Authors: Phoebe Conn
Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians
Viper remained silent as the young men all around him spoke out in favor of war. While the killings at Acton had not been planned, hostility toward whites was so wide-
spread that the incident appealed to many as the perfect excuse to go to war. Cries then went up to strike at the "cut-hairs," Indians who had adopted the white man's ways, as well. The gray-eyed brave watched as the younger men's hatred for whites grew increasingly virulent, until their cries for war overruled the far more cautious words of their chiefs.
"Little Crow will agree to lead us," Two Elk predicted accurately. "Then he will regain the prestige he lost when Traveling Hail was selected speaker."
Viper nodded, thinking a war resulting from deaths motivated by a stupid dare and led by a chief bent on regaining lost power was a foolish endeavor, indeed. Yet once overruled, the chiefs who had argued against war one by one agreed to go along with the younger braves' decision. The United States government had broken too many promises to the Sioux to deserve any loyalty, and in the majority view, war was long overdue. Whether or not it could be won no longer seemed important.
Once the uprising had been decided upon. Little Crow was eager to show off the military talent of which he was extremely proud. He quickly ordered an attack on the Lower Agency to take place the next day. As the conspirators spilled out of the chief's frame house they began to form war parties bent on killing the settlers, but Vip)er remained aloof from the others. He was a man who made his own decisions, but his friends soon surrounded him, exjjecting, as always, that he would be the one to lead them.
Growling Bear nudged Two Elk with a playful shove. "This is our chance to prove we are warriors worthy of the name! It is time we taught the white man to fear the Sioux."
"We can kill those at the agency, that is nothing," Viper warned pessimistically, "but what of the soldiers the army will send against us?"
"What soldiers?" Hunted Stag asked with a defiant sneer. "They have all gone to fight the war against the South. The army has no men left to send against us. Are you with us or not?"
Viper looked up at the eastern sky, which had already begun to lighten with the first rays of the coming dawn.
What choice did he really have? he asked himself. The government had stolen their lands with promises of food and money they did not send. His people had once been the proud masters of their own world. Now they were no better than pitiful beggars waiting for scraps to fall from the white man's table.
The Sioux mattered so little to those in Washington that clearly they did not care whether or not the Indians starved to death before their annuity goods were distributed. Viper cared though, and deeply. Even if they could not win a war against the United States, at least they would no longer be ignored. "I am with you," he finally replied, but his voice was filled with bitter resentment rather than pride.
Monday, August 18, 1862 was another warm summer day whose calm was swiftly shattered by the loud report of gunfire and the terrified shrieks of those desperately trying to flee the Indians' surprise attack. The first to die was James W. Lynd, a former state senator, who was clerking in the trading post of Nathan and Andrew Myrick. That he had recently deserted his Sioux wife and two children for another Indian woman may have made him a special target. The next casualty was also an employee of the Myricks', George W. Divoll. Andrew Myrick escaped from his store through a window on the second floor, but he died before he could reach cover. His corpse was found with grass stuffed in the mouth, the Indians' witty reply to his suggestion that they eat grass when he would no longer issue them credit.
The white traders were easy targets, for none was prepared for violence. Francois La Bathe died in his store. Two clerks died in the William H. Forbes establishment. A. H. Wagner, the superintendent of farms at the agency, was killed along with two of his employees at the urging of Little Crow when they foolishly tried to keep the Indians from stealing horses. The agency physician. Dr. Philander P. Humphrey, along with his wife and two children, fled to the other side of the river, only to be murdered there. Also losing his life was Philander Prescott, a fur trader whose wife was Chief Shakopee's mother-in-law. Thir-
teen died at the agency, and seven more as they fled for safety. Nearly a dozen people were taken captive, but when the Indians turned their attentions to looting the traders' stores, forty-seven others were able to escape with their lives, if little else.
Viper was an excellent shot, but he chose as his prey only the traders who had cheated his p)eople and deserved to die. At one point he saw Growling Bear take aim at a fleeing woman, and he brought his hand down on his friend's wrist with so sharp a blow that the brave cried out in pain. "Let her go," he commanded firmly. "The women make valuable captives, but they are worthless dead."
