In early October of 1842, Ojibwe Chief Buffalo received word from some of his men that a large party of Dakota were advancing towards his village intent on waging war upon them. With the knowledge of the path upon which the Dakota would have to take to attack his people, Chief Buffalo made the decision to have his soldiers intercept them at a place of his choosing and advantage. Taking his force into position, Buffalo chose a location about 15 miles from the mouth of the Bois Brule River as it entered Lake Superior (near present day Brule, Wisconsin). Even though he was able to choose the place of battle, Buffalo was at a relative disadvantage because many of his forces were scattered across their territory, and he was not able to muster an overlarge fighting force. Collecting about two hundred warriors, Buffalo instructed the women and children of the village to be prepared to flee should his forces fail to defeat the Dakota. He then rapidly rallied his troops to hasten to the battlefield.
Buffalo and his forces met the Dakota that evening just before sunset. They were able to force the Dakota to the west bank of the river, while holding their position on the east.
Having successfully held the Dakota advance at bay, Buffalo and his men decided to take the time to establish their position in preparation for the attack that would happen at first light. Assessing his surroundings, Buffalo noticed that most of the east side of the river was protected by a long, rocky bluff that stood about 150 feet above the river. He figured that the bluff would give his limited forces a slight advantage against attack, but even that wasn’t a certainty. Nonetheless, he arranged his men strategically and decided to employ a bit of psychological warfare too. Under the cover of darkness, he had several of his men build decoy fires at various points across about 500 yards of the bluff-top to give the impression that he had more warriors than he actually had at his command. These fires were kept burning all night, and they were clearly visible to the Dakota who were encamped at a lower position on the other side of the river.
Hoping that the false fires would keep the Dakota focused on the bluff, Chief Buffalo then divided his men into three units. One of the units was sent a short way up the river to a point where they could cross without being seen. From there, they crossed the river and moved up on the Dakota position as far as they dared. It was hoped that this group could flank the Dakota from behind once the battle started and they were focused on the east shore of the river. He then positioned his main force of warriors at a point near the riverbank where they could remain under concealment until the first Dakota waded the river, then launch their counterattack. The remainder of the men stayed on the top of the bluff where they would be clearly seen by the Dakota.
When the first shots were fired, a few of the men positioned at the center of the riverbank performed a feigned retreat – standing up and fleeing up the bank towards the bluff-top. This apparent retreat caused the Dakota to start charging into the water hoping to rout the Ojibwe warriors. At that moment, the flanking force launched its attack on the rear echelon of the Dakota, while the main force who was hidden stood up. The Dakota were trapped in the middle of the river – about 3-4 feet deep with a fairly strong current – while they were attacked from the front and rear! The Ojibwe were able to shoot their arrows at will against the Dakota, who were caught in a vise, and those Dakota who tried to flee towards either bank were clubbed down trying to climb the steep cutbanks. Those who did escape ran for their lives and fled from the battlefield in a disorganized herd like mindless lemmings.
After the battle was over thirteen Ojibwe had lost their lives, but they had taken over one-hundred Dakota scalps. It was an almost total victory due to Chief Buffalo’s crafty strategy, and it was one of the last times that the Dakota waged war on the Ojibwe of the east.
Armstrong, B. G., & Wentworth, T. P. (1892). Early life among the Indians reminiscences from the life of Benj. G. Armstrong: Treaties of 1835, 1837, 1842 and 1854: Habits and customs of the Red Men of the forest: Incidents, biographical sketches, battles, & customs of the Red Men of the forests. Ashland, Wis: S.N.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities