“The Indians were prompted to their outbreak by the wrongs committed against them and chafed under unfair treatment. They now will go back to their homes and live peaceably if the whites will treat them fairly, which is very likely, as the whites were thoroughly impressed with the stand taken by the Indians. In this respect the outbreak has taught them a lesson. “, said by Secretary of the Interior Cornelius N. Bliss in a report (Major General, 1899).
Bliss stated this after the Battle of Sugar Point, between 77 members of the United States Third Infantry and 19 Ojibway men. A Third Infantry man’s rifle reportedly fired accidently when he forgot to place it on safety and stacked it with others before a midday meal. Before they knew it, the Ojibway were firing upon them from three sides. The soldiers scrambled to position and attempted to return fire. This may have been the start of the Battle of Sugar Point, but it wasn’t the reason the battle took place.
Tension between the white Americans and Native Americans of Minnesota had been rising in the late 1800s. Logging in the woods of reservations was popular and a cause of some of this tension. It was agreed that any dead standing or fallen trees could be taken and bought by loggers for a fair price(Chiefs, 1898). Unfortunately, this didn’t happen all the time.
A petition sent to the Secretary of the Interior, from the chiefs and headmen of the Pillager Band of Chippewa Native Americans from Minnesota, asked the government to try and correct the wrongs that were being done to the Native Americans and their forests. Loggers would set fire to healthy timber, making them fit the class of “dead timber”, and be able to cut them down. Appraisers underestimated the value of the timber, to acquire a larger profit when selling them. “The great trouble that we have feared for many years has finally reached us, and if you do not reach out your strong arm and correct the existing evils by removing from among us the persons who have caused them, we will be destroyed (Chiefs, 1898).” This was stated in the petition in an effort to acquire the government’s help in stopping the destruction of the Native American’s forests. Without the government intervention on the improper cutting of timber, the Native Americans were faced with the destruction of its society in the Minnesota region
Tensions also rose because it was forbidden to sell liquor to the Native Americans and punishable with fines and imprisonment to anyone caught doing so. A woman named Miss Pauline Colby, sent to the Leech Lake Reservation to teach Native Americans girls lacework, recollected that “the worst difficulties occurred when they obtained firewater(liquor), as the young bucks would then get into trouble (Wold, 1943). Because of this many Native Americans turned to bootlegging. One man had an unfortunate run in with the law on charges of bootlegging.
One Man Starts It All
In April, 1898, a man named Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig(means Hole-in-The-Day) had an encounter with the white system of justice. He was arrested for liquor bootlegging and taken over 100 miles east to Duluth. There he was tried and released, when not enough evidence had come forward. Upon release, he was left on his own to travel back, the 100 miles west, to his home. After this encounter with the white system of justice, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig vowed to never be captured again.
On September 15, 1898, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig and another Ojibway Sha-Boon-Day-Shkong went to Onigum to collect annuity payments. There they were arrested and held for witnesses of another bootleg trial. While being escorted to a boat, that would take them to Duluth, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig called out to Ojibway bystanders. “He shouted out for help, and some twenty-two Natives, including at least three women, answered his call, spiriting him away from the authorities(Vizenor).” One of the officers tried to catch Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, but was tackled by another Ojibway tribe member. The officers, in extreme embarrassment, reported to be attacked and overpowered by a “vicious mob” of over 200 Anishinaabe warriors(Vizenor).
A council was supposed to be held in Onigum, on October 3, but neither of the escaped men attended(Major General of the Commanding Army). This led to the a much higher course of action, the Military. Members of the Third Regiment of the United States infantry were called upon to track down Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig and capture him.
On October 5, a group of 77 infantry soldiers commanded by Captain Wilkinson, Second Lieutenant Tenny Ross, and General Bacon, and four newspaper correspondents departed for Sugar Point. They boarded two small lake steamers, the “Chief’ and the “Flora” and had a barge in tow(Roddis, 1920). A three-hour trip carried them to their destination, where a peninsula jutted out in to Leech Lake. On this peninsula was a cabin that belonged to Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig. He was nowhere to be found. However, at the cabin was a half dozen Native Americans. One of which had an outstanding warrant. Soldiers quickly subdued and arrested this man and released the rest, for none of them had outstanding warrants.
The soldiers took camp at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig cabin, but not before searching nearby villages for fugitive Ojibway Native Americans. 25 infantry soldiers, General Bacon, and Captain Wilkinson departed through the woods to visit three nearby villages(Roddis, 1920). Here they found old men, women, and children. Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig was nowhere to be found.
Upon returning to the cabin, the soldiers had found that one other Native Americans fugitive had turned himself in. Both him and the previously captured man were placed on the steam boats, to await the return. The soldiers were ordered to stack their rifles for the midday meal. At this time a rifle accidently went off, casing the Battle of Sugar Point to begin.
