History Features

10 Myths on the Dakota Uprising

Looking back 150 years after the famous event that culminated in America’s largest mass hanging.


The Dakota Uprising that began in Minnesota on August 17, 1862, quickly grew into the largest “Indian War” in Trans-Mississippi American history. Developing from broken treaties, social and cultural stress, late annuity payments, land hunger, physical hunger, misunderstanding and pride, the conflagration soon encompassed most of the northern and central Great Plains.

1. The Dakotas, the eastern branch of the Sioux Nation, were united in their desire to kill white Americans.

False. Of the four bands of Dakotas, only two were more or less resolved to kill or drive away the whites. During the most violent first week of the uprising, about 350 settlers were killed. Dakotas from all four bands took part in rescuing, saving and recovering nearly 400 refugees and captives.


2. Trader Andrew Myrick’s infamous statement, “Let them eat grass,” was the key insult to the Dakotas that caused them to revolt.

False. Only the Indians witnessed Myrick making the “grass” statement. An interpreter’s daughter first mentioned it 57 years after the event. Since then, however, the claim that this incited the Dakotas to revolt has proliferated as truth in virtually every subsequent retelling. Like so much of our history, unfortunately, repetition is equated with accuracy.


3. Because of the Dakotas’ smoldering resentment, secret plans were made to rise up
and drive out the whites at a given signal.

False. The war began because a few warriors accused each other of being cowards, afraid to steal a white farmer’s hen’s eggs. Little Crow, the Mdewakanton leader, did not want war, but he succumbed when he was called a coward. The disastrous affair commenced for little other reason than a few men could not abide being called “chicken”—a malady that still infects many of our statesmen today.


4. Little Crow had planned the war beforehand and was well prepared.

False. Shortly before the conflict, the hungry Little Crow and a few of his men had pawned their three shotguns...

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