A thousand miles north of the Navaho territory, the Santee Sioux were losing their own lands. These Native Americans lived mostly in woodland areas, at the outskirts of the greater Sioux territory. In the 1850s, the Santee signed two “deceptive treaties” with the U.S., and as a result they were deprived of most of their land and sent to a small territory.
Brown doesn’t go into any detail about what made these two treaties deceptive, but based on what he’s already written in the first two chapters, it’s easy enough to guess. The chapter follows the same pattern as its predecessors: the Native Americans sign treaties that send them into tiny, miserable reservations.
In 1862, a Santee chief named Little Crow began to organize his people. Little Crow, an elderly man, had signed both of the “deceptive treaties” that deprived the Santee of land. Afterwards, he witnessed the poverty and starvation that the treaties caused. He tried to appeal to Thomas Galbraith, the government representative in charge of the Santee. But Galbraith refused to allocate more resources. One of Galbraith’s colleagues was rumored to have said, “If they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”
Galbraith’s colleague’s words are yet another confirmation that the Native American reservation policies of the 19th century were, in practice, genocidal: the government sent hundreds of thousands of people to arid places that were never seriously intended to support a thriving community—they were meant to cause further starvation and suffering.
Little Crow blamed himself for his people’s suffering. One night, Santee tribesmen came to Little Crow, informing him that other tribesmen had killed four white men. The Santee knew perfectly well what this would mean: the U.S. would use the incident as an excuse to punish the entire Santee tribe. Little Crow decided that it was time to go to war with the United States. He knew his chances of victory were slim, but his people mocked him for being a coward. Eventually, he gave in to their encouragement and decided to lead raids on white settlements.
Time and time again, the American military has waged war in the same way: by responding to a small, isolated act of aggression, attributing the act to an entire group of people, and then declaring war against that entire group. The war with the Santee was no exception. Notice, also, that Little Crow wasn’t motivated simply by revenge or aggression—rather, the war represented a chance to assert his own power over both the government and his own people.
Little Crow organized a raid on a U.S. government agency. The raid resulted in the deaths of several government officials, as well as the capture of a few women and children. Invigorated, the Santee planned to raid nearby forts and encampments. But too many of Little Crow’s troops got cold feet and began to desert his army. The next day, Little Crow led his remaining men in an attack on Fort Ridgely. There, Union soldiers fired on the Santee, killing many. The Santee were forced to retreat when they failed to set fire to the base of the fort.
From the beginning, the Santee war was lopsided: the U.S. military had vastly superior firepower and manpower, while the Santee had inferior technology and relatively few loyal warriors. Notice, also, that the Santee weren’t exactly the “good guys,” even if they fought for their freedom—they kidnapped their enemies’ children, which is no more forgivable than it was when white soldiers did it to Native Americans.
That evening, hundreds of warriors from neighboring branches of the Sioux tribe, including the Wahpeton and the Sisseton, arrived to join Little Crow. The next day, he led a second raid on Fort Ridgley. This time, Little Crow was wounded, and his men again failed to take the fort. On August 23, Santees raided the nearby town of New Ulm, where they burned buildings and killed over a hundred white men. Little Crow tried to use this success to convince other chiefs to join him against the U.S. army. But the chiefs refused, pointing to Little Crow’s failure to take Fort Ridgely.
Little Crow continued to fight even after it became clear that he lacked the military might to defeat his enemies. Little Crow wasn’t a particularly powerful leader, and he failed to build a strong coalition against the U.S. military (perhaps suggesting that many Native American tribes still couldn’t see the direction in which history was going—they still thought they could get along with the United States).
On September 1, Little Crow proposed a raid on the private army of Colonel Henry H. Sibley, a fur trader. But Little Crow was again unable to organize his people in the raid, and many of his soldiers deserted rather than risk another losing battle. On September 5, Little Crow’s remaining men surrounded Sibley’s men at the Birch Coulee encampment. Sibley’s forces were able to drive away Little Crow’s troops, but they wasted a lot of firepower and didn’t kill any Santees.
