Dakota/Settler Relations

Dakota/Settler Relations: 1834-1862
© April 13, 2017, John LaBatte
Updated on April 29, 2017

The Treaties of 1851 between the US and the Dakota Indians caused a flood of white settlers into present day Minnesota. What sort of relationships existed between the resident Dakota and the new settlers? Read on:

Incorrect Statements

In my reviews, the following statements related to this subject are incorrect:

  • The Dakota were confined to their reservations
  • Immigrants didn’t know there were Indians here before they came.
  • The Dakota thought the German settlers were miserly
  • For newcomers to Minnesota during the land-rush days of the 1850s and 1860s, there was little incentive to form relationships with the Dakota.
  • There was no violence against the whites prior to 1862.
  • In 1862, there were no innocent white settlers in Minnesota.
  • Neither side understood each other. Neither wanted to understand each other. It was a clash of cultures. This clash was the primary cause of the Dakota War of 1862.
  • The settlers committed genocide against the Dakota

A Short Chronology

  • 8,000-10,000 BC – 1st people arrived in present day Minnesota
  • ???? – Dakota ancestors arrived in present day Minnesota
  • 1660 – 1st white contact with Dakota in or near present day Minnesota
  • 1686 – Fur traders arrived
  • 1805 – Treaty with the Mdewakanton Dakota
  • 1834 – Missionaries arrived
  • 1837 – Treaty with the Mdewakanton Dakota
  • 1851 – Treaties with the Dakota
  • 1858 – Treaties with the Dakota
  • 1862 – Dakota War
  • 1863 – Removal of most of the Dakota from Minnesota


According to Peter DeCarlo, the term “settler” “implies settling empty land, bringing order and civilization, and the inherent right of European Americans to take Indigenous homelands.” DeCarlo states the settlers took land that native people already occupied. Indigenous studies scholars use the terms “colonist” or “settler colonist” in place of “settler” (DeCarlo:46). DeCarlo does not define a term for Indians who took this land from other Indians before the Whites arrived. Despite DeCarlo’s definition, I will use “settler” in this essay.

The Survey Group

This essay is based on comments found in about 150 settler accounts of relationships with the Dakota Indians. This sample represents a fraction of the many accounts that are available. No Dakota accounts were found. Many of these accounts have been condensed and reworded keeping the original intent.


The following words were found in these accounts. Although in use at that time, many find them offensive today.

  • Brave
  • Buck
  • Fiend
  • Half-breed
  • Redskin
  • Savage
  • Sioux
  • Squaw

Tribal Warfare

Long before the Whites arrived, native tribes were friendly with each other, they hunted together, they feasted together, they intermarried, but they also made war on each other. The US tried to stop tribal warfare with peace treaties. There was peace for a time but soon, warfare resumed. As the settlers arrived, warfare between the Indians was ever present. 35 accounts mention warfare between the Indians. 5 accounts mention war dances. 23 accounts mention scalps. 11 accounts mention scalp dances.

The newspapers of our State are filled with descriptions of “war” about the Indians butchering each other. Having to live in the midst of this is very perilous and morally displeasing and absolutely disgusting. (LaBatte and Rogers, Jun 17, 1858)

Last week Sioux Indians camped east of German Park in New Ulm. A bloody Chippewa scalp had been hung up to dry. Recently, scalp dances have frequently been performed in the surrounding areas. “War” between the Sioux and the Chippewa at Shakopee was said to have resulted in 6 – 11 bodies. Scalping is also carried out on the living. To stretch a scalp, they form a strong twig into the shape of a ring. In the center of the ring they stretch the skin to a size of about four hands. In that they tie threads all around the edge, which are tightly wound around the twig. A pole is fastened to the hoop. When it is lifted and carried, it looks like a banner; the bloody-red color facing forward, and the long black hair facing to the rear. The hair still contains the feather decorations of the conquered warrior; the ears still show the multi-colored gimcrackery. (LaBatte and Rogers, Jun 17, 1858)

During this summer about 300 Sioux pitched their wigwams near our house. They had been on the war path and had taken a lot of Chippewa scalps and around these bloody trophies they held a savage scalp dance. (Beatty)

