WHITESTONE HILL, N.D. - Vengeance was on the minds of the soldiers that day as they came upon a vast teepee village for a gathering of thousands of Dakota and Lakota Sioux.

Later Gen. Alfred Sully reportedly described what happened here 150 years ago as a bloody mistake.

But he also said that he was engaged in a "war of extermination" and that "it will be necessary to shoot everything that wears a blanket," based on accounts compiled by the State Historic Society of North Dakota.

When darkness descended and the shooting stopped on Sept. 3, 1863, between 100 and 300 Indians lay dead, including women and children, following the unprovoked attack. Twenty soldiers died, some likely from "friendly fire."

Whitestone Hill was a major clash in the aftermath of the 1862 Minnesota Uprising, in which Santee Sioux killed more than 600 settlers and soldiers. An unknown number of Indians, who had been facing starvation and harsh treatment, also died.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

The conflict spread into Dakota Territory in 1863 and 1864 as soldiers were sent to inflict punishment on the Sioux, often without regard to whether they participated in the Minnesota conflict.

A string of skirmishes in what one historian calls the Dakota Conflict in Dakota Territory marked the onset of the Sioux wars that convulsed the northern Plains until 1890.

Historians regard Whitestone Hill as a turning point, the beginning of the Army's "scorched earth" policy that would culminate almost three decades later at Wounded Knee.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman used similarly ruthless tactics of "total war" during the Civil War in his infamous 1864 "March to the Sea," which included the burning of Atlanta.

Sully, who was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War and several Indian campaigns, led a brigade of 1,200 men into Dakota Territory.

Elsewhere in Dakota Territory, another punitive expedition was headed by Gen. Henry Sibley, who had clashed earlier in 1863 in a series of three running battles.

On the fateful afternoon at Whitestone Hill, Sully's scout found what first appeared to be a small camp of Sioux in the rolling prairie hillocks of the Missouri Coteau, west of the James River Valley.

The scouting party found women out skinning buffalo following a communal hunt that coincided with an intertribal trade rendezvous and celebration, a festive annual rite.

It turned out to be a much larger encampment than Sully's scouts first believed, with estimates later ranging from 3,200 to 4,800 Indians in 400 or 800 scattered lodges encircling a lake. Scholars' estimates of warriors ranged from 800 to 1,200.

Sully's officer in charge of the scouts sent two reconnaissance parties to opposite sides of the vast camp to better assess the situation.

The village, meanwhile, detected the troops and a few Indians began to prepare to leave. A delegation of Indian leaders met with the soldiers and, through an interpreter for the army, offered to surrender several chiefs who had been involved in armed resistance.

The major commanding the scouts insisted, however, on total surrender. He apparently had the mistaken notion that a single chief oversaw all of the Dakota and Lakota who were gathered.

In fact, the village was a complex assortment of bands, each with only partial authority over its people.

With the collapse of negotiations - spanning a tense, three-hour period during the reconnaissance - Indians sensed trouble and began frantic preparations to flee as dusk approached.

Sully's cavalry force of 600 or 700 troops was less than a mile away when he saw that the Indians were escaping. He immediately ordered a colonel to gallop ahead with his men to the south to block the retreat.

The general ordered other officers to circle around to the north and east in moves aimed at surrounding the village.

"We drove them into a deep ravine where there were thousands of men, women, children, ponies and dogs, and they were a hard looking lot of humanity, I can assure you, after they were surrounded," one soldier wrote.

A lieutenant later described the noise as "simply fearful," with soldiers "shouting and swearing, the Indians whooping and yelling, and above all this din and the rattle of musketry could be heard the crying of the squaws and Indian children," the Bismarck Tribune reported in 1883.

A pictograph of the attack drawn years later from an account by Takes His Shield, interpreted by an Episcopalian missionary on the Standing Rock Reservation, depicted a slaughter, with no Indians fighting back.

That version is consistent with stark oral histories passed down among the Yanktonais Sioux, the largest group present in the village, who regard the conflict as a massacre, not a battle.

But written accounts by soldiers maintain that troop casualties came from arrows fired by warriors.

Still, reports compiled by the State Historic Society found evidence of only limited defensive fighting by warriors. In one instance, warriors threw their weapons, presumably stone-headed war clubs, at a group of soldiers.

The most likely explanation for the warriors' restraint, the historic society's 40-page report concluded, was that the combatants were interspersed with their families, including women, children and the elderly.

Darkness halted the fighting, and the full extent of the carnage wasn't apparent until morning dawned.

"When we returned to the battlefield at daylight it was a sight I do not care to see again," one soldier said, quoted in a report compiled by historic preservation officials. "Tepees, some standing, some torn down, some squaws that were dead, some that were wounded and still alive, young children of all ages from young infants to 8 or 10 years old, who had lost their parents, dead soldiers, dead Indians, dead horses, hundreds of dogs howling for their masters."

Troops shot wounded Indians, according to accounts from at least two soldiers, and were given permission to loot the village, abandoned by fleeing survivors.

Sully's forces remained for two days, burning 300 lodges, an estimated 250 tons of dried buffalo meat, and other belongings. Soldiers tossed kettles and other metal objects into the lake.

Whitestone Hill was the last engagement in the army's 1863 campaign in Dakota Territory, and it marked the last "battle" in the Indian wars east of the Missouri River.

Sully, whose superior officer earlier had regarded as insufficiently aggressive in the campaign, received an official letter congratulating him for Whitestone Hill.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522