1827-1906 Wamditanka.

A Sioux story of the war : Chief Big Eagle's story of the Sioux outbreak of 1862 online

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Received ..CTi* ,1900

Accession No. 8 1 5 Oh - Class No.




Group of Sioux Leaders.

(See Page 383.)





OF 1862.

The stories of the great Sioux war in Minnesota in 1862 never
grow old. They are always new to many and never dull to any-
body. Although thirty-two years, nearly a third of a century,
have passed since that eventful episode, yet to many it seems
but a few months since barbarism rode rampant over a great
part of the state, and civilization, gashed and bleeding, was
prone on the prairies, with none to bind up the wounds. All
over the state are survivors of that terrible contest who remem-
ber its incidents and relate them as if the crack of the rifle and
the din of the war-whoop yet rang in their ears. The story is
always of interest to them.

There are two sides to this as to every other story. The ver-
sion of the white people ought to be well enough known. But
the Indian side, strangely enough, has not been recorded. The
soldiers of the Union read no stories of the great Rebellion with
more interest than the narratives of the ex-Confederates, and we
never got the full and true story of the war until they began to
write. So we can never fully understand the Sioux war of 1862
until the Indians tell their story.

In June, 1894, Mr. Robert I. Holcombe of St. Paul (who had become familiar
with the history of Gen. Sibley's campaigns against the Sioux in 1862 and
1863, from having been employed several months in examining and classifying
the letters and papers of Gen. Siblay for the Minnesota Historical society), made
a trip to Flandrau, S. D., to get from Mrs. Huggan and others the Indians'
side of the story of the great outbreak of 1862. He there met Big Eagle, a
chief, who had taken part with Little Crow in the battles, but had not been
engaged in the massacre of whites. His narrative was taken down from his
own lips, through Mrs. Huggan, Rev. Mr. Eastman and other competent inter-
preters. (This story was first published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, July
1, 1894.)


Perhaps the most notable survivor of the old Sioux hostiles
is Mr. Jerome Big Eagle, now residing near Granite Falls, in
this state. His true Christian name, however, is Elijah. His
Indian name is 'Wamdetonka," which literally means Great
War Eagle, but he was commonly called Big Eagle. The Sioux
for the common bald eagle is "hu-ya" and "wamde" means war
eagle, "tonka" meaning great or big. He was a sub-chief, and
may be termed one of the Sioux generals, since he had a band
or division of his own. A representative of the Pioneer Press,
who for some time has been engaged in the work referred to,
recently interviewed Mr. Big Eagle at Flandrau, S. D., where he
was temporarily on a visit, upon the subject of the war of 1862.
He cannot speak English, and Rev. John Eastman of Flandrau,
an educated and intelligent gentleman, and Mrs. Nancy Huggan,
a sketch of whose adventurous life appears in this volume,
kindly acted as interpreters during the "talk," which lasted sev-
eral hours.

Mr. Big Eagle was first informed that his statements were
wanted solely in order that a correct knowledge of the military
movements of the Indians during the war might be learned. It
was suggested to him that no harm therefrom could come to him
or any of his people; that neither the war banner nor the "bloody
shirt" waved any longer in Minnesota; that it was well known
that he was a prominent character in the war, but that he was
now and had been for many years a quiet, industrious Chris-
tian citizen, respected by all who knew him, and he was as-
sured that he would be correctly reported. He readily con-
sented to tell his story, and gave full permission to use his name.
Other Indians interviewed on the same subject gave certain
information, but requested that their names be not printed.
Big Eagle's story is here given substantially as related to the
reporter by the two intelligent interpreters, or at least as it was

The old man was very frank and unreserved. He did not
seem to wish to avoid or evade an answer to a single question.
He is of more than ordinary intelligence, and spoke candidly,
deliberately and impassively, and with the air and manner of
one striving to tell "the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
He proved a mine of information, and his story contains many
items of history never before published.

(The portraits of Big Eagle, Bed Legs and Blue Earth, shown
on page 381, are from photographs taken in 1858, when on


their way to Washington, and which are now in the possession
of the Historical society.)

