Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Dakota War--XIII

When General Henry Sibley came into the Indian village at the Upper Sioux Agency, he marched his troops in formally, as if in parade. He was aware that most of the "hostile" chiefs and their people were gone, but he wanted to make a statement: he wanted to swagger a little, wanted to show off the U.S. Army's rigid discipline and plain old might. He wanted to make a statement--not only to the Dakota people, but to his own troops.

He may not have had to show off at all. The Battle of Wood Lake could well have gone in another direction had not some hungry troops decided to raid Dakota gardens early in the morning. Had Little Crow's plan for a dawn raid gone off as planned, Sibley's troops could have suffered a major defeat. However, when that wagon just about ran over Dakota warriors who were edging along on their bellies in the prairie grass, the whole Dakota plan--and Sibley was totally unaware at the time--became almost a keystone cop-type failure.

What did happen, however, was more important in the story of the war. While the mess at Wood Lake was occuring, those Indians (some Sisseton, some Wahpeton, and some mixed bloods) simply took over guardianship the prisoners, which meant that their release was likely imminent.

The prisoners--almost all women and children--were a significant story themselves during the war. Little Crow thought of them as gold, the worthiest bargaining chip he had. It's important to remember that Little Crow honestly never thought the Dakota could win a war with the whites anyway; he determined that the white folks wanted the prisoners even more than they wanted the death of the Dakotas.

But Little Crow didn't have fulsome loyalty from the rest of the warriors, of course, and some of them, almost suicidal, were adamant about the prisoners--there were more than 200--suffering in exactly the same way they were going to suffer. Starvation, extermination--didn't matter a bit. Some chiefs had no thought for giving them back.

Life among the prisoners was sometimes horrific and sometimes not. Dakota women sometime treated them with kid gloves, protecting them from harm. Many, of course, had been friends, even good friends. But most prisoners, most of the time, suffered--and suffered badly. Many were not fed properly, and almost all were stripped of their clothes and dressed out as if they were Dakota themselves. In the earliest days of the war, after frontier raids that netted them horses and guns and food and more prisoners, some Dakota warriors drank far too much booty booze and unspeakable things happened.

They weren't without their news sources, of course, so when it became clear to the prisoners that some sort of release was possible, spirits soared. Then, when "the friendlies" took over their care, they were hesitant but hopeful that the worst was behind them. Sibley stayed at Wood Lake for a few days before continuing his march toward the Upper Agency, so freedom remained only a dream; but eventually he and his troops marched into the village in military splendor and the captives at what became known as Camp Release, were freed.

Nancy McClure was born in 1836 to a Dakota mother; her father was a white soldier. In 1851, she married David Fairbault, and together they farmed on the south bank of the Minnesota River, just a couple miles from the Lower Sioux Agency. When the war began, she and her husband--also mixed blood--and their son were all captured, their farm burned. Here's just a snippet of what she remembers as a prisoner of the Dakota:

"I cannot tell all the scenes I saw while I was a captive. Some were very painful. I knew many of the white prisoners I was with, but now I only remember the names of Mrs. Crothers, Mrs. White and her daughter and Miss Williams. Some of the women came to me at times and asked me to let them stay with me. It was hard to refuse them, but I thought it best. I saw many women, some of them French women, that I had met the winter before at the country dances and other parties I have spoken of.

"The night before the troops came to Camp Release, twenty or thrity Indians came in with a young white girl of sixteen or seventeen. She was nearly heartbroken, and quite in despair. When the half-breed men saw her they determined to rescue her, and we women encouraged them. Joe Laframboise and nine other mixed bloods went boldly up and took the girl from her brutal captors. The Indians threatened to shoot her if she was taken from them; but Joe was very brave, and said, 'We are going to have her if we have to fight for her; and if you harm her it will be the worse for you. Remember, we are not your prisoners any more." So they took her, and she was rescued at Camp Release."

The stories abound--some of them true, some probably not, some deftly spun. After all, there were reasons for everyone, really, to lie, once peace came.

If it ever has.

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