A Tale of Two Massacres
The haunting parallels—and striking differences—between a pair of Native uprisings.
In 1862, a store clerk of Métis and Irish heritage, Thomas Trueman Quinn, crawled into a barrel under his store counter at the Yellow Medicine Agency on the Minnesota River, and thus managed to survive a bloody battle between Dakota warriors and settlers that resulted in large numbers of white and Native American deaths. In 1885, 23 years later, across a porous border in Canada’s Northwest, Thomas Quinn’s luck ran out: he was the first to die in what is known as the Frog Lake Massacre, shot point blank by Cree war chief Wandering Spirit.
Quinn’s uncanny presence at both massacres is just one of several startling parallels between the events of 1862 and 1885 that have drawn me to make connections between them. Popular Canadian opinion takes pride in the notion that “our” western frontier was settled through “peace, order and good government” whereas the American frontier, or “wild west,” was the site of lawless and pitiless violence, especially where relations with First Nations were concerned. Yet in both histories, aboriginal despair and desperation rooted in hunger and great want on the reserves, failed government promises, corruption in trading practices, ruthlessness of Indian agents, accusations of sexual predation and the impatience of volatile young aboriginal men fuelled the violence that erupted as mass killings—of some 600 settlers in Minnesota and of nine unarmed men at Frog Lake. In both cases, the aboriginal campaigns ultimately failed and, after flawed judicial processes, convicted warriors were hanged in the largest mass public executions in both American and Canadian history.
Moreover, in both cases female survivors who had been taken hostage published accounts of their experience that now form part of a genre, “captivity narratives,” which give a vivid insight into the relationship of settlers with their Dakota and Cree captors. (In the Canadian case, some male captors, such as William Cameron, also wrote memoirs.) While the captivity experience appears to have been very similar, after-the-fact accounts by some survivors seem to contradict not only others’ but their own reported experience as well.
“[Little Poplar] scowled. ‘I have heard of you!’ he retorted. ‘Away over the other side of the Missouri river, I heard of you. I started to come this way and the farther I came the more I heard. You’re the man the government sent up here to say “No!” to everything the Indians asked you.’” This is William Cameron’s account of the confrontation in March 1885 between the angry Cree of Frog Lake, demanding meat for their starving people—“It is long since the buffalo went away”—and the stubborn and bureaucratic Thomas Quinn who refused them, repeatedly. Quinn had had his counterparts in Minnesota, where traders cheated hapless Dakota of their treaty payments and Indian agents refused to distribute food. At the Yellow Medicine Agency where he had a store, trader Andrew Myrick refused more credit to the Dakota, saying “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.” In the first days of the war, Dakota warriors killed Myrick and stuffed his mouth with grass. At Frog Lake, Thomas Quinn’s grave has never been found: after the smoke had cleared from the burning buildings, no one came forward to claim his body.
Chronologies of the Dakota War begin with the killing on August 17, 1862, of five farmers by four Dakota hunters. Emboldened, some Dakota warriors—“the tale told by the young men created the greatest excitement”—determined to reassert sovereignty throughout the Minnesota River valley against the deepening encroachment of settlers. For six weeks they attacked farms, towns, agencies, forts and federal troops, winning decisively at the Battle of Birch Coulee September 2 and losing decisively at the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23. By the end of September, Colonel Henry Sibley had taken command of the situation: the Dakota chiefs and warriors surrendered, hundreds of hostages were turned over to Sibley at Camp Release, and more than a thousand Dakota interned. By November 3, 393 Dakota, without legal defence, had been tried summarily by a military commission, some trials lasting less than five minutes; of those, 303 were sentenced to hang. President Lincoln struck all convictions but 38: “I could not afford to hang men for votes.” On December 26, 1862, the 38 condemned Dakota, led singing and chanting to the massive scaffold, were hanged before a cheering crowd in Mankato, Minnesota, and buried in a mass grave in the sand of the riverbank.
