Slaughter Slough and the 1860 Spencer Rifle

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I grew up on the prairie of south-west Minnesota and returned home after my military career and the learning of another.  It’s different livin’ up here, we just got 20 inches of snow pushed into chest deep drifts by 60-80 mph winds.  It’s a brutal, life or death kind of place in the winter time, it seems even more brutal when winter lingers.  My ancestors came to this windswept prairie in 1869.  Next year the land will have been in the family 150 years and its still windswept and brutal.  The Jumpmaster School (Advanced Airborne School for the cheesy) has a quote they use continually, “The sky, even more than the sea, is terribly unforgiving of even the slightest mistake.”  There’s lots of ways to meet terrible unforgiving conditions, 1869 Minnesota was in the top ten.

My Dad has an 1860 Spencer Rifle that has been passed down the generations like our land.  One of my ancestors served with a Minnesota Cavalry Regiment in the Dakota Territory during the campaigns against the Sioux.  The 1860 Spencer is what Custer’s 7th Cavalry was issued as were most cavalry and a good many infantry units by the 1870s.  As the standard issue US Army repeating rifle it is the model the famous “load it on Sunday and shoot all week” quote was made about.  The Spencer Rifle is irreplaceable family history.  To me its even more, I share another familial bond with the men who carried that rifle.  Like Guy Clark mentions below, sometimes my hand burns for the things that are haunted.


In 1862 Minnesota had been a State for three years, the newest in the Union.  When the Civil War started Minnesota jumped at the chance and became the first State to promise troops for Lincoln’s Federal Army.  The Minnesota First Volunteers were the result of that, the first Regiment placed into service to the Union Army and served with distinction with the Army of the Potomac.  There were Minnesota Regiments serving in distinction in all theaters of the war.  My part of the state was still pretty sparsely settled, the nearest town of any size was New Ulm, population 900, on the banks of the Minnesota River 100 miles away.  That would be a three or four day journey one way, something not undertaken on a whim.  A fair number of the available young men had gone off to war.

In 1851 the Santee Sioux had signed a treaty with the US Govt.  A few years later the US Govt had come back and cut their reservation in half.  Teaching the Santee to farm was slow going, drought and crop failures were common in those days of farming.  Corruption was run amok in the bureaucracy even in those halcyon days.  By 1862 the Santee were starving to death.  Chief Little Crow watched as supplies intended for his people arrived and stacked up.  They weren’t distributed, there are accusations of shipments being sold for the Indian Agent’s pocket.  Little Crow and others from the tribe approached the Indian Agent and informed him of the dire conditions and that his people were hungry the agent’s reply was  “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”

On August 18, 1862 the Agent was among the first settlers killed and his mouth was stuffed with grass.  Chief Little Crow had noticed the young white men leaving to fight another war and decided to go for it.  A last ditch effort to be sure but I can’t say I would have waited as long as he did.  Die fighting or starve quietly were the only courses of action they had.  Sometimes you just gotta go “Down the River.”

For the next two days New Ulm was besieged and by 20th the war had spread to Lake Shetek.  About 20 miles from my house today.  There was a small community on the shores of the lake, they were attacked by a force reportedly of 100 Indians.  While the attackers were killing the first family and burning their home the other nearby settlers warned each other and gathered together seeking safety.  For some reason they decided taking off in a wagon across the trackless prairie was their best option.  Uhhhm, no.  I’d go for staying in a fortified position and making a fight of it but I wasn’t there.  So there they were, racing across the prairie at the speed of Betsy, the old belgian draft horse.  The Indians, on their unladen ponies, ran them down at a place known as Slaughter Slough near present day Currie.  They killed sixteen men women and children and took another eleven hostage.  The featured image is the memorial that stands on the site.

By September 26th, near Wood Lake, about 50 miles north of me, the majority of the Indians surrendered.  General Sibley pursued others into Dakota Territory finally repatriating over 100 prisoners.  After killing his own share of Indian women and children.  The Sioux Uprising is the most deadly Indian Uprising in American history with an estimated 500-800 settlers killed or taken captive.  Indian casualties are said (by the govt) to have been 150.  I’m not sure if that includes General (later Governor) Sibley’s women and children..

By November, 303 Indians had been convicted by military tribunals of murder and rape.  President Lincoln pardoned all but 38, and on December 26th, 1862 Minnesota conducted the largest execution in US history when those men were hanged on a single gallows.  A survivor of Slaughter Slough, who saw three daughters killed and his wife taken captive, was the executioner.

I’m not here to condemn Columbus or the early settlers from any part of our nation.  From the Trail of Tears and the surrender of Chief Joseph to the Massacre at Wounded Knee the American Indian was cheated, swindled, murdered and raped.  There’s no denying it by our standards of today.  That was a different time.  A time not that far removed from when armies were paid by rape and pillage of cities in conquered territory.  General Sherman, within two years, would be instructing nations in Total War with his March to the Sea.  It was also a “clash of civilizations.”  This land was theirs, we took it because we were stronger.  That doesn’t make it right but who are you going to punish?  Should they even be punished?  I’ve already said I’d have given up on peaceful starvation long before Little Crow did.  I could have gone total “Searchers” if I was one of the settlers and it would have been no less just.



About the Author:

I joined the Army in 1988, served in the 25th IL (L) , 24th ID, The Infantry Training Brigade, The 82nd Airborne Division, Ft Polk and again The 82nd Division until I retired in 2008. I was a mortar maggot and retired with the rank of Master Sergeant.
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  1. Vassar  April 25, 2018

    Perfect timing, Allen. Perfect pitch, tone and tense too.

    • Allen  April 25, 2018

      Thanks Vassar. I’ve known the local tales since childhood and been to several of the battlefields. I did a fair amount of research, more than a couple of the old tales passed down have turned out to be less than historically accurate.

      I’m comfortable with total war, anything less is a waste of time and lives. Wars are won by removing the enemies will to fight. We haven’t even attempted that since WWII. As a result all we’ve had is mealy mouthed talk and worthless promises, treaties not much different than the ones promising the Native Americans whatever they wanted for “as long as the grass grows.”

      The “clash of civilizations” bit bothers me. It has happened in the course of human history that different cultures have come together and peacefully grown into something different but those never escalated to the “clash” level. The history of the ones that clashed is not pretty.


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