Crossing Borders as Refugees: A Comparison of Dakota and Poles

Crossing Borders as Refugees: A Comparison of Dakota and Poles

Civil War era historians have made several comparisons between Russia’s suppression of the Polish rebellion in 1863 and the U.S. efforts to quash the enslavers’ rebellion in the United States. Most of these comparisons are either imbued by traces of U.S. exceptionalism, such as the many U.S. centric interpretations of the Russian fleet visit to New York and San Francisco, or illustrate a lack of understanding of the European as well as Polish situation. However, a consideration of the refugee situation offers fresh insights, something especially in light of the recent events in Ukraine, giving the topic contemporary meaning.

U.S. historians tend to overlook a crucial aspect that internationalized the suppression of a domestic rebellion in Poland by Russia—the Alvensleben Convention, which opened the door to Russian forces to pursue Polish refugees into neighboring Prussia. A similar desire, that was also never formally enacted, followed the conflict between Minnesota settlers, U.S. forces, and the Dakota nation in 1862, which some Civil War era historians have also dismissed as not part of the conflict.[1] While some Dakota fled westward into the Plains, others escaped across the border into Canada and U.S. authorities were keen to pursue them and bring these refugees to justice, which they illegally did in one instance. In both cases we see nationalities that lack states and have suffered decades of oppression (Poles and Dakota) strike back at imperial powers (Russia and the United States) bringing about imperial border issues with neighboring empires (Prussia and Great Britain-Canada). The comparative refugee crisis broadens our understanding of the Civil War era and, offers a much more insightful comparison then what diplomatic historians have so far shown or the flawed recent comparison of guerilla warfare with regard to the Polish rebellion. Furthermore, looking at Poles and Dakota expands the Civil War narrative westward, which is long overdue. Such an exercise might address a call by Enrico Dal Lago to consider imperial comparison as the next stage of the transnationalization of the Civil War era in his recent Journal of the Civil War Era essay.[2]

In late January 1863, the Poles once more rose up in rebellion against their Russia overlord. Only two years earlier, they had done so already (often not noticed or mentioned by Civil War era historians). The Poles had long complained about their state being absent from the European map despite them having a national identity that dated back centuries. The Polish people also took issue with the autocratic governing by Russia and military duties imposed on them. This could have been just another domestic disturbance of the era subdued by the imperial authorities without much international concern or attention, leaving aside public protests of course.[3]

The Polish Rebellion of 1863 escalated when the newly appointed Minister President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck tried to score political points and ingratiate his country to Russia. Preparing for the process of German Unification, he orchestrated the so-called Alvensleben Convention. Signed on February 8, 1863, Prussia permitted Russian forces to cross into Prussian territory in pursuit of fleeing rebels and apprehend them. All Polish revolutionaries captured were to be turned over to a Russian military court upon extradition. International pressure soon came to bear on Prussia as Great Britain and France viewed the agreement as meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Russia never insisted on the implementation of the convention. As a result, those Poles lucky enough to reach Prussia were able to escape Russian prosecution, death sentences, and Siberian exile.

B/W photo of group of armed 19th C. soldiers
Polish scythemen of the January Uprising.

Thousands fled across the border with Prussia and Austria to find safety. The Grazer Zeitung reported that over 800 refugees had crossed into Austria, where they were welcomed; but there was concern that the events in Poland could destabilize the Polish province of the Austrian Empire as well.[4] There was also the case of two Polish students arrested by the Prussian authorities on request from Russia for extradition back to Russian Poland. In this case, the French representative in Berlin had stepped in to protect the two students as French citizens.[5] Otherwise the authors have not located stories of Poles returned to Russia by the Prussian authorities during or after 1863.

Contemporaries and modern historians like to focus on the shared rebellion story between Poles and enslavers or the way U.S. and Russian authorities dealt with rebellious subjects; however, nobody has yet explored the refugee story and how this aspect of the Polish rebellion may have parallels in the United States. Polish nationals, who had a long and proud national identity, dating back to the days when Poland ruled over much of Eastern Europe, were caught in an imperial borderland with fluid borders making their escape impossible. Polish national identity and Russian imperial goals clashed, but this was hardly the only place where this happened.

The Alvensleben Convention speaks volumes to another incident that transpires along the U.S.-British Canada border between 1862 and 1865. Amid the U.S. Civil War, the Dakota nation, white settlers, and the U.S. Army waged a short-lived war that led to a Dakota military defeat. After the U.S.-Dakota War, between 1862 and 1865, a question arose about how to handle the Dakota nation living in Minnesota. The U.S. Army moved Dakota prisoners from Minnesota to various reservation and prison camps throughout the Midwest and Northern Plains.[6] In early 1863, Congress abolished all treaties with the Dakota. With the decision, the State of Minnesota wanted the Dakota gone, and the U.S. Army wanted the Dakota punished. The governments followed what Major General John Pope, commander of the Department of the Northwest, called for in 1862: “punishment beyond human power to inflict” where he believed it was his “purpose to utterly exterminate” the Dakota.[7] Two “punitive expeditions” chased the fleeing Dakota who did not surrender into Dakota Territory; however, some Dakota fled north into British Territory.[8] The border between Minnesota and the British-Canadian province of Rupert’s Land served as an important barrier between the Dakota nation and the pursuing U.S. forces. The Dakota recognized the political nature of the border and used it to their own advantage. They also understood themselves as people from a sovereign nation. Canada became an important borderland to uplift Dakota diplomacy while Americans attempted to squash their sovereignty and self-determination.

