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Battle of the Killdeer Mountains


The Battle of the Killdeer Mountains took place on this date in 1864. During the 1850s, treaties with Minnesota Indians promised them food, clothing, land, money and farming tools, but these rations weren’t delivered. The People were starving, and a number of events flared into the 1862 Minnesota Uprising, which left hundreds of whites dead. War was declared on the Native People, and as retaliations escalated, many hundreds of innocent Indians died.

Inkpaduta, a Santee, was at the center of much of the conflict. His brother had reportedly been killed and decapitated in Iowa by two white men while hunting elk. Although authorities promised to bring in the man’s killers, his skull was nailed to a pole outside his home instead. Inkpaduta’s revenge was harsh, and following much bloodshed near Spirit Lake in Iowa, he fled with a small band into Dakota Territory.

The following summer, 1863, General Sully and General Sibley entered Dakota Territory seeking retribution for the uprising. When Sibley met up with the Santees north of present-day Tappen, one of Inkpaduta’s young followers shot the medical officer, and the Big Mound Battle ensued.

That September, Sully mistook a camp of 1,000 Ihunktonwan for Santees at Whitestone Hill near present-day Ellendale. The men were out hunting, which left the camp vulnerable, and when Sully showed up, the people started running away. Sully’s men opened fire and killed 289 – mostly women and children – as they tried to escape. They also shot all the Indian ponies, burned as much as 500,000 pounds of dried buffalo meat and destroyed 300 lodges. Sully took several hundred prisoners – mostly women and children – and had them transported to a prison camp at Crow Creek, where they died of starvation and exposure that winter.

The Whitestone Hill Massacre did nothing to calm relations between the U.S. and the Sioux. The following summer, Sully was determined to crush the uprising for good and took with him an eight-unit detachment of 2,200 men. Sully discovered a large encampment of Teton, Ihunktonwan and Cuthead Sioux about 50 miles north of what is now Dickinson, and on July 26th and 27th, his men marched 47 miles to position themselves to strike. The village had as many as 1600 lodges, including 5,000-6,000 warriors and their families.

Sully reported the enemy was “strongly posted in wooded country, very much cut up with high, rugged hills, and deep, impassible ravines.” The Lakota called it Takahokuty, “the place where they killed the deer” – or the Killdeer Mountains. It was one of their favorite hunting areas, and during this summer of intense heat, drought and grasshoppers, a natural spring provided them with water.

Heavy fighting ensued, covering as much as five miles as Sully’s men advanced toward the camp. The Indian men had been confident in their numbers and had allowed their families to watch from a nearby hill. Most of the warriors hadn’t seen white soldiers in battle before, and their style of fighting couldn’t match the soldiers’ 6-shooters, long-range rifles and cannon-fire. They began losing ground, and ended up fleeing almost nine miles into the hills.

The women didn’t have time to save their lodges. Some threw their meat into ravines, hoping to retrieve it later, but the next day, Sully’s men burned everything in sight, including food, hides, lodge skins, tepee poles, water pails, clothing, tools and large stores of dried berries – as much as two hundred tons of critical supplies. Even the trees were burned.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm