Thursday, January 31, 2013

A gruesome death

Two brothers from West Springfield, N.H., headed west in the late 1850s to seek their fortune in Minnesota. What drew them there is hard to identify from their letters home, but a gruesome death awaited one brother.

I learned about the brothers from Deanna Lussier, who attended one of my Our War talks. She approached after I had spoken and told me her ancestors’ letters had come down to her. She loved reading them and knew their writers had fought Indians in Minnesota but wanted to know more. Deanna graciously lent me the letters, and I looked into the story.

Little Crow led the Dakota Uprising of 1862. 
The brothers were Dexter E. and Anthony Colby Collins. Beginning in 1857, when they arrived in Minnesota, they wrote their family in West Springfield. They were hungry for news about friends and relatives in New Hampshire. Often they advised a younger brother, Joseph Henry Collins, that education was the key to a successful life. Typical was Dexter's letter to the 15-year-old Joseph in January 1863:

“You must go to school as much as you can for when you are of age & away by your self you will see the kneed of all the learning you can get. I can see where I missed by not goin to school all I could when I was at home & therefore I advise you to improve evry leisure moment in study for the future.”

By then, one Collins brother, Anthony, had been killed during the Dakota Uprising. U.S. Indian agents had broken treaties with the Sioux, taking land and causing hunger and want. Bands of Dakota Sioux under Little Crow rebelled. They terrorized white settlers in Minnesota Territory, killing, raping and kidnapping. The Third Minnesota infantry regiment, which the Collins brothers had joined, was among the units ordered to quell the uprising. Private Anthony Collins was scalped and beheaded on Sept. 23, 1862, at Wood Lake, the battle that decided the outcome of the uprising in favor of the Union troops.

Three months later the government hanged 38 Sioux together on a single scaffold. Little Crow was killed in 1863, and white settlers mutilated his body. In one Minnesota town they dragged it through the street as firecrackers exploded in the corpse’s ears. Little Crow's scalp, skull and bones became prized relics.

Deanna Lussier’s family letters do not mention Anthony’s death or say much about the Sioux. “I wish I were in the south instead of here in Indian country and then I would be in the land of white folks instead of savages,” Dexter wrote Joseph.

My correspondence with Deanna has led her to investigate the Dakota Uprising and its causes. I have provided her with a few sources, but she has gone deeper than I have.

I did discover one terrific contemporary source: the Saint Paul Daily Press of Oct. 3, 1862. The paper carried three articles about the Wood Lake battle during which Anthony Collins died. Two of them mentioned him.

The paper is available online, but because the reading will be easier, I took the trouble to transcribe the stories and copy text versions below. The first was written by a lieutenant, A.J. Ebell, who later wrote a long illustrated article about the uprising for Harper’s. The author of the second story was Stephen R. Riggs, who served as chaplain for the Minnesota troops and presided over Collins’s burial. The third account comprises dispatches from Col. Henry Hastings Sibley, who led the fight against the Sioux.

Here they are:

March of Col. Sibley from Fort Ridgley to Yellow Medicine, and Battle of Wood Lake

On Thursday and Friday the forces were all got across the Minnesota and camped Friday night, Sept. 19th, by Lone-tree lake, some five miles from the Fort. The train was again in motion early next morning. We encamped for the night opposite the Lower Agency, within sight of the ruins of the government warehouses. Rev. Mr. Williamson’s church, together with all the wooden buildings in and around the Agency, had been completely demolished. A party of scouts found the remains of Philander Prescott, the Indian interpreter, a few miles below the Agency, and having covered it with earth where it lay, stuck a slip of paper with his name on it on his grave. Next morning we resumed our march before the sun was an hour high.

Hazelwood Mission, Pastor Riggs's station, in 1860.
(Sabbath, 21) During the forenoon we passed numbers of Indian houses completely deserted. A number of us rode through Little Crow’s village and secured sundry trophies in the form of head dresses and other Indian ornaments. Little Crow’s house itself had been burned during the previous night. Near by was the camp ground of over two hundred tepees with the greater part of the poles still standing, where, evidently, the Indians had spent the first night of their retreat from the Lower Agency. The grounds were strewed with empty trunks, boxes, barrels, fruit cans and oyster kegs, the spoils from New Ulm and around – showing that they had no lack of provisions thither as to quality or kind.

As we approached Red Wood river we were somewhat apprehensive of an attack in the ravine through which the road runs, and a number of us were sent forward as scouts. We saw several Indians, and, being considerably in advance of the main body, commenced satisfying our curiosity by visiting several Indian houses. Other Day had hitched his horse to a bush a little distance off, and was in one of the houses with several others, when he had his attention drawn out by the galloping up of a loose horse that had been left by another of the party, and hastened out just in time to see an Indian riding off at full speed. He fired at him and came back greatly chagrined – his eyes flashing, and vowing to be avenged at the first opportunity.

We crossed the river and rode on to Reynolds’ house, which we found in ruins. We marched on and encamped for the night by Rice Creek, over which the Indians had taken the precaution to burn the bridge; but the pioneers soon repaired it, so that it but little impeded our march.