While he did not argue the logic of that statement. Growling Bear was nonetheless insulted and stalked off to shoot whom he chose without having to listen to Vii>er tell him what to do. Two Elk watched their sulking friend depart, but he was so intrigued by the thought of taking a white woman hostage that he did not caution Viper to keep his thoughts to himself. "The women will run to the feny. That's where we should be if you want to take captives."
While Viper had scant interest in taking prisoners, he had less in looting the trading posts, and so joined his friend in running down to the Redwood Ferry. Little more than a large raft, which was propelled across the water by a ferryman grasping a rope secured on either side of the river, the boat had already taken several groups of hysterical refugees across.
"It is thirteen miles to Fort Ridgely. Even if people from the agency run all the way there, the soldiers will not be here anytime soon." Two Elk seemed disappointed he would have no opportunity to kill any army troops for several hours.
Viper did not reply. Using a smooth hand-over-hand motion that belied his fright, the ferryman was returning his flat-bottomed boat to their side of the river in a brave attempt to carry more people to safety. With a deadly precision, Two Elk raised his rifle, took careful aim, and tired, making that crossing the last journey the ferryman would ever make. Viper turned away, sickened by the realization that the uprising would claim the lives of men
who had done them no harm as well as those who had treated the Sioux with contempt and deserved no mercy.
The first of the survivors of the attack to reach Fort Ridgely was J. C. Dickinson. He operated the boarding-house at the Lower Agency, and with his family had escaped in a wa^n via the ill-fated ferry. Along with other terrified whites, he provided what details he could of the uprising to the fort's commanding officer, Captain John S. Marsh.
'In your worst visions of hell you could not imagine what horrors took place this morning, Captain." Didkin-son was still so shaken it took him a great deal of effort to coherently describe their ordeal. "Yesterday was as peaceful a day as we have ever had. Then today there were armed Indian braves everywhere you looked. More than I have ever seen together. They must have come from a dozen different camps. They were painted up to look fierce and fired at everyone they saw. There were bodies lying all over the ground, houses in flames. It was pure hell, I tell you. That is the only way to describe the terror we escaped, pure hell."
While he had fought in the Civil War with a regiment from Wisconsin, the young army officer had no experience fighting Indians. "You've no idea what set them off?" he asked with a puzzled frown, certain so furious an attack must have had some provocation.
"None," Dickinson swore. "Oh, they were all mad about their money being late from Washington and the delay in distributing food, but that's no cause to go killing off every white at the agency."
"Certainly not," Marsh agreed, although he had had personal experience dealing with problems caused by the annuity goods' tardiness. Mistakenly believing Sioux warriors could be no worse adversaries than Confederate soldiers, he tried to reassure Dickinson he would soon have the situation well in hand. "I'll take some men out to the agency right now and put a stop to this before there's any more bloodshed." He did not alarm Dickinson by mentioning the fart that the fort was at the moment short-handed.
Only the previous day. Lieutenant Timothy J. Sheehan had lett with fifty men of Company C, Fifth Minnesota, on
the way to Fort Ripley on the Mississippi. Marsh hastily dispatdied Corporal James C. McLean to recall them. He then left twenty-nine men at the fort with nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Thomas P. Gere, with orders to look after the survivors of the massacre at the Lower Agency as best he could. Taking forty-six enlisted men in wagons, while he and an interpreter, Peter Quinn, rode mules, the intrepid captain set out for the Lower Agency intent upon quelling the uprising in short order.
The Reverend Samuel D. Hinman was an Episcopal missionary. Only the day before Litde Crow had attended his Sunday service. When the group of survivors with whom he was traveling met Captain Marsh and his men on the road, he quickly issued a warning.
"You'll be badly outnumbered. Captain. We had no warning of what was to come, but you should heed mine. Don't go any further without reinforcements."