Traverse des Sioux was a great rendezvous for the Sioux. They occasionally returned from the Chippewa Country with scalps, and then the night resounded with the weird chant and music of the scalp dance. And often have I put on leggings and thrown a blanket over my head and joined in the dance with all the vim and zeal of a thoroughbred buck. (Flandrau)

Chippewa Indians ambushed a Sioux man. The Sioux went on the warpath and brought home forty or fifty Chippewa scalps and came home to a big scalp dance. Her mother learned the Dakota words to this scalp dance and often sang them to her children:

  • “You Ojibway, you are mean,
  • We will use you like a mouse.
  • We have got you and
  • We will strike you down.
  • My dog is very hungry,
  • I will give him the Ojibway scalps.” (Fisher)

Dakota/Settler Murders

No accounts mention settlers killing Dakota. 3 accounts mention Dakota killing settlers.

In 1857, Dakota leader Inkpaduta and his followers killed over 30 persons at Lake Okoboji, Iowa and several more persons in Jackson County, Minnesota. (Carley, p. 5)

John Schmitz was killed after refusing an Indian man food and drink. (Sveine)

On August 17, 1862, 4 Dakota men killed 5 white settlers in Acton Township, Meeker County, Minnesota, for no apparent reason. This event was a primary cause of the Dakota War of 1862. (See “Dakota War Causes – Acton” on this blog.)

Friendly/Unfriendly Relations

94 accounts mention friendly relations between the Dakota and settlers. 40 accounts mention unfriendly relations. Some accounts mention both friendly and unfriendly relations.

The Indians were very friendly. They brought us venison and fresh fish. We gave them bread and coffee, and sometimes invited one or two to dinner. Their women stayed for hours and helped take care of the baby. They were so fond of the baby that they sometimes ran a race with each other to get the first chance to fondle her. Sometimes we visited them in their tents and smoked Kinikinick with them. (Mattson)

Indians came for food. His mother invited them in and fed them. One day a group of Indian men came to the house. They were drunk. His mother gave them food but would not let them into the house and told them why. The next house up had a German family. They didn’t like the Indians and shooed them off when they came by. He remembered going past the house and seeing their bodies. (Shields)

Indian Charley lived two miles from here [New Ulm]. His teepee was burned down and he was forced to leave with wife and child and without any other possessions. When passing through here, he was given money, clothing and food so that he was to some degree reconciled with the Germans. But if he will forgive that German whom he considers the originator of the fire, seems doubtful. (LaBatte and Rogers, Apr 8, 1858)

See below for more examples.


Liquor caused problems since its first introduction in the area. Early fur traders used liquor to attract Indians to their posts. Dakota leaders complained that settlers were trading liquor to their people. Dakota Indians also dealt in the liquor trade. 16 accounts mention liquor.

We are again seeing redskins in the city – many of them drunk – proof that there are still unprincipled persons in the neighborhood who are selling them whiskey for good money. (LaBatte and Rogers, Aug 3, 1861)

The Indians were our visitors nearly every day. One time a drunken Indian came inside and seeing me took out his hunting, or scalping knife and began to wave it about and talk loud. The drunken devil threw off his hat, grabbed his long hair and motioned with the knife as though he was scalping someone. I learned afterward that he was telling and demonstrating to me how he had killed and scalped a Chippewa. (Gesham)


21 settler accounts mention that the Dakota stole from the settlers. 3 accounts mention that the settlers stole from the Dakota.

At one corner of my father’s land was a big boulder called Red Rock, held sacred by the Indians. They would leave their trophies of war. As soon as they had gone, the white settlers would take everything of value. (Penny)

The Indians enjoyed frightening the white women. They often found them alone in their homes. They were always hungry, would demand something to eat, and would take anything that pleased their fancy. (Phillips)

One hot day we cooked a big pan of apple sauce and set it out to cool. Some Indians on their way to a war dance at Shakopee came along all painted up. First one and then another plunged his fist in that apple sauce and stuck it down his throat. It must have skinned them all the way down, but not one made a sound. (White)

Sharing and Trading

A basic tenet of Dakota culture was sharing with others. Some say today that the settlers refused to share. Most settlers on the frontier were poor. However, many shared what they could. 15 accounts mention that Dakota shared with settlers. 53 accounts mention that settlers shared with the Dakota. 20 accounts mention that they traded with each other.