A few rods from the road we found the remains of George Gleason – merely his skeleton, completely dried, his skull broken quite in with a large stone, all his clothes taken away except his drawers and shirt; around him scattered we found fragments of dispatches he was carrying to the Lower Agency – Sioux receipts of Major Galbraith, private and accounts and letters. We covered him where he lay with earth. He had started from the Upper Agency about 3 P.M., August 18th, with Dr. Wakefield’s family, in a carriage, and killed, and the Doctor’s family taken hostage. [Note: Col. Sibley’s Sept. 27 list of white people retrieved from Camp Release includes “Mrs. Dr. Wakefield and two children, James and Nellie, of Yellow Medicine.”]

The next night (Monday 22nd) we encamped on the shore of Wood Lake, just this side of the Three Mile Creek, over which they had effectually burned the bridge – in sight of the Yellow Medicine. Through the day we saw numbers of Indians riding round and reconnoitering, but out of reach of our guns.

As we were at breakfast next morning, we heard and alarm that the Indians had fallen on a foraging party after wood. The Renville Rangers, under Lieut. Gorman, were sent out for their support. In a few moments the tops of surrounding knolls were covered with Indians, on horse and foot, apparently trying to circumvent our camp. The 3d regiment followed in the direction of the Renville Rangers, who, supposing that they were to be supported, pushed on near a mile in advance, but the Third having been ordered off to the left, they were nearly surrounded and scarcely effected a retreat. The artillery kept the opposite shore of the Lake clear.

Two companies of the Sixth had a skirmish on the left, and the Seventh regiment under Col. Marshall made a charge into the ravine on our right, and drove the Indians from shelter there. Other Day pushed on in front of our lines, shot three Indians, and brought back two ponies into our lines – more than squaring up his account at Red Wood river. Our men surrounded him, and escorted him with shouts into camp. He proved himself a man of indomitable courage. He went right in among the Indians, and exposed himself to fire from both sides – several of our men mistaking him for an enemy, fired at him several times.

The Indians were apparently under poor management. Little Crow is falling into disrepute, and will find his power among them greatly diminished. He was seen in the distance, on a black horse, with a spy-glass in his hand. His brother is said to have come to the opposite shore of the Lake last night and counted our tents, and making them but fifty-eight, estimated our numbers to be about three hundred. Little Crow then intended to attack us during the night, but the upper Indians are said to have prevented it, telling him he had boasted he could whip the white men, and now must meet them by open day and prove it.

About 12 o'clock the firing ceased, and there was some communication between the Indians and our lines under a flag of truce. The ambulance wagons brought in nineteen dead Indians – and no doubt numbers more might be concealed in the grass and in the creek. Several were found wounded in the water, completely submerged, except their nose and mouth. Those of the Third Regiment, Richard McElroy and Anthony C. Collins, were found with their heads cut off and scalped and their bodies most shockingly mutilated. A fine precursor for a flag of truce, one of which Joe Campbell brought in, and among other things, reported that on the 18th, when the Third regiment and the Seventh were encamped at Lone Tree lake, before the remainder of the force had crossed over from the Fort, they were seen by a party of 200 Indians on their way to attack New Ulm. They had intended to fall on the Third and Seventh regiments during the night, and cut them off but were dissuaded by a few who proposed attacking them at Red Wood Crossing, where they would have us at much better advantage. But, there seeing that reinforcements had arrived were led again to desist from attacking us.

Their intentions were to wait until we were in the ravine crossing the Medicine River, and then make a small attack in front, enough to draw our forces on, and, at the signal of the raising of a blanket, those ambushed around in the grass were to leap upon the baggage wagons and shoot the drivers and horses. So confident were they of the success of this plan, concocted by Little Crow, that they brought their wagons and women to the opposite side of the river to take care of the plunder, expecting to make a clean sweep of us. The captives and their camps are still at Red Iron’s village, 18 miles above Yellow Medicine, above which the upper Indians will not let them go, but compel them to stay there and fight us; and if to-day we had been defeated, they would all have joined in with them. But we can congratulate ourselves that we have won a complete victory over them.

Joe Campbell reports their killed as at least 30, and a large number wounded, among' whom were Mar-we-ma-nee and Blue Earth, who have since died. Little Buffalo, a chief of one of the upper tribes sent word to Col. Sibley, that if he would not exterminate the lower tribe he would.

Our dead – four in all – were buried this afternoon with the honors of war, and funeral services by Mr. Riggs, the Chaplain of the expedition.

