Review: Dakota Dawn

Review: Dakota Dawn

A look at Gregory F. Michno's latest book


Having read of the 1862 Sioux uprising in Minnesota in Ralph Andrist’s The Long Death, and having already read Mr. Michno’s Lakota Noon, I was curious as to his take on what the book’s subtitle calls “The decisive first week of the Sioux uprising, August 17-24, 1862.”   I was not disappointed.

Minnesota is known today for many things.  What has been forgotten that it once was the gateway to the northern plains because within its borders timbered forests gave way to prairie grasslands, and even more forgotten is that Sioux from the Dakota branch of the tribe once lived within its borders,  Dakotas who, despite some who were taking up “the white man’s road”, by and large detested being penned up on a reservation that had shrunk to a piece of land along the Minnesota River twenty miles long by ten miles wide in 1862 on which two Indian agencies were located: the Upper and the Lower, where white traders plied their dubious commerce with the Indians on credit until the annuity money arrived.

But by August of 1862, no annuity money had been forthcoming.

The amount was $71,000 worth, and in gold. 

Finally, angered by living on the US Government’s stingy dole, many finally decided enough was enough began to wreak havoc, led by opportunistic chief Little Crow and others.  Other Dakotas, however, kept to the reservation and stayed out of it, even sheltering many whites taken captive as their hot-blooded brethren committed hideous acts on largely unarmed and disorganized settlers, many of whom had recently come from Germany and Scandinavia in search of a better life.

In a cruel irony, the Dakotas who resorted to arms began their rebellion as a wagon with an armed guard carrying that money drew near the reservation, only to stop and halt at nearby Fort Ridgely when they found out about the trouble …

After Michno sketches out the cause and effect that led to the uprising in the first chapter called “Causes of the Uprising”, we proceed to the incident that provided the spark: the killing of three white men and one woman on a farm near the town of Acton by five members of a Dakota hunting party off the reservation.  From there, Michno depicts the first week with a lucid pen and a keen sense for detail.  Where possible, he even gives us the ages of the white victims and survivors caught in the whirlwind blasé whites back in Washington had reaped by their lackadaisical management of the reservation on which the Dakota Sioux lived.

Being that this is a modern work of scholarship, things once accepted without question come under the microscope such as trader Andrew J. Myrick’s infamous remark said to have been made during a meeting among Indians, traders, and the Indian agent at the Lower Agency shortly before the uprising in which Myrick supposedly said “So far as I’m concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” or something similar when asked what he would do about the Indians being hungry with no money to pay traders for food (the tardy $71,000.)  Michno concludes that, based upon his study of the contemporary evidence, somebody said something like that, but it wasn’t Myrick, and, while he was indeed killed when the storm broke over the Lower Agency, no tuft of grass was shoved into his mouth as a result because an eyewitness who saw his body mentioned no such thing.  However, like all conclusions from books I will reserve judgment on Myrick’s remark until I can take a look myself at the source material in question. 

Closing this review with a taste of the book, here is a glimpse of the chaos from the chapter “Murders on the New Ulm Road and Cottonwood River”:

After leaving Joe Nairn, Joe Reynolds drove his buggy to a point opposite Fort Ridgely, wavered in his decision as to where to go, and then continued on toward New Ulm.  Although they passed a number of Indians, none of the Dakotas molested the family.  When they drew near Milford, however, which was undergoing brutal attack, they ran into about 60 Indians plus some cattle and wagons.  As was often the case, determining who was a friend and who was a foe was difficult.  One warrior approached the buggy, aimed his double-barreled shotgun at Joseph, “and snapped both caps, but they failed to ignite the power.”  The warrior was trying to fix his weapon when another Indian rode up on a white horse and called out, “Puckahee!” (go far away) and urged Joseph to turn the buggy around and make for the agency as fast as possible.  Joseph wasted little time and within a few seconds the buggy was racing away with their protector riding alongside them, placing his body between the buggy and other Indians raising their weapons to try and kill them.