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Patrick Springer, Published August 03 2013

Was ND’s deadliest conflict, 150 years ago, a battle or a massacre?

Whitestone Hill, N.D. - It stands as the deadliest conflict ever recorded on North Dakota soil.

Between 100 and 300 Dakota and Lakota Sioux men, women and children were killed, and 20 soldiers died from their wounds.

After the fighting stopped, soldiers lingered for two days, burning teepees, shooting dogs as well as wounded horses and burning the Indians’ food and belongings.

An immense mound of buffalo meat – half a million pounds being dried for winter provisions – was burned. The melted tallow ran in streams down the hilly terrain.

The acts of destruction ensured that even the survivors were condemned to hunger and hardship as they scattered after the attack on a sprawling Sioux encampment in Dakota Territory.

But what happened on this lonely patch of rolling prairie 150 years ago, on Sept. 3, 1863, has been largely forgotten, as if swept from collective memory.

For the Dakota and Lakota, the incident was so painful that it remained submerged for many years. For whites, Whitestone Hill was overshadowed by the cataclysmic Civil War.

Preparations are now being made for a 150th anniversary observance here on Aug. 24 that aims to change that, to help heal historical wounds among descendants of the victims.

Efforts to nominate Whitestone Hill to the National Register of Historic Places have prompted a deeper examination in recent years about the enormous human suffering that came from the clash and a reappraisal of what happened and why.

The U.S. Army, which was carrying out reprisal raids following the deadly 1862 Minnesota Uprising, called it the Battle of Whitestone Hill. Today, in fact, the National Park Service recognizes the site – which is in Dickey County, a 90-minute drive south from Jamestown – as a Civil War battlefield.

Descendants of the Dakota and Lakota Sioux, many of them from Yanktonai bands, use a different word to describe what happened here. They call it a massacre, with human consequences still felt today.

‘Basically forgotten’

Mary Big Moccasin had spent some glorious late summer days playing children’s games.

Her family was among the 4,000 Sioux, mostly Yanktonais and Hunkpatina, who had gathered for a late summer ritual, a trade rendezvous and buffalo hunt.

Late one afternoon, as the annual event was winding down, men in blue uniforms came swooping into her teepee village on horseback, shooting indiscriminately and surrounding the camp.

The 9-year-old girl, who became separated from her family, was unable to escape unscathed. She was shot in the leg, but was able to crawl to safety in a ravine, where she hid for several days.

She watched as the soldiers shot dogs and wounded horses and heard the cries of women and children. She was taken prisoner and held for seven years.

As an old woman, she sometimes woke up from a nightmare, screaming, “Run, run, the soldiers are coming!”

Many years later, her great-great granddaughter, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, came across Mary Big Moccasin’s account in an archive – where she also read that the site of the conflict, whose precise location had been forgotten, was discovered 20 years later when a settler was picking up buffalo bones and discovered they were mixed with human bones.

“Oh my God, these are our relatives!” Brave Bull Allard said, recalling her reaction.

Some Indians who were killed were hastily buried, some beneath stones, but their grave locations never were recorded.

“There has never been a concrete answer” about what happened to the remains, she said. Some bodies might have been burned, she added, and some human bones likely were picked up with buffalo bones to be sold and ground into fertilizer.

The Yanktonais Sioux bands, sometimes referred to as Nakota, were widely dispersed after Whitestone, permanently separating many families whose members ended up in far-flung locations, Brave Bull Allard said.

Soldiers captured 156 women, children and old men and marched them to Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, where they were held as prisoners of war. Some of their descendants still live there.

Others fled to the Devils Lake area in North Dakota, Fort Peck, Mont., or Canada to join relatives. Still others, including some of Brave Bull Allard’s relatives, later ended up at the Standing Rock Reservation.

Extended family connections lost over the years are only now being pieced together through genealogical research that Brave Bull Allard and others are helping to compile.

“After Whitestone our families separated,” she said. “We are trying to find our relatives again.”

The Yanktonais, once one of the most powerful tribes of the northern Plains, who had made their home for many years in the James River Valley, never fully recovered after Whitestone Hill. The scattered bands do not have a reservation of their own.

