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Largest Mass Execution in US History: 150 Years Ago Today | The Nation

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Largest Mass Execution in US History: 150 Years Ago Today

December 26, 1862: thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in US history–on orders of President Abraham Lincoln. Their crime: killing 490 white settlers, including women and children, in the Santee Sioux uprising the previous August.

The execution took place on a giant square scaffold in the center of town, in front of an audience of hundreds of white people. The thirty-eight Dakota men “wailed and danced atop the gallows,” according to Robert K. Elder of The New York Times, “waiting for the trapdoors to drop beneath them.” A witness reported that, “as the last moment rapidly approached, they each called out their name and shouted in their native language: ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ ”

Lincoln’s treatment of defeated Indian rebels against the United States stood in sharp contrast to his treatment of Confederate rebels. He never ordered the executions of any Confederate officials or generals after the Civil War, even though they killed more than 400,000 Union soldiers. The only Confederate executed was the commander of Andersonville Prison—and for what we would call war crimes, not rebellion.

Minnesota was a new frontier state in 1862, where white settlers were pushing out the Dakota Indians—also called the Souix. A series of broken peace treaties culminated in the failure of the United States that summer to deliver promised food and supplies to the Indians, partial payment for their giving up their lands to whites. One local trader, Andrew Myrick, said of the Indians’ plight, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

The Dakota leader Little Crow then led his “enraged and starving” tribe in a series of attacks on frontier settlements. The “US-Dakota War” didn’t last long: After six weeks, Henry Hastings Sibley, first governor of Minnesota and a leader of the state militia, captured 2,000 Dakota, and a military court sentenced 303 to death.

Lincoln, however, was “never an Indian hater,” Eric Foner writes in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. He did not agree with General John Pope, sent to put down a Sioux uprising in southern Minnesota, who said “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so.” Lincoln “carefully reviewed the trial records,” Foner reports, and found a lack of evidence at most of the tribunals. He commuted the sentences of 265 of the Indians—a politically unpopular move. But, he said, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”

The 265 Dakota Indians whose lives Lincoln spared were either fully pardoned or died in prison. Lincoln and Congress subsequently removed the Sioux and Winnebago—who had nothing to do with the uprising—from all of their lands in Minnesota.

Mankato today is a city of 37,000 south of Minneapolis, notable for its state university campus, which has 15,000 students. In Mankato, which has heretofore neglected its bloody past, a new historical marker is being erected at the site of the scaffold, at a place now called Reconciliation Park. The marker, a fiberglass scroll, displays the names of the thirty-eight Dakota who were executed.

The Minnesota History Center in St. Paul is currently featuring an exhibit titled “Minnesota Tragedy: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.” “You can’t turn your head from what is not pretty in history,” said Stephen Elliott, who became the director of the Minnesota Historical Society last May after twenty-eight years at Colonial Williamsburg. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Whatever we do, it’s not going to somehow heal things or settle it.” The impressive state-of-the-art exhibit includes the views of both white settlers and Indians, voices from the past as well as the present. “Visitors are encouraged to make up their own minds about what happened and why,” the official guide declares. The website and online video are particularly impressive.

The mass execution of the Dakota Indians isn’t the only fact missed in the Lincoln biopic. Check out Jon Wiener on “The Trouble with Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln.’

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