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Little Crow's War

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Little Crow's War

In the midst of the Civil War, the Dakota nation, led by Little Crow, rose up against American settlements in an attempt to retake the land. What made the Dakota do this? What did they hope to gain? What happened in the end? Let's explore Little Crow's War and the fate of the Dakota people.

Little Crow's War Summary

Little Crow's War, also known as the Dakota or Sioux (pronounced: sue) War, began and ended in 1862. It consisted of skirmishes, attacks on forts, and attacks on settlements. Over 250 people were taken hostage by the Dakota and 464 Americans had been killed. The total amount of Dakota deaths is unknown. Below is a timeline of events before and after the war.

Little Crow's War Timeline

1805Treaty that ceded 100,000 acres of land (Pike Island) to be paid for later
1820 Construction of Fort Snelling on Pike Island
1825 Construction Complete
1851Treaty of Mendota
1858Treaty of 1858
August 17th, 1862Four white settlers were killed by five indigenous young men; Little Crowe reluctantly joins the war
August 18, 1862Several attacks by indigenous on settlers
August 19, 1862White settlers are evacuated from the Upper Agency; Henry H. Sibley to lead the charge against the Dakota
August 20-25, 1862Dakota attack forts and settlements
August 26, 1862Dakota Peace Party is formed
August 28 - September 1862Dakota fight against American soldiers at various forts and settlements
September 23, 1862Little Crow is defeated by Sibley at Wood Lake
September 24, 1862Little Crow flees with forces
September 26, 1862Dakota Peace Party releases hostages
September 28 - November 4, 1862Dakota 392 men are tried, 303 were given the death sentence
December 26, 186239 Dakota men were executed
July 3, 1863Little Crow was killed
November 7, 1862 Peaceful Dakota and Ho Chunk are sent to concentration camps
May 1863Surviving Dakota and Ho Chunk were sent to South Dakota

Causes of Little Crow's War

The Dakota, also known as the Santee Sioux, were a peaceful tribe of Native Americans living in present-day Minnesota. In 1805, they signed a treaty with Lieutenant Zebulon Pike for 100,000 acres of land where the United States could build a fort. Of the seven Dakota leaders, only two signed the treaty and none of them read English, forcing them to rely on American translators. It is unclear if they knew all of the details of the treaty. The land was valued at $200,000 but the Dakota people were only paid S2,000.

Construction of the fort began in 1820 and finished five years later. Fort Snelling would mark the beginning of the end of Dakota's way of life.

Little Crow's War Fort Snelling StudySmarter

Fort Snelling. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Traders moved into the territory and as treaties ceded more and more land to America, the Dakota lost hunting territory. The tribe began to depend on traders who allowed them to buy with credit but had high-interest rates.


For one group to give something (often territory) to another

In 1851, the Dakota were forced to sign another treaty, the Treaty of Mendota, that ceded the majority of their land for settlements. The settlers chopped down forests forcing the wild game that the Dakota depended on to leave. The government checks were often late. With the loss of a food source and lack of income, the tribe became even more dependent on traders.

By the 1858 Treaty, the tribe was heavily in debt. They had no choice but to sell half of their reservation. Little Crow, a Dakota leader, negotiated this deal. The majority of the money from the sale was going to be used to pay the debts of the Dakota nation.

Little Crow

Taoyatedta, nicknamed Little Crow, represented the Lower bands of Dakota people. While he took on some European customs, he continued to practice Dakota religion.

Little Crow's War Little Crow StudySmarter

Little Crow. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1861, after a harsh winter and bad harvest, the Dakota people were starving. When the Dakota tried to buy food on credit, the traders insulted them. The government missed the land payment, so the traders refused to sell any more food on credit.

  • Little Crow's War was caused by:
    • US government buying land from the Dakota without paying
    • Starvation was caused by a bad harvest, harsh winter, and the settlers driving out the wild game by cutting down the forests
    • When the Dakota asked for help, they were denied and ridiculed

Little Crow's War 1862

There were 6,500 Dakota people living in the Minnesota reservation by 1862; however, only around 1,000 young men participated in the war. Many of the Dakota people did not agree with it and wanted to seek a peaceful compromise with the settlers.

On August 17, 1862, five young Dakotan men killed four white settlers. They returned to the reservation where the soldier's lodge was ready for war.

Did you know . . .

The Dakota War took place during the Civil War. Some Dakota people hoped that they would win their war because the Union was preoccupied with fighting the Confederacy.

The soldiers asked that Little Crow led the war, so he reluctantly agreed. Little Crow did not believe that the Dakota could win. On August 18 the Dakota launched several attacks on settlers.

