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1864 August 20: Indian Hostilities and Military Fort Building on the Plains

August 21, 2014

Along with fighting the Civil War, the United State Army was also fighting an Indian War on the Great Plains.  In yesterday’s post we saw several references to General Alfred Sully fighting Indians in Idaho Territory.  The articles here on Indian affairs are from the August 20, 1864, issues of The Polk County Press and The Prescott Journal.  The first two describe hostilities with various Indian tribes in Nebraska and Colorado.

During the summer of 1864, Indians in Dakota Territory were angry and apprehensive because of the previous year’s  military expeditions—the Sibley and Sully Expeditions of 1863—which had severely injured area Dakota, Lakota, and Yanktonai bands of the Sioux nation.  In response, the Indians increased their attacks on Northern Plains transportation routes, including the Fisk Expeditions to the Idaho gold fields and steamboats traveling on the Upper Missouri.  In the summer of 1864, General Sully returned to the Upper Missouri to build a series of military forts.

The larger article below, from the Journal, is a letter from the 30th Wisconsin Infantry at Fort Wadsworth in “Dacotah” Territory (now called Fort Sisseton, located in present-day South Dakota).  The fort was formally established on August 1, 1864, by Major John Clowney and three companies (B, E, K) of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry. It was named to honor General James Samuel Wadsworth, who was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. The fort was strategically located atop a tableland called Coteau des Praries.  The post was renamed Fort Sisseton, on August 29, 1876—after the local Sisseton Dakota Indians—when it was discovered that the original name conflicted with a Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island in New York.

The 30th Wisconsin Infantry included many northwest Wisconsin “boys” in companies A (Saint Croix Guards) and F (Salomon Tigers) and scattered other soldiers from northwest Wisconsin in companies D, I, and K.  Of those, only Company K was with Major Clowney.  Fort Rice, in present-day North Dakota, was established on July 7, 1864, and the first structures were built by companies A, C, H, and I of the 30th Wisconsin under Colonel Daniel J. Dill.  When Confederate General John Bell Hood invaded Tennessee, the 30th Wisconsin was called east, with only Company I staying in Dakota Territory at Fort Union.

From The Polk County Press:


OMAHA, Aug. 11.

W. H. S. Hughes, Adj. Gen’l of Nebraska, has issued an order calling for two regiments of mounted infantry for Indian service, for four months to report to Brig. Gen. Hurford, and Brig. Gen. Coe, as soon as possible.¹  The following is the address of Gov. Saunders² to the citizens of Nebraska :  “News from our western borders is alarming.  Numerous trains of emigrants and freighters have been attacked, the owners have been killed, their wagons destroyed, stock run off, &c.  No less than four different points on the route between our territory and Denver were attacked in one day.  Indians are now known to be infesting those roads for a distance of several hundred miles.

All available troops have been sent forward.  We need more men in order to punish those savages, and give security to our frontier settlements.  In order to meet this want I have thought proper to call upon the able-bodied militia of the Territory to organize a few companies of minute men, who can, and will, if necessary, move at a moment’s warning to the scene of these depredations, to assist in punishing these murderers and robbers, or in driving them from the country.  I make this appeal hoping it will be responded to with willingness on their part.  The Adjt. Gen. has to-day issued a special order from these headquarters, giving particulars in regard to the manner of organizing and reporting these companies.



NEW YORK, Aug. 13.—The Herald’s Washington special says the Commissioner of Indian Affairs is informed by Gov. Evans³ of Colorado, that he is satisfied that nearly all the Indian tribes of the plains are combined in war against the whites, and it will be the largest Indian war this country has ever had, extending from Texas to the British Possessions.

ST. LOUIS, Aug. 13.—Gen. Curtis [Samuel R. Curtis] has returned from Fort Leavenworth.  White men supposed to be rebel emissaries, have been among the Indians, distributing gold, and inducing them to rise against the whites.

From The Prescott Journal:

MORE DEPREDATIONS.—A few days since a party of Sioux Indians made their appearance in Blue Earth Co. Minn., murdering and carrying away thirteen whites, stole eighteen horses, and succeeded in getting away unharmed.  They are pursued, and will probably be overtaken and scalped.

From the 30th Wisconsin—Interesting from Dacotah Territory.

Correspondence of the State Journal.

