Little Crow's Biography

Ta-Oyate-Duta -- Minnesota Dakota Chief

 By Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa), Waspetonwan Minnesota

                 Chief Little Crow was the eldest son of Cetanwakuwa (Charging Hawk). It was
                 on account of his father's name, mistranslated Crow, that he was called by the
                 whites "Little Crow." His real name was Taoyateduta, His Red People.

                 As far back as Minnesota history goes, a band of the Sioux called Kaposia (Light
                 Weight, because they were said to travel light) inhabited the Mille Lacs region.
                 Later they dwelt about St. Croix Falls, and still later near St. Paul. In 1840,
                 Cetanwakuwa was still living in what is now West St. Paul, but he was soon after
                 killed by the accidental discharge of his gun.

                 It was during a period of demoralization for the Kaposias that Little Crow became
                 the leader of his people. His father, a well-known chief, had three wives, all from
                 different bands of the Sioux. He was the only son of the first wife, a Leaf Dweller.
                 There were two sons of the second and two of the third wife, and the second set
                 of brothers conspired to kill their half-brother in order to keep the chieftainship in
                 the family.

                 Two kegs of whisky were bought, and all the men of the tribe invited to a feast. It
                 was planned to pick some sort of quarrel when all were drunk, and in the
                 confusion Little Crow was to be murdered. The plot went smoothly until the last
                 instant, when a young brave saved the intended victim by knocking the gun aside
                 with his hatchet, so that the shot went wild. However, it broke his right arm, which
                 remained crooked all his life. The friends of the young chieftain hastily withdrew,
                 avoiding a general fight; and later the council of the Kaposias condemned the two
                 brothers, both of whom were executed, leaving him in undisputed possession.

                 Such was the opening of a stormy career. Little Crow's mother had been a chief's
                 daughter, celebrated for her beauty and spirit, and it is said that she used to plunge
                 him into the lake through a hole in the ice, rubbing him afterward with snow, to
                 strengthen his nerves, and that she would remain with him alone in the deep woods
                 for days at a time, so that he might know that solitude is good, and not fear to be
                 alone with nature.

                 "My son," she would say, "if you are to be a leader of men, you must listen in
                 silence to the mystery, the spirit."

                 At a very early age she made a feast for her boy and announced that he would fast
                 two days. This is what might be called a formal presentation to the spirit or God.
                 She greatly desired him to become a worthy leader according to the ideas of her
                 people. It appears that she left her husband when he took a second wife, and lived
                 with her own band till her death. She did not marry again.

                 Little Crow was an intensely ambitious man and without physical fear. He was
                 always in perfect training and early acquired the art of warfare of the Indian type.
                 It is told of him that when he was about ten years old, he engaged with other boys
                 in a sham battle on the shore of a lake near St. Paul. Both sides were encamped at
                 a little distance from one another, and the rule was that the enemy must be
                 surprised, otherwise the attack would be considered a failure. One must come
                 within so many paces undiscovered in order to be counted successful. Our hero
                 had a favorite dog which, at his earnest request, was allowed to take part in the
                 game, and as a scout he entered the enemy camp unseen, by the help of his dog.

                 When he was twelve, he saved the life of a companion who had broken through
                 the ice by tying the end of a pack line to a log, then at great risk to himself carrying
                 it to the edge of the hole where his comrade went down. It is said that he also
                 broke in, but both boys saved themselves by means of the line.

                 As a young man, Little Crow was always ready to serve his people as a
                 messenger to other tribes, a duty involving much danger and hardship. He was
                 also known as one of the best hunters in his band. Although still young, he had
                 already a war record when he became chief of the Kaposias, at a time when the
                 Sioux were facing the greatest and most far-reaching changes that had ever come
                 to them.

                 At this juncture in the history of the northwest and its native inhabitants, the various
                 fur companies had paramount influence. They did not hesitate to impress the
                 Indians with the idea that they were the authorized representatives of the white
                 races or peoples, and they were quick to realize the desirability of controlling the
                 natives through their most influential chiefs. Little Crow became quite popular with
                 post traders and factors. He was an orator as well as a diplomat, and one of the
                 first of his nation to indulge in politics and promote unstable schemes to the
                 detriment of his people.

                 When the United States Government went into the business of acquiring territory
                 from the Indians so that the flood of western settlement might not be checked,
                 commissions were sent out to negotiate treaties, and in case of failure it often
                 happened that a delegation of leading men of the tribe were invited to Washington.
                 At that period, these visiting chiefs, attired in all the splendor of their costumes of
                 ceremony, were treated like ambassadors from foreign countries.

                 One winter in the late eighteen-fifties, a major general of the army gave a dinner to
                 the Indian chiefs then in the city, and on this occasion Little Crow was appointed
                 toastmaster. There were present a number of Senators and members of Congress,
                 as well as judges of the Supreme Court, cabinet officers, and other distinguished
                 citizens. When all the guests were seated, the Sioux arose and addressed them
                 with much dignity as follows:

                 "Warriors and friends: I am informed that the great white war chief who of his
                 generosity and comradeship has given us this feast, has expressed the wish that we
                 may follow to-night the usages and customs of my people. In other words, this is a
                 warriors' feast, a braves' meal. I call upon the Ojibway chief, the Hole-in-the-Day,
                 to give the lone wolf's hunger call, after which we will join him in our usual

                 The tall and handsome Ojibway now rose and straightened his superb form to
                 utter one of the clearest and longest wolf howls that was ever heard in
                 Washington, and at its close came a tremendous burst of war whoops that fairly
                 rent the air, and no doubt electrified the officials there present.

