told the Indians this and have refused to trust them .” Bishop Whipple was taken aback . “ I was astounded that a trader ’ s clerk should claim to know more about the payment than the government agent ,” he wrote later .
This trader ’ s clerk , for better or worse , was the representative , the front face , of the US government — at least as far as the Lower Sioux tribes were concerned . It was easy for the Indians to not much like what they saw .
Benjamin G . Armstrong was another Minnesotan caught in the middle of this confusion . A southerner who had traveled north in 1840 to try roughing it in the Minnesota wilderness , Armstrong quickly learned to live with the Ojibwe Indians , and he became fluent in the Ojibwe and Dakota languages . By 1862 , he was a trusted intermediary between the US government ’ s Interior Department and the Indians of Minnesota . He wrote of a meeting in August 1862 between Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thompson and the Dakota chiefs : “ The superintendent called the chiefs together and told them that he would give them their goods annuities at once , as they were then on the ground , and … as soon as the money came he would notify them and they could come for it . They asked what kind of money it would be , to which he answered , he did not know , but whichever kind it was he would pay it to them . He could not tell what kind of money the great father had on hand , but thought it would be currency . They then demanded coin [ i . e ., gold ] and said they would not take greenbacks .”
This uncertainty surrounding the payment is also confirmed by one of the Dakota chiefs who survived the war and related his memory of those events to a reporter years later . “ Big Eagle ” enumerated five causes of the conflict and remembered distinctly that “ The government was in a great war , and gold was scarce , and paper money had taken its place , and it was said the gold could not be had to pay us .”
The combustible situation along the Minnesota River valley that July and August of 1862 was of little moment back in Washington , DC . The demands made by the Indians of Minnesota reached Washington as the Union Army — President Lincoln ’ s Army — was stalemated at best in its battles with the Confederacy .
Confederate troops , specifically General Robert E . Lee ’ s Army of Northern Virginia , were camped within 50 miles of the US capital that summer of 1862 , a capital that seemed to its residents to be woefully under-protected . These problems were of much more pressing concern to the residents of Washington , DC than any news reports from those distant Minnesota lands , lands that had only become part of the Union four years before .
The escalation of events in mid-August 1862 are well known to Minnesota historians : The refusal of the Agency traders to release food stores for the Indians living nearby . The precipitous behavior of some of the young Dakota men on August 17 in attacking and killing some clerks and farmers near Acton , Minnesota after those young men may have been denied service at the general store there .
The early hours of August 18 were chaotic . The Indians , perhaps fearing government retribution for the events the day before at Acton , attacked in all directions : they attacked the defenseless farmers and their families just across the river , and they attacked those Lower Agency traders . Those near the Lower Agency were the first killed , and those who resided near the Lower Agency and escaped those attacks were the first to reach Fort Ridgely and sound the alarm .
Meanwhile , as those events were occurring , a well-guarded wagon was cantering down the road between St . Paul and Fort Ridgely . The ambush of a detachment of Fort Ridgely soldiers left the fort temporarily under the command of a 20-year-old lieutenant , Thomas Gere . Gere later described those hectic events and mentioned almost parenthetically that “ At about noon [ on August 18 , 1862 ] there arrived at the fort in charge of C . G . Wykoff , clerk of the Indian superintendent , and his party of four , the long-expected annuity money , $ 71,000 [ approximately 235 pounds or $ 6 million today ] in gold .”
The US government was late , but it was making good on its treaty promises . The gold had arrived in St . Paul on August 16 , but with no telegraph lines between St . Paul and Fort Ridgely the people most interested in this development had no idea the yearly annuity payment was on the way . The gold arrived at Fort Ridgely four short hours after those calamitous events began .
Daniel C . Munson is a student of financial and scientific history and the author of a book entitled Malice Toward None that describes those Dakota War events and the story of four siblings orphaned by that war who went on to live very admirable lives .
Address to the United States Congress in Special Session . July 5 , 1861 .
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