Several thousand Dakota moved north from Minnesota into British Canada. During the War of 1812, Dakota joined British attacks on Fort Mackinac in the Great Lakes, the British awarded these Dakota allies with “Indian Peace Medals” which celebrated their participation and promised the Dakota protection from the U.S. Army in the future.[9] After 1862, the Dakota used the medals to persuade the British to follow through on their promises. Initially, they did. Alexander Dallas, governor of Rupert’s Land, recognized the Dakota migrants as “refugees” and offered food, supplies, and even guns and ammunition to help them in their desolate condition. As time went on, the white settlers living in Rupert’s Land worried about the Dakota living free near them with weapons. They worried the Dakota might attack their settlements just as they did in Minnesota in August 1862. This frantic worry persuaded Dallas to begin conversations with the U.S. Army stationed seventy miles away at Fort Pembina, Dakota Territory.[10] Dallas wanted a contingent of soldiers to march into British territory, collect the Dakota refugees, and return them to the United States. Unlike the Alvensleben Convention that would have allowed Russians access into Prussia, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton denied Major Edwin Hatch’s request to move into British Canada with his independent cavalry battalion from Minnesota.[11]

Group of Indigenous men standing in a black and white historic photograph.
Israel Bennetto, “Indians who fled to Canada after the Dakota were defeated at Wood Lake,” Minnesota Historical Society.

Despite the agreements and the orders to not attempt an extraction of Dakota from Rupert’s Land, Hatch devised a sinister plan to kidnap two Dakota chiefs rather than collect thousands of Dakotas living in British Territory. Little Six and Medicine Bottle participated in the Dakota War, and court records show that the men allegedly engaged in the murder of white civilians during that conflict. Hatch believed that if they could kidnap the two leaders and bring them to justice, the remaining Dakota would return to the United States. In November 1864, Hatch worked with two local civilians, John McKenzie and a Frenchman named Giguere, to kidnap the Dakota chiefs. McKenzie and Giguere personally knew Little Six and Medicine Bottle, and invited them to McKenzie’s home to continue an ongoing discussion on the Dakota living in Rupert’s Land. That night, the white men offered the Dakota chiefs whiskey drinks that had been laced with laudanum. Once intoxicated and drugged, the men placed rags doused in chloroform over Little Six and Medicine Bottle’s mouths. They took their incapacitated bodies seventy miles back to Fort Pembina. The Dakota men eventually ended up at Fort Snelling in Minnesota where they faced an irregular military tribunal that sentenced them to death by hanging based on incomplete and shoddy evidence.[12]

The United States denied participation in the kidnapping, as it was performed by two British subjects. The British government also denied participation in the affair as Giguere was a Frenchman and McKenzie formerly lived in Minnesota several years before the incident. In fact, despite the irregular and illegal abduction, Hatch, McKenzie, or Giguere did not face any punishment. With 10,000 spectators watching at Fort Snelling on November 11, 1865, Little Six and Medicine Bottle were hanged and forever remembered as fugitive refugees brought to justice after the Dakota War.[13] Several thousand Dakota would remain in Rupert’s Land. As the space transitioned to the official province of Manitoba, the Dakota remained, and the provincial government aided in helping the Dakota build a home near the place Portage la Prairie.[14] Just like the Poles, members of the Dakota nation had crossed an imperial border to escape the punitive efforts of an imperial power only to discover that the border was not upheld as strongly as they had believed.

Enrico Dal Lago suggests that we should look at comparisons with nation-state formations, industrial development, and imperial expansion between the United States, Germany, and Japan; however, there are other comparisons that complicate the Civil War era narrative.[15] Both Dakota and Poles rose at about the same time against imperial oppressors and hoped that crossing an international border would offer them protection. While we are unaware of Prussia extraditing Poles back to Russia, Little Six and Medicine Bottle suffered an illegal and unjust fate.

As we study the Civil War era and make international comparison, we need to look beyond the old and obvious. Sure, comparing revolutionary Poland with the enslavers’ rebellion has validity. The much more meaningful and interesting comparisons, however, are on the edges of those events where nationalities and empires clashed. Nobody has yet set Dakota and Poles on a similar plane as refugees fleeing imperial oppression. By comparing Poland and Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota Homeland) we first of all broaden the Civil War Era narrative westward, which is long needed, we give voice to the Dakota people, we liberate the Poles from being placed on the same level as enslavers, we move beyond the military narratives, and importantly we can realize the complexities of imperial borders, local actors, and oppressed nationalities. It alters our narratives of the Civil War era and opens the door for other yet unseen but meaningful comparisons in the future.

