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The Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History
December 26, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

150 years ago, on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The men were hung after being convicted by a U.S. military commission for participating in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Originally, 303 were sentenced to death, but President Lincoln commuted the sentences of most of those convicted. The war was waged in the Minnesota River Valley. The Minnesota Historical Society's page on the hangings is here. The Minneapolis Star Tribune's six-part series on the war is here. Minnesota Public Radio has an online photographic display on the war. This American Life's episode on the war is available through the program's website. Indian Country Today reports on efforts in Minnesota to remember the war, including a memorial dedicated in Mankato today. Following the war, most Dakota were expelled from Minnesota.
posted by Area Man (31 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
The exile of the Dakota resulted in the expansion of homesteading in the areas surrounding Mankato. In fact, you may remember one family that became homesteaders on former Dakota land.
posted by 1367 at 2:55 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wondered to myself, “how many of those who crowded arround the gallows on the 26th of December, also crowded around the manger scene the day before?” What was on the mind of those parishioners as they contemplated the coming of the “Prince of Peace” while they simultaneously planned and prayed for the execution of many, and the exile of all the Dakota from Minnesota.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:07 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder what America looks like to outsiders, who see us disingenuously but constantly harping on about slavery while completely ignoring the probably hundreds of genocides we've carried out in the last few hundred years.
posted by cthuljew at 3:14 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The men were hung after being convicted by a U.S. military commission for participating in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The trail was certainly unjust, but if I understand it correctly the Dakota were hung after being convicted of rape and murder against civilians, not for participating in war against the United States.
posted by lstanley at 3:14 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The TAL episode is an amazing piece of popular history documentary. Massively recommended.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:15 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


My understanding was the convictions were for waging war, but the commutation decisions were based on whether Lincoln thought they'd participated in massacres or rapes.
posted by Area Man at 3:23 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks for this post. It's an interesting (and obviously sad) story that I was largely unfamiliar with. Our daughter is pretty consumed with all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, but despite being pretty familiar with the LHOTP books the specifics of this war are new to me.
posted by mosk at 3:46 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


if I understand it correctly the Dakota were hung after being convicted of rape and murder against civilians, not for participating in war against the United States.

The massively appalling level of hypocrisy of the US Army in the 1800s convicting someone ELSE of the murder and rape of civilians, much less Native American someone elses, is vast and unknowable.
posted by elizardbits at 4:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]


Largest mass execution in US history? 138 years later, we still have to say "Remember Fort Pillow!" I guess that one is more of a massacre than a formal execution. It was still 300+ African-Americans killed after the battle was over and they had surrendered. Not just soldiers, but women and children.

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/214150/Fort-Pillow-Massacre
posted by DirtyOldTown at 4:30 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


DirtyOldTown,

Please don't read my post as an attempt to downplay the seriousness of what happened at Fort Pillow. I posted today because it is the anniversary of the executions in Mankato. The one incident is typically referred to as a massacre and the other as an execution. As you suggest in your comment, I think that's because of the formal, judicial nature of the killings in Mankato.

Area Man
posted by Area Man at 5:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


sidenote: my junior year English teacher made it very clear to me that doors are hung, people are hanged.

(p.s. Is this still right?)
posted by danep at 5:31 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


danep: As far as I know, yes.
posted by dhens at 5:36 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


So did mine. Sorry.
posted by Area Man at 5:41 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder what America looks like to outsiders, who see us disingenuously but constantly harping on about slavery while completely ignoring the probably hundreds of genocides we've carried out in the last few hundred years.

Like all of us living in post-Colonial places.
We don't talk about our massacres much either.
And we can pretend slavery didn't exist because it wasn't on the same scale.
posted by Mezentian at 6:27 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Largest mass execution in US history? 138 years later, we still have to say "Remember Fort Pillow!" I guess that one is more of a massacre than a formal execution. It was still 300+ African-Americans killed after the battle was over and they had surrendered. Not just soldiers, but women and children.

That was a massacre. It wasn't the only time that African American soldiers were ruthlessly killed after a battle, either. (If not on the same scale)

The treatment of the American Indians and slavery are the two greatest stains of American history and the ramifications of both still live on today. It's tragically incredible the impact both have had.
posted by Atreides at 6:30 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I feel like commemorating the hanging does the people who wish to educate the world on the horrors of the Dakota forced migration a disservice.

Regardless of the crappy way the Dakota were treated before the war, nothing can excuse the slaughter of civilians that they (well, some of them at least) did to start it. Hanging 38 out of the hundreds of Dakota that participated both in the original massacre and in the atrocities that followed was, IMHO, a reasonable response given the times.

Blaming the entire Dakota people, and working to eliminate them from Minnesota (if not the US as a whole) was also inexcusable, and really is what should be pointed to as the bad act (on the part of the US) here.
posted by sparklemotion at 6:51 PM on December 26, 2012


I wonder what America looks like to outsiders, who see us disingenuously but constantly harping on about slavery while completely ignoring the probably hundreds of genocides we've carried out in the last few hundred years.

