Great Sioux War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although this war was a minor conflict by comparison to the Sioux wars of the 1870’s, it had the effect of costing Minnesota’s Sioux most of their ancestral land, and it was punctuated by the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Summary of Event

On August 17, 1862, four Santee Sioux men who were returning from a fruitless search for food beyond the boundaries of their southern Minnesota reservation attacked and killed five white settlers near Acton, in Meeker County. Ordinarily, the culprits would have been surrendered to white authorities, but the incident did not occur in ordinary times. The Sioux of Minnesota were starving. Long-promised annuities were slow in coming, as usual, and doubts about the ability of a nation divided by civil war to fulfill its obligations to an isolated frontier community led traders at the Redwood Agency to refuse to open their warehouses to the Sioux until payment in gold arrived from Washington, D.C. Trader Andrew Myrick Myrick, Andrew J. had advised the starving Sioux to “go home and eat grass, or their own dung.” Great Sioux War (1862-1863) Sioux;Great Sioux War Native American wars;Sioux Little Crow Minnesota;Sioux Dakota Territory;Dakota War [kw]Great Sioux War (Aug. 17, 1862-Dec. 28, 1863) [kw]Sioux War, Great (Aug. 17, 1862-Dec. 28, 1863) [kw]War, Great Sioux (Aug. 17, 1862-Dec. 28, 1863) Great Sioux War (1862-1863) Sioux;Great Sioux War Native American wars;Sioux Little Crow Minnesota;Sioux Dakota Territory;Dakota War [g]United States;Aug. 17, 1862-Dec. 28, 1863: Great Sioux War[3560] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 17, 1862-Dec. 28, 1863: Great Sioux War[3560] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug. 17, 1862-Dec. 28, 1863: Great Sioux War[3560] Little Six Mankato Myrick, Andrew J. Pope, John Ramsey, Alexander Sibley, Henry H.

On August 18, a large Sioux war party attacked and looted the Redwood Agency and wiped out most of a military unit sent from Fort Snelling. Among the first to die, Myrick was found with his mouth symbolically stuffed with grass. As politicians argued over payment of annuities in paper money or in gold, the Great Sioux War was beginning.

Although the outbreak of hostilities appeared to be local, its causes must be viewed in a national context. The Fort Snelling reserve, established in 1819 near present-day St. Paul, was, until 1851, the only land in Minnesota Territory that did not belong to Native Americans. Nevertheless, thousands of white settlers, in the familiar pattern of national expansion, occupied most of southern Minnesota. In 1851, the Minnesota Sioux negotiated away most of their best hunting grounds in the treaties of Traverse de Sioux and Mendota, and were tricked into signing away most of the promised compensation to pay debts, real and imagined, to traders there.

The remaining annuities that were due were slow in coming and insufficient to support the Sioux, and there was no promise of permanent occupancy of the Minnesota reservation. Furthermore, there was no consistent policy regarding American Indians in the United States during the period. Native Americans had no legal recourse against white depredations. Indian appeals for protection from soldiers and civilians alike fell on deaf ears. Moreover, the quality and abilities of American Indian agents declined as the nation moved toward the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-1865) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Native Americans[Native Americans] . Resentment smoldered, but several hundred of the approximately seven thousand Sioux in Minnesota cut their hair, donned “white men’s” clothes, and took up farming following the 1851 treaties. These “farmer” Sioux received most of the annuities, and a rift developed between them and the traditional, or “blanket,” Sioux.

Santee Sioux war chief Little Crow.

(Library of Congress)

Despite the influx of settlers, the Minnesota frontier had been generally peaceful up to that time. The occasional murder of a settler by an Indian usually resulted in the miscreant’s being turned over to white authorities for punishment. In 1857, however, a group of renegade blanket Sioux slaughtered thirty settlers in northern Iowa Iowa;Sioux and southern Minnesota, causing a momentary panic among settlers in the area. Led by Chief Little Crow, the Sioux denied responsibility for the outlaws and formed a party to pursue them into Dakota Territory Dakota Territory . The effort proved futile, but apparently satisfied white authorities. No punishment for the Spirit Lake Massacre was forthcoming. The regular annuities were paid on time, and the prestige of the United States experienced a decline among the image-conscious Sioux. By 1862, most of Minnesota’s white male settlers had left to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and the Sioux, confined to a narrow strip of land along the Minnesota River, were facing starvation.

Chief Little Six Little Six and his followers knew the Acton murders of August 17, 1862, would eventually be avenged. Although Chief Little Crow, long a spokesman for the Sioux, had lost prestige when he cut his hair and began farming, he remained the person most able to unify the Sioux. He was reluctant and argued against war. Accused of cowardice, he replied,

The white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick the sky is like a snowstorm. Yes, they fight among themselves, but if you strike one of them, they all will turn upon you and devour your women and little children . . . you will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the hard moon.

