Chief Little Crow was the eldest son of Cetanwakuwa (Charging Hawk). It was on
account of his father's name, mistranslated Crow, that he was called by the
whites "Little Crow." His real name was Taoyateduta, His Red People.
As far back as Minnesota history goes, a band of the Sioux called Kaposia (Light
Weight, because they were said to travel light) inhabited the Mille Lacs region.
Later they dwelt about St. Croix Falls, and still later near St. Paul. In 1840,
Cetanwakuwa was still living in what is now West St. Paul, but he was soon after
killed by the accidental discharge of his gun.
It was during a period of demoralization for the Kaposias that Little Crow
became the leader of his people. His father, a well-known chief, had three
wives, all from different bands of the Sioux. He was the only son of the first
wife, a Leaf Dweller. There were two sons of the second and two of the third
wife, and the second set of brothers conspired to kill their half-brother in
order to keep the chieftainship in the family.
Two kegs of whisky were bought, and all the men of the tribe invited to a feast.
It was planned to pick some sort of quarrel when all were drunk, and in the
confusion Little Crow was to be murdered. The plot went smoothly until the last
instant, when a young brave saved the intended victim by knocking the gun aside
with his hatchet, so that the shot went wild. However, it broke his right arm,
which remained crooked all his life. The friends of the young chieftain hastily
withdrew, avoiding a general fight; and later the council of the Kaposias
condemned the two brothers, both of whom were executed, leaving him in
Such was the opening of a stormy career. Little Crow's mother had been a chief's
daughter, celebrated for her beauty and spirit, and it is said that she used to
plunge him into the lake through a hole in the ice, rubbing him afterward with
snow, to strengthen his nerves, and that she would remain with him alone in the
deep woods for days at a time, so that he might know that solitude is good, and
not fear to be alone with nature.
"My son," she would say, "if you are to be a leader of men, you must listen in
silence to the mystery, the spirit."
At a very early age she made a feast for her boy and announced that he would
fast two days. This is what might be called a formal presentation to the spirit
or God. She greatly desired him to become a worthy leader according to the ideas
of her people. It appears that she left her husband when he took a second wife,
and lived with her own band till her death. She did not marry again.
Little Crow was an intensely ambitious man and without physical fear. He was
always in perfect training and early acquired the art of warfare of the Indian
type. It is told of him that when he was about ten years old, he engaged with
other boys in a sham battle on the shore of a lake near St. Paul. Both sides
were encamped at a little distance from one another, and the rule was that the
enemy must be surprised, otherwise the attack would be considered a failure. One
must come within so many paces undiscovered in order to be counted successful.
Our hero had a favorite dog which, at his earnest request, was allowed to take
part in the game, and as a scout he entered the enemy camp unseen, by the help
of his dog.
When he was twelve, he saved the life of a companion who had broken through the
ice by tying the end of a pack line to a log, then at great risk to himself
carrying it to the edge of the hole where his comrade went down. It is said that
he also broke in, but both boys saved themselves by means of the line.
As a young man, Little Crow was always ready to serve his people as a messenger
to other tribes, a duty involving much danger and hardship. He was also known as
one of the best hunters in his band. Although still young, he had already a war
record when he became chief of the Kaposias, at a time when the Sioux were
facing the greatest and most far-reaching changes that had ever come to them.
At this juncture in the history of the northwest and its native inhabitants, the
various fur companies had paramount influence. They did not hesitate to impress
the Indians with the idea that they were the authorized representatives of the
white races or peoples, and they were quick to realize the desirability of
controlling the natives through their most influential chiefs. Little Crow
became quite popular with post traders and factors. He was an orator as well as
a diplomat, and one of the first of his nation to indulge in politics and
promote unstable schemes to the detriment of his people.
When the United States Government went into the business of acquiring territory
from the Indians so that the flood of western settlement might not be checked,
commissions were sent out to negotiate treaties, and in case of failure it often
happened that a delegation of leading men of the tribe were invited to
Washington. At that period, these visiting chiefs, attired in all the splendor
of their costumes of ceremony, were treated like ambassadors from foreign
One winter in the late eighteen-fifties, a major general of the army gave a
dinner to the Indian chiefs then in the city, and on this occasion Little Crow
was appointed toastmaster. There were present a number of Senators and members
of Congress, as well as judges of the Supreme Court, cabinet officers, and other
distinguished citizens. When all the guests were seated, the Sioux arose and
addressed them with much dignity as follows:
"Warriors and friends: I am informed that the great white war chief who of his
generosity and comradeship has given us this feast, has expressed the wish that
we may follow to-night the usages and customs of my people. In other words, this
is a warriors' feast, a braves' meal. I call upon the Ojibway chief, the
Hole-in-the-Day, to give the lone wolf's hunger call, after which we will join
him in our usual manner."
The tall and handsome Ojibway now rose and straightened his superb form to utter
one of the clearest and longest wolf howls that was ever heard in Washington,
and at its close came a tremendous burst of war whoops that fairly rent the air,
and no doubt electrified the officials there present.