"I was born in the Indian village of my father near Mendota,
in 1827, and am now sixty-seven years old. My father was Grey
Iron, a sub-chief of the Midawa-xanton Sioux. When he died I
succeeded him as chief of the band and adopted the name of
his father, Wambde-tonka, which, as is commonly called, means
the Big Eagle. When I was a young man I often went with
war parties against the Chippewas and other enemies of my
nation, and the six feathers shown in the head-dress of my
picture in the Historical society at St. Paul stand for six Chip-
pewa scalps that I took when on the warpath. By the terms
of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, the
Sioux sold all of their lands in Minnesota, except a strip ten
miles wide on each side of the Minnesota river from near Fort
Kidgely to the Big Stone lake. The Medawakantons and Wa-
coutas had their reservation up to the Yellow Medicine. In
1858 the ten miles of this strip belonging to the Medawakanton
and Wacouta bands, and lying north of the river were sold,
mainly through the influence of Little Crow. That year, with
some other chiefs, I went to Washington on business connected
with the treaty. The selling of that strip north, of the Minne-
sota caused great dissatisfaction among the Sioux, and Little
Crow was always blamed for the part he took in the sale. It
caused us all to move to the south side of the river, where
there was but very little game, and many of our people, under
the treaty, were induced to give up the old life and go to work
like white men, which was very distasteful to many.

"Of the causes that led to the outbreak of August, 1862, much
has been said. Of course it was wrong, as we all know now, but
there were not many Christians among the Indians then, and
they did not understand things as they should. There was
great dissatisfaction among the Indians over many things the
whites did. The whites 'would not let them go to war against
their enemies. This was right, but the Indians did not then
know it. Then the whites were always trying to make the
Indians give up their life and live like white men go to farm-
ing, work hard and do as they did and the Indians did not
know how to do that, and did not want to anyway. It seemed
too sudden to make such a change. If the Indians had tried
to make the whites live like them, the whites would have re-
sisted, and it was the same way with many Indians. The Indi-


ans wanted to live as they did before the treaty of Traverse des
Sioux go where they pleased and when they pleased; hunt
game wherever they could find it, sell their furs to the traders
and live as they could.

"Then the Indians did not think the traders had done right.
The Indians bought goods of them on credit, and when the gov-
ernment payments came the traders were on hand with their
books, which showed that the Indians owed so much and so
much, and as the Indians kept no books they could not deny
their accounts, but had to pay them, and sometimes the traders
got all their money. I do not say that the traders always
cheated and lied about these accounts. I know many of them
were honest men and kind and accommodating, but since I have
been a citizen I know that many white men, when they go to
pay their accounts, often think them too large and refuse to pay
them, and they go to law about them and there is much bad
feeling. The Indians could not go to law, but there was always
trouble over their credits. Under the treaty of Traverse des
Sioux the Indians had to pay a very large sum of money to the
traders for old debts, some of which ran back fifteen years, and
many of those who had got the goods were dead and others
were not present, and the traders' books had to be received as
to the amounts, and the money was taken from the tribe to pay
them. Of course the traders often were of great service to the
Indians in letting them have goods on credit, but the Indians
seemed to think the traders ought not to be too hard on them
about the payments, but do as the Indians did among one
another, and put off the payment until they were better able to
make it.

"Then many of the white men often abused the Indians and
treated them unkindly. Perhaps they had excuse, but the Indi-
ans did not think so. Many of the whites always seemed to say
by their manner when they saw an Indian, 'I am much better
than you/ and the Indians did not like this. There was excuse
for this, but the Dakotas did not believe there were better men
in the world than they. Then some of the white men abused the
Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them, and surely
there was no excuse for that.

