Eriksmoen: Was North Dakota conflict a battle, massacre or both?

Alfred Sully. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

On June 1, 1863, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully was removed from his active role in the Civil War and transferred to the Department of the Northwest (DNW) to serve as commander of cavalry troops in the Northwestern Indian Expeditions.

He was sent there to assist Brig. John Pope in what has been called the Dakota War, following the “Sioux Uprising of 1862.” Throughout the late 1850s and early 1860s, many of the Indian treaties had been broken by the U.S. government, and oftentimes the agents at the reservations shortchanged the Native Americans on their annuity payments or did not supply them with adequate provisions. For some of the starving Dakota Indians who lived along the Minnesota River, the only solution they saw to prevent mass starvation was to drive the whites out of the land they once considered their own.

On Aug. 17, 1862, four Santee Dakota Indians on a hunting expedition killed five settlers. Later that night when they returned to camp, a tribal council decided to attack the settlements throughout the Minnesota River Valley, hoping to drive the whites out of the area. Within a few days, a sizable number of settlers and their families had been killed.

On Sept. 6, in the hope of protecting the settlers in southeastern Minnesota, President Abraham Lincoln formed the DNW, and appointed Pope "to command it with orders to quell the violence.” Pope led troops of the 3rd and 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiments, and Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey enlisted the help of Col. Henry Hastings Sibley, the former Minnesota governor.

On Aug. 20, Sibley hastily formed a regiment of local volunteers and Army soldiers from Fort Snelling into the 6th Minnesota Infantry. For the next couple of months, several battles occurred, and a number of the Dakota were killed or captured. In December, over 1,000 Santee Dakota were tried by a military court, and of those who committed the most serious offenses, 38 were executed in Mankato on Dec. 26.


A number of warriors directly involved in the deaths of settlers avoided capture and fled west of the Minnesota boundary into Indian Territory, of which the northern part later became North Dakota. Most of these Native Americans sought refuge with the peaceful Dakota Indians who lived on the reservations.

In early June 1863, Gen. Pope ordered Sibley “to pursue and punish” the Dakota Indians who were responsible for the deaths of the settlers. Sibley assembled an army of 3,320 men, the “largest military force ever assembled to combat Indians,” and on June 16, they began their long journey into Indian Territory.

Meanwhile, Sully, who had previous experience combating Plains Indians, had arrived in Iowa to assist in the Dakota War. At Sioux City, he was given command of the 6th Iowa Cavalry, 2nd Nebraska Cavalry and portions of the 7th Iowa Cavalry and the 45th Iowa Infantry. In late June, he and his soldiers were sent up the Missouri River in riverboats to cut off the escape of any Santee Dakota Indians who attempted to flee from the advancing forces of Sibley.

After a fruitless month of travel, Sibley first encountered a group of about 1,000 Dakota Indians on July 24, in present-day Kidder County, at a place called Big Mound. A short battle took place, with Sibley losing three men and the Dakota losing less than a dozen. Two days later, while Sibley’s forces were in pursuit of the Dakota, there was a battle at a site called Dead Buffalo Lake where about 15 Native Americans were killed. As Sibley continued to push the Dakota further west, he expected Sully’s forces to advance to a position behind them and cut off their retreat to the Missouri River, but Sully’s advancement was delayed.

On July 28, at a place near present-day Bismarck called Stony Lake, Sibley and the Dakota clashed, with the Dakota losing only a handful of warriors. Unsuccessful in preventing the Dakota from crossing to the west side of the Missouri, Sibley, his troops and their horses were exhausted, and he decided to abandon the operation and return to Minnesota.

Because of low water in the Missouri River, the riverboats proceeded slowly, and Sully with his 1,200 men did not arrive in the area of present-day Bismarck until mid-August. After Sibley had left, many of the Native Americans returned to the east side of the river to replenish their winter supplies of buffalo meat. The area where the buffalo were most plentiful was in the hills of what is now LaMoure County, near the town of Kulm.

In early September, some of Sully’s scouts uncovered a large encampment of Indians near Whitestone Hill in LaMoure County. On Sept. 3, Sully’s forces surrounded the encampment and launched their attack, shooting every Native American in sight, killing about 200 men, women, and children. To make certain that any survivors would suffer in the coming winter, the soldiers burned the lodges, destroyed tools and cooking utensils, burned the food and laid waste to anything they may need for survival.

Most of the victims were Yankton Dakota and had nothing to do with what had taken place in Minnesota the previous year, and one of Sully’s interpreters labeled it as a massacre. Sully boasted that he had delivered “one of the most severe punishments that the Indians have ever received.”


After the conflict, Sully wanted to pursue the fleeing Native Americans, but because his horses and mules were exhausted and his supplies were running low, he decided to march his men to Fort Pierre, in what is now central South Dakota, where his soldiers built Fort Sully. After spending the winter there, Sully renewed his operation against the Dakota in the spring of 1864 with an army of 3,500 men.

Fifteen riverboats transported the men up the Missouri River, and when they arrived where the Yellowstone River flows into the Missouri, Sully had his men construct Fort Rice as a field base to protect river traffic and settlers. On July 19, Sully, in his pursuit of the Dakota, headed toward the Killdeer Mountains.

On the morning of July 28, 1864, one of his scouts informed him that there was a large encampment of Native Americans 10 miles ahead, at the edge of the Badlands. Because of the rough terrain, Sully was unable to mount a cavalry charge, so he formed a large, hollow square that steadily progressed towards the Dakota camp. The Dakota launched several attacks at the soldiers but were only able to slow them down. When it became apparent that they could not stop Sully’s advancement, they abandoned their camp, leaving most of their supplies. It was estimated that about 100 warriors were killed during the fighting at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain.

As Sully’s troops pushed through the Badlands in early August, they were frequently harassed by the Dakota, and two battles took place. On Aug. 7, about 1,000 Dakota appeared on the bluffs above them, and they showered arrows and rifle fire down on the troops, who responded with cannon and rifle fire. The same thing occurred on Aug, 9, and when the soldiers finally emerged from the Badlands, the Dakota fled. Sully estimated that his soldiers killed about 100 warriors in the Battle of the Badlands.

Sully spent much of the summer in 1865 looking for hostile Dakota, especially in the area north of Devils Lake, N.D., but everything was relatively peaceful. In mid-July at Fort Rice, he negotiated “treaties with some of the bands he fought with during the previous year.”

On Sept. 13, he returned to Fort Sully, ending his Indian campaign. Sully was mustered out of the Volunteers on April 30, 1866, and returned to the regular Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Also that year, Sully married Sophia Henrietta Webster, the daughter of Saswe, “a powerful Yankton [Dakota] medicine man.” Sully spent much of his remaining years in the Army in Kansas, where he had a running feud with Col. George Custer, and in 1869, he was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Montana.

Alfred Sully died on April 27, 1879, and besides Fort Sully, Sully’s Hill in Benson County and Sully Springs in Billings County were named in his honor. He had a number of notable descendants, and the one I find most interesting was his great-grandson, Vine Deloria Jr., a theologian and scholar whose popular book, "Custer Died for Our Sins," helped countless Americans better understand the abuses suffered by Native Americans.

Correction: In last week’s article, I wrote “the U.S. annexed the territory of Texas.” Texas was a republic, not a territory.”


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"Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

Curt Eriksmoen, 'Did You Know That?' columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist

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