Chief Big Eagle

Chief Big Eagle

Birth
Winona, Winona County, Minnesota, USA
Death 5 Jan 1906 (aged 78–79)
Mendota, Dakota County, Minnesota, USA
Burial Granite Falls, Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, USA
Memorial ID 37517246 · View Source
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Mdewakanton Dakota Chief; during the US-Dakota War of 1862, he commanded a Mdewakanton Dakota band of two hundred warriors at Crow Creek in McLeod County, Minn. His Dakota name was "Wamdetonka," which literally means Great War Eagle, but he was commonly called Big Eagle. He was born in his Black Dog's village a few miles above Mendota on the south bank of the Minnesota River in 1827. When he was a young man, he often went on war parties against the Ojibwe and other enemies of the Dakota. He wore three eagle's feathers to show his coups. When his father Chief Grey Iron died, he succeeded him as sub-chief of the Mdewakanton band.

In 1851, by the terms of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, The Dakota sold all of their land in Minnesota except a strip ten miles wide near the Minnesota River. In 1857, Big Eagle succeeded his father, Grey Iron, as Chief. In 1858, the remaining land was sold through the influence of Little Crow. That same year, Big Eagle went with some other chiefs to Washington D. C. to negotiate grievances with federal officials. Negotiations were unsuccessful. In 1894, he was interviewed about the Dakota War and its causes. He spoke about how the Indians wanted to live as they did before the treaty of Traverse des Sioux – to go where they pleased and when they pleased; hunt game wherever they could find it, sell their furs to the traders and live as they could. He also spoke of the corruption among the Indian agents and traders, with no legal recourse for the Dakota, and the way they were treated by many of the whites: "They always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, 'I am much better than you,' and the Indians did not like this. There was excuse for this, but the Dakotas did not believe there were better men in the world than they..."

In 1862, Big Eagle's village was on Crow Creek, Minn. His band numbered about 200 people, including 40 warriors. As the summer of 1862 advanced, conflict boiled among the Dakota who wanted to live like the white man and the majority who didn't. The Civil War was in full force and many Minnesota men had left their homes to fight in a war that the North was said to be losing. Some longtime Indian agents who were trusted by the Dakota were replaced with men who did not respect the Indians and their culture. Most of the Dakota believed it was a good time to go to war with the whites and take back their lands. Though he took part in the war, he said he was against it. He knew there was no good cause for it, as he had been to Washington and knew the power of the whites and believed they would ultimately conquer the Dakota people.

When war was declared, Chief Little Crow told some of Big Eagle's band that if he refused to lead them, they were to shoot him as a traitor who would not stand up for his nation and then select another leader in his place. When the war broke out on Aug. 17, 1862, he first saved the lives of some friends - George H. Spencer and a half-breed family - and then led his men in the second battles at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm on August 22 and 23. Some 800 Dakota were at the battle of Fort Ridgely, but could not defeat the soldiers due to their defense with artillery. They retreated and a few days later, he and his band trailed some soldiers to their encampment at Birch Coulee, near Morton in Renville County. About 200 of the Dakota surrounded the camp and attacked it at daylight. After two days of battle, General Sibley arrived with reinforcements and the Dakota eventually retreated. He and his band participated in a last attempt to defeat the whites at the battle of Wood Lake on September 23. However, they were once again defeated when their hiding place for ambush was discovered prematurely by some soldiers who went foraging for food.

Soon after the battle, Big Eagle and other Dakotas who had taken part in the war surrendered to General Sibley with the understanding they would be given leniency. However, he was one of about 400 Dakota men who were tried by a Military Commission for alleged war crimes or atrocities committed during the war. After a kangaroo court trial, Big Eagle was sentenced to ten years in prison for taking part in the war. At his trial, a great number of witnesses were interviewed, but none could say that he had murdered any one or had done anything to deserve death. Therefore, he was saved from death by hanging. He was released after serving three years of his sentence in the prison at Davenport and the penitentiary at Rock Island. He believed his imprisonment for that long of a time was unjust because he had surrendered in good faith. He had not murdered any whites and if he killed or wounded a man, it had been in a fair, open fight.

The translators who interviewed him in 1894 described him as being very frank and unreserved, candid, possessing more than ordinary intelligence, and deliberate in striving to speak the truth. When speaking of his imprisonment, he said that all feeling on his part about it had long since passed away. He had been known as Jerome Big Eagle, but his true Christian name was "Elijah." For years, he had been a Christian and he hoped to die one. "My white neighbors and friends know my character as a citizen and a man. I am at peace with every one, whites and Indians. I am getting to be an old man, but I am still able to work. I am poor, but I manage to get along." He lived his final years in peace at Granite Falls, Minn.


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  • Created by: Cindy K. Coffin
  • Added: 26 May 2009
  • Find a Grave Memorial 37517246
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Chief Big Eagle (1827–5 Jan 1906), Find a Grave Memorial no. 37517246, citing Doncaster Cemetery, Granite Falls, Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, USA ; Maintained by Cindy K. Coffin (contributor 47084179) .