That whole process is very complicated

Mr. LaBatte talk in depth about the events surrounding the U.S-Dakota War.

Audio Chapters

DL: Okay let's start with the fur traders. You mentioned the fur traders as being depicted inaccurately in the textbooks. Would you say that it's true or false that they deliberately increased the price for things at the trading posts for Indians - 100 to 400 percent is what I remember reading.

JL: It depends on place and time. Are we talking 1862 or?

DL: Around the 1850s, 1860s.

JL: Okay. I don't know how many different fur traders there were at the Lower Sioux Agency and at the Upper Sioux Agency. If an Indian didn't like the trade, the Indian could go somewhere else. In 1862 the Indians were coming into New Ulm and St. Peter to trade. It was nothing to them to pack up and take a couple of days and come over to New Ulm if they didn't think they were getting a fair deal from their traders. But, interestingly, even Myrick who has a bad name now for telling the Dakota to eat grass still had his Indians, those people who were loyal to him and who always traded with him because they trusted him. Same with my great-great-grandfather Francois LaBatte. He had his Indians and the records show that he did a very good business. Not all of the fur traders decided to stop giving credits. The book suggests that they did. The exhibits and other products suggest that the fur traders were all white, and they weren't. My great-great-grandfather Francois LaBatte was half Dakota, and don’t tell me he tried to cheat his Dakota relatives.
There's an exhibit at Traverse de Sioux that says that Jefferson suggested that they use the fur traders to drive up the debts and then force the Indians to sell their land. Being in the exhibit like it is, it suggests that this was, in fact, U.S. government policy. I've asked them for proof and they cannot prove it.

DL: Nicollet County Historical Society in Saint Peter operates that

JL: That's not an MHS sign. If the fur traders made money in the treaties--many of them were married to Dakota women or had Dakota descendents--you can likely bet that they shared that money with their families and their extended families. To make a general statement that the fur traders cheated the Indians is not correct. I don't like criticism of any group of people from those times, and I don't like misinformation. It's exaggerated. The truth was sad enough, what happened. We don't need to embellish it.

DL: So in your point of view then, the Dakota had the opportunity to choose who they did trade with.

JL: Yes.

DL: And if they felt like they were being cheated at the Lower Sioux Agency, you believe they could have easily gone to New Ulm...

JL: New Ulm, Upper Sioux Agency.

DL: Or somewhere else?

JL: St. Peter was there at that time.

DL: For the same, to get a better deal.

JL: Yes, and we know they were coming in to New Ulm to trade.

JL: The Indians who converted to Christianity were probably the strongest of the Indians. The bravest. They chose Christianity and weren't forced.

JL: Today the notion is that if you're Christian you can't be an Indian. I don't know if you've spoken to Elden Lawrence. He would tell you you're wrong if you believe that. I see in the Indian communities today that the youth are being persuaded or influenced to take up the traditional religion because they are being told that they can't be an Indian and a Christian at the same time, and that's wrong.

The missionaries influenced a group of Indians who helped rescue the captives at Camp Release. If it had not been for those Christians and others who were opposed to the war, the hostile Indians might have killed all of the captives.

And I believe that a majority of the Dakota Indians, even though they were not Christian, opposed the war. That it wasn't Sibley who ended the war, it was these friendly Indians who gathered up the hostages during the Battle of Woodlake and protected them against Little Crow's warriors when they returned. I think the friendly Indians are getting far too little credit. What we hear today a lot is that the Indians went to war with the whites in 1862. And that's a wrong statement. The Indians did not go to war. Eastern Dakota, maybe, some of the Indians went to war. Others were drawn in. And that message isn't getting out there.

DL: From what you've read, what was the situation at the Lower Sioux Agency in 1861, 1862?

JL: There was a break going on between the Dakota Indians and their fur traders. I believe up till that time the fur trade was more of a, here's a loan, pay it back when you want to, or they would pay back when treaties were made. But in that last 1858 treaty, when the north side of the river was sold, possibly the fur traders saw that there would be no way to recover their money, their loans. The fur trade was diminishing, the better hunters were still bringing in impressive amounts of furs but others weren't. The Indians wanted the fur traders to start paying for their grass, and for their wood and for fish in the river that they were taking. I believe that's where Andrew Myrick's statement came from. It reached a point where a group of Dakota Indians at the Lower Agency visited Fort Ridgely and said, “We want to make sure you're not going to force us to pay the fur traders.” And I'm not sure why they did that, because the military wasn't forcing them to do that. They were going to drive up debts and then refuse to pay the fur traders. Fur traders found out about it and said, “Well, if you're going to do that then we won't give you any more credit. You can eat grass.” But they were still giving credits to the Indians they thought would pay. And then this group of militant Indians stopped everybody from getting credit. And one of the things I have to find out is I don't know if they stopped giving credit at the Upper Agency. I don't know if they had stopped up there by that time. And there were still independent traders who were giving credits. And I believe Myrick said, "Let them eat grass" because the Indians had wanted money for their grass that they were taking for their animals.

DL: What was the full quote - do you recall Myrick's full quote? It had something to do with the word dung, too.

JL: Well one version is "let them eat grass or their own dung." One version says that.

DL: Would you call those fighting words?

JL: It was one of the causes that Little Crow listed when Sibley asked him why he went to war, Myrick's words. But what would you do if you knew these people weren't going to pay you? Would you continue to let them have credit? It's two-sided. It's not just a bad white man refusing starving Indians; it's also Indians saying we're not going to pay you.

DL: The historical accounts mentioned that many of the Dakota were starving and dying from starvation. Have you read that as well?

