Cass County

The Indian Battle of Leech Lake

Early in October, 1898, there was an Indian battle fought at Leech Lake, in this State, the magnitude of the result of which gives it a place in the history of Minnesota, although it was strictly a matter of United States cognizance and jurisdiction. In Cass county is located a Chippewa Indian reservation, and, like all other Indian reservations, there are within its limits turbulent people, both white and red. There is a large island out in Leech lake called Bear island, which is inhabited by the Indians. On October 1, 1897, one Indian shot another on this island. A prominent member of the tribe, named Pug-on-a-ke-shig, was present and witnessed the shooting. An indictment was found in the United States District Court against the Indian who did the shooting, but before any trial could be had the matter was settled among the Indians in their own way, and they thought that was the last of it. A subpoena was issued for Pug-on-a-ke-shig, and a deputy marshal served it. He disregarded the subpoena. An attachment was then issued to arrest him and bring him into court, and a deputy United States marshal tried to serve it. He was resisted by the Indian and his friends on three different occasions, and once when the Indian was arrested he was rescued from the custody of the marshal. Warrants were then issued for the arrest of twenty-one of the rescuers. This was in the latter part of August, 1898. Troops were asked for to aid the marshal in making his arrests, and a lieutenant and twenty men were sent from Fort Snelling for that purpose. This was simply a repetition of the many mistakes made by the military authorities in such matters. If troops were necessary for any purpose, twenty men were simply useless, and worse than none, and when the time came for the application of military force would, of course, have been annihilated. The United States marshal with a squad of deputies accompanied the troops. It soon became apparent that there would be trouble before the Indians could be brought to terms, and General Bacon, the officer in command of the Department of Dakota, with headquarters at St. Paul, ordered Major Wilkinson, of Company E, of the Third Regiment of United Stales Infantry, stationed at Fort Snelling, with his company of eighty men, to the scene of the trouble. General Bacon accompanied these troops as far as Walker, on the west bank of Leech lake, more in the capacity of an observer of events and to gain proper knowledge of the situation than as part of the forces. On the 5th of October, 1898, the whole force left Walker in boats for a place on the east bank of the lake, called Sugar Point, where there was a clearing of several acres, and a log house occupied by Pug-on-a-ke-shig. They were accompanied by R. T. O'Connor, the United States marshal of Minnesota, and several of his deputies, among whom was Col. Timothy J. Sheehan, who knew the Indians who were subject to arrest. This officer was the same man who, as Lieutenant Sheehan, had so successfully commanded the forces at Fort Ridgely during the Indian War of 1862, since when he had fought his way through the Civil War with distinction. When the command landed, only a few squaws and Indians were visible. The deputy marshals landed and, with the inter prefers, went at once to the house, and while there discovered an Indian whom Colonel Sheehan recognized as one for whom a warrant was out, and immediately attempted to arrest and handcuff him. The Indian resisted vigorously, and it was only with the aid of three or four soldiers that they succeeded in arresting him. He was put on board of the boat. The whole force then skirmished through the timber in search of Indians, but found none, and about noon returned to the clearing and were ordered to stack arms preparatory to getting dinner. They had scouted the surrounding country and had seen no Indians or signs of Indians, and did not believe there were any in the vicinity; when in fact the Indians had carefully watched their every movement, and were close to their trail, waiting for the most advantageous moment to strike. It was the same tactics which the Indians have so often adopted with much success in their warfare with the whites. While stacking arms a new recruit allowed his gun to fall to the ground, and it was discharged accidentally. The Indians, who were silently awaiting their opportunity, supposing it was the signal of attack, opened fire on the troops, and a vicious battle began. The soldiers seized their arms and returned the fire as best they could, directing it at the points whence came the shots from the invisible enemy concealed in the dense thicket. The battle raged for several hours. General Bacon, with a gun in his hands, was everywhere, encouraging the men. Major Wilkinson, as cool as if he had been in a drawing room, cheered his men on, but was thrice wounded, the last hit proving fatal. Colonel Sheehan instinctively entered the fight, and took charge of the right wing of the line, charging the enemy with a few followers and keeping up a rapid fire. The Colonel was hit three times, two bullets passing through his clothes, grazing the skin, without serious injury, and one cutting a painful, but not dangerous wound across his stomach. The result of the fight was six killed and nine wounded on the part of the troops. One of the- Indian police was also killed and seven citizens wounded, some seriously. No estimate has ever been satisfactorily obtained of the loss of the enemy. The most reliable account of the number of his forces engaged is, from nineteen to thirty, and if I should venture an estimate of his losses, based upon my experience of his ability to select a vantage ground, and take care of himself, I would put it at practically nothing.

The killed and wounded were brought to Fort Snelling, the killed buried with military honors and the wounded properly cared for. This event adds one more to the long list of fatal errors committed by our military forces in dealing with the Indians of the Northwest. They should never be attacked without a force sufficient to demonstrate the superiority of the whites in all cases and under all circumstances. Many a valuable life has been thus unnecessarily lost.

Major Wilkinson, who lost his life in this encounter, was a man who had earned an enviable record in the army, and was much beloved by his many friends and acquaintances in Minnesota.

The principal Indian engaged in this fight has been called in every newspaper and other report of it "Bug-a-ma-ge-shig," but I have succeeded in obtaining his real name from the highest authority. The name — Pug-on-a-keshig — is the Chippewa for Hole-in-the-day.

Shortly after the return of the troops to Fort Snelling the settlers about Cass and Leech lakes became uneasy, and deluged the Governor with telegrams for protection. The National Guard or State Troops had nearly all been mustered into the United States service for duty in the war with Spain, but the Fourteenth Regiment was in St. Paul awaiting muster out, and the Governor telegraphed to the War Department at Washington to send enough of them to the front to quiet the fears of the settlers. This was declined, and the Governor at once ordered out two batteries of artillery, all the State troops that were available, and sent them to the scene of the troubles, and then sent his celebrated telegram to the War Department, which may be called the Minnesota Declaration of Independence. It ran as follows:

"October 8, 1898.
H. C. Corbin,
Adjutant General,
Washington, D. C.

No one claims that reinforcements are needed at Walker. I have not been asked for assistance from that quarter. Although I do not think General Bacon has won the victory he claims, other people do not say so. (Sic.) The Indians claim to have won, and that is my opinion. The people all along the Fosston branch of railroad are very much alarmed and asking for protection, which I have asked of the War Department. The soldiers are here and ready and willing to go, but as you have revoked your order of yesterday, you can do what you like with your soldiers. The State of Minnesota will try to get along without any assistance from the War Department in the future. D. M. Hough, Governor."

Rumor says that the telegram which was forwarded is very much modified from that originally dictated by the Governor.

The United States Government concluded to withdraw its refusal and send troops to the front, and several companies of the Fourteenth were dispatched to the line of the Fosston Branch railroad and distributed along the line of that road.

In the meantime the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had arrived at Walker, and was negotiating with the Indians, and when it became known that matters were arranged to the satisfaction of the government and the Indians, and no outbreak was expected, the soldiers were all withdrawn, and the incident, so far as military operations were concerned, was closed. There were some surrenders of the Indians to the officers of the court, but nothing further of consequence occurred.

Contributed by 2022 Jul 26 by Norma Hass, extracted from Encyclopedia of Biography of Minnesota, published in 1900, pages 102-104.

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