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One of the reasons given for the building of Fort Snelling was that it would prevent the disastrous wars existing between the Sioux and Chippewa Indians. Beginning so far in the past that no cause could be ascribed for the hostility, each encounter was in itself both the result of preceding conflicts and the excuse for further warfare. Pierre Esprit de Radisson, who was the first writer to leave an account of the Chippewas, said that even at the time of his visit in about 1660 they were carrying on “a cruell warre against the Nadoueseronoms [Sioux]."

Lurking in the bushes to waylay their enemies on the woodland paths, hiding on the river banks to intercept hostile canoes, pretending peace and enjoying hospitality in order to have an opportunity for treachery were the military tactics of the Sioux and Chippewa warriors. To prevent such warfare, a military post was almost powerless. In fact, so insidious was the hostility that even the very grounds of Fort Snelling were the scene of bloody encounters.

Attempts were made to keep the Chippewas away from Fort Snelling by attaching them to the agency of H. R. Schoolcraft at Sault Ste. Marie. But the distance was so great and the route so difficult that the Chippewas did not make the journey to consult that agent. On the other hand, Fort Snelling was so close, and the Mississippi such a natural outlet from their country, that a trader declared that “you might as well try to Stop the Water in the Mississippi from going to St Louis, as attempt to keep the Chippeway Indians from St Peters."

During the last days of the month of May, 1827, Flat Mouth, chief of the Sandy Lake band of Chippewa Indians was encamped near Fort Snelling. A number of men, women, and children were with him, bringing maple sugar, which they had gathered in the northern woods during the winter, and other articles to sell to the garrison. Major Taliaferro was away at the time, but on May 24th the steamboat “Pilot” landed him safely at Fort Snelling. To welcome their “Father” home, and perchance to see if he had any presents or promises for them, a large number of Sioux came from their villages to the fort, as was usual on such occasions. The agent took the opportunity presented by the presence of both Sioux and Chippewas to deliberate with them in regard to peace, and also to request the Chippewas not to visit Fort Snelling again, in accordance with instructions which he had received from the Indian Department. To this Flat Mouth replied sorrowfully: “I feel myself now like a Dog driven away from your door to find another I am ashamed of this but I know you are doing this not by your wish."

The twenty-eighth day of the month proved the value of the advice Major Taliaferro had given. Several Sioux came to visit at a Chippewa lodge pitched directly under and in front of the agency house on the flats that border the Minnesota River. The guns of the fort could easily have been trained upon the spot. There was feasting and friendly revelry at the lodge that afternoon and evening. Meat, corn, and sugar were served in wooden platters; a dog was roasted and eaten. The peace pipe was smoked, and the conversation was peaceful regarding exploits in the hunt and the chase.

At nine o’clock when the party broke up, as the Chippewas were calling friendly good-byes to the departing Sioux who had advanced a few steps, the latter turned and fired into the midst of the unsuspecting inhabitants of the tepee. There was instant confusion. With a shout of triumph the Sioux ran off. The sentinel on the hill above heard the shots and cries and called for the guard. In a few moments there was at the gate of the fort a crowd of panic-stricken Chippewas carrying their wounded and crying for protection. Six men, one woman, and a girl about eight years old were handed over to the surgeon of the post, Doctor McMahon.

Immediately Major Taliaferro notified the Sioux that they had insulted the flag that waved over the land, and that ample satisfaction must be made to the Chippewas who had been treated in such a cowardly manner. In council with the agent, Strong Earth, a chief of the Chippewas, complained of the lack of protection: “Father: You know that two Summers ago we attended a Great Council at Prairie du Chien, when by the advice of Our White Friends, we made Peace with the Sioux We were then told, that the Americans would Guarantee our Safety under their Flags We have Come here under that Assurance. But Father, look at Your Floor it is stained with the blood of our people shed while under Your Walls. If you are great and powerful why do You not protect us? If Not, of what use are Your Soldiers?"

On the morning following the massacre a large body of Sioux estimated at about three hundred and fifty appeared on the prairie west of the fort. Brevet Major Fowle was ordered to march against them with two companies. Upon his appearance they fled, but he followed and was successful in capturing some of them. Nine Sioux one of whom Major Taliaferro reports was given up voluntarily were delivered up to the Chippewas. Identifying two of these as being among the murderers, they requested permission to execute them immediately.