                 On one occasion Little Crow was invited by the commander of Fort Ridgeley,
                 Minnesota, to call at the fort. On his way back, in company with a half-breed
                 named Ross and the interpreter Mitchell, he was ambushed by a party of
                 Ojibways, and again wounded in the same arm that had been broken in his
                 attempted assassination. His companion Ross was killed, but he managed to hold
                 the war party at bay until help came and thus saved his life.

                 More and more as time passed, this naturally brave and ambitious man became a
                 prey to the selfish interests of the traders and politicians. The immediate causes of
                 the Sioux outbreak of 1862 came in quick succession to inflame to desperate
                 action an outraged people. The two bands on the so-called "lower reservations" in
                 Minnesota were Indians for whom nature had provided most abundantly in their
                 free existence. After one hundred and fifty years of friendly intercourse first with
                 the French, then the English, and finally the Americans, they found themselves cut
                 off from every natural resource, on a tract of land twenty miles by thirty, which to
                 them was virtual imprisonment. By treaty stipulation with the government, they
                 were to be fed and clothed, houses were to be built for them, the men taught
                 agriculture, and schools provided for the children. In addition to this, a trust fund
                 of a million and a half was to be set aside for them, at five per cent interest, the
                 interest to be paid annually per capita. They had signed the treaty under pressure,
                 believing in these promises on the faith of a great nation.

                 However, on entering the new life, the resources so rosily described to them failed
                 to materialize. Many families faced starvation every winter, their only support the
                 store of the Indian trader, who was baiting his trap for their destruction. Very
                 gradually they awoke to the facts. At last it was planned to secure from them the
                 north half of their reservation for ninety-eight thousand dollars, but it was not
                 explained to the Indians that the traders were to receive all the money. Little Crow
                 made the greatest mistake of his life when he signed this agreement.

                 Meanwhile, to make matters worse, the cash annuities were not paid for nearly
                 two years. Civil War had begun. When it was learned that the traders had taken
                 all of the ninety-eight thousand dollars "on account", there was very bitter feeling.
                 In fact, the heads of the leading stores were afraid to go about as usual, and most
                 of them stayed in St. Paul. Little Crow was justly held in part responsible for the
                 deceit, and his life was not safe.

                 The murder of a white family near Acton, Minnesota, by a party of Indian duck
                 hunters in August, 1862, precipitated the break. Messengers were sent to every
                 village with the news, and at the villages of Little Crow and Little Six the war
                 council was red-hot. It was proposed to take advantage of the fact that north and
                 south were at war to wipe out the white settlers and to regain their freedom. A
                 few men stood out against such a desperate step, but the conflagration had gone
                 beyond their control.

                 There were many mixed bloods among these Sioux, and some of the Indians held
                 that these were accomplices of the white people in robbing them of their
                 possessions, therefore their lives should not be spared. My father, Many
                 Lightnings, who was practically the leader of the Mankato band (for Mankato, the
                 chief, was a weak man), fought desperately for the lives of the half-breeds and the
                 missionaries. The chiefs had great confidence in my father, yet they would not
                 commit themselves, since their braves were clamoring for blood. Little Crow had
                 been accused of all the misfortunes of his tribe, and he now hoped by leading them
                 against the whites to regain his prestige with his people, and a part at least of their
                 lost domain.

                 There were moments when the pacifists were in grave peril. It was almost
                 daybreak when my father saw that the approaching calamity could not be
                 prevented. He and two others said to Little Crow: "If you want war, you must
                 personally lead your men to-morrow. We will not murder women and children,
                 but we will fight the soldiers when they come." They then left the council and
                 hastened to warn my brother-in-law, Faribault, and others who were in danger.

                 Little Crow declared he would be seen in the front of every battle, and it is true
                 that he was foremost in all the succeeding bloodshed, urging his warriors to spare
                 none. He ordered his war leader, Many Hail, to fire the first shot, killing the trader
                 James Lynd, in the door of his store.

                 After a year of fighting in which he had met with defeat, the discredited chief
                 retreated to Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, Manitoba, where, together with Standing
                 Buffalo, he undertook secret negotiations with his old friends the Indian traders.
                 There was now a price upon his head, but he planned to reach St. Paul
                 undetected and there surrender himself to his friends, who he hoped would protect
                 him in return for past favors. It is true that he had helped them to secure perhaps
                 the finest country held by any Indian nation for a mere song.

                 He left Canada with a few trusted friends, including his youngest and favorite son.
                 When within two or three days' journey of St. Paul, he told the others to return,
                 keeping with him only his son, Wowinape, who was but fifteen years of age. He
                 meant to steal into the city by night and go straight to Governor Ramsey, who was
                 his personal friend. He was very hungry and was obliged to keep to the shelter of
                 the deep woods. The next morning, as he was picking and eating wild raspberries,
                 he was seen by a wood-chopper named Lamson. The man did not know who he
                 was. He only knew that he was an Indian, and that was enough for him, so he
                 lifted his rifle to his shoulder and fired, then ran at his best pace. The brilliant but
                 misguided chief, who had made that part of the country unsafe for any white man
                 to live in, sank to the ground and died without a struggle. The boy took his father's
                 gun and made some effort to find the assassin, but as he did not even know in
                 which direction to look for him, he soon gave up the attempt and went back to his

                 Meanwhile Lamson reached home breathless and made his report. The body of
                 the chief was found and identified, in part by the twice broken arm, and this arm
                 and his scalp may be seen to-day in the collection of the Minnesota Historical

Eastman, Charles A.  'Little Crow.' 1995.