Sweet on Anderson, 'Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History'

Gary Clayton Anderson
Jimmy Sweet

Gary Clayton Anderson. Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. 384 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-6434-2.

Reviewed by Jimmy Sweet (Rutgers University) Published on H-CivWar (April, 2020) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54350 

Gary Clayton Anderson argues that the US-Dakota War, a consequential Civil War-era war between the United States and the Dakota Nation of Indians in the Upper Midwest, was so brutal that it deserves the moniker of “most violent ethnic conflict in American history.” As a singular event, this is probably true, but the US-Dakota War should more accurately be contextualized within a broader history of the violence of American settler colonialism. In fact, the book is not contextualized at all, and the author makes no attempt to ground the text within any of the broader literature on the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the American West, or American Indian history. Indeed, the author gives his argument short shrift and soon leaves it behind. After the brief preface, Massacre in Minnesota never returns to the argument in a substantial way. The book is principally a narrative history of the US-Dakota War, rather than an analytical piece, which is not necessarily a bad thing. One must read Anderson's other books in order to get any analysis of ethnic conflict or violence. See, for example, his The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875 (2005) and Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime that Should Haunt America (2014). Massacre in Minnesota is useful, however, in that it resolves previous misunderstandings of the war, makes extensive use of Dakota sources and perspectives, and is easily the best, most complete, and most compelling history of the US-Dakota War published to date.

In scope, Anderson claims that over six hundred white settlers were killed by Dakota warriors, causing a refugee crisis when forty thousand whites abandoned their homes and fled eastward in panic, and in the aftermath, six thousand Dakota Indians were ethnically cleansed from Minnesota. These estimations are not new, nor is his argument unique. What is new is the unparalleled extent of the research, the attention to detail, and the clarity and completeness of the book. For a broader picture of the war, before Massacre in Minnesota, readers had to make do with Duane Schultz’s Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 (1992), Michael Clodfelter’s The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865 (1998), Jerry Keenan’s The Great Sioux Uprising: Rebellion on the Plains, August-September 1862 (2003), or other, more problematic texts. Like most books on the US-Dakota War, these works were written by amateur historians and are deeply Eurocentric.[1] Massacre in Minnesota is worlds better and stands as the definitive work on the US-Dakota War.

The book’s well-organized eleven chapters provide a comprehensive history of the war, logically progressing through every significant aspect. Chapters 1 and 2 illuminate the decades leading up to the conflict, explaining how the change in the Dakota economy, the appearance of missionaries, and the growing horde of settlers irrevocably altered Dakota life. In chapters 3 and 4, Anderson narrates how the extreme corruption on the part of prominent white politicians, traders, and Indian agents in the treaties of 1851 and 1858 was a leading cause of the war. In the next two chapters, Massacre in Minnesota narrates the settler perspective, the bloody first week of the war in which hundreds of whites were killed, and the ensuing flight of tens of thousands of refugees. Chapter 7 describes the mobilization of American forces and the main battles of the war, ending with the pivotal Battle of Wood Lake. In chapter 8, Anderson controversially argues that Dakota men raped dozens of white women captives, asserting that among more than a hundred white prisoners, “virtually all the young girls from twelve to twenty became wives [to Dakota men involuntarily], as did most of the middle-aged women” (p. 210). The deeply flawed military trials of nearly four hundred Dakota men, of which most were found guilty and sentenced to death, is the subject of chapter 9, while chapter 10 relates the tragedy of the execution of thirty-eight Dakota prisoners on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in American history. The final chapter gives an account of the aftermath, including the Dakota concentration camp experience at Fort Snelling, their removal to the desolate Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota Territory, and the final two executions of Dakota leaders in 1865.

