Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Waneta, The Charger: Dakota War Chief, English Captain in the War of 1812

The Charger by James Otto King.
Waneta, The Charger
Dakota War Chief, English Captain
By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - Waneta was a War Chief of the Cut Head Band of Yanktonai Dakota, as was his father, Red Thunder, before him. Red Thunder’s eldest daughter, Ista Totowin (Blue Eyes Woman) or Helen Elizabeth Winona (b. 1781, d. unknown), was married to the English Indian Agent, Robert Dickson.

Waneta was born about 1795 in what is now Brown County, South Dakota. He joined his father, Red Thunder, in siding with the British against the United States during the War of 1812. He fought at the siege of Fort Meigs in 1813 and at Sandusky and was wounded in the latter battle, receiving nine life threatening wounds. It was at Sandusky, that he received the name Wana’ata (Leading The Charge), or Waneta (The Charger), for leading the charge against the Americans. There in battle, Waneta killed seven men in hand-to-hand combat. During the attack on Sandusky, he was struck by a musket ball and three buckshot in the chest. The bearing glanced on his breastbone, passed around under skin and came out at his back. Already wounded, Waneta took five more shots, and yet he stood and held his ground. 

In his hair, in later paintings or sketches, Waneta is pictured with nine wooden knives or sometimes nine feathers to represent his deeds and injuries at Sandusky. 

King George III.

After the war, the British rewarded Waneta for his loyalty by presenting him with a captain's commission. He subsequently visited England and was taken before King George III. 

Upon Waneta’s return from England, he resumed his chieftanship and immediately resumed the Dakotas’ age-old feud against the Chippewa near Pembina. He completely annihilated the Chippewa band living there, leaving none alive. 

President Martin Van Buren.  In the late 1830s, The Charger had met this president.

During the summer solstice of 1819, Waneta celebrated in the annual sun dance. In preparation for the dance, he gave away all his posessions. Whatever vision or sacred call Waneta received from the Creator, certainly left him a changed man. In the spring of 1820, he led a party of Yanktonai and Sissetons to Fort Snelling, ostensibly to have a friendly visit with Colonel Snelling about the murder of a tribesman. On the march to the fort, Waneta flew the Union Jack, and on arrival he burned his flag, but was seized at the fort’s entrance and the guards found reason to believe that he was there to attack the fort. Waneta was placed under arrest, his possessions seized, and he was marched before the colonel. Snelling saw for himself all the badges and medals awarded to the chief and came to the conclusion that Waneta must have been there on behalf of the English. Snelling then burned all Waneta’s trophies before his eyes. Snelling then ordered his men to forcibly “naturalize” the chief until he was fully convinced of the power of the Americans. So beaten was Waneta that his warriors thought him dead at first, and immediately gashed the flesh of their arms in sorrow.  Amazingly, the chief’s policy ever after was peace towards the whites. Perhaps the chief’s vision the previous summer prepared him for this new direction and allegiance to the United States, whom he faithfully served until his last days. 

Fort Snelling in the 1840s, this is probably as close to how The Charger saw it twenty years previous.

In 1823, the first U.S. military campaign was waged against a tribe on the Great Plains against the Arikara Indians, called the War of 1823, or the Arikara War. The Sioux Indians demonstrated their whole-hearted commitment to the United States by siding with the Missouri Legion led by Colonel Leavenworth against the Arikara, north of present-day Mobridge, SD, on the Missouri River. Waneta was directly responsible for exacting a tribute from the Arikara for not killing them, and took much of their food stock for the coming winter. He set up winter camp on Beaver Creek and took tribute from the Mandan for protecting them from the rest of the Sioux. 

Waneta’s chieftanship was strongly supported by extensive family connections and a strong belief that he was guarded by supernatural protection. In his thirties and forties, Waneta took to wearing an officer’s uniform, top boots, green spectacles, a saber, and pistols. It was because of Waneta’s penchant for wearing spectacles, that he was later called Ista Maza, or Iron Eyes. 

There were two treaties of Prairie Du Chien.  Visit ND Studies for a breakdown of what the treaty entailed for the Dakota and Lakota Sioux. 

A dominant chief of the Sioux tribe, Waneta signed a trade treaty with the Americans on July 25, 1825. On August 17 the very next month and 450 miles later, he signed the first Treaty of Prairie du Chien which fixed the boundaries of Sioux territory. Waneta’s dominance, charisma, and authority became so great, that at least one of his own tribesmen became resentful and jealous of his recognition. 

Charles King Bird created this striking image of The Charger.  His bear claw necklace and nine feathers are clearly seen.  Brilliant red moccasins adorn his feet and calves. 

In 1826, Waneta made a trip to Washington DC, in celebration of the peace and trade made with the U.S. in the treaties the previous year. While there at the Capital, Waneta’s likeness was forever preserved by artist Charles King Bird.

Fort Pierre by Choteau. 

In the summer of 1832 at Fort Pierre, George Catlin painted Waneta’s likeness. Catlin noted that the chief’s influence was supreme on the Upper Missouri, without rival. Traders on the Missouri characterized Waneta as brave, skillful, sagacious, artful, but also grasping and sometimes overbearing. 

When Waneta was about 44, he was struck with snowblindness that he never fully recovered from and he lost his sight altogether when cataracts formed over both of his eyes. With the loss of his sight, went the loss of his chieftanship. 

Waneta died in 1840 at the mouth of the Warreconne River, the present Beaver Creek in what is now Emmons County, North Dakota. He was struck down by one of his own tribesman, blind and unable to defend himself. 

Waneta had two sons, Iron Eyes and The Charger II. The descendants of The Charger reside on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation and the Spirit Lake Sioux Indian Reservation.

A United States Navy ship was named the USS Waneta in honor of Waneta.


  1. Can you point in in the direction of where I can find out more about "Upon Waneta’s return from England, he resumed his chieftanship and immediately resumed the Dakotas’ age-old feud against the Chippewa near Pembina. He completely annihilated the Chippewa band living there, leaving none alive."?

    1. Thank you for reading and for your question. You'll have to give me some time. The information you are requesting is at the Bismarck State College.