The Crow Creek Sioux Reservation is located in central South Dakota on the Eastern shore of the Missouri River reservoirs Lakes Sharpe and Francis Case surrounding the town of Fort Thompson. The landscape of the reservation primarily consists of vast areas of prairie grasslands interspersed with agricultural lands. The few wooded areas, are found along the shores of the beautiful Missouri River reservoirs and the tributary streams that flow into them.
It is indeed a land of wide open spaces. The ever blowing wind is often a striking surprise to first time visitors to this area. The northwest wind blows in some very cold wintertime weather with temperatures often sub-zero. In the summertime the south winds blow steadily and thunderstorms are very common.
Despite the extreme weather, much wildlife shares the lands of the reservation with its human inhabitants. Mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, prairie dogs, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants, and many more species abound in this wild country. The Tribe also has a large herd of Bison, commonly called buffalo, which roam the hills. Massive numbers of geese, ducks and other migratory birds use the Missouri River as a stopover and flyway during their migrations.
The Crow Creek Sioux Reservation itself covers approximately 400 square miles. Fort Thompson is the primary community on the reservation. Big Bend and Crow Creek are the other two small communities on the reservation, although they have no stores or other services. Fort Thompson has a post office, grocery store, a gas station, a bar and a small Tribal casino. The federal government offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Indian Health Services (IHS), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) are located in Fort Thompson. IHS, Indian Health Services, operates a small medical clinic in the community and the Corps manages and operates the Big Bend Dam located on the Missouri River just outside of town. The tribal offices are also located in Fort Thompson. These offices and establishments provide most of the employment opportunities on the reservation. The unemployment rate however still remains at over 80%.
The writing of history can be a sensitive matter. Particularly when writing the history of a people that primarily have an oral, rather than written, record of their past. An in-depth account will not be given here. However, many of the more important events and occurrences will be accounted here so you can get a better idea of how the current situation came to be.
Throughout history people have inhabited the shores of the Missouri River. Earth lodge villages of Arikara tribes lined the bluffs along the river in this area in the 18th century. The Arikara were gradually displaced by the more nomadic Lakota people. It is this mix of Arikara villages and Lakota encampments that the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered upon reaching this region on September 19th, 1804. Their journals are filled with vivid descriptions of the area and its inhabitants.
During the first part of the 19th century, the history of this area was one of exploration and trading by European traders and explorers. Trading posts and military forts were soon established as non-Indian people began arriving by steamboat up the Missouri River.
In 1863 the United States government established Fort Thompson eight miles upstream of the small tributary stream called Crow Creek. Fort Thompson was one of several military forts built in this region at that time. Fort Thompson was named for Clark W. Thompson, the fort’s first superintendent. Fort Thompson also served as the headquarters for the Crow Creek Agency. The Crow Creek Agency was created as a “repository” for American Indians in the aftermath of the Dakota-United States Conflict of 1862 in the neighboring State of Minnesota.
This piece, written by Roy Cook, tells the story of how the people were sent to Crow Creek in Spring of 1863. It is an excerpt from an article about Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
A country with no regard for its past, will do little worth remembering in the future. —Abraham Lincoln
By Roy Cook
There are some bitter views as to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy with the First Americans. Also it is a tragic irony that his personage is on display on the Black Hills of the Dakota. Examine the political and legal issues of this tragic Minnesota affair under his watch. It is the largest mass execution of American people in the history of the United States.
In peace and friendship the Dakota ceded 21 million acres, over half the territory of Minnesota, many waters in Dakota language; in the 1851 Traverse des Sioux Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Despite federal promises of protection and assistance, at the Minnesota River reservations, the Dakota Santee were badly mistreated by corrupt federal Indian agents and contractors. This non-fulfillment of treaty promises issue resulted in the Dakota Santee Sioux being found guilty by military court of joining in the so-called “Minnesota Uprising.” This avoidable tragedy was actually part of the wider Indian conflicts that plagued the West during the second half of the nineteenth century. For nearly half a century, the US govt. had been selling land in the west to pay for past and current wars domestic and abroad. Anglo and German settlers invaded the Dakota Santee Sioux territory in the beautiful Minnesota Valley, and government pressure gradually forced the Dakota Indians to relocate to smaller reservations along the Minnesota River.
Abuses continued at the Minnesota River reservations during July 1862 with the agents pushing the Dakota Indians to the brink of starvation by refusing to distribute stores of food because they had not yet received their customary kickback payments. The contractor Andrew Myrick callously ignored the Santee’s pleas for help. He said, “Let them eat grass.”
Outraged and at the limits of their endurance, the Dakota Santee finally struck back, killing Anglo settlers and taking women as hostages. The initial efforts of the U.S. Army to stop the Santee warriors failed, and in a battle at Birch Coulee, Dakota Santee Sioux killed 13 American soldiers and wounded another 47 soldiers. However, on September 23, a force under the leadership of General Henry H. Sibley finally defeated the main body of Dakota Santee warriors at Wood Lake, recovering many of the hostages and forcing most of the Indians to surrender. The subsequent five-minute trials of the prisoners gave little attention to the injustices the Indians had suffered on the reservations and largely catered to the popular desire for revenge. Injustice moved very rapidly through the trials of the accused. Here, in its entirety, is Case # 241: Pay-pat-sin.
Prisoner states, “I was at Fort Ridgley and stood near the stable. I fired three shots.” The Military Tribunal found him guilty and ordered he be hanged.