Upon the broad prairie the two prisoners were given their freedom. They were told to run, and when a few paces away the Chippewa warriors fired, and the Sioux fell dead. Then followed a hideous scene which a spectator described many years later. “The bodies, all warm and limp, are dragged to the brow of the hill. Men who at the sight of blood, become almost fiends, tear off the reeking scalps and hand them to the chief, who hangs them around his neck. Women and children with tomahawks and knives cut deep gashes in the poor dead bodies, and scooping up the hot blood with their hands, eagerly drink it; then, grown frantic, they dance, and yell, and sing their horrid scalp songs, recounting deeds of valor on the part of their brave men, and telling off the Sioux scalps, taken in different battles, until tired and satiated at last with their horrid feast, they leave the mutilated bodies festering in the sun." At evening the bodies were thrown over the cliff into the river below.

On the morning of the thirty-first the Sioux delivered up to the Chippewas two others who, they claimed, had been the principal men in the affair. If the Chippewas did not shoot them, they said, they would do it themselves, as trouble had come to their nation on their account. But the Chippewas were willing.

About this second execution there has grown up an interesting story. One of the offenders, Toopunkah Zeze, was a favorite among the children of the fort. Tall and handsome and athletic and brave, he was the ideal of Indian manhood. The other, called the Split Upper Lip, was well known as a thief, and was as much detested as his companion was respected. He cried and begged for his life, saying that his gun had missed fire he had killed no one. The other calmly distributed his clothes among his friends, upbraiding his companion for his cowardice. “You lie, dog. Coward, old woman, you know that you lie. You know that you are as guilty as I am. Hold your peace and die like a man die like me.”

The two were brought out upon the prairie. Again the thirty yards were allowed; again the Chippewa guns were fired. For once it seemed that this Indian punishment of “running the gantlet” would lose a victim. For Toopunkah Zeze was still running. The bullet had cut the rope that bound him to his falling companion. With new hope he leaped forward. There was a shout of triumph from a group of Sioux hidden in the bushes; and the children of the fort, who had climbed upon the buildings to view the bloody scene from afar, clapped their hands. But the Chippewas were cool in their vengeance. Guns were reloaded and deliberate aim taken. The flints struck, and Toopunkah Zeze, now a hundred and fifty yards away and a second’s distance from a place where the straggling groves of the prairie offered life, fell dead. Two more bodies were thrown over the precipice into the river.

For ten years the hostility continued, but the environs of the fort were sacred places. An effective lesson had been taught in 1827. But on August 2, 1838, Hole-in-the-Day, a Chippewa chief, and five of his band came to Fort Snelling on a visit. That spring there had been a treacherous massacre by Hole-in-the-Day at a Sioux camp. It was true, as he said in the poetic simplicity of Indian style: “You See I cannot keep my face Clean as fast as it is Washed I am Compelled to black it Again. but My heart towards you is the Same. My Fathers Bones Sleep by your house My Daughter at the Falls Near the Grave of my Uncle My Wife lies at the Mouth of Sauk River and a few days past I buried My Son."

On the following evening some Sioux of Mud Lake, hearing of the presence of the Chippewas, rode over to Baker’s trading house where the Chippewas were encamped. Major Taliaferro had heard of the departure of the war party and had hurried to the scene. Just as he arrived the Sioux fired upon their enemies, killing one outright and wounding another in the knee. All but one of the Chippewas had laid aside their guns, thinking that they were upon neutral ground. This one, seeing a Sioux in the act of scalping the fallen Chippewa, fired upon him and wounded him mortally. But aided by the dusk the wounded Sioux was able to run more than a mile before he fell from loss of blood.

The Chippewas were immediately brought into the fort for protection. On the next day Major Plympton and the Indian agent called together the chiefs of the neighboring villages. There was a long council until Major Plympton broke it up by saying peremptorily: “It is unnecessary to talk much. I have demanded the guilty they must be brought.”

At half past five that evening the Sioux were delivered up. Three brothers had been accused of being guilty of the murder. One of them could not be brought because he was dying of the wound received the evening before. Much ceremony attended the proceedings as the Indian mother led her sons to the officers saying: “Of seven sons three only are left; one of them is wounded, and soon will die, and if the two now given up are shot, my all is gone. I called on the head men to follow me to the Fort. I started with the prisoners, singing their death song, and have delivered them at the gate of the Fort. Have mercy on them for their youth and folly."

Because of the attack which Hole-in-the-Day had made on the Sioux a short time before, Major Plympton decided not to execute the prisoners. They were turned over to their own people to be flogged in the presence of the officers. More humiliating than death was their punishment. Their blankets, leggins, and breech-cloths were cut into small pieces, and finally the braves whipped them with long sticks while the women stood about crying.

