The largest execution in U.S. history occurred 153 years ago today, on December 26, 1862, when 38 Dakota Native American Indian warriors were hung from a single scaffold in Mankato, Minnesota. This was the largest one-day execution in American history. Another 150 Indians were killed in what was called the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 or Little Crow’s War.
The Dakota Indians were the largest division of the Siouan family (Sioux) who lived in the regions that are now the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, South and North Dakota, Nebraska, and in the country of Canada.
Most of America was established on land the federal government stole from Native American Indians. By July 1815 the Dakotas and the American government reached some level of peace. By August 1825, the boundary lines were drawn among the various tribes in the northwest, which were again redefined by a treaty signed on Sept. 17, 1851.
The United States agreed to financially compensate the Indian tribes in exchange for the Indians surrendering roughly 24 million acres of hunting grounds—on which the government prohibited them from hunting.
However, the American government didn’t keep its end of the agreement. As a result, the Dakotas suffered widespread hardship and starvation. Agents required to pay them were either late or tried to cheat them from receiving the money owed to them. And because government agents wouldn’t pay local storeowners, the storeowners refused to release food supplies to the Indians.
(Allegedly, Congress reportedly reallocated the money owed to the Dakotas and northwest tribes to fund First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s redecoration of the White House.)
On December 10, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors rode by horseback, 330 miles through snow, from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota. They led others in a fight against a federal government that had first occupied their land, next disarmed them, and later broke its commitment to financially compensate them for their land.
In response to their uprising, President Abraham Lincoln dispatched General John Pope to Minnesota. Pope wrote of his mission: “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.”
Hundreds of Indians, settlers and soldiers died along the Minnesota River valley after battles fought at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm.
Afterwards, hundreds of Dakota fighters were arrested and sentenced to death.
“The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status,” remarked, Carol Chomsky, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota Law School.
President Lincoln signed an order for the insurgents to be executed. A Christian pastor and others urged leniency, which influenced Lincoln to reduce the number to be executed from 303 to 39 men. (One man was acquitted prior to the hanging.)
On the day after Christmas in 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were executed in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history in front of 4,000 spectators.
Martial law was declared, in Mankato, which included banning the sale and consumption of alcohol within a ten-mile radius.
Later on, it was discovered that two men had been mistakenly hung.
The hanged men were buried in a shallow grave next to the river; their bodies were allegedly dug up and used as medical cadavers.
Additionally, the Dakota were evicted from Minnesota, sent to live on reservations in Nebraska and the Dakota Territories.
In 2008, Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, retraced the Dakota 38’s 330 mile journey from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota. Miller rode horseback along the same route taken in 1862 to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution on December 26, 2008.
Dakota 38, a documentary produced by Smooth Feather Production, tells
“the story of [Miller’s and others’] journey- the blizzards they endure, the Native and Non-Native communities that house and feed them along the way, and the dark history they are beginning to wipe away. … to encourage healing and reconciliation.”
However, December 26th should be a day to live in infamy. It should remind American citizens of a history of a federal government’s illegal confiscation of land and guns from men and women seeking to protect their families and to prevent their children from starving to death.