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The middle years of the 19th century (about 1854 to 1862) were a period of great unrest in the states and territories west of the Mississippi River. In Kansas and Nebraska the question of slavery tore communities apart and resulted in many deaths. In Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, Dakota (Sioux) tribes resisted the power of the U.S. Army and the constantly increasing numbers of white settlers and emigrants. Wagon trains on the Oregon Trail had herds of cattle and horses that trampled the grass and chased off the bison. The Dakota depended upon bison for their household goods, spiritual practices, and trade. In 1857, a group of renegade Wahpekute Dakotas under the leadership of Inkpaduta massacred settlers at Spirit Lake, Iowa after whites had attacked Indian families. All of this conflict generated a widespread fear and distrust among the people who lived in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. It is not surprising, then, that a major war broke out between the United States and the Santee Dakota.
In the summer of 1862, the Santees were hungry. They had seen their traditional territory shrink from a large portion of northern woodlands to a thin slice of land along the Minnesota River. According to treaties with the federal government, each Dakota family was owed a yearly payment (called annuities) and had the right to live on and farm 80 acres of land.
Dakota culture was under stress from the changes brought on by reservation life. Traders often stole their annuity payments and overcharged the Dakota for the things they bought. Reservation agents misled them. The Civil War delayed annuity payments. When the Dakotas complained that they did not have enough food, one of the agency employees, said, “Let them eat grass.”
Though the Dakotas had generally good relations with the white settlers near their reservation, when their anger reached the boiling point, they attacked and killed farmers and their families. However, during the war some Dakotas rescued and protected some of their white friends. Hundreds of people, both Dakotas and whites, died in the war. Hundreds more were captured and held hostage for six weeks or more.
The U.S.-Dakota War came to a close in late September 1862. Hundreds of Dakotas were taken prisoner. Many of them were sent to a reservation on Crow Creek in southern Dakota Territory. More than 300 were sentenced to hang, but President Lincoln pardoned all but 38 of them.
Some of the Santees, including their leader Little Crow, decided to leave Minnesota for the area around Devils Lake in Dakota Territory. The Army pursued the Dakota in 1863 and 1864, and in the process, started a longer and more violent war.