Do you mean current slavery or the South's late peculiar institution that ended a century and a half ago? Because if it's current events we're talking about, there's a reason that matters more. People are still suffering today.
posted by codswallop at 7:21 PM on December 26, 2012


Sparklemotion...wondering here what number would have made it an UNreasonable response. 39? 50? 64? I think among other things it is the unjust process, the arbitrariness of the decision and the overreaction of the sentence.

A lot of colonial history is excused as being "of its time." But the legacy of events like this runs very deep in indigenous communities, and excusing such atrocities still stings, and I would say colours indigenous-settler relations in a way that is definitely asymmetrical. The question of "who started it" needs a little more context.

So while I understand your point (and your second paragraph certainly offers some context), saying it to someone's face really would garner a troubled response among Dakota people, and one should assume Dakota people are a part of this community.
posted by salishsea at 7:21 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Just out of curiosity, how many settlers or soldiers were executed for atrocities committed against the natives? Uh huh. Does that mean there weren't any atrocities committed against the natives? The imbalance of power between the two sides makes our retroactive notions of what is "just" highly problematic. Add to that the fact that the history is written by the victors; unless there is a detailed historical record from the Dakota perspective that I haven't heard about.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd like to point out that the links contain another story that is worth noting, and that is how some non-indigenous people and local leaders are working to remember the massacre without being defensive about it, even while ignorance and outright hostile racism still confuses the story. The small thread of reconciliation that is being pursued is a worthy footnote to the FPP.
posted by salishsea at 7:33 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


What was on the mind of those parishioners...

Free land.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:34 PM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is a great post, thanks.
posted by young sister beacon at 9:05 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


My mother's people lived in Minnesota. They survived that war on their own lands because of being more cooperative with their Native neighbors than other Whites.
My great grandfather was a little boy of 5 or 6 when this mass hanging took place. It indelibly affected his young mind.
He spent years among the different tribes, learning Grand Medicine and other religious matters.
Later he was a union organizer. He worked as a carpenter in his later years, during the Great Depression at the University of Minnesota. One day he had a work order to paint a certain room in the museum, the one where the gallows was on display.
He walked out and told his boss he would not paint that room and why.
His boss did not fire him. His boss sent a different man to do the job.
The Minnesota Massacre was explained to me when I asked my mother to explain that passage in LHOTP.
The books were sent to me and my little sister as gifts. She often sent us books as presents.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:20 PM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


Even though I live in Minnesota and grew up here, I'm really ignorant of a lot of Native American history. I was just reading about the execution and the events leading up to it, largely because I wanted to learn something about some of the differences between Dakota and Lakota. (I learned, among other things, that the term "Nakota" is pretty much a misnomer.)

That led me to what is apparently the best Lakota dictionary (and phrasebook and textbook and...) around, which is published by a non-profit dedicated to the revitalization of Lakota. Cool! That same site has a bunch of good resources: a neat page with Lakota pronunciation examples for (what I assume is) Ullrich's transcription system, and a page with good regional and derivational diagrams of Siouan languages. And from there, to the Beranstain Bears in Lakota. (Makes me want to learn Lakota!)

That took me to reading about Ella Cara Deloria (Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ), who was Yankton Sioux and who clearly deserves to have a movie made about her life. And to Little Crow, who was Dakota Sioux and who led the Dakota forces in the Dakota War. The last major battle was at* Wood Lake, not too far from Mankato (where the executions later took place). The site now has a stone marker and a small interpretive path that I will have to go visit sometime. The battlefield's website has a quite interesting bilateral history of the battle.

Still a lot to learn, but at least I've learned a little.

* Not actually Wood Lake; the battle was at Lone Tree Lake, but the whites misidentified the location and the misnomer stuck.
posted by jiawen at 1:02 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've been looking into my family history lately, and found that I have four 2nd great grand uncles, brothers to each other, who enlisted during the Civil War. Three of them enlisted in their hometown in NY (2 miles from my hometown) and died within 6 months of each other, all from diphtheria they contracted during their service. Two of them had also been wounded in the war, and we have a couple of letters one of them wrote from his hospital bed.

The fourth brother -- the only one who survived the war -- was one of the first to enlist in Company I 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. A family obituary describes him as serving in "a war with the Indians." I didn't even know that we had a branch of our family that had moved out to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and through the miracle of ancestry.com, I've even been in touch with his descendents (my cousins) out there.

When I read the obituary a few months ago, it was the first time I understood there was a second front during the Civil War. I think I learned it watching some of Ken Burns' Civil War series, but promptly forgot it. I certainly didn't know I had family that was involved.

