The Last Battle of the Indian Wars

By Jim Tate

The Last Battle of the Indian Wars – The Leech Lake Uprising of 1898

The 3rd US Infantry was established in 1784 as the 1st American Regiment at Ft. Pitt.  Their first combat actions were against the Indians in the Northwest Territories in the 1790s. The last major battle of the Indian Wars was at Wounded Knee in 1890.  However, there was a final battle in Leech Lake, Minnesota in October 1898 between the Chippewas and the 3rd US Infantry. This last battle between the Indians and the US Regular Army was overshadowed by the successful completion of the Spanish-American War.  

Leech Lake is located in north-central Minnesota.  The Chippewa reservation almost completely surrounds the lake.  On the southwestern side of the lake is the town of Walker with a population of about 500.  The countryside is largely covered in pine trees with a scattering of hardwood patches.  Roads are scarce and in poor condition.  The most reliable means of local transportation is by steamboat on the lake.  The major economic industry was logging, with the Indians having exclusive logging rights on Leech Lake Reservation lands.  There were recurring problems with white loggers taking timber from the Indian reservation.  In addition, the Chippewa chiefs presented a petition to the Department of the Interior signed by 15 chiefs and 112 tribesmen.  The petition complained of the white timber speculators defrauding the Indians in the buying transactions.  There was bad feelings between the Indians and the Indian Agents who were supervised by the Department of the Interior.  The younger men of the tribe were angry and began to advocate aggressive action. 

In September 1898 US marshals attempted to arrest two Indians for the illegal sale of whiskey.  The arrested Indians were rescued by a group of twenty Indians.  This open defiance of the US Government’s authority prompted the US marshals to issue arrest warrants for the twenty Indians who participated in the rescue of the bootleggers. (1, p. 221).  To assist the marshals, twenty soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry at Ft. Snelling were sent to the town of Walker.  The Indians showed no signs of accepting the warrants.  The marshals called for reinforcements.  An additional 80 soldiers (Company E) of the 3rd US Infantry left Ft. Snelling on October 4.  Overall command of the military detail was Brigadier General John R. Bacon.  Tactical command was the responsibility of the Company E commander, Captain Melville Wilkinson and Lieutenant Tenny Ross.

On October 6, the War Department and the Interior Department in Washington were telegraphed news, by the assistant adjutant general of Minnesota, of an outbreak of fighting between the Indians and the soldiers.  Five soldiers were killed.

Upon arrival at Walker, the solders had been transported by steamboat across the lake to aid in the arrests.  A detachment of the reinforcing force went to a small village on the northwest side of the lake and had finished a patrol looking for Indians with the marshals.  The village was largely deserted except for women, children and old men.  However, the marshals identified one who arrested and handcuffed after a scuffle.  The prisoner was placed on the steamboat for transport to Walker.  The soldiers were stacking arms to be dismissed for the dinner meal.  A recruit’s rifle accidently fired in this stacking procedure.  The shot was answered by a fusillade of gun fire from the surrounding forest.  The soldiers grabbed their Krag-Jorgensen rifles from the stack and took cover.  Most of the soldiers were new recruits with only 19 veterans in the company.  Many recruits barely knew how to load and fire their rifles.  

Under orders from the officers, NCOs and veterans the company formed a rough semicircular skirmish line with their backs to the lake.  The soldiers began to return fire aiming at the puffs of smoke from the Winchester rifles of the Indians.  The ensuing fire fight was marked by the dull reports of the Winchester rifles used by the Indians and the sharp crack of the Krag-Jorgensen rifles of the soldiers.

Captain Melville Wilkinson was wounded three times in the ensuing battle action.  The last wound was mortal, and he died that afternoon.  After the initial volley, the firing degenerated into bursts of fire as the Indians attempted six separate attacks. The main attack ended after three and a half hours.  The army casualties were one officer and five enlisted men killed and ten enlisted men wounded.

The lake steamer moored at the shore was unarmored and moved away from the shore leaving he soldiers with no line of retreat.  The marshals on the steamer ordered the vessel to return to Walker to telegraph for reinforcements and to get food and blankets for the Company E soldiers pinned down at the lake side.  It was noted that the sides and pilot house of the boat showed evidence of bullet damages as it arrived in Walker.

Meanwhile, the soldiers dug rifle pits around their perimeter and posted pickets through night.  Occasional firing from the wood line showed that at least some of the Indians were still there. One soldier was killed the next morning while foraging for potatoes in a nearby field.

The return of the steamer the next morning with food and blankets cheered the soldiers.  However, its arrival was greeted by increased firing from the woods and only one wounded man was taken on board before the steamer had to depart.

At 3:30 PM on October 6, Lt. Col. Abram Harbach arrive with a force of 214 men and a Gatling gun at Walker.  The besieged Company E was evacuated from their lakeside position at Noon, October 7.  They were taken by steamer to Walker where their dead and wounded were off-loaded.

Lt. Col. Harbach’s force was moved to the Indian agency five miles north of Walker and pitched camp.  Runners were sent to the surrounding villages inviting the Indians to come to the camp for a council to discuss the arrest warrants and investigate their complaints.  On October 10 the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs and a local priest met with the Indian leaders.  After a long and friendly conference, the main issues were resolved, and twenty Indians were taken into custody.

As news of the battle between the Chippewa and the army spread throughout the northern towns in the state, the civilians rushed to the towns from outlying farms and armed themselves for defense.  Regular Army troops were poured into the Indian country.  This show of force was made to provide a warning to the Indians against further violence.  It also served to quell the fears of the civilians.

The twenty Indians who were arrested were tried and convicted on October 21.  The sentences ranged from 60 days in prison and $25 fines to 10 months in prison and $100 fines.  On the recommendation of the Indian Affairs office, the sentences were reduced, and the Indians were freed after two months of prison time.

No charges were made against the Indians for the ambush of the soldiers and the deaths of the 3rd US Infantry soldiers.  It was recognized that it would be practically impossible to identify the culprit Indians.  Company E was commended for tis conduct.  Despite the preponderance of new recruits, the soldiers recovered quickly from the initial ambush and maintained unit cohesion in the face of heavy fire from a concealed foe.

The information for this essay came from pages 220-229 of Indian War Veterans; Jerome A. Green, Savas Beatie LC; 521 Fifth Avenue, Suite 3400, NY, NY 10175; 2007; ISBN 1-932714-26-X


James P. Tate III

7070 Highfields Farm Dr.

Roanoke, VA 24018

January 5, 2020

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