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An Ambush on the Mississippi

Soon after being routed from Mille Lacs, in 1768 the Dakota decided to strike revenge on the Ojibwe by a grand campaign of over 500 warriors.

The Sioux succeeded in reaching the upper Mississippi river by making a grand circuit by way of Gull, Leach, Cass and Winnibigosish lakes, and their campaign had good initial success. They captured thirty young women who were out picking berries, and were able to attack a number of isolated families who were unsuspecting of an attack by such a large party of warriors. The Sioux mounted an attack on a main Ojibwe village, but were driven back and they fled with their captives down the river with their war spoils. Their satisfaction, however, was of short duration.

​​A party of Ojibwe hunters had discovered the passage of the Sioux and, rightly guessing that it was their intention to return by way of the Mississippi, they arranged an ambush. Just below the mouth of Crow Wing River there is a sharp bend where the whole force of the channel is thrown against the east shore, which rises almost to a bank almost fifty feet in height. Canoes passing down the river at this point are drawn by the current immediately under this bank. With an eye to this fact, the Ojibwe selected the point for the ambush. They dug several holes along this bank large enough to accommodate eight or ten men each, from which they were invisible to passing enemies, while they completely commanded the view of the entire channel.

One morning after their ambush preparations were complete, one of the Ojibwe scouts who had been sent about a mile up the Mississippi to watch for the Sioux was drinking water from the river. While drinking he looked up river and saw a canoe suddenly turn a point of land above him. He threw himself flat upon the ground and gradually crawled back to a point where he could not be seen. When out of sight he looked back and saw the whole bosom of the river covered with Sioux war canoes. Seeing this, he rushed back to the ambush point and notified his comrades.

​They watched the canoes approach, and were surprised to see them go to shore at a point opposite the main mouth of the Crow Wing and in plain view of their ambuscade. They watched the Sioux disembark and proceed to cook their morning meal. They saw the large group of female Ojibwe prisoners as they were roughly pushed ashore and made to build the fires and hang the kettles. Amongst them were many of their wives, daughters, and sisters. As their breakfast was cooking, the young Sioux warriors formed in a ring and danced, yelling and rejoicing over their earlier victories. The Ojibwe leader had much difficulty restraining his younger and more foolhardy warriors from rushing out and attacking their enemies immediately, but they finally did stay firm in their ambush spot.

The Sioux, having finished their morning meal and victory dance, started to return to their canoes. They floated down the current in a compact mass, holding on to the other canoes while filling and lighting their pipes and passing them from one boat to the next. After smoking they let out a great shout and some of them began to beat their hand drums and sing songs. Still moving in a compact flotilla, the river’s current soon brought them immediately under the Ojibwe ambush spot.

​At the sound of their leader's war whistle the Ojibwe warriors let fly a flight of arrows directly into the closely packed canoes of the enemies, picking out for death the most prominent and fancily-dressed figures amongst them. The confusion amongst the Sioux at this sudden and unexpected attack was immense. The Ojibwe women captives, knowing that this attack was their men come to rescue them, overturned the canoes they were in and swam to shore. In other canoes, the dead and injured caused many of them to overturn as well, leaving many of the Sioux struggling in the deep current where some of them were drowned. Those who could not escape the range of the Ojibwe arrows suffered severely. Some of the Sioux dove and swam ashore on the opposite side of the river and ran down the bank and joined those of their fellows who still had their canoes. Here they regrouped.

Noticing that there was (by comparison) a relatively small number of Ojibwe, the Sioux determined to go back and fight the battle anew and revenge the death of their friends. They bravely rallied and made an attack on the Ojibwe location, but the Ojibwe were so strongly and securely entrenched that they sustained the Sioux offensive until night without losing any of their men. The Sioux, on the other hand, suffered many losses in their attack as they were forced to fight from open ground without shelter. The Sioux finally retreated.

The next morning the Sioux, still burning for vengeance, returned to the attack. Acting with greater caution and wariness, they approached the Ojibwe defenses by digging counter holes or making embankments of earth or logs before them to shield them from the Ojibwe arrows. Using these tactics, the Sioux were able to inflict some damage on the Ojibwe, including one thrown stone that found the face of noted Ojibwe chief, Le Sucre (Sweet) who received a stunning blow which broke his jaw. When possible, the Sioux rushed forward and fought hand-to-hand with clubs and knives, and the Ojibwe, lost one of their warriors this way. However, the Ojibwe fought so stubbornly that the Sioux finally retreated.

Following this battle and fearing retaliation, the M'dewakantons finally moved from the Rum River country, never again to occupy this beautiful and rich region of Minnesota.

From: A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians. By Doan Robinson. South Dakota Historical Society, 1904.

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