July 29, 1864. }

The 30th Wisconsin volunteers having been so long stationed at Camp Randall, had formed many intimate associations.  Our name had become as familiar with you as household words.  Those associations, we trust, have not yet lost their interest at home.  After the slightly overdrawn picture, I noticed in your paper, of the sufferings endured by a portion of our command on our trip hither, I am tempted to intrude myself on your patience, deeming that a brief description of the locality of the destined goal in the far-off land of the Dacotahs, to which the command of Major Clowney4  has joined, will not be unacceptable.

Fort Wadsworth is to be located on a point between 45° and 40° north latitude, and in longitude 97° west, amid a cluster of beautiful lakes, laid down at random on the maps, on the Coteau des Prairies.5  Away from these lakes the country is bare and broken, the soil poor and rocky, the vegetation consisting principally of stunted buffalo grass and the treacherous cactus plant.  But the cluster of little lakes away in among these dry hills, surrounded by grassy, fertile valleys, and small groves of stately trees, form enchanting pictures, fit scenes for the inspiration of poet or painter.  You, with your beautiful lakes at Madison, may be able to form some conception of the scene.  Fancy a cluster of beautiful lakes, such as Lake Mendota, of clear, sparkling water, and a beach of sand and gravel ;  around the shores the landscape dotted with every variety of hill, valley, forest and prairie ;  around the margin, capes, promontories and peninsulas, covered with groves ;  islands rising up in oval forms from the centre, covered with trees and luxuriant shrubbery ;  then, in the various windings and turnings in the labyrinth, one sees straits, harbors, bays and channels, all in a miniature picture.  The effect of these visions of beauty is only heightened by the uninviting wilderness surrounding.

Of many of these lands[c]apes, ours is a chosen one.  In beauty I think it excels any I have seen, and as a defensive position, when fortified with proper care and guarded by soldierly vigilance, with a sufficiency of stores on hand, we think it may bid defiance to the whole Sioux [Dakota] nation, with their savage confederates thrown in.  We are on a table land, nestled among a cluster of these gens of the desert, a little peninsula connected with the main land by a strip of but a few rods wide.  Our peninsula extends from north to south about the distance of a mile and from east to west not quite half a mile.  In the centre of this the grounds are laid out for the fort.  A square, 676 feet deep by 61_ feet wide, is to be occupied by the various buildings of the fort, and outside of the embankments and rifle-pits are being thrown up.

The scenery on each side of us is of a character previously described.  Hills, valleys, groves and mild placid waters.  Groves narrowing into thin strips, sometimes in straight margins, at others crescent shaped, then widening out into a broad belt.

From the point of view occupied by our company on the east, we behold a picture excelling anything we have ever seen.  At our feet, separated by a steep grade, is a large lake about a quarter of a mile distant, a strip of timber extends out into the lake.  In this there is a break about the centre, revealing another sheet of water beyond ;  beyond this, timber and water again ;  thus continuing a succession of lakes, points, parks, and groves, terminating in hills, in a back ground, at a misty distance of 18 miles.

In the center of our parade ground, or square to be enclosed by the fort, is a circular mound of proportions so uniform that one would suppose them to be thrown up by the hand of a gardner [sic].  On this little mound occurred the following little incident :

JULY 29th, 1864.

I-ha-o-jaw-jaw, chief of the Sissatoes [sic], of Lac Traverse Sioux, accompanied by a body guard of brawny red men, dressed in gaudy attire—some in buckskin hunting shirts, ornamented with fine bead work, some with red blankets thrown around their bare shoulders, some with red sashes wound around their heads, others with antique head dresses, ornamented with feathers and other trinkets pleasing to the eye of the savage.  They rode into camp in true military style, alighted from their ponies and were received in the center of the camp ground by Major Clowny [sic], Adjutant Preistley6 and an interpreter.  The Indians, Major, Adjutant and interpreter sat on the ground.  After sitting in grave silence for a few moments, the soldiers meanwhile being kept at a respectful distance by the guard, Chief I-ha-o-jaw-jaw arose and approached the Major, shook him by the hand, likewise afterward the Adjutant and interpreter.  After the chief, each of the warriors, according to rank, arose successively and shook hands with the Major, Adjutant and interpreter.  The ceremony of shaking hands being ended, I-ha-o-jaw-jaw again arose, approached the Major and made a speech as follows :

“We have never been as well satisfied as now.  Whatever happened below was not the work of my band.  We did not join in the council to massacre whites.  We are not responsible for it.  Our fear of the consequences of it drove us away.  We hear that our Great Father has permitted those who did not join in the former massacre, to hold their former intercourse with the whites.  This affords the great satisfaction I speak of.  We see you now, and it is like seeing our Great Father.  We are much pleased at the meeting.  Our Great Father has a very long arm, and it has reached us here—we are under its shadow to-day.  We can only live when under the influence of our Great Father’s hand.  We look upon ourselves as the people of our Great Father.  The Indians of the North-west have a difficulty—we are ready to espouse the cause of the whites.  To the Great Father, whose representative you are to us, we go for protection and care.  We have been driven from our fields and hunting grounds.  We could not plant our corn—we do not know how we are to live through the coming winter.  We wish this to be made known to our great father, that we suffer not and die not for want of food.”

