In past weeks we’ve already driven through two Dakota War battlefields at 75 mph--Big Mound, which took place north of Tappen, and Dead Buffalo Lake, which happened near Dawson. These battles of 1863 all took place in the central reaches of the Missouri Coteau and within spitting distance of the future route of Interstate 94. The region’s lakes, or maybe you call them sloughs, figure in the military actions associated with what is commonly known as the Sibley Expedition of 1863.
On 24 July 1863 hostilities commenced with the Battle of Big Mound. Two days later there was the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake. On 27 July General Sibley led his troops into camp on the east side of another Coteau slough, Stony Lake. The reason for the name of the place is obvious--huge glacial boulders are strewn across the pastures on either side.
Stony Lake lies between I94 on the north and Old 10 on the south, a few miles west of the town of Driscoll. Now, Driscoll is one of those little towns where as a historian, I find it easy to get off the subject. Just south of town is the cemetery where the ashes of Era Bell Thompson, one of North Dakota’s great literary figures, were laid to rest. Her family was part of the black settlement in the locality. The graveyard also holds graves of Islamic settlers, likely Lebanese or Syrian.
Over north of town, to get back to the subject of the Dakota War, is one of the campsites of the Sibley Expedition on its retreat back to Minnesota. This somewhat neglected site owned by the state historical society contains the burial site and a monument for the Dakota scout, Chaska, whose story I told in a previous essay. Someone has ripped off the plaque from his monument.
Now, back to Sibley’s army, which on the morning of 28 July decamped to resume its westward march. Sibley and his officers were surprised to find their column confronted by large numbers of native fighters, Dakota and Lakota, and a battle precipitating.
This was not supposed to happen. The federal officers insisted they had thoroughly thrashed the native akicita at Big Mound and at Dead Buffalo Lake, and thus the natives were in full retreat toward the Missouri River. Yet here they were confronting, in fact taunting, the federal troops once again.
The officers were unaware of what was going on. In the first place, the natives did not consider themselves to have been defeated in the previous engagements at all. From their point of view, things were going pretty much as planned, as they confronted and harassed Sibley’s army on its march.
More to the point, there was the question of where were the noncombatants--the families of the warriors fighting Sibley, thousands of noncombatants. It says something that Sibley’s force never saw them, let alone caught up to them. I suspect that while the warriors demonstrated before Sibley’s force at Stony Lake, the noncombatants were miles to the south, making their own way toward a crossing of the Missouri.
The native fighters drew the attention of Sibley’s troops, drew their fire--and then rode away, over the low rise to the west, headed northwest across where the interstate now runs. The army followed--thus drawn farther away from the noncombatant natives. Once more in this campaign, native strategy determined the direction of the action. I don’t know how long it took Sibley and his staff to figure out they had been snookered again. ~Tom Isern