December 26, 2012, marked the 150th anniversary of the largest mass hanging in United States history when the State of Minnesota put to death 38 Dakota men for their supposed involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. A current exhibit and website by the Minnesota Historical Society reexamines the war, paying particular attention to the experiences of the Dakota.
The U.S.-Dakota War started August 17, 1862, when, following a year of starvation conditions and a lack of treaty payments by Indian Agents, “four Dakota hunters killed five white settlers in Acton Township, Meeker County.” (MHS, http://www.usdakotawar.org/) War was officially declared by some Dakota the following day.
While much of the six-week war took place in southern Minnesota in counties west of the Twin Cities, a similar drama, led by Chief Hole in the Day II, threatened to unfold in north-central Minnesota.
Context & Witnesses
The Reverend John Johnson, an Ojibwe Episcopalian minister, was directly involved in preventing Hole in the Day from mounting an attack on European/American residents. He revealed his perspective on the events of 1862 in a series of letters he wrote to Nathan Richardson in 1902. These letters were published in book form in 1904 by the Woman’s Auxiliary of Saint Barnabas Hospital in Minneapolis, MN, under the title “En-me-gah-bowh’s Story.” Enmegahbowh was John Johnson’s Ojibwe name.
From Johnson’s letter: “In 1862, when the Sioux nation raised their arms against their friends, the whites, the massacre began in earnest, killing both women and children. I was watching my people how it would affect them. Sure enough, in a few days I heard that Hole-in-the-day had received a secret message from the Sioux war chief, Little Crow, though between them deadly hatred and warfare had been carried on for ages past. I thought Hole-in-the-day would not accept it. But he had secretly sent messengers to the interior country telling and urging his people to take up arms to aid the Sioux nation who were massacring hundreds upon hundreds of the whites, friends and warriors. … In less than ten days warriors began to come in to our village at Gull lake. Drum beating was heard throughout the village. Hole-in-the-day invited me to his council wigwam and informed me of his plan to commence killing all the whites that he could see and lay his hands on. He had decided to assist his hereditary enemy to go forth to war against the whites.” (pg. 18-19, ES)
Johnson did his best to dissuade Hole in the Day from this course of action, but Hole in the Day replied, “The plan has already come into its maturity. I am not able to control it.” (pg. 20, ES)
Johnson, along with Father Pierz, Chief Bad Boy, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, did what they could to stop Hole in the Day and the warriors who supported his plan. Johnson sent a letter with a man named Yankknight to forewarn people at the Crow Wing Indian Agency that Hole in the Day was headed their way. When the chief and his warriors arrived, they found it heavily fortified with guns and ammo and knew the Agency had been tipped off and Johnson had been the informant. According to Johnson, Hole in the Day came after him next, but he and his family were “safely housed and protected” at Fort Ripley, where others had already sought shelter. (pg. 23, ES)
Meanwhile, Bad Boy, Chief of the Gull Lake Band of Ojibwe, warned the residents of Little Falls, who chose the courthouse for protection. Nathan Richardson was there at the time and remembered the uncertainty of citizens.
“Nearly everyone had a programme of his own, which he thought should be adopted, and many packed up their household goods and departed, never to set foot upon the soil of Morrison County again. It was finally agreed that a barricade should be erected around the court house, which was done after a great deal of bickering and delay, considering the imminent danger that the people were in. As the crops had not been gathered, the farmers on Belle Prairie and in Belleview mostly went home to work at their crops during the day, returning every night to the court house barracks. Pickets were thrown out in every direction during the night. … In taking a retrospective view of the situation of things at that time, it is evident that in case of an attack by the Indians, the people of Morrison and adjoining Counties would have been much safer in the Fort than in the court house at Little Falls, cooped up where there was at no one time provisions enough to last the people 48 hours, and the supply of water was short.” (pg. 168-169, BHPM)
Richardson reported that area citizens spent three weeks in the courthouse, until soldiers arrived to save them and Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole “appeared for the purpose of treating with the indians for peace, and a sort of treaty was finally agreed upon, which was by no means creditable to the government.” (pg. 168, BHPM)
Father Francis Xavier Pierz walked from St. Paul to Gull Lake in order to talk Hole in the Day out of attacking. When he came to the dead line, a place in the road guarded by Ojibwe warriors that no white person was allowed to cross, he was so persuasive that the guards picked him up and carried him across rather than disobey Hole in the Day’s orders. (pg. 201, BHPM)
Also working against Hole in the Day was the Mille Lacs Band, which not only refused to go to war but offered to fight Hole in the Day’s warriors on behalf of the whites. The band’s actions in supporting the whites were remembered by many area residents long after the events of 1862 had passed.
With all of these direct witnesses to Hole in the Day’s planned attack, it came as a surprise to discover a conspiracy theory in relation to it.
The conspiracy theory is laid out in a long letter by George A.S. Crooker to Abraham Lincoln, dated October 7, 1862. In it, Crooker claims that Governor Alexander Ramsey and Henry Rice knew of the upcoming Dakota War prior to its outbreak and planned to take advantage of Commissioner Dole’s scheduled treaty-making trip to Minnesota. “They Ramsey and Rice had made fortunes out of a former Sioux treaty. These men again put their heads together and concocted a plot by which their coffers can be once more filled.” (Crooker to Lincoln, Oct. 7, 1862)
In a complicated series of maneuvers Rice, with the help of “his half breed trader friends,” was supposed to delay Dole from meeting with Hole in the Day. Further, he was also supposed to get Hole in the Day “to assume with his tribe a very threatening attitude in order to frighten Dole out of the Commission and get a joint Commission of Rice’s friends and an equal number of the friends of the Indian to make a more embracing treaty by which which [sic] Rice and his friends could make a vast sum of money while Hole in the Day in the operation would be made once more rich.” (Crooker to Lincoln, Oct. 7, 1862)
Crooker then goes on to describe the unfolding events, stressing that Hole in the Day and his warriors never actually hurt anyone. The mere threat of an attack on citizens and the surrounding of Dole by Ojibwe warriors were enough to send Dole running back to St. Paul to appoint commissioners favorable to Rice, Ramsey, and Hole in the Day to work out a treaty that was financially beneficial to them.