The revered Anglo- Saxon principle of law that a person is considered innocent until proven guilty was reversed in the case of the Indians. Authorities in Minnesota asked President Lincoln to order the immediate execution of all 303 Indian males found guilty. President Lincoln was under heavy political pressure to acknowledge states rights but he objected to what he viewed as wholesale slaughter. Lincoln was concerned with how this would play with the Europeans, whom he was afraid were about to enter the war on the side of the South. He wired the commanding officer to stay the executions and forward the “full and complete record of each conviction.” He also ordered that any material that would discriminate the guilty from the questionable be included with the trial transcripts. Lincoln and Justice Department officials reviewed every case. Episcopalian Bishop Whipple pleaded for clemency but Military leaders and the Minnesota state politicians warned Lincoln that anything less than large-scale hangings would result in widespread white outrage and more violence against the Indians. After review, the president pardoned 265 of the 303 condemned Indians, approving a total of 38 executions. He offered the following compromise to the politicians of Minnesota: If they would pare the list of those to be hung down to 39. In return, Lincoln promised to kill or remove every Indian from the state and provide Minnesota with 2 million dollars in federal funds. This eagerness to buy cooperation from the state in spite of the fact that the Federal government still owed the Sioux 1.4 million for the land is both tragic and ironic.
So, on December 26, 1862, the Great Emancipator ordered the largest mass execution in American History, where the guilt of those to be executed was entirely in doubt. After 38 of the condemned men were hanged on the 26 of December, the day after Christmas, in 1862 in what remains the largest mass hanging in United States history, the other prisoners continued to suffer in the concentration camps through the winter of 1862-63.
In late April of 1863 the remaining condemned men, along with the survivors of the Fort Snelling concentration camp, were forcibly removed from their beloved homeland in May of 1863. They were placed on boats, which transported the men from Mankato to Davenport, Iowa where they were imprisoned for an additional three years. Those from Fort Snelling were shipped down the Mississippi River to St. Louis and then up the Missouri River to the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota.
During the Dakota-United States Conflict of 1862, hundreds of Minnesota settlers were killed and homes destroyed during an uprising by certain bands of Dakotas. Much can be said and has been written about the circumstances and cause of the conflict that won’t attempt to be addressed here. The end result however was the hanging of 38 Dakotas and the imprisonment and subsequent extradition of all American Indians within the State of Minnesota, whether they had any involvement in the uprising or not. The Santee Dakota prisoners were sent to a prison camp and eventually to forced internment at the newly created Crow Creek Agency at Fort Thompson.
A dedicated Christian missionary, Mr. John P. Williamson accompanied the Santee Dakotas on their steamboat trip up the Missouri River to the Crow Creek Agency. Mr. Williamson gave this account of the trip, “As they look on their native hills for the last time, a dark cloud is crushing their hearts. Down they go to St. Louis thence up the Missouri to Crow Creek. But this brings little relief… The shock, the anxiety, the confinement, the pitiable diet, were naturally followed by sickness…Thirteen hundred Indians were crowded like slaves on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed musty hardtack and briny pork, which they had not half a chance to cook, diseases were bred which made a fearful havoc during the hot months, and the thirteen hundred souls that were landed at Crow Creek on June 1st, 1863, decreased to one thousand.”
This marked the beginning of three years of great suffering at Fort Thompson. Mr. Williamson further recorded,” For a time a teepee where no one was sick could scarcely be found, and it was a rare day when there was no funeral. So were the hills soon covered with graves. The very memory of Crow Creek became horrible to the Santee’s, who still hush their voice at the mention of the name.”
(The out of print book, “John P. Williamson, Brother of the Sioux”, is an excellent historical book about this time period. Mr. Williamson was used in a very powerful way to save the lives of thousands of Dakotas during this time period. He and his family were also significant in the creation of a written Dakota language, the writing of many of the Dakota language hymns that we still sing every week, and the spreading of the Gospel among the Dakota people. He left a legacy of great Christian revival among the Dakotas of eastern South Dakota, and his example of dedicated service and love is still noted and honored among Dakota Christians today.)
Winnebagos from Minnesota were also moved to the Crow Creek agency at this time. During these early years other bands of Dakota including Brules, Two Kettles, Yanktons, and Yanktonais joined the Santees at the Crow Creek Agency. After three horrific years of suffering the Winnebagos and most of the Santee Dakotas were relocated to reservations further downstream to what is now northeastern Nebraska. Later the Brules and some other tribes were resettled on what is now the Lower Brule Reservation. What remained on what would become the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation were several various bands of Dakotas. The last band to settle at the Crow Creek Agency was a group of Yanktonai Dakota led by their Chief, Drifting Goose. Drifting Goose and his people migrated off and on to the reservation for many years, until finally reluctantly resigning themselves to the Crow Creek Agency in 1883.
Over the coming decades many hardships confronted those on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. Broken treaties, diminished reservation borders, encroachment by non-Indian homesteaders, introduction of alcohol, and general loss of an entire way of life, are a few of the tragic events. Eventually the federal government would construct a series of large hydropower and flood control dams on the Missouri River, including Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson. The result of the dam construction was the flooding and loss of the only well wooded areas on the reservation, the lush Missouri River shoreline. Even the community of Fort Thompson was moved from its original location to higher plains north of the old town site.
Crow Creek Today
It is said that there are approximately 2500 residents of Crow Creek. That equates to about 700 families. There are but 500 homes in Crow Creek. The situation there doesn’t seem like it has progressed in 146 years. Buffalo County is the poorest County in the United States and Crow Creek is the poorest Reservation. As hard as the government seems to have tried to break the spirit of a people in the past, as recorded in historical examples like the one above, the people of Crow Creek exist. The little we do is of little consequence as they need so much, but it is a start. One woman thanked us for our ride saying that we, “….brought us hope.”
We can only pray that we are doing good and that the situation begins to change for the health and happiness of all people, and for those of Crow Creek.