My neighbor was visited by 12 Indians on a cold stormy night. At first he saw a dusky face appear at his window, then the form of an Indian who silently raised the sash and crept in. He made no sound but sat down on the floor near the fire; soon eleven more followed. At daybreak, they silently passed out through the window. In the early spring they left a large deer on his door step to pay for their lodging. (VanSchaick)

We had a cellar full of vegetables that we could not use. Father invited all the squaws who lived near us to come and get some. They came and took them away. (Wakefield)

We were much troubled with “prairie dig.” The Dakota were very friendly. A squaw came one day and when she saw how I was suffering, went out and dug a root. She cooked the inner bark and rubbed it on my hands. I was cured as if by magic. (Thorne)

Snow made my brother snow blind. An Indian put ointment around his eyes. The next morning he was completely cured. (Stene)

Since the “Indian Payment,” our city [New Ulm] offers a very lively, busy look; day after day the city is swarming with Indians, who, pockets full of money, are doing their shopping here. Already early in the morning, even before daybreak, they are at our business places, knocking on the doors, waking our merchants out of their beds and not until it gets dark, do they return to their tipis to enjoy their purchases. (LaBatte and Rogers, Jul 13, 1861)

Dakota Visitors

In Dakota culture, if one was hungry, it was okay to ask for food. The settlers called this begging. It was okay to walk in unannounced. It was okay to look in windows. 15 accounts mention Dakota begging for food; 9 said this was okay. 22 accounts mention Dakota walking into homes unannounced; 14 said this was okay. 13 accounts mention Dakota looked into their windows; 11 said this was okay.

One day when we were eating dinner, about 25 Indians came to the house and looked in the window. They always did that and then would walk in without knocking. They squatted down on the floor until dinner was over and then motioned for the table to be pushed back to the wall. Then they began to dance the begging dance. They asked for a pail of sweetened water and bread which they passed around and ate. (Beatty)

See below for more examples.

Learning about Each Other

Both sides were very interested in learning about each other. 6 accounts mention that the Dakota learned about the settlers. 19 accounts mention that the settlers learned about the Dakota. 9 accounts mention that settler and Dakota children played together.

We went on an excursion to the “teepees” two miles from here where live some Sioux neighbors who have frequently honored us with a visit, sometimes from hunger and frost, sometimes from curiosity to get acquainted with the household furnishings of the “palefaces.” And we must assume that they also liked us especially if there was something to eat. (LaBatte and Rogers, Mar 3, 1859)

For a week now, Indians are moving through the town. They come from the “Big Woods” near Henderson, where they spent the winter because of available game. They are heading toward the Sioux Agency. Some walk ahead, holding guns always ready to fire, the colorful band follows covered in blankets, one white, the other red, the third green, then the pack horses, mostly hardy ponies, several skinny dogs, wives and children – that’s how we see them coming up from the East and to move above the back of the town in the light of the horizon; always walking, never resting, neither looking to the right nor the left, in a regular movement. (LaBatte and Rogers, Mar 15, 1858)

One afternoon just before time to dismiss the school, the windows were darkened by the faces of Indians looking in. I went with the lessons and then told them to sing. The Indians appeared delighted with this and laughed and talked with each other. I took an atlas and went out and showed the Indians the pictures. They all stayed until the last picture had been shown and the leaves turned again and again and then with a friendly glance strode off. (Harrison)

An Indian appeared in Mrs. Stone’s kitchen and asked for something to eat. He was invited to join them for dinner. The butter was passed to him, and he said, “Me no butter knife.” Mrs. Stone said, “When it gets so the Indians ask for butter knives it’s high time we had one.” (Lapham)

Petitions from Settlers

Many people today, think the Dakota were confined to their reservations. This is incorrect. They often returned to their former village sites and hunting grounds. They were troublesome to the new settlers. Settlers wanted the Dakota removed and they wanted protection. Following are 6 petitions. These likely came from the Governor Papers at Minnesota Historical Society.