The book clearly illuminates the cause of the war. Corruption on the part of white traders, Indian agents, politicians, and other American officials in the Dakota treaties of 1851 and 1858 was so extreme that the Dakota received little benefit from them, while ceding most of southern Minnesota. As a result, by the start of the war in 1862, the Dakota had been living in poverty for years. So much money intended for the Dakota had been funneled into the pockets of whites that it gained the attention of Abraham Lincoln’s administration, whose investigation was soon overshadowed by the war itself. While Anderson describes the extensive violence of Dakota warriors as reprehensible and unforgiveable, he places blame for the war squarely on the prominent whites in Minnesota who robbed the Dakota to such an extent that it left them starving and desperate. Instead of being punished for their role in causing the war, those responsible, such as Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, were later revered as generals or politicians.

One place where the book misses its mark is in its use of the Dakota language. For instance, Anderson misspells the word akicita (warrior) as "akacita" dozens of times throughout the book. (I use Anderson’s simplified Dakota orthography so as not to bring more confusion.) He pluralizes Wicaśta Wakan (Medicine Man) with an “s,” an impossibility in Dakota. The book smacks of Eurocentricity when it prioritizes and normalizes the English versions of all Dakota band names and individual names. Anderson supplies the Dakota name at the first meeting of each individual in the text, but subsequently uses the English version. Taoyateduta becomes Little Crow, Tatankanaźin is rendered Standing Buffalo, and so on. These are not their names, but rather the appellations given to them by white settlers and uncritically repeated in the literature decade after decade. After more than forty years of study on the Dakota, and this his sixth book on Dakota/Lakota people, Anderson’s misstep with Dakota names and language is disappointing. To be fair, Anderson is simply repeating how previous scholarship and sources recorded these names, but it is time for scholars to stop normalizing the Anglicization of American Indian languages and cultures.

Massacre in Minnesota is extensively researched, full of previously unknown or misunderstood information, and the most detailed and complete account of the war ever written. Anderson’s greatest strength is that he does not pull any punches. Nobody comes out of this history looking good, and he does justice to both sides in the conflict. He excoriates the whites responsible for the corruption that led to the war. In a controversial, albeit convincing chapter, he argues that the rape of white women by Dakota men was more frequent than previously thought. Anderson chides sensationalist newspaper accounts that stoked hysteria by exaggerating the violence, which played a major part in the refugee crisis in Minnesota. In the subsequent military trials, he asserts, “virtually all due process was ignored” and outlines the numerous legal mistakes in the proceedings (p. 216). Anderson sums up his work by arguing that “those who suffered the most were innocent settlers, who experienced horrible deaths at the hands of violent men who had reasons to be upset,” but concludes that that was not a sufficient excuse for Dakota men to kill white women and children. He tempers this statement by saying that the American government was responsible for the suffering of over one thousand Dakota women and children sent to “Crow Creek where many perished, some literally from starvation” (p. 285).

In his preface and final chapter, Anderson claims to be objective, implying that many previous works lacked his objectivity, which is accurate. Given that in the pages between, nearly none of the historical actors in Massacre in Minnesota come away unscathed, Anderson's claims to objectivity are sound. The history of the US-Dakota War is still contentious in Minnesota and is a traumatic past well remembered by Dakota people today, which means that some readers will find fault with his portrayal of one side or the other, which Anderson acknowledges. Given this ongoing contentiousness, no book on the US-Dakota War will please everyone, but Massacre in Minnesota sets a high bar. The book is written in such a way that it is accessible and useful to a broad audience. Scholars of the Civil War in the West, the Indian Wars, and Dakota history will appreciate Anderson’s meticulous research, well-written narrative, and deep understanding of the US-Dakota War. 


[1]. Some notable exceptions include Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth, eds., Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988); Clifford Canku and Michael Simon, eds., The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters: Dakota Kaškapi Okicize Wowapi (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013); Linda M. Clemmons, Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019); and Elden Lawrence, Stepping off the Keelboat: An Inside Look at the U.S./Dakota War (Sisseton, SD: Sisseton Courier, 2013).

Citation: Jimmy Sweet. Review of Anderson, Gary Clayton, Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54350

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