ACTON TOWNSHIP – AUGUST 17, 1862
August 17 was a Sunday. It was a warm, clear day and many of the residents of the new state of Minnesota were enjoying a leisurely Sabbath. Nearing midday, four young Dakota Sioux warriors returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip passed by a farmstead in Acton Township in Meeker County about 80 miles west and a bit north of St. Paul. The four were from Rice Creek, a village 40 miles to the southwest. Noting some chicken eggs lying sheltered against a fence line not far from the farm house, they stopped to pilfer the nest. When one of the youths cautioned against taking the eggs, another questioned his bravery. His pride damaged, the youngster whose courage had been challenged claimed that he was not afraid and he would prove it by killing people who lived at the farm house.
Prodded to carry out his boast, he and the other three approached the dwelling, whose owner, Robinson Jones, and his wife ran a small store and post office on the farm’s premises. The details of what followed remain a bit murky but there is some testimony that there may have been an initial period of benign interaction between the braves and the Jones family during which, by some accounts, the family refused the Indians’ request for liquor.
Soon after, Jones, apparently sensing no threat, left to go to the nearby home of his brother-in-law, Howard Baker. The Indians followed. When all had arrived at Baker’s place, there was some sort of marksmanship contest, an event not uncommon in the early settlements. Eventually, though – the circumstances are unclear – the four braves suddenly turned their weapons on Jones, killing him instantly. Jones’ and Baker’s wives, watching the shooting practice from the porch at Baker’s house, then came under fire. Seeking to shield them, Baker jumped in front of the women and was killed by a shot to the chest. The braves then killed Mrs. Jones and a friend of the Bakers named Webster who was visiting the farm. As they were leaving, Clara Wilson, a young girl who had been adopted by the Jones family, stepped into the doorway of Jones’s farm house. She too was slain.
When the fusillade was over, five people lay dead or dying on Minnesota soil. They would be the first of hundreds to follow.
Before the carnage was over, somewhere between 450 and 800 civilians would be killed with a figure of 757 being a recently cited estimate. In 1919, Minnesota newspaperman Marion P. Satterlee compiled a list 457 civilian and military deaths. Alexander Ramsey, governor of Minnesota at the time of the uprising, cited a figure of 500. President Abraham Lincoln referred to 800 dead in a public remark. Whatever the actual number, until exceeded by the tragic events of 9/11, the figure would represent the highest number of civilians killed by hostile action on American soil.
The conflagration spread quickly across the central and northern frontier. Eventually, much of Minnesota would be engulfed as would almost all of present day North and South Dakota and a sizable slice of eastern Montana. In varying degrees, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska would be touched as well.