This Day in History, May 4, 1863: The Dakota Exile

On this day in history, May 4, 1863, the U.S. government began deporting more than 1,100 Dakota people from their homelands, implementing federal legislation that exiled Dakota people from Minnesota following the Dakota-U.S. War. On May 4 and 5, steamships took more than 1,100 Dakota women, children, and elders from St. Paul to the newly created Crow Creek Reservation in the Dakota Territory.

Sign below Fort Snelling commemorating the concentration camp where Dakota women, children, and elders were held during the winter of 1862-63. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Background: In 1862, in the middle of the U.S. Civil War, the U.S. government failed to provide treaty-promised food and funds to the Dakota people. Lacking a large land base to hunt and gather, the Dakota were starving. Their desperation and humiliation sparked the Dakota-U.S. War in the late summer of that year. At the war’s outset, Gov. Alexander Ramsey told the legislature: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of Minnesota.”

After the war, which lasted only a few months, troops imprisoned men of fighting age in Mankato, where they faced military trials. Elsewhere, troops force marched approximately 1,700 Dakota prisoners, mostly women and children, from western Minnesota to Fort Snelling. They walked 150 miles in bitter November conditions through hostile towns. They were held at a concentration camp below the Fort over the winter, where several hundred died due to exposure, hunger, and disease.

By May of 1863, there were 1,318 Dakota still alive, 176 elderly men, 536 women, and 606 children. Gov. Ramsey recommended removing them by steamship to Crow Creek rather than a more direct overland route because, among other things, it would reduce their chance of escape.

More than half the Dakota left May 4 aboard the Steamship Davenport. The others left the next day on the Steamship Northerner. According to an article published in Minnesota History in 1963:

At St. Paul, the [Davenport] halted briefly to take on cargo. An ugly crowd gathered and apparently goaded to violence by a soldier who had been wounded at the battle of Birch Coulee, commenced throwing rocks at the Indians. Those crowded on the boiler deck could not escape the barrage and several women were injured. The crowd was stilled only after the captain commanding the military escort threatened a bayonet charge. A reporter from the Press labeled the mob action a ‘gross outrage’ because the prisoners on the ‘Davenport’ were peaceful Indians, not war criminals.

Gov. Alexander Ramsey put bounties on the heads of any Dakota remaining in Minnesota, starting at $25 a scalp and eventually reaching $200.

2 thoughts on “This Day in History, May 4, 1863: The Dakota Exile

  1. Difficult to reply to to such horrible acts of injustice, cruelty and outright inhumaness. How can we ever atone?


  2. What a disgraceful way to treat these great people. I have a new, unkind perspective, regarding those who orchestrated these events.


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