Although there was now a deep desire for revenge in each of the tribes, they manifested outward friendliness when they met at the fort. During the month of June, 1839, there came to Fort Snelling over twelve hundred Chippewas thinking that there they would be paid their annuities for the land they had ceded in 1837. There were two main groups one which came down from the headwaters of the Mississippi, and the other which came up the river from the vicinity of the St. Croix. At the same time Sioux numbering eight hundred and seventy were encamped near the agency. This was considered an opportune time to conclude a peace, and so the long calumet with its mixture of tobacco and bark of the willow tree was smoked while friendly athletic contests were held on the prairie. On July 1st the two parties of Chippewas started for home. But in one of the bands were the two sons of the man who had been murdered the year before. In the evening before beginning their homeward journey, they visited the graveyard of the fort to cry over the grave of their father. Here the thought of vengeance came to them, and morning found them hidden in the bushes near the trail that skirted the shore of Lake Harriet. The Badger, a Sioux warrior, was the first to pass that way as he went out in the early morning to hunt pigeons. A moment later he was shot and scalped. The murderers then hurried away and hid behind the water at Minnehaha Falls.

A few hours later, when the news had spread throughout all the Sioux villages, two bands set out to take revenge upon the departing Chippewas. The old men, the women, and the children remained at home, eagerly awaiting the result of the coming battle and cutting their arms and legs with their knives in grief over the losses which they knew their bands would have to undergo.

It happened that at that time the Right Reverend Mathias Loras, the first Bishop of Dubuque, was at Fort Snelling. He had been an interested spectator at the Sioux-Chippewa peace parleys, had watched the departure of the determined avengers, and now was anxiously awaiting the result of the conflict. On the morning of July 4th as he was praying at his altar for the prosperity of his country he was startled by the shrill notes of the Sioux death-song, and gazing through the window saw a bloody throng, dancing about the long poles from which dangled scalps with parts of the skulls still attached. Two terrible struggles had taken place the day before. On the Rum River seventy Chippewa scalps had been taken, and on the banks of Lake St. Croix twenty-five more were obtained. In both cases the losses of the Sioux were smaller. These trophies were brought to the villages, where they were danced about nightly until the leaves began to fall in the autumn, when they were buried.

These incidents which centered about Fort Snelling have led to the charge made against it, that instead of preventing the conflicts the fort intensified them. The fort was a convenient meeting place, it is argued, whither both parties resorted only to become involved in altercations and disputes which resulted in a flaring-up of old flames. But it must be remembered that the murders away from the fort were more numerous; and it is easier to recall the spectacular encounters which occurred at the fort, than the many occasions when the two tribes met peacefully as the guests of the officials.

A military officer who was stationed there wrote: “At Fort Snelling I have seen the Sioux and Chippeways in friendly converse, and passing their pipes in the most amicable manner when if they had met away from the post each would have been striving for the other’s scalp." The Indian agent, whose success depended upon the continuation of peace, noted with pleasure these friendly gatherings. “The Crane and the Hole in the Day and other Chippeways at the Agency this day Several Sissiton Sioux also at the Agency." These visits were often protracted for several weeks without trouble. “Chippeways a number of these people also at the agency some have been here for nearly 30 days fishing & liveing better & more independently than the Sioux." On the 29th and 30th of June, 1831, Chippewas to the number of one hundred and fifty met five villages of Sioux.

Efforts to combat the evil were made in council with the Indians. “Your wars with the Chippeways can never be of service to anyone”, reasoned their “Father”, “for as fast as you destroy one two or three more young men are ready to take the track of their deceased friends The old people among you ought to know this after the long wars between you". Most of the encounters took place either when the warriors were emboldened by liquor, or when the rival hunting parties met on the plains. The strict enforcement of the law of 1832 prohibiting the introduction of spirits had a tranquilizing effect in the country of the Chippewas. Indeed, the principal object of all efforts to suppress the liquor traffic was the prevention of inter-tribal wars.

Constant watching of the hunting parties and admonition as to their conduct were among the duties of the agent. “Sent my interpreter up the Mississippi among the Indians”, he writes, “to see how they are progressing in their hunts and as to the present hunting grounds of the Chippeways.” Eight days later record is made of the fact that “the Rum River Chippeways left for their camp this morning Sent word to their people to hunt on their own Lands & not by any Means to intrude upon the Soil of the Sioux.” When the interpreter returned he reported that everything was quiet between the two tribes. The sending of “runners” to the camps was a frequent occurrence during the winter of 1831, the region covered being eighty miles to the east and two hundred miles to the north.

In the treaty of Prairie du Chien of 1825 a dividing line between the two tribes, beyond which neither should pass, was agreed upon. But this provision was for many years a dead letter. As long as the line was unsurveyed the natives could urge indefiniteness of territory as an excuse for murder and depredations claiming that the other party was the trespasser. When Schoolcraft met the chiefs of the Chippewas in council at Leech Lake in 1832, the latter complained that the provisions of the treaty had not been carried out. “The words of the Long-knives have passed through our forests as a rushing wind, but they have been words merely. They have only shaken the trees, but have not stopped to break them down, nor even to make the rough places smooth." As a result Mr. Schoolcraft urged upon the Secretary of War the necessity of marking the line.

