Leech Lake Fight

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring Sioux Nation Forts

The following story is from the book, Indian Wars, by Bill Yenne.

In September 1898, a Chippewa man named Bug-onay-gee-shig (nicknamed Old Bug) was arrested at Onigum, Minnesota, on charges of failing to appear to testify at a trial in Duluth. A group of fellow Chippewa intervened and managed to wrestle Old Bug away from the deputies that arrested him, and to take him to Bear Island in Leech Lake.

The U.S. Army sent a twenty-man 3rd Infantry Regiment detachment from Fort Snelling to intervene and to compel Old Bug to surrender. He refused, so the Army reinforced its contingent for a further show of force. On October 5, eighty soldiers-mostly young and inexperienced recruits-under the command of Major Melville Wilkinson boarded a barge, which was pushed by a steamboat to Bear Island. The island was abandoned, so they proceeded to Sugar Point, where Old Bug's cabin was located. As the troops went ashore, they found themselves under the watchful eye of roughly twenty Chippewa armed with Winchester rifles.

Fearing someone would get hurt, Wilkinson ordered the troops to stack their arms. His best intentions were for naught. As had happened so often, a single shot was fired that led to bloodshed. According to the Army, one soldier did not lock the safety on his gun, and it fell and went off. According to the Chippewa, a soldier opened fire on some women in a canoe. As the battle erupted, Major Wilkinson took three rounds and fell dead. the steamboat that had brought the barge pulled out, abandoning the troops on the shore.

On October 6, the steamboat returned, but was driven off in a hail of gunfire after taking just one wounded soldier aboard. The Minnesota National Guard arrived later in the day with 214 men and a Gatling gun, but they were not deployed until October 7. By this time, the Chippewa had withdrawn, allowing the besieged troops to board the barge. The battle resulted in seven soldiers killed in action, and another sixteen wounded. There were no casualties among the Chippewa. On October 10, the tribal members involved in the battle surrendered, but no charges would be filed.

Private Oscar Burkard of the U.S. Army Hospital Corps was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor "For distinguished bravery in action against hostile Indians." In an indication of the long duration of the Indian Wars, Burkard had been born in Aachen, Germany on December 21, 1877, a year and a half after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

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