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Dead Buffalo Lake



Nobody wants to drive I94 across central North Dakota with me anymore. Every transit calls to my mind the engagements of the Dakota War in 1863, and I can’t help myself, I have to tell whoever is with me about the historic sites we are passing through.

As we pass Tappen, I point north up the blacktop road toward where the war ignited on 24 July 1863--alongside what came to be known as Lake Kunkel. There the Wahkepute warrior Watesdaka Hanska, Tall Crown, shot Surgeon Josiah Weiser, initiating hostilities between the Dakota and Lakota and the invading army commanded by Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley. I have told the story of that day’s Battle of Big Mound in previous Plains Folk essays.

The point I make in all my remarks about the campaign of 1863 is that the Dakota and Lakota fighters had a plan, they had tactics, and they successfully defended their people and country against Sibley’s army. Their strategy was Fabian, drawing the troops from Minnesota deeper into the vast Dakota Territory, awaiting an opportunity to take it down.

On 26 July, two days after Big Mound, Sibley brought his army into camp on the south shore of Dead Buffalo Lake. The ensuing Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake took place on ground between the lake and the modern interstate highway, about a mile west of Dawson.

When I drive someone past the site, I point to a shelterbelt running south toward the highway from the lake, and I say, “You see the little ridge alongside that shelterbelt? Right there was where Tatanka Iyotanke, Sitting Bull, rode onto the screen of white guy history for the first time.”

The Dakota and Lakota fighters understood that the weakness of a modern army in undeveloped country was logistical. Such an army had to transport modern weaponry and material long distances across rough country using animal power--mainly mules. That didn’t work very well. So, the native forces made a plan.

The akicita, the native fighters, deployed in force in front of the federal camp, taking positions about halfway between the lake and the modern town of Dawson. Sibley responded by sending troops out as skirmishers and moving his artillery forward to disperse the apparent attackers.

As federal soldiers in the ranks later recognized, but their officers never admitted, the natives were executing a feint to draw the artillery out of position. Meanwhile, a second native force--mainly Hunkpapa Lakota, including Tatanka Iyotanka--rode down a swale from the west to attack the federal livestock herd, which was lightly guarded alongside the lake.

This tactical strike was well executed and nearly succeeded in crippling the federal army. It took place out of range, and out of sight, of the artillery battery, which had been suckered out of position. Infantry and cavalry from the camp, however, hustled out and saved the day for the army. Both sides acquitted themselves well.

Tatanka Iyotanka remembered the day. He remembered how he rode down on one of the federal teamsters, counted coup on him without harming him, and made off with a mule. Later he would depict this exploit graphically in his pictorial autobiography.

When I first located the site where Sitting Bull counted coup, I was pretty excited, but the only party to whom I could express my satisfaction was a Labrador retriever, who was busy digging mice out of a snowbank. Maybe that’s why I retell the story every time I drive by on the interstate. ~Tom Isern

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