The Battle Begins
After the rifle miss fire on October 5, the Ojibway, who had hidden themselves in the three wooded sides surrounding the cabin, fired upon the soldiers. At this moment General Bacon took command. Many of the soldiers were fresh recruits and panicked at the start of the battle. Through veteran leadership, by General Bacon and Captain Wilkinson, the soldiers were quickly formed up into a skirmish line shaped like an irregular crescent(Roddis, 1920).
While shouting: “Give it to them boys; give ‘em hell! We’ve got ‘em licked! Give ‘em hell” to his men Wilkinson was wounded in the leg(Roddis, 1920). He immediately rushed into the back cabin to get it dressed and was back out on the battlefield soon after. Later in the battle Wilkinson was mortally wounded with a shot through the abdomen. For only a few minutes he lingered. With his last breath, Wilkinson shouted at General Bacon, “Give ‘em hell!”(The Last).
Wilkinson was one of six deaths on the U.S. side in this battle, along with 10 wounded. One other death being William S. Butler, who was reportedly shot through the head while carrying a message(Matson, 1987). In addition, two civilians were killed, and 4 others wounded. There were no confirmed deaths on the Native Americans side. After the battle, six Winchester rifles were found in the woods surrounding the cabin. This lead soldiers to believe that six Native Americans were killed in the engagement, however this was never proven. “Colonel Sheehan, however, considered the fact that six Winchesters were found after the engagement sufficient evidence that six Native Americans were killed. He believed that an Indian never dropped his gun until he was dead.”(Brill, 1898)
The battle lasted roughly three and a half hours. During this time the soldiers and Native Americans exchanged fire six times. Each one ending in a slight reprieve, before the shooting commenced again. Eventually the majority Native Americans withdrew farther in to the woods, leaving only a few to continue occupying the soldiers. As the amount of shots fired lessened, the soldiers were able to move more freely around the cabin. When night fell, general Bacon had soldiers dig a trench and some rifle holes to more easily defend the position against possible Native Americans reinforcements. On October 6th, the day after the commencement of the Battle at Sugar Point, Lieutenant Colonel Abram A. Harbach arrived at the town of Walker with a force of two hundred and fourteen men and a Gatling gun(Roddis, 1920). While there the steamer “Flora” arrived carrying dead and wounded, from the battle, with a report that shooting was nearly done on Sugar Point. With this, the battle of Sugar point had come to an end.
Aftermath of The Battle at Sugar Point
Some may see this as just another Native Americans battle, where the Native Americans fought the white men because they were unhappy with the way they were being treated. Part of that is true, but credit should be given to the Native Americans for what they stood for. “All they wanted was to protect “old Bug” and guard him so he would not be taken away from the reservation.”, said by Pauline Wold, head of Dr. James L. Camp’s private hospital in Brainerd, MN just south of Leech Lake(Wold, 1943). They did not brutally attack the soldiers, by molesting them or scalping them, but parted ways peacefully after the battle. They defied the stigma, of the savage Native American, that many white Americans thought in the late 1800s.
After the Battle of Sugar Point, Commissioner of Native American Affairs Jones was called down to make peace with the Native Americanss. He spent a week with Ojibway tribal leaders and managed to convince them to give up the men who had warrants for helping Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig escape custody.
Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig stayed true to his word. He was never again captured by the white justice system. It is said that Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig visited the battle-ground, sometime after the battle, and made himself a necklace of the empty shells. This He flaunted to everyone he met, showing them that the white men were no match Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig.
Cornelius N. Bliss quote stayed true to its word. White men gained a newfound respect for the Native Americans not just for how they fought, but for how they held true to what they believed in and didn’t shy away from a superior force. Thus, making the Battle of Sugar Point the final battle with Native Americans.
- Brill, William H. “St. Paul Pioneer Press.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 8 Oct. 1898. (Found in The Last Indian Uprising in the United States by Louis H. Roddis, pp 17-18)
- Chiefs and headmen of the Pillager band of Chippewa Indians. “Leech Lake Indian Reservation.” Secretary of the Interior, Reports, 1898, pp. 31–36., www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20160330.pdf. (Found in The Last Indian Uprising in the United States by Louis H. Roddis, pp 7)
- Wold, Pauline. Some Recollections of the Leech Lake Uprising . vol. 24, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1943, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20162598.pdf.
- Major General Commanding The Army. “Indian Troubles.” Annual Report, 1899, pp. 23–25.
- Matson, William E. “The Battle of Sugar Point: a Re-Examination.” Minnesota History, vol. 50, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987, pp. 269–275.
- Roddis, Louis H. The Last Indian Uprising in the United States. vol. 3, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1920, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20160330.pdf.
- Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Bear Island: The War at Sugar Point. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.