Despite his understanding of the hopelessness of taking on the whites, he led the Sioux, forlornly hoping to regain his prestige.

The Sioux were inefficient attackers and allowed most of the inhabitants of the Redwood Agency to escape to spread the alarm at Fort Ridgely. During the first week, far more whites were spared than were killed, and many of those taken prisoner by Little Crow were protected from harm in his camp. Attacks on New Ulm and settlers in Brown and Renville Counties convinced the Sioux that success was imminent. Little Crow knew that Fort Ridgley, which protected the Minnesota River Valley, would have to fall.

Meanwhile, panic spread across the Midwest, as politicians from Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Dakota Territory petitioned the federal government for troops and leadership. Minnesota governor Alexander Ramsey Ramsey, Alexander , who had negotiated the fateful 1851 treaties with the Sioux, appointed his old political rival, former governor Henry H. Sibley Sibley, Henry H. , to lead Minnesota’s militia Minnesota;militia against the Sioux. General John Pope Pope, John , who was recently in disgrace because of his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, was assigned to head the new Northwest Department. His policy of pursue and confine would dominate American Indian policy in the trans-Mississippi West for years to come. He directed the Minnesota war from St. Paul.

On August 20 and again on August 22, before Sibley reached Fort Ridgely with a motley crew of raw recruits, Little Crow and Chief Mankato Mankato attacked. The fort’s cannon was used to devastating effect. Only three of the fort’s defenders were killed, and both Sioux attacks were repelled. The Sioux attacked New Ulm the second time on August 23, but again failed. Several other settlements suffered attacks, but the fate of the now demoralized Sioux was sealed.

By the middle of September, Sibley had formed his sixteen hundred troops into a fighting unit and moved north. On September 23, his men defeated several hundred warriors under Chief Mankato, who was killed. As most of the combatants slipped away, Sibley Sibley, Henry H. rounded up 400 Sioux, conducted trials, and sentenced 306 of the prisoners to death. President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the records and, refusing to “countenance lynching, within the forms of martial law,” commuted most of the sentences. On December 28, 1863, thirty-eight Sioux were hanged on a single scaffold at Mankato. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Although that mass execution may be said to have ended the war, white conflicts with the Sioux continued. Little Crow was murdered near Hutchinson in 1863, and Little Six Little Six was kidnapped in Canada and hanged at Fort Snelling in 1865. The U.S. Army, following General Pope’s Pope, John orders, pursued the Sioux west. Such occasional engagements as the Battle of White Hill White Hill, Battle of (1863) , Dakota, in 1863, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in Montana Territory in 1876, kept the Sioux moving.


The Great Sioux War cost the lives of 413 white civilians, 77 soldiers, and 71 Indians, including the 38 prisoners hanged at Mankato Mankato . The mass execution effectively ended the war, but no formal settlement followed. There was no treaty, no negotiation to end the war. All Sioux, blanket and farmer, were condemned to lose all but a minuscule piece of their tribal lands in Minnesota, and ultimately, their way of life. The 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee, in which U.S. troops killed almost two hundred Sioux, would be the last battle in the American Indian wars.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Gary Clayton. Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986. Carefully researched and documented biography of the most important Native American war leader; sympathetic to both Little Crow and the Santee Sioux. Provides a detailed description of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 1988. Carefully edited, readable first-person accounts of the war, some sympathetic to the blanket Sioux, some to the farmer Sioux who opposed the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blegen, Theodore C. Minnesota: A History of the State. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1975. This standard history of Minnesota has a chapter on the Sioux War that is both solid and balanced.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862: Minnesota’s Other Civil War. 2d ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001. Brief account of the Sioux conflict by a specialist in Minnesota history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Richard N. General Pope and U.S. Indian Policy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970. Ellis’s detailed account provides insight into the policy of punishment and containment that grew out of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lass, William E. Minnesota: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Chapter 5 is a concise but insightful discussion of the war’s effect on Minnesota.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nix, Jacob. The Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, 1862: Jacob Nix’s Eyewitness History. Translated by Gretchen Steinhauser, Don Heinrich Tolzmann, and Eberhard Reichmann. Edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann. Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and Indiana German Heritage Society, 1994. Translated from the narrative of a German-speaking settler, this little book provides a first-person account of the Sioux attack on New Ulm by a participant in the fighting. Nix’s passionate disdain for the Indians provides a colorful example of nineteenth century prejudices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. Although the description of the war is brief and simplistic, it places the war in the context of western policy toward the American Indians.

Apache Wars

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Red River War

Sioux War

Battle of the Little Bighorn

Nez Perce War

Wounded Knee Massacre

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