  • Nov 1, 1851    St. Croix River
  • Jan 1, 1853      Wabasha and vicinity
  • Jun 13, 1853    Shakopee and vicinity
  • Jun 17, 1853    Cold Spring and Coon Creek, Ramsey County
  • Jan 1, 1854      St. Croix Valley and Rum River areas
  • Aug 27, 1855  Scotch Lake, LeSueur [?] County

Major Petition Complaints:

  • Dakota are off their reservations in violation of their treaty
  • Dakota are coming into homes, threatening families, taking their canoes, and building their tents on settler claims
  • Dakota entered one house while the family was sleeping. They cut four severe gashes on a man’s head and cut one of his arms nearly off.
  • Some settlers refuse to allow Dakota in their houses. But Dakota force in with their guns raised
  • Dakota are stealing or destroying household implements and articles indispensable to the owner and hard to replace
  • Dakota are killing game, which but for them would be abundant
  • Dakota are destroying crops, shooting cattle and carrying away fences for fuel
  • Dakota ponies pasture upon settlers’ fields of grain
  • Drunken Dakota often commit offenses

Warned and Protected

On August 18, 1862, a faction of the Lower Dakota attacked the Lower Sioux Agency. This was the start of the Dakota War of 1862. 20 accounts mention they were warned of this war. 3 accounts mention they were protected. 3 accounts mention cabins being spared from fire. During the Dakota War, friendly Indians rescued and protected many mixed-bloods and Whites.

The Witt Family shared food with the Indians. When bread or a pie was placed in the window to cool, it would disappear, sometimes replaced by wild game. The Witt children played with the Indian children. When the war started, one Indian came into the cabin. He looked under the bed and made a hand motion to the two children hiding there to be quiet. (Erickson)

Franz and Franziska Holl befriended an old Indian in need of food. On August 18, Franz, his wife and youngest child went to New Ulm. About an hour after their departure, the old Indian appeared and commenced gesticulating excitedly. The children did not understand him, nor did they pay much attention to him. At this time a farmer drove by in a wagon with his family, and the old Indian practically forced the Holl children into the wagon, and no doubt saving their lives by his act. (Johnson)

A brewer had his plant not far from Fort Ridgely. All around the houses had been burned and the people driven away or killed, but the brewer and his family had remained at their place unhurt. There was an Indian sign on the front of the house, put there by friendly Indians, and all the other bands that came along respected the sign. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sep 1, 1912)

As mentioned above, many friendly Dakota saved lives during the Dakota War. Most notable was John Otherday, a Christian Dakota, who led 62 Whites to safety. According to Mary Phillips, “He was never with them, would be seen in the distance on a hill to the right, and then in the opposite direction.” (Phillips) He was watching for hostile Indians.


I have selected 5 longer narratives that represent the “flavor” of Dakota/Settler relations:

Helen (Caruthers) Tarble

She was born in Wisconsin. At age thirteen, she married James Carothers. In 1857, they settled on Beaver Creek in Renville County. Her husband worked at the Lower Agency. He was away often. She spent many days and nights alone.

The Indians were very kind and friendly to her. When she first came, she would have starved but for their bringing food. They were around her house day and night. She learned their ways and their language. She often went to their camp and listened to their war adventures.

In 1858, at age fifteen, her first child was born. She was attended by two squaws. When Mr. Carrothers was away, the Indians brought food every day. The squaws chopped and carried in wood. When the Indians came, her little girl ran to them and they would hug and kiss her.

The principal Indian medicine man taught Helen about the medicinal qualities of roots, herbs, wild flowers and barks. She nursed the Indians their sickness, dwelt with them in their camp, ate with them, smoked with them, and supplied them with meals when they came hungry to her house.

The Indians warned her that they were going to kill all the white settlers, but she did not believe them. She and her children were taken captive. Four braves claimed her. Little Crow ordered that she be killed. He did not want trouble among his best warriors.

She fled with her children to Fort Ridgely. This took 8 days to travel the 18 miles. She thought they traveled 60 miles in their wanderings. They had little to eat. After arriving at the fort, her daughter was dangerously sick. Helen searched for the plants, which she learned from the medicine man. She found what she needed and the child survived.

