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Sully at Whitestone Hill


One hundred and forty years ago, a man named Sam Brown wrote to his father, “I hope you will not believe all that is said of ‘Sully’s Successful Expedition,’ against the Sioux. I don’t think he aught to brag of it at all, because it was, what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them, worse a great deal than what Indians did in 1862, he killed very few men and took no hostile ones prisoners...and now he returns saying that we need fear no more, for he has ‘wiped out all hostile Indians from Dakota.’ If he had killed men instead of women and children, then it would have been a success, and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever, the Nebraska 2nd pitched into them without orders, while the Iowa 6th were shaking hands with them on one side, the soldiers even shot their own men.”

He was referring to the Battle of Whitestone Hill, which took place on this date in 1863 near present-day Ellendale. Brown was a 19 year-old translator at Crow Creek, where the Indian prisoners – 32 men and 124 women and children – were jailed. And where they later died.

General Sully and General Sibley were in Dakota searching for a band of Santee Sioux who had participated in the Minnesota Uprising the previous year. They had one mission: trap the Santee between them and make them pay. Sully had come up empty and was returning home, when a scouting party led by Major Albert House discovered a Sioux encampment on a small lake below Whitestone Hill. Major House sent word to General Sully, moved in closer and discovered the camp was larger than he thought – approximately 1,000 people.

The Indians sent a delegation of elders out to meet the scouting party. Vastly outnumbered, House negotiated for almost three hours. Historic accounts differ about whether any Santee were hiding in the camp. It is known that House demanded total surrender, but the elders refused.

Historian LaDonna Brave Bull’s great, great grandmother was a 9 year-old living in the camp. She said the men were out hunting, and during those three hours, the women prepared to flee. Tipis were dismantled, and travois carrying children and provisions were quickly hooked up to ponies and dogs. When the people saw Sully’s command arriving, they panicked and ran. Sully saw them leaving, sent others to cut off their escape routes and charged directly into the camp. The Indians scattered, but were cut off, and hundreds were slaughtered as the sun went down.

The State Historical Society reports, “The light of the following day revealed a field of carnage. Dead and wounded men, women, and children lay in the campsite and in the ravine. Tipis stood vacant, or drooped in various stages of destruction. Camp equipment and personal items, tools, utensils, weapons, toys, and injured or dying horses and dogs littered the ground. Injured women protected babies and the little children. As the soldiers looked after the wounded and gathered the dead...other men were put to work...destroying the village and Indian possessions.”

Brave Bull says 289 villagers were killed, most women and children. Some babies were found strapped to dogs that had carried them away. One baby, who later visited the site as an old woman, was found trying to nurse from her dead mother. Brave Bull’s great great grandmother was shot in the hip but survived.

The village was peaceful Ihunktonwan (ee-HOOnK-tooN-wahN) or Yankton Sioux, not Santee. Two Bears, a chief of that village, was the strongest voice for peace around Fort Rice one year later. Brave Bull says that, for her people, Whitestone Hill is their Wounded Knee. She writes, “ is said in my family that my great great grandma screamed in her sleep until the day she died.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm