The largest massacre of whites by Indians occurred in Minnesota in August 1862. Gregory Michno in his book DAKOTA DAWN: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 1862 writes about this horrific time from the perspective of the white settlers and the Indians (the Dakota Tribe) that participated in the massacre.
Michno succinctly summarizes the events that led up to the massacre, including the usual sparks of conflict such as white encroachment on Indian lands and the Indians getting ripped off by white traders. However, Michno also explains that the Dakotas were caught in a vicious cycle where they accumulated debt with the traders (they charged the Indians exorbitant prices) and the debt was paid out of the U.S. government’s annual payments for the land they received from the Dakotas (the U.S. government paid for the land in an annuity rather than a lump sum). Thus, the Dakota’s annual payments were reduced by the debt and they had less money to pay for things.
One of the biggest strengths of the book is Michno’s balanced blame for the causes of the massacre. Both sides (whites and Dakotas) were poorly led. For instance, U.S. government Indian agents were political appointees of the U.S. President and many knew virtually nothing about the Indians they were charged to relate to. These appointees aggravated the strained relations between whites and the Dakotas. However, Michno blames the Dakotas for their poor leadership as well. There was not a dominant chief to lead their people in a united front.
Michno provides a detailed account of the massacre. The events are organized by location rather than chronologically. This approach allows for continuity within the discussion of the members of a community that either escaped or were killed. To help the reader follow along with the violence in each community, Michno includes several maps at the beginning of the book. These maps are indispensable in understanding the events in the context of the area.
The various massacres and battles are intense and vivid in detail – this gives the reader a good grasp of the savagery of the attacks. However, the sheer number of the accounts tended to deaden their impact after a while. I found my mind wanting to skip the text because you can only read so many accounts of Dakota warriors approaching unsuspecting whites and killing them. With that said, I do not know if there is a better way to portray the events other than maybe summarizing the accounts.
Overall, I think the book is a good description of the 1862 uprising. The reader gets a better understanding of Indian/white relations and why the Indians were forced to defend their lifestyle.
One exception to the low quality of Indian agents in Minnesota was the early agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, at Fort Snelling. Unfortunately, he eventually realized the futility of trying to beat his head against the wall of federal stupidity, and resigned his position.