The U.S. Dakota War

Examine the motives of the U.S.-Dakota War through the writings of a Dakota leader and the citizens of New Ulm, Minnesota.

Dates and Eras 1862, 1863, 1864, Civil War, Westward Expansion
Themes Native American History, Empire, Westward Expansion, Civil War Era. American West
Grades 5-7, 6-9
Standards USI.1, USI.3, USI.4, USI.8


Historical Context

As the Civil War raged, Dakotans and white settlers engaged in heated combat during the late summer of 1862. The U.S.-Dakota War was a short-lived conflict that uprooted both Dakota and white settlers throughout the Minnesota River Valley in south central Minnesota. Tensions between Dakota and white settlers had boiled over when the settlers failed to send annuity payment to the Dakota. Those late payments in 1862, promised by treaties signed in the 1850s, led to a period of starvation for the Dakota people. The main fighting lasted six weeks, between August and September 1862, during which time hundreds of Dakota people, white settlers, and U.S. Army soldiers died. Following the 1862 struggle, 38 Dakota men were hanged for their participation in the war—the largest mass execution in U.S. history—and large numbers of Dakota were forcibly displaced from Minnesota. Thousands of Dakota faced the wrath of empire and westward expansion, and the U.S.-Dakota War was a precursor to the famed Indian Wars of the American West.

During the Dakota War, New Ulm was a town that faced near destruction from the fighting between settler militias and the Dakota on August 19th and 23rd, 1862.

Suggested Questions

1. What is the purpose and significance of the petition?

2. How did the citizens of New Ulm react to the U.S. government’s failure to supply or pay the Dakota people?

3. Why do you think the New Ulm townspeople found it important to sign a petition?

4. After reading the petition, what does the letter tell you about white Minnesota leaders’ duty to the United States compared to their obligation to protect settlers in Minnesota?

Suggested Activities

1. Break the students up into three groups and give each group one of the documents: New Ulm petition, New Ulm Review editorial (in the “files” section above), and Wambditanka’s account (in the “files” section above). Ask each group to analyze their document to determine the motives of the U.S.-Dakota War. Bring the groups together to compare and contrast the different motivations each group came up with based on their document.

2. In conjunction with these documents, have students watch this video and determine how New Ulm and the situation with the Dakota fits into the larger narrative of the War.

3. In three separate groups, have students discuss what is going on during the Civil War at the same time as the U.S.-Dakota War. Think broadly about the year 1862, like the Emancipation Proclamation or other key moments in Civil War History, and discuss how the U.S.-Dakota War alters the way we think about that pivotal year.