Dakota Indians and their supporters commemorated the largest mass execution in US history at a ceremony Dec. 26 in Mankato, Minn. On that day in 1862, a public hanging was held of 38 Dakota men, for crimes allegedly committed in that year's US-Dakota War—the execution order personally signed by President Abraham Lincoln. A new monument was dedicated as part of the ceremony at the town's old hanging ground, now called Reconciliation Park. Participants included a group of some 50 Dakota horseback riders and supporters who left South Dakota three weeks ago for Mankato. One organizer of the ride, Peter Lengkeek, told the crowd: "In 1862, those 38 were hung as criminals. They died because they were protecting the children, the women, our way of life. And for that I am ever thankful."
According to an 1862 eyewitness report in the New York Times, most of the men on the hanging scaffold sang a Dakota death song, while some mixed-bloods who had embraced Christianity sang a hymn. Several had worked their hands free, and clasped a final grip with the man next to them. Some 4,000 spectators watched, as well as 1,400 uniformed soldiers in the Minnesota Sixth, Eighth and Ninth regiments—there to ensure the warriors died of hanging and not of a mob attack. Cheers went up as the men met their deaths. One young boy, who had reportedly lost his parents in the war, was heard to shout, "Hurrah! Hurrah!"
The Dakota War—also known as the Sioux Uprising of 1862, and Little Crow’s War—undoubtedly saw atrocities on both sides. But historian Lyle W. Miller Sr. of South Dakota's Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, an interpreter at the nearby Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, said: "When I think about that time in 1862, and I think about the reasons why it started—it had to happen… There's no good about a war, but sometimes it has to happen. The little ones were starving. What do you do when you're faced with a position like that?"
By 1862, the Dakota had surrendered most of their lands in southwest Minnesota in a pair of 1851 treaties, and still settlers were encroaching. Chief Little Crow travelled to Washington DC in 1858 to protest this—to no avail. The Dakota were confined to two diminished reservations: the Upper Sioux Agency, with headquarters in Granite Falls; and the Lower Sioux Agency, based in Redwood. They now had insufficient lands to survive by hunting, fishing and gathering wild rice. And then—with the Civil War raging—the US government failed to deliver promised food and supplies in compensation for lost lands.
Andrew Myrick, a trader who had a local warehouse packed with grain and other food intended for treaty payments, refused to extend it to the Dakota on credit—leading to an angry confrontation at the warehouse on Aug. 15, 1862. Myrick reportedly told Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith in the exchange: "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung."
Skirmishes broke out in the following days, and many Dakota appealed to Chief Little Crow—in his 60s and weary of battle—to lead them in a war to reclaim their lands. Little Crow, who had seen the teeming cities of the East, famously answered: "Kill one, two, 10—and 10 times 10 will come to kill you." But when demands persisted, he is said to have told his warriors, using his name in his own language: "Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you."
On Aug. 18, a Dakota band attacked the Redwood Agency. Among those killed was Myrick—when his body was found, his mouth and stomach were stuffed with grass.
Col. Henry Hastings Sibley—who had served as Minnesota's first governor—raised a volunteer force as the Dakota attacked Fort Ridgely, as well as farms and towns. On Sept. 2, Little Crow led his warriors to victory over Sibley's troops in the Battle of Birch Coulee—the crest of the Dakotas' success. On Sept. 23, Sibley turned the Dakota back at the Battle of Wood Lake. Three days later, Sibley seized the reservations, and eventually 2,000 men, women and children were taken into custody. Some 1,000 were dead, from both sides.
Gen. John Pope of the Union army wrote to Sibley:
The horrible massacres of women and children and the outrageous abuse of female prisoners, still alive, call for punishment beyond human power to inflict. There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith. It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year. Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.
On Sept. 28, Sibley appointed a military commission to try 393 Dakota for "murder and other outrages." The trials were, historians now agree, a farce; some took as little as five minutes. The Dakota were denied counsel, and some did not understand what was being said. Lincoln was nonetheless petitioned by Minnesota's white settlers for swift executions. Chief among such voices was Minnesota's Gov. Alexander Ramsey—who had declared: "The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state."
Lincoln was also petitioned by a few for clemency. Episcopalian Bishop Henry "HB" Whipple wrote the president:
The late fearful massacre has brought sorrow to all our hearts. To see our beautiful state desolated, our homes broken up, and our entire border stained with blood, is a calamity which may well appall us. No wonder that deep indignation has been aroused and that our people cry vengeance. But if that vengeance is to be more than a savage thirst for blood, we must examine the causes which have brought this bloodshed, that our condemnation may fall on the guilty. No outbursts of passion, no temporary expediency, no deed of revenge can excuse us from the stern duties which such days of sorrow thrust upon us.
Whipple traveled to Washington to lobby Lincoln for pardons. On Dec. 6, Lincoln hand-wrote a letter to Gov. Ramsey, listing 39 men who should be hanged—37 for killing civilians, and two for rape. Ramsey was outraged and told Lincoln that the reduced sentences would cost him votes in the 1864 election. "I could not afford to hang men for votes," Lincoln reportedly said.
Dakota historian Miller said of Lincoln, speaking to the Daily Republic of Mitchell, SD: "He freed slaves, but in the end he hung my people. It was a hard decision for him to make, no doubt."
In the aftermath, some 1,600 Dakota and "half-breeds" were rounded up and marched to Fort Snelling, where they were imprisoned for the winter of 1862-63. Wilfred Keeble, an organizer of the memorial ride and former Crow Creek tribal chairman, refers to Fort Snelling as a "concentration camp." Up to 300 died there over the winter. In the spring, the survivors were deported west, beyond Minnesota's borders. Many ended up at Crow Creek, in contemporary South Dakota, to be interned again at Fort Thmpson. Where once 6,000 Dakota had called southwest Minnesota home, only a few dozen remained.
Little Crow, who had escaped to Canada, returned in 1863 with his son Wowinapa. They were killed by settler vigilantes while picking berries near Hutchinson, Minn., on July 3 of that year, the chief's body scalped and mutilated before being turned over to authorities for a bounty. In 1879, the Minnesota Historical Society placed Little Crow's remains on display at the state capitol building, where they remained until 1915. It wasn't until 1971 that they were turned over to family members for burial near Flandreau, South Dakota.
The bodies of the 38 hanged in Mankato were also desecrated. Buried in a shallow mass grave, they were shortly exhumed—and doctors took what they wished for anatomy lessons. Dr. William "WW" Mayo—whose family founded the famed Mayo Clinic—dissected the body of one warrior known as Cut Nose in front of other medical personnel in nearby Le Sueur. He kept the skeleton for future instruction. (MPR News, Daily Republic, Mitchell, SD, Dec. 22; US-Dakota War of 1862 website)
The Dakota are today mostly on the Crow Creek and Flandreau Santee Sioux reservations in South Dakota, and the Santee Souix reservation in Nebraska. The United Native America website has a petition recalling the Mankato hangings, stating: "We demand that Abe Lincoln's dishonest and shameful face be removed from the 'occupied' and desecrated area called 'Mount Rushmore' immediately."