Chronologies of the Frog Lake Massacre and the ensuing events in April 1885 begin with the decision by Big Bear’s war chief, Wandering Spirit, to join up with Métis leader Louis Riel and Cree chief Poundmaker to drive white authority from the Northwest. Emboldened by the victory of Riel’s forces at the Battle of Duck Lake on March 26, Wandering Spirit planned to seize the Frog Lake settlement and its provisions, taking its inhabitants hostage, and move on to Fort Pitt and its provisions and residents, and so on, eastward to Riel. Instead, in the ensuing confusion, first Thomas Quinn then eight others, including two priests, a trader and a farm instructor, were killed by the warriors, and the survivors were compelled into Big Bear’s camp. Pursuing Canadian field forces and infantry units under the command of Major-General Thomas Bland Strange engaged the Cree, first indecisively at the Battle of Frenchman Butte on May 27 and decisively at the Battle of Loon Lake on June 3.
Riel and Poundmaker had already surrendered to militia after the crushing defeat at the Battle of Batoche, May 12, 1885; in their turn, so did Wandering Spirit and Big Bear in July. At his trial by stipendary magistrate in Battleford, where he pleaded guilty to the murder of Thomas Quinn, Wandering Spirit had no legal counsel, said nothing in his own defence and was summarily sentenced to hang. In spite of dubious eyewitness testimony and vigorous “not guilty” pleas on the part of the five other defendants tried for the killings at Frog Lake, they too were sentenced to hang. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald did not intervene. In a speech in the House of Commons on July 6, 1885, he said, “We must vindicate the position of the white man; we must teach the Indians what law is.” Twenty Indians were forced to witness the executions. The condemned, most singing and shouting, were hanged together on the scaffold inside the palisades of Fort Battleford and buried in a common grave in a bank of the Battle River.
Within a year of the events, 1862 and 1885 respectively, hostages who had been held in Dakota and Cree camps published narratives of the experience. Sarah Wakefield, wife of the doctor at Yellow Medicine Agency, published Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees in 1863; Theresa Delaney and Theresa Gowanlock, widowed at Frog Lake, published Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear in November 1885. While all accounts describe the obvious terrors and travails of forced confinement among “hostiles,” hopes of rescue by soldiers, and gratitude for their return home, they are otherwise remarkably different in tone, point of view and message.
Wakefield had a compelling purpose to her publication: to speak as a white woman against the fury of public opinion toward the Dakota “savages.” She wrote that she had enjoyed the protection of the “squaws” who “proved to be good, true friends,” and who did all they could “to lighten my sufferings.” Defiantly, she insisted that “there are very many good, kind-hearted Indians” and that even those guilty of killing should be understood as long-suffering: “Such is my belief: That our own people, not the Indians, were to blame” for the catastrophe of the war. Innocent lives could have been spared, she argued, if the Dakota “had been properly fed and otherwise treated like human beings.” But she had another objective: her principal benefactor was the Dakota Chaska, who had saved her life at the hands of the murderous Hapa by seizing his rifle. “If it had not been for Chaska, my bones would now be bleaching on that prairie.”
Chaska, she conceded, was a Christian convert and a “good” farmer on his reservation. He protected her throughout her ordeal, took her into his teepee with his family, respected her dignity—“very few Indians, or even white men would have treated me in the manner he did”—and promised “he would give me up as he took me,” that is, unviolated. He was as good as his word.
But, for all her protestations about Chaska’s character and innocence, Chaska was among those hanged at Mankato. Wakefield’s anguish was extreme and she blamed herself for having made matters worse for him—and for herself: rumours spread that she and Chaska were lovers. Colonel Sibley himself privately referred to Chaska as Wakefield’s “dusky paramour.” She had vigorously defended Chaska before Sibley’s military commission who “thought it very strange I had no complaints to make,” but the truth was “I loved not the man but his kindly acts.” Wakefield concludes her narrative in a mournful key, lamenting the “ruin” of the Dakota people expelled from their Minnesota lands: “now they are wanderers, without home or even a resting place.”