Thank you for these links. It gives me another rabbit hole to go down (albeit with a heavy heart - I feel obliged to read the awful things about my family as well as the laudatory and the mundane).
posted by vitabellosi at 5:42 AM on December 27, 2012


Imagine what you would do if your family was forced away from the places they know they can acquire food, with promises that they will be provided for. Imagine you find out that all of those were lies. Imagine that the man who's supposed to trade you for food tells you oh well, and maybe you should eat grass and your own shit. Imagine you are young men with hot heads.

I recommend you read the trial transcripts. They are out there. Remember that many settlers would say anything to get some approximation of justice for what they lost, and that they were being pushed hard to say those things by some very insistant authorities. Not that there weren't rapes or horrible murders on the part of Natives. There were. But I think there was pretty much no way of telling if they had the actual perpetrator of those crimes on the docket. The point is that Indians were not considered individuals, and one dead one was pretty much like another. No one cared if they got the wrong man. No one. There are people who still today will say that phrase, "The only good Indian is a Dead Indian" and mean it. (Seriously! I'm not exaggerating!) In Minnesota, the root of it is in this war.

If you think there was anything remotely approximating justice in this hanging, you're insane.
posted by RedEmma at 6:02 AM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Let's not forget the fact that the mass trench grave of the executed was robbed; with some bodies distributed to doctors for use as medical cadavers, and the bones kept for use in osteology lessons. Or they were skinned for god knows what purpose.

In addition, the effects of the Dakota War are still felt.

A lot of the expelled Dakota ended up on the Crow Creek Reservation, most of which is in Buffalo County, South Dakota, the poorest in the US. The per capita income is $5,213.

Over half of the population lives below the poverty line. The unemployment rate rarely falls under 50%. Few people own their houses. The nearest bank is 30 minutes away, but that doesn't really matter because nobody is going to give a loan to an unemployed Indian to buy a house that might not have a kitchen or indoor plumbing.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:36 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was having lunch the other day with a colleague who grew up in the area and she noted that until she moved to the South, she was unaware of how much racism there really was in the Upper Midwest--because in the Midwest, racism wasn't directed at blacks (which was how she understood racism to be) but rather at Indians (who weren't even mentioned on the national civil rights scene in that era). So her experience was much like that of the narrator/producer in the TAL episode, where moving South was a catalyst for analysis of the issues of the Upper Midwest (eastern North Dakota, western Minnesota) she grew up in.

Finally, I was pleased to note that the local media where I live (in the area not that far from Mankato) picked up this actually pretty great Associated Press story on the dedication of a plaque to the 38 hanged men yesterday, the day of the anniversary. Sounds like recognition of the event in the area is slowly increasing.
posted by librarylis at 10:25 AM on December 27, 2012


As an aside, the Ingalls family were no strangers to living on lands that had previously belonged to specific Native American nations. Their time in Kansas has been examined in great detail, specifically in this paper "Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve - Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Kansas Indians" [single link PDF]

A few historians have actually concluded they squatted (that is, lived illegally) on their homestead in Kansas.
posted by kuppajava at 12:07 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sparklemotion...wondering here what number would have made it an UNreasonable response. 39? 50? 64? I think among other things it is the unjust process, the arbitrariness of the decision and the overreaction of the sentence.

I can turn this question around and ask what punishment _would_ have been reasonable for the original perpetrators? (assuming of course, that they had the right 38 -- even the TAL episode didn't try to claim that the hanged men were innocent of what they had been accused of) If the death penalty was the standard punishment for rape and murder at the time, I can't see how the sentence was an overreaction -- especially considering that the original bloodlust was sated by Lincoln's request for at least some evidence of wrongdoing beyond simple looting/fighting back. This logic is of course somewhat diminished by the fact that surely plenty of US soldiers were guilty of far worse crimes but weren't punished.

So while I understand your point (and your second paragraph certainly offers some context), saying it to someone's face really would garner a troubled response among Dakota people, and one should assume Dakota people are a part of this community.


I believe that it's dangerous to make assumptions about the thought processes of anyone just because of their cultural/racial heritage, but I would assume that the Dakota people who are a part of this community would understand that my point wasn't to minimize the horror of what happened to their ancestors, but to show how, from the point of view of an outsider (I've only lived in MN for a few years), the true horror here was the forced migration and broken treaties, not the US actually enforcing its laws for once*.

*IMO, if the US had enforced its laws fairly in the first place, the treaty breaking which instigated the original uprising would never have happened.
posted by sparklemotion at 6:20 PM on December 27, 2012


I agree with you about the application of US law. If the application of US law is at issue, all of these trials should have been declared mistrials, according to everything I've read. There was no due process here, under any standard. This was retribution clear and simple, masquerading as justice. It is cases like this that set a long standing mistrust of the application of USAmerican law to indigenous Americans. I think that is the point here, and why small attempts at reconciliation is an important 21st century twist on this tale.
posted by salishsea at 11:37 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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