Her opinion of the Dakota changed. She later believed the Dakota were cunning, deceitful, treacherous, and unreliable. (Tarble)

Mrs. Jannette E. (DeCamp) Sweet

Her ancestors came from England in 1700 and settled in Massachusetts. In 1852, she married Joseph DeCamp. In 1861, they came to the Lower Agency where he operated the saw mill.

They were friends with the Indians. The Indians visited daily. Indians traded for what they needed. The Indians, with few exceptions, were kind and peaceable, and after a few months she grew accustomed to them and did not fear them. They came almost daily with their bags of corn to be ground, and would linger about the house, asking questions about everything.

During the 1861-62 winter the Indians were suffering. Their crops had been bad and there was much sickness due to starvation. The deep snow made the roads almost impassable and government supplies became scanty. The weekly government issues of food failed to meet the wants of many hungry people. The DeCamps opened their cellar and distributed many bushels of vegetables to those who were suffering. “I cannot doubt that our friendly attitude toward them became the means of our preservation after being taken captive.”

On August 18, an Indian man told her that all the white people had been killed at the agency, “and you had better be getting out of this.” Chief Wacouta’s mother came running past. She cried, “Puck-a-chee! Puck-a-chee! “Fly! Fly!

Mrs. DeCamp and her children were taken captive. Some of those she aided returned the favors. She escaped to Fort Ridgely with Lorenzo Lawrence, a Christian Dakota. When she reached the fort, she learned her husband had been mortally wounded in the Battle of Birch Coulee. (Sweet)

Wilhelm and Catherine (Pfau) Pfaender

Wilhelm and his wife Catherine came to the US in 1848. They came to New Ulm in about 1855.

One day, Catherine was baking bread. She heard the door creak and looked up. An Indian stood opposite her. She was terrified. She was alone with her children. “How,” he said. The Indians across the river were having a hard time. She had seen them around town, but she had never come so close to them. “How,” he said again. He pointed to the loaves. She offered him a loaf. He tucked it under his blanket. She offered him a second loaf. “Ugh,” he said and walked out. It was her first experience with Indians.

Catherine became more interested in her Indian neighbors across the river and in the woods back of the farm. In the winter, the Indian children slid down the hills on deerskins with her children. The men came regularly for handouts. In the summer the Indians exchanged wild game for vegetables or fruit.

The Indian women sometimes helped with the housework. She visited their wigwams; helped with their sick. The Indians had so little and were appreciative and friendly. She liked them and they liked her. She felt secure even when Wilhelm was not there.

When the Dakota War started, Jacob Nix told her to leave with her children. At first she refused, believing the Indians were her friends. He threatened to take her children. She decided to leave. (May and Loenholdt)

Christopher Spelbrink Family

He was born in Germany. In about 1856, his family settled in Milford Township.

Whatever his family had available they shared with their Indian friends who showed their appreciation by acts of kindness. The Indians always gave his family fresh fish.

He had friends among the Indian boys. They ran races or wrestled. One day, he was invited to stay overnight with an Indian friend. They gave him a bed with furs. The next morning there was breakfast of good meat which he found out later was dog meat.

The settlers had no wood and would take trees from the Indian reservation. The Indians never objected. However, they did not want anyone to take maple trees. One settler took a maple tree. The Indians beat him. A neighbor and Christopher’s father gave them a butchered steer to calm them down.

When the massacre started, all of their neighbors were killed. Their associations with the Indians kept the Spelbrinks from being killed. His mother noticed an Indian mounted on a pony on top of a nearby hill. Friendly Indians came to their house and told them to go. Upon their leaving, the Indian on the pony then rode slowly to the north, bypassing them. His mother said “There goes our guardian angel.” (Spelbrink)

Torgrim Togrimson Family

Torgrim Togrimson, Sr. and his wife Ingrid came to the US in 1852 from Norway. They were among the first settlers in Lake Hanska Township in 1857.

Torgrim and Ingrid were friends with the Indians. The Indians were great beggars. Ingrid gave them salt, pork and fresh bread when she could. One time she refused to give the Indians some mush she had cooked, as it was all she had for her family. To show their indignation the Indians took a pig.

“The Indians would sometimes fill her house like sardines in a box at night, but when they got warm by the stove they would leave again.”