On one occasion Little Crow was invited by the commander of Fort Ridgeley,
Minnesota, to call at the fort. On his way back, in company with a half-breed
named Ross and the interpreter Mitchell, he was ambushed by a party of Ojibway,
and again wounded in the same arm that had been broken in his attempted
assassination. His companion Ross was killed, but he managed to hold the war
party at bay until help came and thus saved his life.
More and more as time passed, this naturally brave and ambitious man became a
prey to the selfish interests of the traders and politicians. The immediate
causes of the Sioux outbreak of 1862 came in quick succession to inflame to
desperate action an outraged people. The two bands on the so-called "lower
reservations" in Minnesota were Indians for whom nature had provided most
abundantly in their free existence. After one hundred and fifty years of
friendly intercourse first with the French, then the English, and finally the
Americans, they found themselves cut off from every natural resource, on a tract
of land twenty miles by thirty, which to them was virtual imprisonment. By
treaty stipulation with the government, they were to be fed and clothed, houses
were to be built for them, the men taught agriculture, and schools provided for
the children. In addition to this, a trust fund of a million and a half was to
be set aside for them, at five per cent interest, the interest to be paid
annually per capita. They had signed the treaty under pressure, believing in
these promises on the faith of a great nation.
However, on entering the new life, the resources so rosily described to them
failed to materialize. Many families faced starvation every winter, their only
support the store of the Indian trader, who was baiting his trap for their
destruction. Very gradually they awoke to the facts. At last it was planned to
secure from them the north half of their reservation for ninety-eight thousand
dollars, but it was not explained to the Indians that the traders were to
receive all the money. Little Crow made the greatest mistake of his life when he
signed this agreement.
Meanwhile, to make matters worse, the cash annuities were not paid for nearly
two years. Civil War had begun. When it was learned that the traders had taken
all of the ninety-eight thousand dollars "on account", there was very bitter
feeling. In fact, the heads of the leading stores were afraid to go about as
usual, and most of them stayed in St. Paul. Little Crow was justly held in part
responsible for the deceit, and his life was not safe.
The murder of a white family near Acton, Minnesota, by a party of Indian duck
hunters in August, 1862, precipitated the break. Messengers were sent to every
village with the news, and at the villages of Little Crow and Little Six the war
council was red-hot. It was proposed to take advantage of the fact that north
and south were at war to wipe out the white settlers and to regain their
freedom. A few men stood out against such a desperate step, but the
conflagration had gone beyond their control.
There were many mixed bloods among these Sioux, and some of the Indians held
that these were accomplices of the white people in robbing them of their
possessions, therefore their lives should not be spared. My father, Many
Lightnings, who was practically the leader of the Mankato band (for Mankato, the
chief, was a weak man), fought desperately for the lives of the half-breeds and
the missionaries. The chiefs had great confidence in my father, yet they would
not commit themselves, since their braves were clamoring for blood. Little Crow
had been accused of all the misfortunes of his tribe, and he now hoped by
leading them against the whites to regain his prestige with his people, and a
part at least of their lost domain.
There were moments when the pacifists were in grave peril. It was almost
daybreak when my father saw that the approaching calamity could not be
prevented. He and two others said to Little Crow: "If you want war, you must
personally lead your men to-morrow. We will not murder women and children, but
we will fight the soldiers when they come." They then left the council and
hastened to warn my brother-in-law, Faribault, and others who were in danger.
Little Crow declared he would be seen in the front of every battle, and it is
true that he was foremost in all the succeeding bloodshed, urging his warriors
to spare none. He ordered his war leader, Many Hail, to fire the first shot,
killing the trader James Lynd, in the door of his store.
After a year of fighting in which he had met with defeat, the discredited chief
retreated to Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, Manitoba, where, together with Standing
Buffalo, he undertook secret negotiations with his old friends the Indian
traders. There was now a price upon his head, but he planned to reach St. Paul
undetected and there surrender himself to his friends, who he hoped would
protect him in return for past favors. It is true that he had helped them to
secure perhaps the finest country held by any Indian nation for a mere song.
He left Canada with a few trusted friends, including his youngest and favorite
son. When within two or three days' journey of St. Paul, he told the others to
return, keeping with him only his son, Wowinape, who was but fifteen years of
age. He meant to steal into the city by night and go straight to Governor
Ramsey, who was his personal friend. He was very hungry and was obliged to keep
to the shelter of the deep woods. The next morning, as he was picking and eating
wild raspberries, he was seen by a wood-chopper named Lamson. The man did not
know who he was. He only knew that he was an Indian, and that was enough for
him, so he lifted his rifle to his shoulder and fired, then ran at his best
pace. The brilliant but misguided chief, who had made that part of the country
unsafe for any white man to live in, sank to the ground and died without a
struggle. The boy took his father's gun and made some effort to find the
assassin, but as he did not even know in which direction to look for him, he
soon gave up the attempt and went back to his friends.
Meanwhile Lamson reached home breathless and made his report. The body of the
chief was found and identified, in part by the twice broken arm, and this arm
and his scalp may be seen to-day in the collection of the Minnesota Historical
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