"All these things made many Indians dislike the whites.
Then a little while before the outbreak there was trouble
among the Indians themselves. Some of the Indians took a sen-


sible course and began to live like white men. The government
built them houses, furnished them tools, seed, etc., and taught
them to farm. At the two agencies, Yellow Medicine and Red-
wood, there were several hundred acres of land in cultivation
that summer. Others staid in their tepees. There was a white
man's party and an Indian party. We had politics among us
and there was much feeling. A new chief speaker for the tribe
was to be elected. There were three candidates Little Crow,
myself and Wa-sui-hi-ya-ye-dan ('Traveling Hail'). After an ex-
citing contest Traveling Hail was elected. Little Crow felt
sore over his defeat. Many of our tribe believed him respon-
sible for the sale of the north ten-mile strip, and I think this was
why he was defeated. I did not care much about it. Many
whites think that Little Crow was the principal chief of the
Dakotas at this time, but he was not. Wabasha was the princi-
pal chief, and he was of the white man's party; so was I; so
was old Shakopee, whose band was very large. Many think if
old Shakopee had lived there would have been no war, for he
was for the white men and had great influence. But he died
that summer, and was succeeded by his son, whose real name
was Ea-to-ka (' Another Language'), but when he became chief
he took his father's name, and was afterwards called 'Little
Shakopee,' or 'Little Six,' for in the Sioux language 'Shakopee'
means six. This Shakopee was against the white men. He
took part in the outbreak, murdering women and children, but
I never saw him in a battle, and he was caught in Manitoba and
hanged in 1864. My brother, Medicine Bottle, was hanged with

"As the summer advanced, there was great trouble among the
Sioux troubles among themselves, troubles with the whites,
and one thing and another. The war with the South was going
on then, and a great many men had left the state and gone down
there to fight. A few weeks before the outbreak the president
called for many more men, and a great many of the white men
of Minnesota and some half-breeds enlisted and went to Fort
Snelling to be sent South. We understood that the South was
getting the best of the fight, and it was said that the North
would be whipped. The year before the new president had
turned out Maj. Brown and Maj. Cullen, the Indian agents, and
put in their places Maj. Galbraith and Mr. Clark Thompson, and
they had turned out the men under them and put in others of


their own party. There were a great many changes. An
Indian named Shonka-sha ('White Dog'); who had been hired to
teach the Indians to farm, was removed and another Indian
named Ta-opi ('The Wounded Man'), a son of old Betsy, of St.
Paul, put in his place. Nearly all of the men who were turned
out were dissatisfied, and the most of the Indians did not like
the new men. At last Maj. Gralbraith went to work about the
agencies and recruited a company of soldiers to go South. His
men were nearly all half-breeds. This was the company called
the Eenville Bangers,'for they were mostly from Renville county.
The Indians now thought the whites must be pretty hard up for
men to fight the South, or they would not come so far out on the
frontier and take half-breeds or anything to help them.

"It began to be whispered about that now would be a good
time to go to war with the whites and get back the lands. It
was believed that the men who had enlisted last had all
left the state, and that before help could be sent the Indians
could clean out the country, and that the Winnebagoes, and
even the Chippewas, would assist the Sioux. It was also
thought that a war with the whites would cause the Sioux to
forget the troubles among themselves and enable many of them
to pay off some old scores. Though I took part in the war, I was
against it. I knew there was no good cause for it, and I had
been to Washington and knew the power of the whites and that
they would finally conquer us. We might succeed for a time,
but we would be overpowered and defeated at last. I said all
this and many more things to my people, but many of my own
bands were against me, and some of the other chiefs put words
in their mouths to say to me. When the outbreak came Little
Crow told some of my band that if I refused to lead them to
shoot me as a traitor who w r ould not stand up for his nation,
and then select another leader in my place.

