Settler writes home about U.S.-Dakota Conflict

Missionaries escaping from the fighting. – Aug. 21, 1862. Image credit:

The following is a copy of a letter to his father in Scotland, written by James Tait of Harrison Township during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict 150 years ago.

St. Cloud, October 18, 1862 Dear Father: To embrace an opportunity of writing you a few lines being you know we are all well. Hoping this will find you all enjoying the same blessing. We have had awful times on the frontier of Minnesota with the Indians. They broke out about two months ago, and murdered some 1500 white folks. I cannot see how we all escaped. Robert and I was not at home at the time. We was 160 miles west on the Red River breaking up land for a stage company, but fortunately we was breaking right opposite Fort Abercrombie, and as soon as we got the news we crossed the river to the fort, and just got in in time. The Indians attacked the fort five times while we were there. The last attack they made they fought awful determined. They attacked us about five 0’clock in the morning and fought until two in the afternoon. The last attack there were about 500 of them, and only 120 of us. We had three cannons that was all that saved us. When a shell would go amongst them and burst I tell you it made them hop and yell awful. They hop and yell all the time they are fighting. What they call the war hop. Three or four hundred of them make the woods sound awful. I hate to hear it.

Both Robert and I got a pretty close call at the last battle. I had one bullet struck my whiskers. Another went through the sleeves of my coat. One struck Bob on the corner of his eye and peeled off the skin clear back to his ear, making blood flow down to his cheek.


Indian warriers look savage. They are all painted and perfectly naked.


John and Adam had very narrow escape. It was a Swedish man that came to John’s house and told him that the ‘Indians were murdering everybody at Egal (eagle) Lake about six miles off and they were following him. So they took their horses and what cattle they could get and left. I suppose if they had been two hours later they would have been killed. John went to Wisconsin. I suppose he would have wrote you before this time. We have not heard from him since he left.


Robert, Adam and I are here at St. Cloud 85 miles above St. Paul. We are not doing anything yet.


We have lost three yoke of oxen at Fort Abercrombie. The Indians drove off 250 head of cattle and mules from the fort when we was there. We saw them drive them off, but could not help it. There were so few of us we dared not leave the fort.


The captain that commanded the fort was what I and a great many more would call a very mean man.


He used us very much. He wanted to send a dispatch to St. Paul one day. Two men volunteered to go on horseback. Then he wanted 20 of us citizens, not soldiers, to escort them across the river through the timber on to the prairie. It was not more than a quarter of a mile so we agreed to go if he would reinforce us if we was attacked. We got all safe across onto the prairie and just as we turned to come back we saw one Indian running down through some brush, and before we knew where we was they had us surrounded on every side and firing volley after volley amongst us. There was timber on both sides of us so that they had shelter and we had none.


We tried hard twice to get into the timber but could not make it. We fought four hours there within a quarter of a mile of the fort and the captain would not allow a man to come and help us. If he had only sent four men and a cannon was all the help we wanted, but he has got himself shamed. I send you two newspapers. You will see where a lot of us signed our names giving Captain Smith all the prairies. If it had not been for him we would have had a hard time of it.


We have lost fourteen head of cattle and all our crops. None of us have been out since they left. We don’t know whether our houses are burned or not, or what they have done. I suppose we will get pay for our lease but it may be two years before we get it. It is a hard job on a great many that had families


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I forgot to tell you that there was only thirty of us across the river that time the Indians surrounded us and they killed twelve of us and wounded seven and we had to leave our dead behind. It is awful the way the Indians use a whetstone in wartime. About one hundred of us went over the next day to bring in the dead bodies. The most of them had their heads cut off and all their insides taked out and their heads stuck into their bellies and their hands and feet cut off and all such works that but they will have to suffer for it yet.


The first thing they do to a white man when they kill him is to skin all the hair of his head. That is what they call scalping him.


Hugh, George and Thomas is just all as lasie (lazy) as myself and I know that is bad enough. Often think about you all and well I would like to see you all but every year there is something come in the way.


I suppose Grandmother is getting very feeble now. I expect I would not know many folks if I was to come back but there is some that can never be forgot. How does Mother Watson get along. I think I would make a good Indian hunter behind some knoll and take a good aim at one. Always when we was aiming at them we aimed at their feet as soon as they see the flash they fall flat on their faces so if you aim at their feet you would be apt to strike their heads.