[1] Public-facing scholarship by Megan Kate Nelson and Gary W. Gallagher shows debates over the role of the American West plays in the traditional Civil War narrative. See, for example, Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” HistoryNet, September 17, 2017,; Gary W. Gallagher, “Fighting on Multiple Fronts: Should Campaigns Against Native Americans and Confederates Be Viewed as One War or Two?” Civil War Times (April 2019): 46-53; Gary W. Gallagher, “How the West Wasn’t Won: Henry H. Sibley’s 1862 Invasion of New Mexico signaled Confederate plans to create a western empire. Or did it?” (April 2019): 34-41, 75-76.

[2] Enrico Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 11 (June 2021), 255-271.

[3] For works on the Polish Uprising and international impact see: Niels Eichhorn, “The Rhine River: The Impact of the German States on Trans-Atlantic Diplomacy,” in Civil War-Global Conflict, edited by Simon K. Lewis and David Gleeson (Columbia, South Carolina Press, 2014), 146-171; Robert Frank Leslie, Reform and Insurrection in Russian Poland, 1856–1865 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1969).

[4] Grazer Zeitung (January 26, 1863).


[6] Gontran Laviolette, The Dakota Sioux in Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba: DLM Publications, 1991), 140-141, 148-149

[7] John Pope to Henry Sibley, September 28, 1862, Record Group 393, Records of the United States Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, Pt. 1, Entry 3436, Letters Sent, September 1862 – July 1865, Correspondence, Department of the Northwest, 1862-1865, Volume 3, National Archives, Washington D.C.

[8] For more detail on the punitive expeditions, see Paul N. Beck, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013). Other historians have explored the experiences of Dakota after 1862, such as Linda M. Clemmons, Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019).

[9] Pascal Breland 1873 Report, Alexander Morris Fonds Collection, F 82, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan; James McKeagney, 1873 Correspondence, Alexander Morris Fonds Collection, F 82, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

[10] Thomas Fraser to A. G. Dallas, March 16, 1864, Sioux Indians Colonial Office Report, 12-13; Laviolette, 150-151.

[11] “The Neutrality Proclamation,” London Gazette, May 14, 1861; The Queen’s Neutrality Proclamation, Downing Street, London, February 1, 1862, Broadside Portfolio 1, No. 13, The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress; Alan R. Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding: Intrigue in the Red River Country in 1864,” The Beaver (Spring 1969): 54-55; for more information on Hatch, see Patrick Hill, “Edwin Aaron Clarke Hatch,” Minnesota Heritage 7 (2013): 134-137.

[12] Edmund Head to Frederic Rogers, March 4, 1864, Sioux Indian Correspondence, British Colonial Office, University of Alberta Library, The Internet Archive, 6; Bureau of Military Justice Report, War Department, November 17, 1865, Little Six (Shakopee) and Medicine Bottle Trial Transcripts, Southern Minnesota Historical Center 0165, Folder 5, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Minnesota, 1-2; Major Edwin Hatch Diary, January 18, 1864, Edwin Hatch Family Papers, 1805-1939, P1437, Minnesota Historical Society; “Fuller Details of the Capture of Little Six and Medicine Bottle,” St. Paul Daily Press, February 3, 1864; Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding,” 57-59; Roy W. Meyer, “The Canadian Sioux: Refugees from Minnesota,” Minnesota History 41, No. 1 (Spring 1968): 15.

[13] “Little Six and Medicine Bottle Not to be Hunt,” Pioneer and Democrat (St. Paul, Minn.), October 23, 1865; Woolworth, “A Disgraceful Proceeding,” 59.

[14] “Sioux Indians of Manitoba – [Minister] of the Interior, 6 August, submits dispatch, 7 June from [Lieutenant] Governor and [recommends] that the Indians be furnished with certain articles,” August 6, 1873, RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-1-a, Library Archives Canada, Ottawa; D.R. Cameron, Dufferin, to Alexander Morris, May 1874, P5281, Microfilm M135, Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

[15] Dal Lago, “Writing the US Civil War Era into Nineteenth-Century World History,” 256-257.

Niels Eichhorn John Legg

Niels Eichhorn holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His most recent book, Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019). His current book project is titled, Guerra: Revolutions and Civil Wars in the Americas, 1848-1877. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. John R. Legg is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at George Mason University. His dissertation investigates Dakota migration from Minnesota into British Canada during the nineteenth century. After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, this movement transformed into a strategic survival mechanism as Dakota circumvented U.S. genocidal practice and sought refuge and protection from the British government. John has a forthcoming chapter on Indigenous history and The Oregon Trail in Playing at War: Identity & Memory in American Civil War Era Video Games (LSU Press).

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