Who Was George A.S. Crooker?
The Governor of Minnesota colluding with an Ojibwe chief to threaten citizens? This is a serious charge. Who was George A.S. Crooker to make it?
An online search of his name turns up many sources of his letter to President Lincoln. Also found was a letter from Crooker to William H. Seward, dated October 8, 1862, from St. Paul, that appears to be an introduction to the Lincoln letter. In it, Crooker says to Seward: “I address it to the President, but inclose [sic] it to you because of my long acquaintance with you while to President Lincoln I am wholly unknown ….” (Crooker to Seward, Oct. 8, 1862)
This is important because it shows a relationship between Crooker and Seward that can help place Crooker. William H. Seward was Lincoln’s Secretary of State and trusted advisor. He served as governor of New York between 1839 and 1842. During the first two years of his governorship, George A.S. Crooker was an Assemblyman in the New York legislature. Crooker and Seward had also served together in the New York legislature in 1832. Both were lawyers and affiliated with the Whigs.
While it’s possible there was another George A.S. Crooker in St. Paul during the events of 1862, it’s not likely that a second George A.S. Crooker was also familiar enough with William Seward to forward a letter to President Lincoln through him. What, then, was Crooker, a former New York legislator, doing in St. Paul in 1862? There is no readily available answer to that question.
What is apparent from the opening of his letter to Lincoln is that he doesn’t have first-hand experience with events on the ground in relation to activities of the Dakota or Ojibwe. He says, “I have after much reflection concluded to put on paper and send you some facts and opinions of intelligent citizens of St Paul in relation to the Indian outbreak of Minnesota. These opinions are expressed and held by multitudes of people here of all classes and conditions both politically and socially.” (Crooker to Lincoln, Oct. 7, 1862)
While he was correct in his assessment of the Dakota War being based on starvation, late annuity payments, and the skimming of annuities by Indian Agents, in essence, his letter is a report of the scuttlebutt making the rounds in St. Paul, particularly the conspiracy theory regarding Hole in the Day, Governor Ramsey and Henry Rice. None of the locals directly involved with Hole in the Day’s 1862 actions mentioned collusion between the three men.
Nathan Richardson, who was well connected politically in the state (and most certainly knew Hole in the Day and Henry Rice personally), wrote extensively about the history of Morrison County and never once discussed a conspiracy. Likely, he would have been appalled at the idea of Governor Ramsey being involved in such a plot because of the drastic loss in population caused by Hole in the Day and his warriors.
In his April 22, 1892, Mayor’s Message to the city of Little Falls, Richardson wrote: “But that disaster [the washing away of the dam in 1858] only served to check the growth of the town; the people believing that another dam would soon be constructed, mostly remained until in August 1862, when the Sioux war broke out on the western border of the state and the Indian Chief Hole-in-the-day collected about 300 warriors and threatened to massacre all the white people in this region of country, whereupon a general stampede took place. About one-half of us remained [of a population around 1,000], who believed no better place for building a city could be found.” (BHPM, pg. 140)
Surely, by 1892, when he wrote this mayoral message, a plot would have been uncovered. Yet, it still doesn’t come up in the 1902 series of letters he receives from Reverend John Johnson concerning the events of 1862.
During any tragedy, those on the sidelines are often stricken with worry that causes them to seek explanations for what has happened. Conspiracy theories naturally arise during such occasions. What the Crooker letter shows is that 1862 is no different from 2012 in this regard. Perhaps, buried in a dusty attic or hidden in an archive, is evidence that will support Crooker’s allegations. Until then, we have to question this anomalous letter within the historic record.
-By Mary Warner
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 25, Number 4, 2012.
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Minnesota Historical Society, http://www.usdakotawar.org/
En-me-gah-bowh’s Story, Woman’s Auxiliary, Saint Barnabas Hospital, Minneapolis, MN, 1904.
Warner, Mary, A Big Hearted Paleface Man: Nathan Richardson and the History of Morrison County, Minnesota,” Morrison County Historical Society, 2006.
George A. S. Crooker to Abraham Lincoln, Tuesday, October 07, 1862, (Sioux uprising in Minnesota), Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. http://www.chgs.umn.edu/educational/addInfo/Letters/crookerLincoln.pdf
George A. S. Crooker to William H. Seward, Wednesday, October 08, 1862, (Sioux uprising in Minnesota), Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
Other Sources Used:
[MinnPost] Beyond 1862: Another year of remembering the Dakota-U.S. War:
Williams, Edwin, The New-York Annual Register for the year of Our Lord 1832, J. Leavitt, New York, 1832. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=hxYXAAAAYAAJ
Downs, John P. and Fenwick Y. Hedley, History of Chautauqua County, New York, and Its People, Vol. 1, American Historical Society, Inc., Boston, New York, Chicago, 1921. http://archive.org/stream/historyofchautau02downs/historyofchautau02downs_djvu.txt
[Wikipedia] 62nd New York State Legislature: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/62nd_New_York_State_Legislature