by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
One morning in 1863, three U.S. Army companies guarded a path leading from a log jail in Mankato, Minn., to a steamboat docked at a landing in the Minnesota River. Hundreds of prisoners, most of them Dakota Indians, walked in chains to the steamboat as the soldiers kept a crowd of townspeople from molesting them. Jubilation filled the streets of Mankato. Once loaded with its human cargo, the steamboat headed downriver.
Over the next few weeks, many more steamboats conveyed thousands of Indians from Minnesota to desolate reservations in Dakota Territory and elsewhere. Frightened and outraged by the bloodshed of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, some white citizens wanted the state to be free of Indians. “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state,” Governor Alexander Ramsey declared in September 1862. “The public safety imperatively requires it. Justice calls for it…. They must be regarded and treated as outlaws.” Ramsey and his supporters nearly achieved their wish, thanks in part to the vigilantism of a secret society headquartered in Mankato and known as the Knights of the Forest.
The U.S.-Dakota Conflict had set the state’s Dakota Indians — deeply aggrieved over late and spoiled government shipments of supplies, widespread hunger, and white encroachments upon their land — against soldiers and the rapidly growing settler population of southern Minnesota.
The end of hostilities didn’t leave white Minnesotans feeling more secure. All Indians grew suspect in their eyes. The Minnesota House of Representatives passed a resolution that demanded the deportation of all Native Americans from the state. Southern Minnesota’s Winnebago Indians, who occupied a reservation adjoining Mankato after forced relocations from other lands in Wisconsin and Iowa, became a special target of wrath. Many settlers believed the Winnebago had assisted the Dakota in the conflict, but the Winnebago denied it and a military commission’s investigation supported them.
To many of the region’s settlers, the Winnebago reservation tract contained something of much more interest than Indians. The Indians “were occupying and rendering useless 224 square miles of the best farming land in Blue Earth County,” later remembered C.A. Chapman, a local resident. He and like-minded friends decided to serve in a clandestine citizens’ organization, one dedicated to cleanse the area of its Indian presence.
Thus, in late 1862, was born the Knights of the Forest, which apparently appropriated its name from a passage in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward that described noble European warriors of the fifteenth century. (Ironically, the nineteenth-century artist George Catlin, who painted many scenes of Native American life, used the same phrase to idealize the Indians themselves.) Some people mistakenly believe that the Knights drew inspiration from the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, but the KKK was not organized until 1867.
Like the Klan, however, the Knights made use of secrecy and elaborate rituals. “Great care was exercised in soliciting members to conceal the fact that such an organization existed from all not belonging,” the Mankato Daily Review revealed decades later. Surreptitious signs, handshakes, and passwords — not to mention armed guards — ensured that outsiders could not enter meetings. During C.A. Chapman’s initiation into the Knights, he pledged “to use every exertion and influence in my power to cause the removal of all tribes of Indians from the state of Minnesota.”
In the Mankato area today rumors still persist that armed members of the group patrolled the perimeter of the Winnebago reservation, and that they used intimidation and violence against Indians. We may never know the truth of these tales.
In the end, the U.S. Congress succumbed to the pressure of the Minnesota settlers. It passed laws mandating the removal of both the Dakota and the Winnebago from Minnesota. The government budgeted only $50,000 for each tribe’s transfer, so the moves proceeded callously and miserably.
Less than two weeks after the departure of the Dakota, 1,900 Winnebago involuntarily left their reservation lands and shipped out aboard two more steamships filled to capacity. Their white neighbors celebrated by waving flags and firing cannons. “Thus the last Indian left Blue Earth County and a new era dawned,” a local historian wrote. The townships of McPherson, Medo, Cedoria, Beauford, Rapidan, and Lyra, as well as sections of other settlements, arose on the former reservation.
In 1929, 66 years after these deportations, perhaps the last remaining Knight of the Forest died. He was John J. Porter, 91. In reporting his passing, The New York Times described the Knights only as “white settlers who had banded together against the hostile Indians.” Part of the story of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict had gone missing, and it has yet to fully reemerge.
This is adapted from an article that Jack El-Hai originally wrote for Minnesota Monthly.
Berg, Scott W. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End. Vintage, 2013.
Lass, William E. “The Removal from Minnesota of the Sioux and Winnebago Indians.” Minnesota History, December 1963.