The Dakota killed the men and then took more than 200 women, biracial, and children hostage. The hostages lived in the same conditions as the Dakota people. White settlers were evacuated from the area, Henry H. Sibley was appointed to lead the volunteer army against the tribe.

An image of biracial hostagesBiracial Hostages. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Dakota attacked settlements and forts over the course of a week. On, April 23 over 600 Dakota men fight the Battle of New Ulm which was the largest American battle over a town. The town was burnt, the settlers evacuated, and the war continued. On the 26th, the Dakota Peace Party was founded. They wanted to negotiate the release of the hostages and settle the war.

The war continues on September 23rd when Little Crow's forces met Sibley's at Wood Lake. The Dakota warriors were hiding in the high grass, waiting for Sibley's men to break down their camps. A few foraging soldiers got too close, and the Dakota soldiers had to begin their attack.

Two important Dakota chiefs were killed, Makato and Mazami. Little Crow was pushed back and the next day he and some of his men had to flee. On the 26, the Dakota Peace Party released the hostages.

Little Crow's War Consequences

The trials of the Dakota men began on September 28. Many of the Dakota men did not speak English and were not given lawyers. They even tried some Ho Chunk indigenous men who had nothing to do with the war. These men were found non-guilty, but the trial worsened the Ho Chunk relations with white settlers. 392 men were tried, with their trials lasting around five minutes each, and 303 were sentenced to death.

President Abraham Lincoln ordered an investigation to determine if all 303 men should be put to death. He determined that the only ones to be executed should be the rapists. When that resulted in only two men, Lincoln expanded the criteria to men who had participated in massacres other than battles. Lincoln changed his decision because he wanted to send a message that America wasn't cruel but also did not tolerate indigenous rebellion.

Execution of Dakota menExecution of Dakota Men. Source: Wikimedia.

Thirty-nine men were executed making this the largest mass execution in American history. 4,000 people brought picnic baskets with them to watch the execution. Two men were falsely executed because the official called the incorrect names before the hanging. The executed men were buried in shallow graves, and their bodies were dug up and sold as medical cadavers the same night.

On July 3, 1863, a white settler and his son found Little Crow. They killed him and then brought his body to the Minnesota Historical Society where it was maimed and displayed for years. Eventually, they returned the body to Little Crow's family.

  • 393 men were tried for the Dakota Wars
  • 39 men were executed
  • 2 men were incorrectly executed
  • This was the largest mass execution in American history

Concentration Camps

The remaining Dakota people were removed from their homes and taken to concentration camps where they were to be held during the winter of 1862. The majority of these people were peaceful and had not been involved in the war. The Ho Chunk nation was removed as well, even though no Ho Chuck person was involved. Many people died during this period.

Transport between one camp and another was very dangerous. White settlers would attack the indigenous people. One white woman even snatched a baby from their mother's arms and threw the child to the ground. The baby was returned to the mother but died from the injuries. In May of 1863, the indigenous people were sent to a reservation in South Dakota.

Little Crow's War Facts

The Dakota nation wanted to live in peace with the white Americans and truly tried to. White settlers felt a sense of entitlement to the lands of Native Americans. After the war, all of the indigenous people within the area were punished and removed no matter their involvement.

Little Crow's War - Key takeaways

  • Little Crow's War was caused by the government's refusal to make timely payments to the Dakota's and the fact that the Dakota were starving
  • The Battle of New Ulm was the largest battle in American history over a town
  • The execution of the 39 Dakota men was the largest mass execution in American history
  • Little Crow's War resulted in the relocation of the Dakota and the Ho Chunk

Frequently Asked Questions about Little Crow's War

Little Crow's War was important because it resulted in the relocation of the Dakota tribe.

After Little Crow's War, the Santee Sioux were held in a concentration camp and then relocated to South Dakota. 

Little Crow's War resulted in America winning and the Dakota tribe being sent to a concentration camp and then relocated to South Dakota. 

Little Crow's War was caused by years of the Dakota tribe being deprived of food and forced onto a reservation. 

Little Crow's War ended in 1862.

Final Little Crow's War Quiz


Who was the leader of the Dakota during the Dakota War?

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Little Crow

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Which of the following was not a cause of Little Crow's War?

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Which fort was built on Pike Island?

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Fort Snelling

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Which treaty was signed in1851 and ceded the majority of Dakota land to the United States?

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Treaty of Mendota

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Why did the wild game leave?

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Settlers cut down the forests

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Most of the Dakota fought during Little Crow's War. 

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What was the name of the group of Native Americans who wanted to make peace with the government?

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Dakota Peace Party

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How many Dakota were executed for Little Crow's War?

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Show question


Who spared some of the Dakota men who were to be executed?

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Abraham Lincoln

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Where were the Native Americans in Minnesota made to relocate to?

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South Dakota

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