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Battle of Shakopee, 1858

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Black-and-white photonegative of the site where the Dakota and Ojibwe fought the Battle of Shakopee in 1858.

Black-and-white photonegative of the site where the Dakota and Ojibwe fought the Battle of Shakopee in 1858. Photographed c.1875 by William H. Jacoby.

The last in a long series of violent conflicts between Dakota and Ojibwe people took place on the banks of the Minnesota River north of the village of the Dakota leader Shakpedan (Little Six) on May 27, 1858. Dozens of Ojibwe and Dakota warriors engaged in fighting that claimed lives on both sides but produced no clear victor.

The Ojibwe and Dakota shared an uneasy coexistence throughout their history in the territory that became Minnesota. Early white explorers to the region wrote of fighting between the two groups occurring as far back as the fifteenth century. Both moved seasonally to hunt deer, gather wild rice, and make maple sugar. They sometimes competed for these resources, especially in the border region. Periods of peace and goodwill marked by treaties, trade, and intermarriage were often broken up by bloody skirmishes, usually on a local scale. This on-again, off-again pattern of fighting continued for hundreds of years.

White immigration and reliance on the fur trade intensified the two groups' competition for resources. The addition of guns made the fighting even more deadly. By the late 1850s, treaties with the U.S. government had confined the Dakota to a reservation straddling the upper Minnesota River and the Ojibwe to lands further north and east. This nominal separation did not prevent Ojibwe–Dakota tensions from turning violent again in 1858.

Details of the May 27 battle can be found in newspaper articles written by white reporters who observed the event from afar. Though their explanations of the battle's cause contradicted each other, many stated that the Ojibwe looked for retribution against the Dakota for a recent series of attacks on their people. In one such attack in April, a family of eleven women and children near Crow Wing were killed while they slept.

On May 26, 1858, between 150 and 200 Ojibwe warriors approached an encampment of Dakota on the Minnesota River near Shakopee. They stopped in the woods on the river's north side and waited to ambush the unsuspecting Dakota the next morning. The Dakota, with no more than seventy men in their party, were greatly outnumbered.

Sometime between four thirty and five o'clock on the morning of May 27, shots rang out from behind the cover of nearby trees. The Ojibwe killed a young Dakota man fishing from a canoe along the south side of the river. Hearing gunshots, between forty and fifty Dakota warriors gathered their weapons and raced to the river to engage their attackers in battle.

The two sides faced off on either end of the river and began firing upon each other. Because their attackers were beyond the range of their weapons, the Dakota climbed aboard Murphy's Ferry and began to cross the river. Once they were across, the battle began in earnest.

The sounds of the battle brought out the townspeople of Shakopee. They watched the fighting from the safety of the bluffs above. At around ten o'clock the fighting stopped. The Ojibwe, reportedly leaving behind four dead, retreated toward Lake Minnetonka. The Dakota, having lost three men, returned to their encampment to fortify it against a follow-up attack.

While the numbers were clearly in the Ojibwes' favor, a significant group of Ojibwe held themselves in reserve in the event the others were to perish. This meant that nearly equal numbers of combatants faced off in battle. Ojibwe Indian agents later reported on the behalf of tribal leaders that only thirty-four of the warriors from their group fought that day-a number corroborated in subsequent written accounts of the battle from onlookers.

After the fighting had stopped, the Shakopee community speculated that the Ojibwe would regroup and attack the Dakota again. The long history of conflict between the two nations had shown a pattern of attacks and counter-attacks. Governor Henry Sibley decided that separating them was the only way to keep this from happening. A few days after the battle, he demanded that the Dakota still in the valley pack up their belongings and return to their reservation land. While there were unconfirmed reports of both tribes assembling in the area for battle, a second attack never came to be.

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"Battle Between the Sioux and Chippewas." St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat, May 28, 1858.

"The Battle Between the Sioux and Chippewas at Shakopee." St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat, May 29, 1858.

"Battle Between the Sioux and the Chippewas: Full Particulars: The Killed and Wounded." Hennepin County History 29, no. 3 (Winter 1970): 18–20.

Densmore, Frances. Chippewa Music-II. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 53. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913.
https://archive.org/details/chippewamusic02densuoft

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 2. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1961.

"Indian Massacre." St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat, May 5, 1858.

"Indian Murders." St. Cloud Visiter, June 17, 1858.

"Indian War at Shakopee." St. Paul Daily Minnesotian, May 28, 1858.

"The Indian War." St. Anthony Falls Minnesota Republican, June 4, 1858.

"The Late Shakopee Battle–The Chippeway Account–The Talk at Crow River–Our Sioux Governor." St. Paul Daily Minnesotian, June 1, 1858.

"Our Shakopee Coorespondence." St. Paul Daily Minnesotian, May 27, 1858.

"Our Shakopee Coorespondence." St. Paul Daily Minnesotian, May 31, 1858.

"Remembers Last of the Chippewa-Sioux Battles." New Ulm Review, January 24, 1917.

Warren, William W. History of the Ojibway People. 2nd Ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Related Images

Black-and-white photonegative of the site where the Dakota and Ojibwe fought the Battle of Shakopee in 1858.
Black-and-white photonegative of the site where the Dakota and Ojibwe fought the Battle of Shakopee in 1858.
Landscape watercolor on paper by Edwin Whitefield painted, c.1856–1859.
Landscape watercolor on paper by Edwin Whitefield painted, c.1856–1859.
Illustration depicting an Ojibwe man named Kawetahsay reportedly wounded during the Battle of Shakopee.
Illustration depicting an Ojibwe man named Kawetahsay reportedly wounded during the Battle of Shakopee.

Turning Point

On the morning of May 27, 1858, Ojibwe warriors lying in wait shoot and kill a Dakota man fishing in the Minnesota River Valley, setting off the Battle of Shakopee.

Chronology

May 26, 1858

Between 150 and 200 Ojibwe warriors enter the Minnesota River valley near Shakopee hoping to ambush a nearby group of Dakota.

May 27, 1858, about 5:00 AM

Ojibwe warriors fire gunshots and kill a Dakota man fishing in the river around 5:00 am, starting the Battle of Shakopee. It lasts for five hours, until the Ojibwe retreat and move north toward Lake Minnetonka.

June 2, 1858

Governor Henry Sibley demands that the Dakota return to their reservation to avoid igniting future conflict.