Torgrim had a trap line. Sometimes when he arrived at his traps he found that Indians had been there before him. “They would skin the animal, leave the hide for Torgrim and take the meat to eat.”

Torgrim found an Indian unconscious and near death in the icy water of Omsrud Lake. He took the man home and cared for him until he was well again. This Indian became very friendly with the Torgrimsons.

Hearing of the outbreak, the Torgrimsons started for South Bend. When they reached the East end of Linden Lake, Ingrid gave birth to her second son, Martin.

Provisions soon became low. Torgrim returned to their cabin for flour and pork. At the cabin, he saw Indians coming towards him. The Indian in front said, “Pakat-shi! Pakat-shi” (Go away! Go away!). Underneath the war paint Torgrim saw the Indian was the one whose life he had saved. Now he was a chief and returned the favor.

On his return, Torgrim found the body of Mr. Armstrong recently killed by Indians. Armstrong was always cruel to the Indians; shot at them. (Torgrimson Family Sources)


Beatty, Mrs. J.R., Old Rail Fence Corners

Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1976.

DeCarlo, Peter. Fort Snelling at Bdote: A Brief History. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2016.

Erickson, Mary Lou, Aug 9, 2010, “The Death of Frederika Fitt Witt – August 18, 1862”, MHS Dakota War Website – Share Your Story, http://usdakotawar.org/stories/share-your-story

Fisher, Mrs. George E., Old Rail Fence Corners

Flandrau, Charles, Dec 1894, “Early Days in Minnesota”, The Northwest

Gesham, W., undated, “Reminiscences of Judge W. Gesham”, unknown newspaper

Harrison, Mrs. Mary, Old Rail Fence Corners

Johnson, R., 1937, Interview with Margareta (Holl) Hahn, MHS Dakota War Website – Share Your Story, http://usdakotawar.org/stories/share-your-story

LaBatte, John, and Elwin Rogers, 2012, The New Ulm Pioneer and the Indians 1858-1862.

Lapham, L.L., Old Rail Fence Corners

Mattson, Hans, Account, 1850s, Cannon River

May, Grace Lovell and Wilhelmina Pfaender Loenholdt, Memory’s Trail, New Ulm, MN: New Ulm Daily Journal, 1954

Penny, Mrs. Frederick, Old Rail Fence Corners

Phillips, Mary Sherrard, Old Rail Fence Corners

Shields, J., “Settlers from Ireland-The Mulcare Family” Minnesota Historical Society Dakota War Website – Share Your Story, http://usdakotawar.org/stories/share-your-story

Stene, Gabriel, 1928, “Remembrances of The Pioneer Kid”, Willmar Tribune, fall and winter of 1928

Sveine, Terry, “Anna Schmitz Thul Story”, Minnesota Historical Society Dakota War Website – Share Your Story, http://usdakotawar.org/stories/share-your-story

Sweet, Jannette E. (DeCamp), “Mrs. J. E. DeCamp Sweet’s Narrative of Her Captivity in the Sioux Outbreak of 1862” Minnesota Historical Society Collections, Vol. 6

Spelbrink, Christopher, undated, “The Milford Story”, Spelbrink Family File, Brown County Historical Society

Tarble, Helen (Caruthers), The Story of My Capture and Escape During the Minnesota Indian Massacre of 1862, St. Paul: The Abbott printing company, 1904

Thorne, Martha, Old Rail Fence Corners

Torgrimson Family Sources — Granddaughter Venus Synsteby Simundson, undated, “Torgrim and Ingrid Torgrimson” — Mrs. Ole Synsteby, May 2, 1930, letter, Torgrimson File, Brown County Historical Society and article in the New Ulm Journal, May 9, 1930 regarding this letter — John Torgrimson, undated letter, Torgrimson File, Brown County Historical Society —

Theo. Torgrimson, “Indian Story” in “One Hundredth Anniversary, 1857-1957, Omsruds, Thordson, Torgrimson,” Jul 21, 1957

VanSchaick, M. R., Old Rail Fence Corners

Wakefield, Warren, Old Rail Fence Corners

White, Mrs. William J., Old Rail Fence Corners

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