"But after the first talk of war the counsels of the peace
Indians prevailed, and many of us thought the danger had all
blown over. The time of the government payment was near at
hand, and this may have had something to do with it. There
was another thing that helped to stop the war talk. The crops
that had been put in by the 'farmer' Indians were looking well,
and there seemed to be a good prospect for a plentiful supply of
provisions for them the coming winter without having to depend
on the game of the country or without going far out to the west


on the plains for buffalo. It seemed as if the white men's way
was certainly the best. Many of the Indians had been short of
provisions that summer and had exhausted their credits and
were in bad condition. 'Now,' said the farmer Indians, 'if you
had worked last season you would not be starving now and
begging for food.' The 'farmers' were favored by the govern-
ment in every way. They had houses built for them, some of
them even had brick houses, and they were not allowed to suffer.
The other Indians did not like this. They were envious of them
and jealous, and disliked them because they had gone back on
the customs of the tribe and because they were favored. They
called them 'farmers,' as if it was disgraceful to be a farmer.
They called them 'cut-hairs,' because they had given up the
Indian fashion of wearing the hair, and 'breeches men,' because
they wore pantaloons, and 'Dutchmen,' because so many of the
settlers on the north side of the river and elsewhere in the
country were Germans. I have heard that there was a secret
organization of the Indians called the 'Soldiers' Lodge,' whose
object was to declare war against the whites, but I knew noth-
ing of it.

"At last the time for the payment came and the Indians
came in to the agencies to get their money. But the paymaster
did not come, and week after week went by and still he did not
come. The payment was to be in gold. Somebody told the
Indians that the payment would never be made. The govern-
ment was in a great war, and gold was scarce, and paper money
had taken its place, and it w T as said the gold could not be had to
pay us. Then the trouble began again and the war talk started
up. Many of the Indians who had gathered about the agencies
were out of provisions and were easily made angry. Still, most
of us thought the trouble would pass, and we said nothing about
it. I thought there might be trouble, but I had no idea there
would be such a war. Little Crow and other chiefs did not
think so. But it seems some of the tribe were getting ready
for it.

"You know how the war started by the killing of some
white people near Acton, in Meeker county. I will tell you
how this was done, as it was told me by all of the four young
men who did the killing. These young fellows all belonged to
Shakopee's band. Their names were Sungigidan ('Brown
Wing'), Ka-om-de-i-ye-ye-dan ('Breaking Up'), Nagi-wi-cak-te


('Killing Ghost'), and Pa-zo-i-yo-pa ('Runs against Something
when Crawling') I do not think their names have ever before
been printed. One of them is yet living. They told me they did
not go out to kill white people. They said they went over into
the Big Woods to hunt ; that on Sunday, Aug. 17, they came to
a settler's fence, and here they found a hen's nest with some
eggs in it. One of them took the eggs, when another said:
'Don't take them, for they belong to a white man and we may
get into trouble.' The other was angry, for he was very hungry
and wanted to eat the eggs, and he dashed them to the ground
and replied : 'You are a coward. You are afraid of the white
man. You are afraid to take even an egg from him, though you
are half-starved. Yes, you are a coward, and I will tell every-
body so.' The other replied: 'I am not a coward. I am not
afraid of the white man, and to show you that I am not I will
go to the house and shoot him. Are you brave enough to go
with me?' The one wki- had called him a coward said: 'Yes, I
will go with you, and we will see who is the braver of us two/
Their two companions then said : We will go with you, and we
will be brave, too.' They all went to the house of the white
man (Mr. Robinson Jones), but he got alarmed and went to an-
other house (that of his son-in-law, Howard Baker), where were
some other white men and women. The four Indians followed
them and killed three men and two women (Jones, Baker, a Mr.
Webster, Mrs. Jones and a girl of fourteen). Then they hitched
up a team belonging to another settler and drove to Shakopee's
camp six miles above Redwood agency), which they reached
late that night and told what they had done, as I have related.

"The tale told by the young men created the greatest excite-
ment. Everybody was waked up and heard it. Shakopee took
the young men to Little Crow's house (two miles above the
agency), and he sat up in bed and listened to their story. He
said war Avas now declared. Blood had been shed, the payment
would be stopped, and the whites would take a dreadful ven-
geance because women had been killed. Wabasha, Wacouta,
myself and others still talked for peace, but nobody would listen
to us, and soon the cry was 'Kill the whites and kill all these cut-
hairs who will not join us.' A council was held and war was
declared. Parties formed and dashed away in the darkness to
kill settlers. The women began to run bullets and the men to
clean their guns. Little Crow gave orders to attack the agency


early next morning and to kill all the traders. When the Indi-
ans first came to him for counsel and advice he said to them,
tauntingly: 'Why do you come to me for advice? Go to the
man you elected speaker (Traveling Hail) and let him tell you
what to do'; but he soon came around all right and somehow
took the lead in everything, though he was not head chief, as I
have said.

