more money to the storekeepers. As the buffalo, deer, and game birds on which they had once lived so well became scarce, because of the encroaching white settlers, the Indians were ever more dependent on the goodwill of the traders and the promises of the federal government. All too often, the merchants cheated them shamelessly, and the government willfully ignored its solemn treaty commitments."
That summer of 1862, as the Sioux were starving, the Upper and Lower agency warehouses were stuffed with food, yet the Indian agent refused to distribute any of it. This mystified and angered the Indians, who, after being denied credit by the storekeepers, were now forced to watch their children die. The last straw came at a meeting between the Sioux chiefs and Indian agents. Little Crow stated the Indians' concerns. "We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores filled with food. We ask that you make some arrangement by which we may get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves."
In response, merchant Andrew Myrick told the chiefs, "So far as I'm concerned, if you are hungry go eat the grass, or your own dung." The Indians remained motionless and silent for a moment, then jumped up and shouted their disapproval as they walked out.
On Sunday, August 17th, four teenage Sioux killed a white family of five in a dispute over farm eggs. Rather than hand the boys over to the army, some of the Sioux chiefs decided the time to fight had come upon them. By dawn the next day, the horrible uprising had begun. At approximately the same hour, a government wagon left St. Paul, carrying $71,000 in gold coins. The long overdue annuity payment was finally on its way.
Little Crow had never wanted to battle the white man. He was highly intelligent, had the bearing of a gentleman, and was an expert in dealing with the media of the day. Both on the reservation and in Washington he charmed reporters with his wit and subtle use of sarcasm. He knew the futility of trying to subdue the dominant culture. Indeed, he gave the most impassioned speech of his life to the young warriors who came to him that morning of August 17th. He had never been more forceful, more passionate, more persuasive, and if he had stopped, there might never have been a war. But in a desperate last attempt, a chief who favored war declared Little Crow a coward who was really afraid of the white man. In a resigned, nearly desolate voice, Little Crow responded, "I am not a coward. I will die with you."
Down south, Robert E. Lee was faced with the same dilemma, and in the end, intellect was thrown to the wind as both Little Crow and the great General followed their hearts and fought for their homeland. We can only imagine their thoughts as they watched their youth die in battle while the enemy overpowered their land.
And so it was that by the end of that September in 1862, the Uprising had been crushed, and the hostiles fled to Canada and South Dakota. Little Crow had failed to unite the seven tribes of Sioux, in fact the Wahpetonwans and Sissitonwans, the tribes friendly to the settlers at Fort Abercrombie, threatened a counter war to prevent trouble. This may explain why so little damage and death occurred during the so-called three-week siege at Fort Abercrombie.
After spending an entire day at the fort, Richard and I traveled to Whitestone Hill, where in September 1863, one year after the Uprising, cavalry troops led by General Alfred Sully pitched into a peaceful camp of Yanktonai in an attempt to punish hostile Sioux. After it was over, 300 Indians were dead, nearly half of them women and children. What may have been worse was the burning of 500,000 pounds of buffalo meat - the entire winter supply of meat for the Yanktonai and Hunkpatina tribes. To show the extent of their loss, it took a party of 100 men over two days to gather up the meat and burn it. It was reported that the melted tallow ran down the valley in a stream. And the destruction didn't stop there. The army also destroyed all the teepees, buffalo skins, blankets, utensils, and hatchets, virtually everything the Indians possessed. In the end, the loss was so severe, that it ended the plains life for the Yanktonais.
Traveling west from Fort Abercrombie over the Sibley Trail is the Whitestone Hill Battlefield. There is nothing around it for miles and miles except prairie and sky. The area has changed little since the battle in 1863, and I am struck by the images I can see so clearly. Here is where the Indians were camped by the water..and there is where Sibley's troops came charging over the hill. Black-eyed Susans nod in the wind and the quiet is chilling. I feel my skin prickle though the temperature is over 85 degrees.
Climbing to the top of the hill, I find some white stones that the area is so famous for. One rock sits atop a larger one and seems to point to the vast prairie beyond. Does it mark a grave of some unknown warrior, or is it a reminder of a way of life that will never come again?
Also on top of the hill is a huge memorial for the 20 soldiers that were killed in the battle. It stands tall as a lighthouse and all that's missing is the flashing light. At the bottom of the hill is a small plaque erected in 1942 in memory of the Indians who were there.
Later we will travel to Fort Lincoln and see the Custer house and the rolling hills where the Seventh Cavalry rode off to the Little Bighorn. We will travel all across southwestern Minnesota and stand in the very spot where the Santee Sioux set fire to the Upper Agency during the Great Uprising. But nothing will equal what I feel as I stand looking out at this vast Dakota prairie.
The next day we travel to Mobridge, South Dakota, and cross the Missouri River. We visit Sitting Bull's memorial before heading home. Along the way I see a herd of buffalo. We stop, and I ask Richard to take a picture. I've seen buffalo many times in zoos, but I need to remember them here...on North Dakota grass.
Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
December 2, 1996