We were not present to hear the reply of the Major, but understood that I-ha-o-jaw-jaw was promised protection and that his statement with regard to food should be sent to the Great Father for consideration!


P. S.—The ridiculous picture drawn of our sufferings from Fort Snelling to Fort Ridgley is the subject of many amusing comments by the boys.  We have been trying to learn who were the soldiers that threw aside their guns and rushed frantically into the water.  None but your correspondent having had the pleasure of witnessing the interesting sight.  He must have had a more fortunate point of observation, back with the train, in the rear, from an ambulance or wagon.          D.

1.  According to the Illustrated History of Nebraska ( p. 177):  “A hundred Indians attacked a wagon train, killing, sacking, and burning with characteristic savagery. On the 11th of August, 1864, Adjt.-Gen. W. H. S. Hughes [William H. S. Hughes (1838-1901)] called for a regiment of six companies to be raised each side of the Platte [river], sixty-four men to a company ;  the North Platte companies to report to Brig.-Gen. O. P. Hurford [Oliver Perry Hurford (1830-1913)] at Omaha, and the South Platte to report to Col. Oliver P. Mason [Oliver Perry Mason (1828-1891)] at Nebraska City.”  Isaac Coe (1816-1899), brigadier general of volunteer militia, was at this time in charge of the 2d Brigade of Nebraska militia (p. 385). Illustrated History of Nebraska: A History of Nebraska from the Earliest Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi Region, by Julius Sterling Morton, Albert Watkins, George L. Miller, (Lincoln, Neb.: Jacob North & Company, 1907); available digitally on the Internet Archives.
2.  Alvin Saunders (1817-1899) was the Civil War governor of Nebraska Territory, serving from 1861 to 1867. He also served as a U.S. senator from Nebraska from 1877-1883.
3.  John Evans (1814-1897) was the second governor Colorado Territory from 1862 to 1865. Originally he was a medical doctor practicing in Indiana and Illinois. His wealth garnered him a fair amount of political power. He founded the Illinois Republican Party, becoming a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him the territorial governor of Colorado in 1862. In 1864 Governor Evans appointed the Reverend John M. Chivington as colonel of the Colorado Volunteers and sent him with 800 cavalry troopers to attack a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians led by Black Kettle and camped along Sand Creek. The “Sand Creek Massacre” took place on November 28, 1864, when Colonel Chivington ordered his men to attack the encampment, killing about 53 unarmed men and 110 women and children and wounding many more. Governor Evans decorated Chivington and his men for their “valor in subduing the savages.” Evans fought off rumors that it was an unprovoked massacre, but in 1865 after an army and two Congressional investigations into the massacre, the U.S. Government admitted guilt and Evans was forced to resign. Important here is that Evans was implicated in creating the conditions for the massacre to occur by issuing a proclamation on August 11, 1864, “authorizing all citizens of Colorado, either individually or in such parties as they may organize, to go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains” … and “also, to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” (The Sand Creek Papers at the Tutt Library, Colorado College, include a copy of the August 11, 1864, proclamation; accessed August 21, 2014.)
4.  John Clowney (1816-1885), from Mineral Point, was commissioned the major of the 30th Wisconsin Infantry on September 8, 1862. Besides being in charge of this fort-building expedition in the Dakotas, he was on command of the Post at Frankfort, Kentucky, from March 8 to September 20, 1865, when the regiment mustered out.
5.  French for “hills of the prairies.” The fort sat atop the Coteau des Prairies.
6.  Thomas Priestly (d. 1890) was also from Mineral Point. He originally enlisted September 9, 1861, in the 11th Wisconsin Infantry where he was the 1st sergeant of Company E.  From there he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant of Company B of the 30th Wisconsin on September 8, 1862, and captain of Company B on January 27, 1865. He mustered out with the company on September 20, 1865.

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