“The ripple effects are still all around,” Brave Bull Allard said. “We (Yanktonais) have never been given anything for the loss of our land. We never signed a treaty. We’ve been basically forgotten.”

Observances evolving

Thomas Marshall, then a congressman representing North Dakota, secured a federal grant to buy 640 acres and rebury the 20 soldiers killed at Whitestone Hill.

A 30-foot granite monument topped by a bugler was erected, encircled by the soldiers’ graves on a hilltop. Marshall spoke when the memorial park was dedicated in 1914, an event attended by thousands.

For Marshall, the violence of Whitestone Hill was justifiable. It cleared the way for white settlers, whom he viewed as superior to the Indians who were killed or displaced and later confined to reservations.

Lightning struck the monument in 1922, and later the North Dakota Legislature appropriated $500 for repairs to what was maintained for years as a state park.

In 1942, during dedication of improvements built by Depression-era Works Progress Administration laborers, a small concrete cairn of field stones was erected in memory to the Indians who died.

Two decades later, 6,000 spectators turned out for a two-day observance of the Whitestone centennial in 1963. The anniversary weekend, hosted by six neighboring communities, had a celebratory air. Events included a rodeo with a capacity crowd and traditional dances by students at the Indian boarding school in Wahpeton.

In recent years, the State Historical Society of North Dakota has sponsored anniversary observances, often during Labor Day weekend, with educational programs about Whitestone Hill and related events.

This year, for the milestone 150th anniversary, the public observance Aug. 24 will be quiet and reflective. Brave Bull Allard, one of the tribal historians consulted for the report nominating the site for national historic recognition, will be one of the speakers. A buffalo dinner will be served.

On the actual anniversary date, Sept. 3, Dakota and Lakota will gather at Whitestone Hill for a private observance.

“It’s the 150th year,” Brave Bull Allard said. “We need to heal. The repercussions of what happened 150 years ago are still happening today.”

Site ‘a touchy subject’

Today the conflict surrounding Whitestone Hill involves interpretation of the bloody conflict.

The controversy is one reason it has taken so long to prepare to nominate it for the National Register of Historic Places, said Tom Isern, a history professor at North Dakota State University who studies the Dakota Conflict in Dakota Territory.

“It’s a touchy subject,” he said. “This is the most controversial Dakota War site we have in North Dakota. There’s a greater sense of injustice around this site than any other.”

Some of the Hunkpapa Lakota at the encampment probably took part in earlier clashes, and some Santee Dakota resisters from Minnesota also were present, along with refugee Santees.

The Yanktonais, the most prevalent group at Whitestone Hill, had nothing to do with the Minnesota uprising, and have a justifiable grievance over the attack, Isern said.

For some, the discussion has moved beyond whether the clash was a battle or massacre.

Aaron Barth, who is writing his doctoral dissertation in history at NDSU about events including Whitestone Hill, prefers the term, borrowed from another historian, “site of memorial, site of mourning.”

Still, he believes what happened was a massacre, and notes the general who led the Army troops, Gen. Alfred Sully, himself termed it a “slaughter.”

Dakota Goodhouse, a member of the Standing Rock tribe whose ancestry is both Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai, agrees. But he doesn’t press the point.

“That is what happened, but I don’t know if North Dakota is ready for that word,” Goodhouse said. “I think massacre is such a strong, powerful, negative word.

“Memorial has a connotation to it that demands respect,” he said. Today, Whitestone Hill should be a place of prayer and reflection, he said.

Goodhouse and Barth were on the team that compiled a detailed narrative history of Whitestone Hill for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which is preparing the nomination for the national historic register.

The application goes before a state review panel Aug. 30. An earlier version was rejected in 2010 because it was deemed to rely too much on official army reports, with insufficient input from the tribes.

Conflicting accounts, drawn from such different cultures and perspectives, are inevitable and happen all the time, Barth said.

Trying to arrive at a complete understanding is important, he said, but no historical accounting will ever be satisfactory or definitive. He added:

“There’s never going to be closure on this.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522