There are intriguing repetitions in the Delaney and Gowanlock narratives of Wakefield’s experience and observations. The two Theresas are grateful for the protection of Métis families in the Cree camp, especially that of John Pritchard, “in my estimation the type of God’s noblest creatures,” according to Delaney. Like Wakefield, they became part of the community of aboriginal women, making bannock and crocheting baby clothes. By their initial testimony after their escape, they were well fed and always rode beside the trudging band. Yet Gowanlock concludes with the cry, “Oh! what we suffered, Oh! what we endured, during those two long months, as captives among a horde of semi-barbarians.”
Admittedly, the women’s husbands had been brutally killed in front of them—“he put out his arms for me and fell” and “I bent down and raised his head upon my lap”—and the trauma was unstaunched. Nevertheless, as historian Sarah Carter argues, their published accounts conformed neatly “to the expectations of the nineteenth century Indian captivity narrative,” in which virtuous white women are imperilled by brutal savages, only to be rescued in the nick of time by white heroes and returned “to the sacred precincts of the paternal hearth.” The media had been in a frenzy of indignation over their imagined rape, murder and dismemberment, P.G. Laurie, editor of the Saskatchewan Herald, even insisting that they must have suffered “indignities.” Neither woman had a word to say about her erstwhile captors who were delivered to the courts and the scaffold. Perhaps they had Sarah Wakefield’s fate in mind, that of “Indian lover.” And they were hopeful of receiving government pensions.
Wakefield had been in Minnesota since 1854 and spoke Dakota. Delaney had lived in Frog Lake for three years, Gowanlock less than a year; both came as newlyweds from parental homes in Ontario and neither spoke Cree. Wakefield was a 32-year-old mother of two in 1862, the Theresas were still in their twenties. Perhaps the youth and inexperience of the latter made them more vulnerable to pressures to contradict their own experiences in their published accounts. Wakefield has a much more assertive voice, similar to that of the remarkable 16-year-old Elizabeth McLean, Canadian settler daughter of a Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company trader and his mixed-blood wife, whose family were voluntary hostages from Fort Pitt. She also published a memoir about her captivity experience that, curiously, was not published until 1947, in three installments in The Beaver magazine. (These were reprinted in the collection The Frog Lake “Massacre” in 1976.) Perhaps her long silence after 1885 can be understood partly as acknowledgement of the chastening effect, as with Wakefield’s experience, of writing outside the accepted confines of the genre. McLean spoke Cree and Salteaux, and was by all accounts plucky and resourceful. She also expressed intense sympathy for the beleaguered Cree, including Wandering Spirit.
In 1863, an act of Congress removed Dakota bands from Minnesota territory but they continued to be pursued by U.S. troops in the so-called Punitive Expeditions, a war that did not end until 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee. Those Dakota who got into Canada established reserve communities in today’s Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In 1885 Cree warriors who had not surrendered managed to cross into Montana where they were finally settled as the Rocky Boy reservation on abandoned military land in 1916.
In 2012 Minnesotans have been commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Dakota Wars with online resource guides and oral histories, exhibits, dialogues, memorial walks and tours of historic sites. “The war, its causes and its aftermath had a profound impact in shaping Minnesota as we know it today,” opines an official online source. In 2010, the 125th anniversary of the events at Frog Lake, I could find no official commemoration in Alberta. The plaque on the cairn that had been erected there in 1926 stood as the only official account until June 2012, when an interpretive trail and explanatory panels were added to the historic site in a little-publicized event. “The massacre, as it was called, became news across Canada and influenced Canadian policies and attitudes towards treaty-making with First Nations,” said Alberta Culture’s Matthew Wangler, adding, ‘It’s a legacy that’s very much with us today.’”
As for Thomas Trueman Quinn, the man whose life and death bridged both Dakota and Cree events, his body still lies out there, somewhere under the gentle undulation of land east of Frog Lake.