Seven thousand dollars were appropriated by the act of June 26, 1834, for the purpose of running this line, and the next spring Major J. L. Bean, accompanied by Duncan Campbell, the Sioux interpreter of the agency, commenced the survey. Later an escort of troops from Fort Snelling was sent him under the command of Lieutenant William Storer, with the result that the reduced garrison was unable to enforce order. When the survey had been completed from the Chippewa River to Otter Tail Lake the return of the military escort put an end to the work, but the agent was of the opinion that the most important part had been marked.

Efforts were made by the government to keep down the warlike spirit of the tribes. Thus, when Captain Gale allowed the Indians to come into the fort and dance the scalp dance in June, 1830, his act was disapproved of, and he had to stand trial. Likewise peace conferences were fostered in order to put the seal of the authority of the government upon the transactions. During the winter of 1831 truces were made between several of the bands through the efforts of Agent Taliaferro. On August 2, 1843, a great gathering of the two nations was held at the fort, where a treaty of peace was drawn up under the auspices of the civil and military authorities. During the first year it was kept inviolate, “if we except two or three individual cases of outrage."

Even as late as June, 1850, an assemblage of both tribes was called together by Governor Ramsey. The Chippewas were encamped north of the fort on the bluff above the Mississippi. In front of them a detachment of infantry was drawn up. Within the fort the artillery was in readiness. When word was sent to the Sioux that all things were ready, they approached, about three hundred strong, on horseback, all armed and painted, their whoops mingling with the jingling of their arms, ornaments, and the bells of their horses. Making a feint as if to rush around the soldiers, they suddenly wheeled to one side and became quiet; while the Chippewas on the other side of the line of infantry continued to dance and wave their weapons. It was amid such stirring war-like scenes that attempts for peace were made.

The earliest policy of the government had been to interfere as little as possible, and to allow retribution to be made by one tribe on another. But such inactivity did not appeal to a red-blooded officer like Colonel Snelling, who wrote after the trouble in 1827: “I have no hesitation in Saying that the Military on this frontier are useless for want of discretionary power, and that if it is not intrusted to the Commander, Men of Straw with Wooden Guns and Swords will answer the purpose as well as a Regt of Infantry."

But later the policy was adopted of confining in the “Black Hole” of the fort any culprits who were captured. Thirteen of the Sioux who participated in a massacre at Apple River were imprisoned; and on one occasion Little Crow’s band performed the scalp dance near Fort Snelling in commemoration of the murder of two Chippewas, while the murderers themselves languished in the fort. Probably this method of dealing with the problem would have been adopted earlier; but “the force at this point”, wrote an officer, “has been too small to send a sufficient force to take the offenders, even should an order to that effect be issued."

To determine how influential Fort Snelling was in maintaining order is impossible. As was the case with the liquor traffic, conditions were bad but could have been worse. From time to time there were events that indicated some success. After a peace had been concluded on the fourth of June, 1823, a small quarrel almost precipitated a general conflict on the sixth. Much to the chagrin of the Italian traveller, J. C. Beltrami, who was then a guest at the fort, the officers were successful in preventing bloodshed. “Everything conspired against my poor notes”, he wrote, “I had already perched myself on an eminence for the purpose of enriching them with an Indian battle, and behold I have nothing to write but this miserable article!... I almost suspected that the savages were in a league with the gentlemen of the fort to disappoint me."

Peace was maintained during the winter of 1831 on a line of three hundred and forty miles above and below Fort Snelling, and on one occasion there occurred the pleasant sight of Sioux and Chippewas departing in company for their hunting grounds on the Sauk River. Man-of-the-sky, who was chief of the Lake Calhoun band of Sioux, boasted that although he was only twenty-five years old at the time, he had already killed six Chippewas when Fort Snelling was erected, and added: “Had it not been for that I should have killed many more, or have been myself killed ere this." It is interesting to note in connection with the sacredness of these treaties the comment of Major Taliaferro that “much more reliance is to be placed in the good faith of the Chippeways than in that of the Sioux."

These spasmodic successes at least acquainted the Indians with governmental restraint. A paragraph from the manuscript diary of the agent refutes the argument that Fort Snelling intensified rather than alleviated these struggles. “From January 1833 up to this day”, wrote Taliaferro, “there has been no difficulty between the Sioux and Chippeways I once kept these tribes at peace for two years and Six Months lacking 15 days. And this between the years 1821 & 1825 till June 8th of the latter year. Colonel Robert Dickson remarked to me that Such a thing had never occurred before even when he headed the tribes against Us in the War of 1812."