The Nation’s First Concentration Camp

In its almost one hundred and seventy-five years, Davenport has had many national firsts.  Some of these fill us with a sense of comfortable pride.  Others do not.

Genealogists and local historians may know that the Quad-City area was originally home to several Native American tribes, primarily the Sac-Fox and the Pottawattamie. But occasionally, a researcher will come to our area looking for information on members of a different tribe, one that wasn’t forced to leave, but was instead imprisoned.

The Civil War is such a large event in our history that it is often forgotten that there was another war going on between the United States and the Native American population, who were none too happy with the new nation’s westward expansion. The Sioux tribes in the Minnesota Territories, who had long been the victims of cultural misunderstandings, unfair treaties, and fraudulent tradesmen, were no exception.

In August of 1862, the Minnesota Sioux, under the leadership of Little Crow, decided to forcibly take back the lands for which they had received no payment. They declared war by attacking the Lower Sioux Indian Agency, a little south of present-day Morton and moving on to destroy the nearby settlements in the area.

The fighting was vicious, but the United States sent more and more soldiers until Little Crow and his men were defeated, a little more than a month after their first attack. The majority fled to the Dakota Territories, but over 500 Sioux were captured. Thirty-eight were hanged in 1863.

The rest were sent to Davenport.

In April of 1863, two-hundred and seventy-seven men, sixteen women, and two children arrived by steamboat and transferred to a hastily prepared section of Camp McClellan, which was still an active training camp for Iowa volunteer soldiers.

According to the Davenport Democrat, the prison area was 200 feet square. This held four buildings: two for the prisoners to sleep in (no beds were provided), one for a hospital, and one for the guardhouse. The paper reported that the Sioux were happy enough, as they had plenty of room.

Further newspaper reports blamed the Sioux for the unhygienic and filthy conditions in which they lived, while decrying that these criminals were being fed and cared for at great expense. By the end of the year, at least thirty had died from age, sickness, neglect, and indifference.

By spring of 1864, however, local resentment had lessened and prisoner labor parties were allowed to work in the fields without fear of lynching. Twenty-seven prisoners were pardoned that year by President Lincoln. And in December, A large lodge was donated by General Baker to be used by Big Eagle, who was the ranking prisoner.

Despite this relaxing of hostilities, it wasn’t until April 10, 1866 that President Johnson released the remaining one hundred, seventy-seven Sioux, who were sent to Santee, Nebraska. The prison site was eventually cleared and developed as a residential area, which was dubbed McClellan Heights—the promotional literature makes much of the view and the Civil War connections, but somehow fails to mention the prison or its captives.

It is important, however, to remember the dark times as well as the good, and neither the camp nor the prisoners have ever been forgotten. In 2005, members of the Dakota Sioux tribe held a Dakota Memorial Ceremony on the former site of Camp Kearny. It is hoped that a monument can be erected at the site to honor the memory of those who were incarcerated in what some historians have called the nation’s first concentration camp.


Sources used:

“Indian murderers at Post McClellan.” Davenport Democrat, April 27, 1863, p.1.
Geyer, Thomas. “Dakota Indians to honor imprisoned tribesmen.” Quad-City Times, April 23, 2005, p. A6.
Holtz, David. “Dakotas gather to honor ancestors.” Quad-City Times, April 24, 2005, pp. A4-A8.
“Put them where they belong.” Daily Gazette, June 2, 1865, p.1.
Satterlee, Marion P. Outbreak and Massacre by the Dakota Indians in Minnesota in 1862. (Bowie, Md. : Heritage Books) 2001.
Temple, Seth. “Camp McClellan during the Civil War.´ Annals of Iowa, volume 21, number 1, July 1937.
(posted by Sarah)

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2 Responses to The Nation’s First Concentration Camp

  1. Stewart Wounded Knee says:

    where were the deceased Dakota buried? where are there head stones or markers? Or are they buried in some park or golf course?

    • SCblogger says:

      The deceased Dakota were buried in a cemetery near Camp Kearney/Camp McClellan. Many of the estimated 120 graves were disturbed by grave robbers starting in the 1870s and later by the building of the McClellan Heights subdivision. The remains uncovered during the subdivision work in the 1920s were given to the Putnam Museum and Palmer College of Chiropractic. The museum and college gave the remains to the State of Iowa who returned them to the Lower Sioux Indian Community near Morton, Minnesota. In November 1987, those remains were buried near St. Cornelia’s Episcopal Church in Morton by members of the Community. We do not have any information confirming if any bodies still remain in the cemetery. Members of the Dakota Sioux have been to the site of the camp and the cemetery. A marker has been placed at Camp Kearney/Camp McClellan. We would recommend contacting the Lower Sioux Indian Community who might be able to provide further information on what ceremonies may have been performed during visits to the camp and cemetery locations.

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