A.J. Ebell

Letter from Rev. S.R. Riggs
Camp Wood Lake
Tuesday Sept. 23, 1862

Editors of the Press:
Stephen R. Riggs, chaplain.
By the dispatches and letters which will go from camp to-day, you will be informed of the battle of this morning. It was quite a little fight of two hours. Little Crow’s intention, as we have since learned, was to fall upon us in the night and kill us all off, but in that he was overruled, and the attack was not made until after we had finished our breakfasts. In my opinion, our men did well; and certainly we have no cause to be ashamed of the results.  This forenoon we buried three killed on the battlefield, viz: Ernest Paul, of the Renville Rangers; Richard McElroy, originally of the Minnesota Second, but now of Company I of the Third; and Anthony C. Collins, of Company A, Third Regiment . Charles Frink, of Company A or the Seventh, Capt. Cutter, was wounded fatally in the head and since died. The first three were buried in three graves, dug side by side, on a little eminence near our camp, lying in the order in which they are mentioned, commencing on the south. Charles Frink, of the Seventh, we have buried in one of the rifle pits, and the place properly marked by his company. I learn from his comrades in arms that he was a professor of religion, and has demeaned himself worthy of his profession. He was engaged to be married, but feeling it his duty to give his services to his country in the hour of it peril, he joined the army. This morning he went into the battle with a great deal of enthusiasm and fell when charging upon the enemy. May God support his father and other friends, and enable them to bear this loss calmly and with Christian fortitude.

In the battle the Indians met with a very serious repulse. We have gathered up and buried fourteen of their dead. We have taken one wounded man prisoner, who will probably die to-night. There are others dead that have not been found; some they have carried away. We are informed by flags of truce that they count about thirty missing, beside a great number wounded.

I trust this war will soon be brought to a close in some way, by punishing the guilty and rescuing the innocent.

Yours truly,
S.R. Riggs

The War with the Indians: Col. Sibley's Dispatches.
Camp Release, opposite the mouth of the Chippewa River,
Sept. 27, 1862.

Maj.-Gen. Pope:
Yesterday I came to this point with my command, having been met by several half-breeds with a flag of truce. I encamped within five hundred yards of a large camp of about one hundred and fifty lodges of friendly Indians and half-breeds, who had separated themselves from Little Crow and the miserable crew with him, and had secured from them most of the white captives, awaiting my arrival.

About 2 o'clock in the afternoon, I paid a formal visit to the camp, attended by the members of my Staff and the commanding officers of corps, with two companies of infantry as an escort.

Sibley led the expedition against the Sioux.
Leaving the latter on the outside of the line of lodges, I entered the camp, where I found that regular rifle-pits had been constructed, in anticipation of an attack by the hostile Indians. I told the interpreter to call the chiefs and head men together, for I had something to say to them. The Indians and half-breeds assembled accordingly in considerable numbers, and I proceeded to give them very briefly my views of the late proceedings, my determination that the guilty parties should be pursued and overtaken if possible, and I made a demand that all the captives should be delivered to me instantly, that I might take them to my camp.

After speeches, in which they severely condemned the war party, and denied any participation in their proceedings, and gave me assurance that they would not have dared to come and shake my hand, if their own was stained with the blood of the whites, they assembled the captive women and children, and formally delivered them up to me, to the number of ninety-one pure whites –   when taking the names of such as had been instrumental in obtaining the release of the prisoners from the hostile Indians, and telling the principal men I would hold another council with them to-day, I conducted the poor captives to my camp, where I had prepared tents for their accommodation.

There were some instances of stolidity among them, but for the most part the poor creatures, relieved of the horrible suspense in which they have been kept, and some of the younger women freed from the loathsome attentions to which they have been subjected by their brutal captors, were fairly overwhelmed with joy. I am doing the best I can for them, and will send them down Tuesday, together with a large number of half-breeds who have been also kept in restraint here. The first mentioned are pure white women and children, two or three of the latter being very small orphans, all their relations having being killed. A list of them will accompany this communication.

After the disastrous result to himself and the bands associated with him, at the battle of Wood Lake, the half-breeds report, that falling back to this point, they hastily struck their tents and commenced retreating in great terror.

I have issued an order, appointing a Military Commission, consisting of two field officers and the senior Captain of the Sixth Regiment, (Col. CROOKS, Lieut. Col. MARSHALL and Capt. GRANT,) for the examination of all the men, half-breeds, as well as Indians, in the camp near us, with instructions to sift the antecedents of each, so that if there are guilty parties among them they can be arrested and properly dealt with. I have no doubt we shall find some such in the number. I will report the result in due time. I have a wounded prisoner in my camp.

The number of half-breeds who were retained by the hostile Indians as prisoners, and now under my protection, will considerably exceed one hundred, but the exact number cannot now be given.

I am, General, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H.H. SIBLEY, Colonel Commanding.
Camp Release, near Lac Qui Parle

Sept. 28, 1862

GENERAL: I have the honor to refer to my dispatch of yesterday for a detail of my military operations in this quarter. I have apprehended sixteen Indians in the friendly camp adjoining, who are suspected of being participators in the late outrages, and I have appointed a Military Commission of five officers to try them. I inclose a copy of the order directing it. If found guilty they will be immediately executed, although I am somewhat in doubt whether my authority extends quite so far. An example is, however, imperatively necessary, and I trust you will approve the act, should it happen that some real enemies have been seized and promptly disposed of.

I have information, apparently reliable, that LITTLE CROW and his adherents are at Big Stone Lake, sixty-five miles above this, where it is supposed he will be stopped by STANDING BUFFALO's Sissiton band of Sioux, as I have held a correspondence with the Chief, who desires to remain on friendly terms with our Government.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H.H. SIBLEY, Col.-Commanding.    

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