Again and again, Little Crow’s men struck out against white settlers and failed to do any real damage—indeed, they did more damage to their own side than to their opponents. However, Little Crow’s actions sent a message to white settlers—colonize Native American land and they’d be in a lot of danger.
Shortly afterwards, Sibley sent Little Crow an offer to negotiate, provided that Little Crow return all prisoners of war. Little Crow refused, thinking that he could use the prisoners for bargaining. However, some of his followers wanted to release the prisoners. One, a warrior named Wabasha, sent Sibley a secret message, blaming Little Crow for the fighting and hinting that he, Wabasha, would be a better ally.
It’s a mark of Little Crow’s feeble leadership than one of his own men betrayed him to the U.S.
On September 22, Little Crow began planning a raid on Sibley’s army at Wood Lake. In the morning, his men attacked Sibley’s army, but sustained heavy casualties. Afterwards, the Santee chiefs concluded that they could never defeat the U.S. A number of the Santees who’d played no role in battle, along with Wabasha, decided to stay and surrender, thinking that if they gave Sibley the white prisoners, they’d be treated as friends. Little Crow led a small group of followers out of the Minnesota area.
After a series of failed assaults on the U.S. military, Little Crow’s men finally drew the inevitable conclusion—they couldn’t win, and should probably just give up, in the hopes that they’d be treated mercifully.
Wabasha and the other Santees surrendered to Sibley and returned their prisoners. Sibley responded by arresting all Santees and trying them in court, without giving them a defense counsel. Three hundred Santees were sentenced to death. However, President Abraham Lincoln refused to authorize the sentence. He insisted on reviewing legal records to distinguish between those who’d fought in battle and those who hadn’t. Meanwhile, Sibley moved the Santees to a prison camp. After more than a month, Lincoln gave the order that the majority of the prisoners should be imprisoned but not executed. Of the forty-one Santees executed, two were killed in error.
Instead of treating the Santee prisoners fairly (i.e., giving them a trial and legal representation), the U.S. military sentenced the prisoners to death without any fair legal procedure. It’s a mark of the military’s disregard for Native American lives that two Santees were “accidentally” killed—perhaps these killings weren’t accidents at all, but even if they were, it suggests that the troops weren’t interested in saving any Santee lives.
Little Crow led his remaining followers into Canada. By June, however, he’d decided to return to Minnesota in search of horses. He led a small group of soldiers in a raid on a white settlement in Minnesota. During the raid, settlers fired on the Santees and killed many of them, including Little Crow. The settlers also captured Little Crow’s teenaged son, Wowinapa. He was imprisoned, but later went free and became a Christian deacon.
Many Native American rebels fled to Canada rather than face punishment from the United States. However, Little Crow died much as he lived—leading a heroic but failed raid on a U.S. military base.
In December 1863, U.S. troops crossed the Canadian border in search of Little Crow’s remaining men. There, they found the men under the command of two of Little Crow’s followers, Medicine Bottle and Shakopee. The U.S. troops arranged a “friendly” meeting with them, but then drugged them with laudanum and imprisoned them. They were tried and sentenced to death.
For not the last time, the U.S. military used deceptive means to capture Native American enemies. Based on Brown’s earlier comments, it’s implied that Medicine Bottle and Shakopee weren’t tried fairly; i.e., they weren’t given the proper legal representation.
The Santee were finished. Their leaders were dead or imprisoned, and their ranks had been thinned by war. The remaining Santee were sent to a reservation where the soil was barren and the water was brackish. At the end of 1863, a young Teton Sioux chief visited the reservation. He realized the truth: white Americans were in the process of wiping out the Native American population, and would soon come for his own tribe. The chief’s name was Sitting Bull.
As time went on, the truth became more obvious: the U.S. was trying to get rid of Native Americans, either by murdering them with guns or by sending them to miserable, tiny reservations where they were all but guaranteed to die out. These sobering facts led many Native Americans to rise up against the U.S.