JL: I have read that. When you say many--I don't know if anybody can say many -- but really if any were starving, that's bad enough. I've read that the Indians valued their dogs and their horses and that that would be the last thing they would do is kill their dogs and horses. Also, that there were older people and younger children that were dying from lack of food.

But I've recently read an article from 1852, this was before the 1851 treaty was ratified, that said that the Indians around Lac Qui Parle were starving; that there were groups out there that were turning to eating their horses and their dogs. I believe the fur trade had a bad effect, and that was why the Indians took their food, their game, to get the furs to buy these things that they needed, and maybe didn't realize how rapidly they were killing off the game. Because Sibley said that by 1835 there was a noticeable decline in the animal populations. In the 1851 treaties they treated [signed treaties] with the Sisseton and Wahpeton first because they knew that they were starving and would be more ready for a treaty. 1837 treaties gave the Eastern Dakota, the Mdewakanton--and I think the Wahpekute were in that treaty -- so much money that some of them stopped hunting. And there were western Indians who also wanted a treaty because they were coming in to live among their eastern relatives off of the money that they were getting on their treaties. That whole process is very complicated.

DL: How does Acton work into this picture?

JL: Acton was the spark. I think they needed a reason. They were afraid of retaliation from the government and they didn't want to turn over the Dakota men who killed the settlers at Acton. I think that that was the spark. I think that once they reached the village, war was inevitable.

DL: What do you think was the origin on the war? Was there more than one origin?

JL: I do a speech called “Causes of the Dakota War.” There are, I believe, at least six primary causes. And I would say the primary cause was that change was too sudden. Village Chiefs and spiritual leaders were losing their power as Indians moved out of the villages onto the farms and started joining churches. Dr. Williamson was a missionary and he would take revenue or income away from the spiritual healers and medicine people, men and women. I believe that the government tried to make the change too quickly, didn't give the Indians time to adapt to what was happening. There was too much pressure put on by the government to convert. The government was offering food and special issues to the farmers, to the Indians who would become farmers and offering nothing to the traditional Indians. One example of that [occurred when] the Indians reached Fort Snelling. They threw away many of their medicine bundles and idols, and there were mass conversions to Christianity after the Dakota War, both at Mankato and at Fort Snelling. I believe that in a way it was a religious war; that the Dakota Indians saw that their Gods were not as powerful as the white God. And if you track their progress to 1900 or so, even after they were released from the prisons and reached Santee, Nebraska, there were still large Christian congregations among the Dakota Indians.

JL: There have been a lot of causes of the war offered since 1862, but if you go into the first-person accounts I think you're safer, or you have a better idea of what happened. Because each of the missionaries, the Indian agent, Chief Little Crow, Chief Big Eagle and others gave primary reasons for the cause of the war. Chief Big Eagle said the change was too sudden. And I believe that's correct. Chief Big Eagle didn't say it was that we were starving, he didn't mention food. Chief Little Crow did.

DL: Would you expect them to have mirrored each other?

JL: If food had been a problem, I would have thought that they would have -- that Chief Big Eagle would have at least mentioned it.

DL: Is it possible his band wasn't starving?

JL: It's possible

DL: Whereas Little Crow's was?

JL: But, I would also have thought Chief Big Eagle would have spoken for the group rather than just for his band. Because when he said the change is too sudden, he was speaking for everybody, I believe. And he also said that we wanted to go where we wanted, hunt where we could, and take game and then trade. This was their way of life and they didn't want to see that ending. So that's why I believe he said the change was too sudden.

JL: Another thing regarding food was that, in my great-great-grandmother's testimony, she was asked when the traders stopped giving credit. And her reply was, “About the time the corn was commencing to be good to eat.” This was going to be a bumper year. There was going to be plenty of food for everybody. All reports were that there was going to be plenty of food. I believe there was a good reason to start the war at that time, to get it going. And I believe that these people who wanted war thought that, traditionally, the eastern Sioux would join them. But they didn't. Traditionally they were allies - Dakota means allies. But even the Sisseton and the Wahpeton, a majority of them opposed the war. Throughout the entire war there were only maybe a couple of the Upper Sioux leaders that joined. Chief Standing Buffalo and Chief Red Iron opposed the war. And they were very influential with their people to keep them out of the war. There's a story up at Camp Release that the reason for Camp Release is that Chief Red Iron lined his warriors along his boundary. He claimed the land and said to Chief Little Crow, "You can cross, but if you try to cross with those hostages we will attack you." That was a very brave thing for him to do, he was well outnumbered.

DL: Do you think it's a good idea to commemorate the events of the 1800s?

JL: Yes. It’s historical. People have to understand history. It's interesting, I think New Ulm was formed in 1855. I'm going through a German friend of mine who has translated some German newspapers for me. The Indians were here often. One account says that the Indians were in New Ulm before the shops opened, knocking on doors to spend their annuity money. They were coming in here to trade furs. They were passing through New Ulm on their way to their sugar camps and coming back. Scalp Dance down in German Park. I'm trying to figure out what happened, why all of a sudden it seemed like the whites were enemies and they wanted to kill everybody in New Ulm. What happened to that relationship? It appeared to be at least a working relationship, although it may not have been friendly. The Indians didn't have to come here to spend money, but they were doing that even though the traders had stores. I don't know, but I suppose with some research a person could find that they were going to St. Peter, too.

Oral History- Interview | Narrator John LaBatte Interviewer Deborah Locke made in New Ulm, MN | Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Citation: Minnesota Historical Society. U.S. - Dakota War of 1862. That whole process is very complicated January 22, 2019. http://www.usdakotawar.org/node/1066

Viewpoints: All viewpoints expressed on this website are those of the contributors, and are not representative of the Minnesota Historical Society.