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The Great Victory at Battle of Apple Creek, 150 Years Later

The Apple Creek conflict is often overshadowed by Whitestone Hill, Killdeer and the Battle of Little Big Horn. Read about it here 150 years later.
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The Mníšoše, Missouri River, moves determinedly along the ancient valley it has carved over thousands of years. The river flows in the very heart of the Great Plains, in fact, aside from the wind it’s a defining feature of the prairie steppe. Its Lak?óta name means “The Water A-stir” in reference to its muddy stirred up appearance in historic times. Commercial traffic on the river in the nineteenth century came to call it “The Big Muddy.”

T?aspá?la Wakpála, Apple Creek, meanders along its own course from a field north and east of present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. The Menoken Indian Village rests along the quiet creek, a silent witness to trade in what archaeologists call the Late Woodlands period. The creek’s name refers to the tree that bears the tiny edible thorn apple.

Where the T?aspá?la Wakpála converges with Mníšoše is Mayá Itówapi, Pictured Bluff. There, along the bluff are caves where the sediment is layered in colors. A testament to the changing climate throughout the ages of the world to the geologist, but to the Lak?óta, it was a place to gather natural yellow and red pigments to create paint.

There was a conflict between the P?adáni (Arikara) and the Ihá?kt?u?wa?na (Yanktonai) in the 1830s. According to the John K. Bear winter count (a mnemonic pictographic device) the year is recorded as ?ha?nóna na P?adáni ob thi apá ki?hízapi, The Wood-Hitters (a band of the Ihá?kt?u?wa?na) fought with the Arikara.

The Wa?kíya ?ho, Blue Thunder, winter count correlates this event at a Dakota winter camp located below ?ha?té Wakpá, Heart River. According to Blue Thunder, the assailants are variously identified as Arikara, Mandan, or Assiniboine. The Mandan Indians have the Foolish Woman winter count, and they record that they destroyed fifty lodges. The T?at?a?ka Ska, White Bull, winter count has that winter as Wi?híyela waníyetu wi?hákasotapi, the Yanktonai were almost wiped out that winter.

The John K. Bear winter count also mentions the Dakota Conflict in its 1863 entry: Isá?yatí waší?u? ob ok?í?ize, the Santee warred with the whites. The Minnesota Dakota conflict is also reflected in the Red Horse Owner, Roan Bear, and Wind winter counts.

The fight between the two tribes paled in comparison when in 1863, General Sibley and his command of about four thousand soldiers engaged the Dak?óta and Lak?óta people in a running battle lasting two weeks, from Big Mound (near present-day Tappen, North Dakota) to Pictured Bluff.

In T?at?á?ka Íyotake’s, Sitting Bull’s, own pictographic account, he placed himself at Big Mound where he rode into Sibley’s camp, stole a mule, and counted coup. It is almost entirely certain that if this great leader was at the beginning of the running battle, he was there to the end at Pictured Bluff.

The running battle began as a masterful retreat on July 24, 1863, across hilly terrain in a sinuous line back and forth across streams. This constant crossing, in effect, caused Sibley to lag behind enough for the Dak?óta and Lak?óta to gain enough lead time that the women, children, and elders could navigate their crossing wa?na hiyó?payAT?aspá?la Wakpála hená Mníšoše, where the Apple Creek converges with the Missouri River.

That critical crossing came on July 29, 1863. The oyáte, people, abandoned their thiík?eka, lodges, on the broad flood plain of the Mníšoše. A thousand lodges encircled two little lakes, sloughs in later years. They crossed the Mníšoše in as many as five places below Pictured Bluff. The warriors rallied together, perhaps under the leadership of T?at?á?ka Íyotake or Phizí (Gall), and took the high ground a-top Pictured Bluff.

Dakota Wind

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This was taken from a sandbar south of Sibley Park looking southeast towards Pictured Bluff. This is where some of the Dakota and Lakota people crossed.

The women, children, and elders who made a successful crossing signaled the warriors with flashes of sunlight using trade mirrors. The warriors in turn, signaled back to their loved ones then they turned their attention to Sibley’s command. There is no exact number of warriors, but if there were a thousand lodges, then there was at least one able-bodied man or warrior per lodge. Using this projection, the warriors were outnumbered four-to-one.

Sibley and his men arrived on the scene, July 29, 1863, to witness flashes of light in communiqué to those in safety across the river. The general struck camp and named it “Camp Slaughter” after a doctor in his command. Over the course of the next few days, Sibley could not take the hill and some of his men were ambushed in the middle of the night. The morale of his soldiers suffered and on July 31, withdrew his men from the field when the enemy seemingly disappeared.

The Apple Creek Conflict is the only fight in the Punitive Campaigns of 1863 and 1864 in which the Dak?óta and Lak?óta chose the battlefield, met their aggressor, and held them off until they withdrew. This clear victory became entirely overshadowed by the tragedies of I?yá?sa? (Whitestone Hill) and T?á??a Wakútepi (Killdeer), and the victory of P?ežísluta, the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Susan Kelly Power, an esteemed u??í (grandmother) of the Ihá?kt?u?wa?na Dak?óta, enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and great-granddaughter of Chief Two Bear, has the oral tradition that places three warriors there at the Apple Creek Conflict: Callous Leg, Little Soldier, and Has Tricks. There must certainly be more warriors and oral traditions amongst the I?yá? Wosláta Oyá?ke, the community of Standing Rock, and others.

Dakota Wind

This picture was taken from Sibley Park looking southeast at Pictured Bluff. The University of Mary can be seen in the background.

Today, a park named for General Sibley rests virtually where his Camp Slaughter once stood, where some of the Dak?óta and Lak?óta made their crossing. Bismarck has turned a battlefield into a place of recreation. There is no signage explaining the name of the park, nor of the conflict.

The landscape has been appropriated and development has erased the battlefield; Dak?óta and Lak?óta oral tradition recalls that the soldiers chased the people into the river.

On July 29, 2013, 150 years after Sibley’s command withdrew entirely from the Apple Creek Conflict, the anniversary passed in silence.

Dakota Wind is a theologian by education and a public historian by trade. He has been by turns a National Park Service ranger, a state park ranger, and a college instructor. Wind maintains the history blog The First Scout.