Marsh was undaunted, however, and after thanking the priest for his concern, continued on. The soldiers passed homes in flames and saw bodies alongside the road, but it was not until they were within one mile of the ferry that Marsh had his men leave their wagons to march in single file. When they reached the landing, they found the ferryboat tied up on their side. The captain was wary, however, for the tall grass and thick stands of hazel and willow on both sides ofthe river made it a perfect spot for an ambush. Fearing that if he and his men boarded the ferry to cross to the Lower Agency they would be picked off one by one, he waited to make certain the crossing could be made safely.
White Dog, an Indian referred to as a "cut-hair," since he had been hired by the government to teach farming to his fellow Sioux, then appeared on the opposite side of the river. He called out to the soldiers, ana through Peter Quinn invited them to cross the river to hold a council.
Marsh, still wary of a trap, failed to ^ve that order, however. His worst fears were then swiftly realized as scores of Indians sprang from their hiding places in the dense underbrush and began firing. Twelve of his troops and Quinn died almost instantly. His mule was shot dead, but the captain managed to leap from the saddle as the animal fell and rallied his men to fire upon their attackers. Urging them to take cover in the thickets at the riverbank,
he led them back toward the fort. While they were sheltered from the Indians' fire as they worked their way downstream through the brush, when the vegetation came to an end they found the way to the fort blocked by still more well-armed braves.
Viper found fitting against soldiers far more to his liking than shootmg civilians. The blue-coated men were armed and fought back bravely, making the contest far more sporting. The Sioux's argument was with the government, and the army belongra to the government, so their troops were the perfect opponent now that the greedy traders at the agency were dead. Thanks to the traders' well-stocked storerooms they now had plenty of ammunition, and Viper was careful not to waste a single shot.
While Viper chose his next target with care, John Marsh was growing increasingly desf)erate. Despite warnings from Dickinson and Hinman he had never expected to run into such vast numbers of Sioux warriors. To stand and fight was not an option when his pitifully small force was so greatly outnumbered that they would soon be overrun if they stopped moving. Thinking their only hope to escape total disaster would be to swim the river and approach tne fort frcMn the c^posite riverbank, Marsh waaed out into the water and began to lead his men across.
The captain was a strong swimmer and offered encouragement to the others, but before he could cross the river he suffered a severe cramp. As he doubled over with pain, water rushed into his lungs, choking him as he gasped frantically for air. While he would never have surrendered to the Sioux, the officer could not escape the deadly grip of the river, and it yanked him down deeper each time he fought his way to the surface. Despite the efforts of his men to rescue him, in the midst of nis first Indian battle. Captain Marsh drowned in the Minnesota River.
Command of the beleaguered unit then fell to Sei^eant John F. Bishop, a man all of nineteen years old. Despite his youth and inexperience, he succeeded where Marsh had failed and led fifteen survivors, five of them wounded, back to the fort. It was after nightfall before they finally reached safety. Later, eight more infantrymen who had become separated from the others managed to make their
way back to the fort. Including Marsh and Quinn, twenty-four men had lost their lives in the ambush, and the Indians' strength would never again be so badly underestimated.
Earlier in August, war with the Sioux had seemed unavoidable at the Upper Agency. With his stone warehouse filled to capacity, the Indian agent, Thomas J. Galbraith, had refused to issue rations until the government had sent the gold due the Indians. New to the frontier, a political appointee lacking any experience for his job, he knew only that money and food had always been distributed together. He wanted to follow that tradition. It had taken Lieutenant Sheehan, who was on hand from Fort Ridgely with two companies of the Fifth Minnesota Regiment, to convince Galbraith to distribute pork and flour early. Captain Marsh had also arrived on the scene, and after assessing the tenseness of the situation, had persuaded the agent to distribute more rations after the army officer had secured the Indians' promise they would return to their villages to await the arrival of the money owed them.
Once calm was restored and the soldiers had departed, the ineffectual Galbffaith decided to leave with a group of mixed bloods and agency personnel he had recruited to fight in the Civil War. Taking the name of their county, they called themselves the Renville Rangers, and on August 13 they set out for Fort Snelling, which was located near St. Paul.