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Hunger, Despair, and the Beginning of the Dakota War

Their land taken, their people persecuted, three young boys, hungry and desperate, do something terrible, and the consequences echo through history. What we must remember is often what we want to forget.

We stumbled on the place, literally. I knew we were skirting the general area of Acton, Minnesota, but I didn't know where we'd have had to look to find the place where the Dakota boys, on what seems to have been a whim, put up a dare: “who among 'em would be scared to kill the white people who'd come along and determined to live on their land?” A game of chicken mostly. Nobody wanted to be the hen.

It’s childishness, its stupidity was exceeded only by its evil. The game turned bloody: a man, a woman, another man, a boy, a girl—all of them white; five characters from Little-House-on-the-Prairie were left behind in random puddles of bloody dirt. The dead are listed on the granite monument set there more than a century ago, but that panel was in a shadow when we stopped, and I could barely make out names, I suppose, that are immaterial anyway 161 years later. But the legacy of what happened here is anything but forgotten. When the boys, hungry from a long and unsuccessful hunt in the Big Woods, discovered some eggs in a nest in the grass, one of them said to eat them, another said no, no, no--they belonged to the white man, and the game of chicken was triggered. Some consider what happened here at that moment to have been the very first act of the Great Sioux Wars that consumed the lives of thousands of Americans on both sides of the color line, and wouldn't conclude until the massacre at Wounded Knee forty years later, wars that left this country, a new nation, terribly scarred by anger that’s only partially abated. Today, the very first death of the 1862 Dakota War, just a state away in Minnesota, "The Acton Incident," is remembered by a monument in the backyard of a farmstead where it seemed that dinner was being served when we stopped. The yard was full of lumbering farm equipment, so close we couldn’t help but feel we were trespassing, looking for obscure history in a place where there were much bigger concerns—after all, it was harvest.

When the teenage murderers got back to their people, Shakopee's Dakota Band, several councils were held. White people were dead, the boys said. What should the people do?

And they were hungry. Their way of life was vanishing before their eyes, imprisoned as they were on a sliver of land afforded them by a treaty white people didn't honor anyway. Settlers kept moving in. After much discussion, Little Crow, their leader, conceded to the fury of his warriors with a warning:

See!--the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one--two--ten; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one--two--ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count. . . .Braves, you are little children--you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon.

And that’s how it began, right here, at this out-of-the-way spot you may never have heard of, spitting distance from a farm house where, when we stopped, Sunday dinner was being served. Just three eggs in a nest in prairie grass, and a few hungry boys.

It was one of those perfect fall days you can hardly believe we’re getting. Hard to believe any of it, really. The town of Acton doesn’t even exist; it’s only a township. But then, if only we could, we'd all rather not remember what happened here and what happened back then, a year so long ago there was no harvest at all.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.