"At this time my village was up on Crow creek, near Little
Crow's. I did not have a very large band not more than thirty
or forty fighting men. Most of them were not for the war at
first, but nearly all got into it at last. A great many members
of the other bands were like my men; they took no part in the
first movements, but afterward did. The next morning, when
the force started down to attack the agency, I went along. I
did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went
to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think
others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a
friend that he did not want killed; of course he did not care
about anybody's else friend. The killing was nearly all 'done
when I got there. Little Crow was on the ground directing
operations. The day before, he had attended church there and
listened closely to the sermon and had shaken hands with every-
body. So many Indians have lied about their saving the lives
of white people that I dislike to speak of what I did. But I
did save the life of George H. Spencer at the time of the mas-
sacre. I know that his friend, Chaska, has always had the
credit of that, but Spencer would have been a dead man in spite
of Chaska if it had not been for me. I asked Spencer about
this once, but he said he was wounded at the time and so ex-
cited that he could not remember what I did. Once after that
I kept a half-breed family from being murdered; these are all
the people whose lives I claim to have saved. I was never pres-
ent when the white people were willfully murdered. I saw all
the dead bodies at the agency. Mr. Andrew Myrick, a trader,
with an Indian wife, had refused some hungry Indians credit a
short time before when they asked him for some provisions.
He said to them : 'Go and eat grass.' Now he was lying on the
ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the In-
dians were saying tauntingly: 'Myrick is eating grass himself.'

"When I returned to my village that day I found that many
of my band had changed their minds about the war, and wanted


to go into it. All the other villages were the same way. I was
still of the belief that it was -not best, but I thought I must go
with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I
would lead them into the war, and we would all act like brave
Dakotas and do the best we could. All my men were with me;
none had gone off on raids, but we did not have guns for all at

"That afternoon word came to my village that soldiers were
coming to the agency from Fort Snelling. (These were Capt.
Marsh and his men.) At once I mounted the best horse I had,
and, with some of my men, rode as fast as I could to meet them
at the ferry. But when I got there the fight was over, and I
well remember that a cloud of powder smoke was rising slowly
from the low, wet ground where the firing had been. I heard a
few scattering shots down the river, where the Indians were
still pursuing the soldiers, but I took no part. I crossed the
river and saw the bodies of the soldiers that had been killed.
I think Mr. Quinn, the interpreter, was shot several times after
he had been killed. The Indians told me that the most of them
who fired on Capt. Marsh and his men were on the same side of
the river; that only a few shots came from the opposite or
south side. They said that White Dog did not tell Mr. Quinn
to come over, but told him to go back. Of course I do not know
what the truth is about this. White Dog was the Indian head
farmer who had been replaced by Taopi and who was hanged at

"I was not in the first fight at New Ulin nor the first attack
on Fort Kidgely. Here let me say that the Indian names of
these and .other places in Minnesota are different from the Eng-
lish names. St. Paul is the 'White Rock;' Minneapolis is 'the
Place Where the Water Falls;' New Ulm is 'the Place Where
There Is a Cottonwood Grove on the River;' Fort Ridgely was
'the Soldiers' House;' Birch Coulie was called 'Birch Creek,'
etc. I was in the second fight at New Ulm and in the second
attack on Fort Ridgely. At New Ulm I had but a few of my
band with me. W r e lost none of them. We had but few, if any,


Online Library1827-1906 WamditankaA Sioux story of the war : Chief Big Eagle's story of the Sioux outbreak of 1862 → online text (page 1 of 2)