As winter approached, the Yanktonai and Hunkpatina bands of Dakota were busy hunting buffalo and preparing the meat for the coming season. Around them, the United States was split in Civil War, as the Union divided themselves between a war in the south, as well as on their western frontier. On Sept. 3, 1863, those two world’s would collide, with what would be said to be the bloodiest confrontation fought on North Dakota soil.
Turmoil had began to build in the late 1850s, as treaty violations caused an increasing amount of hunger and hardships among the Dakota. As peaceful negotiations reached an impasse, a boiling point was reached, setting off the Dakota War of 1862.
The war would be short lived. Beginning on Aug. 17, the war would officially be over when 38 Dakota men were hung on Dec. 26, 1862. It was the largest mass execution in United States history.
Following the execution, in April of 1863, the remaining Dakota Indians living in Minnesota were expelled, with their reservations abolished. Sent to Nebraska and South Dakota, others sought refuge with the Lakota in what would be North Dakota.
Seeking to punish those Dakota who fled, the U.S. Army pursued them, with battles continuing through 1864. With revenge in mind, and the intention to slaughter Indians, those gathered at Whitestone Hill would fall victim.
Attempt at peace
On Sept. 3, 1863, led by Colonel Albert E. House, 300 men met up with a large group of Dakotas. Initially thinking that they had stumbled upon a small gathering, House was surprised to find between 3,000-4,000 Dakotas having set up camp.
Unbeknownst to House, the gathering had been one of celebration and ceremony. The Yanktonai and Hunkpatina, along with a few members of other tribes, came together in order to pray for the coming year, reunite with relatives, arrange future marriages and plan for the winter.
Among those gathered were also a number of refugees, who had fled Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862. Primarily women and children, they were survivors of atrocities; however, their horrors would once again play out.
Seeing the U.S. Army approach, younger members of the tribes rushed to the nearby lake, hastily painting their bodies for war. However, elders among the group discouraged such action.
As House and his men approached, Chief Big Head gathered up his people, and reassured them that there was no need to fear. They had never had a problem; they had never fought the white men.
Convinced that the soldiers had not come for them, Big Head and his men found a white flour sack, and hoisted it upon a large stick, as a flag of truce. Approaching the soldiers, Big Head sought peace, yet his intentions would be lost in translation.
Attempting to explain that the tribes sought peace, the soldiers would instead here how the Dakota were preparing for their destruction. For nearly three hours, negotiations would continue.
Looking to protect their women and children, the Dakota would offer to have a number of their chiefs surrender, in order to assure peace. It would not be enough for House though, who demanded the surrender of all.
As the talks continued, Frank LaFrambois, who served as a scout for House, left the encampment with two soldiers to inform General Alfred Sully of the current situation. As the sun began to set, Sully would join House.
With their annual gathering and preparation for winter having concluded, the Yanktonai and Hunkpatina had began to dismember the camp earlier that day. Before the soldiers had arrived, the hunting camp was in different arrays, with half the tents still up, and the other packed away.
Conversations filled the camp, as goodbyes were said. Winter was coming, and with their supplies for the season prepared, peace and joy had filled the area. It would be short lived.
As the day progressed, peace and joy would be replaced with tension. While Big Head would seek to reassure his people that their would be no problem, fear broke out as Sully’s men surrounded the camp.
Looking down into the camp, Sully’s men would open fire. Among the Dakota, only peace had been sought.
“… And the worse of it, they (the Dakota) had no hostile intention whatever, the Nebraska Second pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa Sixth were shaking hands with them on one side, the soldiers even shot their own men,” Sam Brown, a 19-year-old interpreter, wrote to his father in regards to Whitestone Hill.
With soldiers having opened fire, panic broke out in the camp. Fleeing in all directions, man, woman and child tried to escape the carnage.
As the sun set, gun fire had erupted from among the soldiers. For the men in the camp, their initial response was to protect the women and children.
Engaging Sully’s soldiers, the Dakota men worked to divert the attention on themselves, in order to allow the women and children to escape to safety. However, with Sully having had the tribes surrounded, there would be no place to go.
Circling around a hill in the camp, the women and children rushed towards a ravine, hoping to find safety. Yet there would be none. Emerging at the top of either ridge of the ravine, Sully’s men would cut off the escape, and once again open fire, into the group composed mainly of women and children.
Fighting to create an opening among the soldiers to allow the women and children to escape, the Dakota men also attempted to shield them from the bullets. Meanwhile, not wanting to see their children perish, women tied their babies to horses and dogs, and chased them from the immediate danger, with the hopes that their children would survive.
Trapped, all would seem to be lost. As hundreds laid dead or dying, the Dakota warriors finally broke through, allowing those left to escape.
As night finally came, Sully’s soldiers would end their firing. Unable to see in the dark, soldiers had began to fire into each other, and realizing that, they were commanded to put down their arms.
With the dark settling in, the screams of women, and the howling of dogs, filled the night air, preventing soldiers from gaining much rest.
On Sept. 4, 1863, the sun rose above a field of bloodshed. Waking that morning, soldiers happened upon a grisly sight. Throughout the site women laid dead or dying. Children, from infant to eight to 10 years of age had suffered death the night before, or for those still alive, were missing their parents.
As morning broke, Sully established camp where the Dakota once had set up their own hunting camp. His men would set to work.
Scouting parties were sent out to hunt the remaining Dakota in the area. Those who remained at camp followed Sully’s orders. They would begin by killing those who were wounded; man, woman and child.
Next, they were ordered to kill every dog. With many having tied their babies to their dogs in hopes they would flee to safety, the order included the death of infants. An estimated 6,000 dogs would perish.
Believing in a scorch Earth sort of tactic, Sully would then order the destruction of everything that was left behind. So thorough were the men that soldiers would sit down with every pot in the camp, and break holes in them, so they could no longer be used.
Adding to the Dakota’s hardship, Sully would also have their winter stocks destroyed. Nearly 500,000 pounds of buffalo meat would be thrown into the fire.
For two days, a party of one hundred men would work to destroy all that was left at the Dakota camp. Teepees, buffalo skin, meat and tallow would be burned. As the destruction continued, the tallow would melt, and run down the valley as if it were a stream.
Sully would finish his mission on Sept. 6. He had lost just 20 soldiers, many by friendly fire. The Dakota would suffer much more. Three to four hundred would perish during the massacre. For those who survived, 156 were taken captive, while many others were scattered.
While Sully would consider it a massive victory, a dreadful irony existed. The Dakota Indians Sully had encountered at Whitestone Hill likely had no part in the Dakota War of 1862. For the United States, it was a military victory, but one that came at the expense of innocent individuals.
The Dakota prisoners would eventually be taken to Crow Creek Reservation, a former prisoner of war camp. For nearly a decade, they would remain prisoners in a camp where resources were lacking, and for many, life was hell.
One of only five Civil War battles in North Dakota, the events of that day would be forgotten, or lost to many. Those settlers encroaching on Tribal land in the state would largely be unaware of the history.
Just 20 years after the massacre at Whitestone Hill, the sites importance, among European settlers, was unknown. It would remain hidden until Frank Drew, in the mid-1880s, rediscovered it while searching for buffalo bones to sell. During his search, he would come upon human bones.
His discovery would create an interest in the site, one that continued to grow for the next few decades, as the state took control of the site, and a State Historic Site was created.
However, while an interest once grew, the history of the event still largely goes untaught, and Whitestone Hill remains shrouded.