The Dakota War of 1862, was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of the eastern Sioux (also known as eastern Dakota). It began on Aug 17, 1862, along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota. It ended with a mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota. This event took place 150 years ago this month (December 26, 1862), and was the largest mass execution in American history.
The U.S.-Dakota War was largely overshadowed by the Civil War raging to the south. It is mostly unknown today. In an American Life Story, Ira talks to John Biewen about how remarkable it is that he could grow up in a town and never learn about the most significant event in its history.
Little Crow is notable for his role in the negotiation of the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota of 1851, in which he agreed to the movement of his band of the Dakota to a reservation near the Minnesota River in exchange for goods and certain other rights. However, the government reneged on its promises to provide food and annuities to the tribe.
Throughout the late 1850s, treaty violations by the United States and late or unfair annuity payments by Indian agents caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota. Traders with the Dakota previously had demanded that the government give the annuity payments directly to them (introducing the possibility of unfair dealing between the agents and the traders to the exclusion of the Dakota). In mid-1862 the Dakota demanded the annuities directly from their agent, Thomas J. Galbraith. The traders refused to provide any more supplies on credit under those conditions, and negotiations reached an impasse.
On August 16, 1862, the treaty payments to the Dakota arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and were brought to Fort Ridgely the next day. They arrived too late to prevent violence. On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota men were on a hunting trip in Acton Township, Minnesota, during which one stole eggs and then killed five white settlers. Soon after, a Dakota war council was convened and their leader, Little Crow, agreed to continue attacks on the European-American settlements to try to drive out the whites.
On August 18, 1862, Little Crow led a group that attacked the Lower Sioux (or Redwood) Agency. Andrew Myrick was among the first who were killed. He was discovered trying to escape through a second-floor window of a building at the agency. Myrick’s body later was found with grass stuffed into his mouth. The warriors burned the buildings at the Lower Sioux Agency, giving enough time for settlers to escape across the river at Redwood Ferry. Minnesota militia forces and B Company of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment sent to quell the uprising were defeated at the Battle of Redwood Ferry. Twenty-four soldiers, including the party’s commander (Captain John Marsh), were killed in the battle. Throughout the day, Dakota war parties swept the Minnesota River Valley and near vicinity, killing many settlers. Numerous settlements including the Townships of Milford, Leavenworth and Sacred Heart, were surrounded and burned and their populations nearly exterminated.
Confident with their initial success, the Dakota continued their offensive and attacked the settlement of New Ulm, Minnesota, on August 19, 1862, and again on August 23, 1862. Dakota warriors initially decided not to attack the heavily defended Fort Ridgely along the river. They turned toward the town, killing settlers along the way. By the time New Ulm was attacked, residents had organized defenses in the town center and were able to keep the Dakota at bay during the brief siege. Dakota warriors penetrated parts of the defenses enough to burn much of the town. By that evening, a thunderstorm dampened the warfare, preventing further Dakota attacks.
Regular soldiers and militia from nearby towns (including two companies of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry then stationed at Fort Ridgely) reinforced New Ulm. Residents continued to build barricades around the town.
During this period, the Dakota attacked Fort Ridgely on August 20 and 22, 1862. Although the Dakota were not able to take the fort, they ambushed a relief party from the fort to New Ulm on August 21. The defense at the Battle of Fort Ridgely further limited the ability of the American forces to aid outlying settlements. The Dakota raided farms and small settlements throughout south central Minnesota and what was then eastern Dakota Territory.
Minnesota militia counterattacks resulted in a major defeat of American forces at the Battle of Birch Coulee on Sep 2, 1862. The battle began when the Dakota attacked a detachment of 150 American soldiers at Birch Coulee, 16 miles from Fort Ridgely. The detachment had been sent out to find survivors, bury American dead and report on the location of Dakota fighters. A three-hour firefight began with an early morning assault. Thirteen soldiers were killed and 47 were wounded, while only two Dakota were killed. A column of 240 soldiers from Fort Ridgely relieved the detachment at Birch Coulee the same afternoon.
Further north, the Dakota attacked several unfortified stagecoach stops and river crossings along the Red River Trails, a settled trade route between Fort Garry (now Winnipeg and Saint Paul in the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota and eastern Dakota Territory. Many settlers and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company and other local enterprises in this sparsely populated country took refuge in Fort Abercrombie, located in a bend of the Red River of the North about 25 miles south of present-day Fargo, North Dakota. Between late August and late September, the Dakota launched several attacks on Fort Abercrombie; all were repelled by its defenders.
In the meantime steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River came to a halt. Mail carriers, stage drivers and military couriers were killed while attempting to reach settlements such as Pembina, North Dakota, Fort Garry, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Fort Snelling. Eventually the garrison at Fort Abercrombie was relieved by a U.S. Army company from Fort Snelling, and the civilian refugees were removed to St. Cloud.
Due to the demands of the Civil War, the region’s representatives had to repeatedly appeal for aid before Pres. Abraham Lincoln formed the Department of the Northwest on Sep 6, 1862, and appointed Gen. John Pope to command it with orders to quell the violence. He led troops from the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 10th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which were still being constituted, had troops dispatched to the front as soon as Companies were formed.
After the arrival of a larger army force, the final large-scale fighting took place at the Battle of Wood Lake on Sep 23, 1862. After brief fighting, the forces in the skirmish line charged against the Dakota (then in a ravine) and defeated them overwhelmingly.
Most Dakota fighters surrendered shortly after the Battle of Wood Lake at Camp Release on Sep 26, 1862. The place was so named because it was the site where the Dakota released 269 European-American captives to the troops commanded by Col. Henry Sibley. The captives included 162 “mixed-bloods” (mixed-race, some likely descendants of Dakota women who were mistakenly counted as captives) and 107 whites, mostly women and children. Most of the warriors were imprisoned before Sibley arrived at Camp Release. The surrendered Dakota warriors were held until military trials took place in Nov 1862.
Little Crow was forced to retreat sometime in September 1862. He stayed briefly in Canada but soon returned to the Minnesota area. He was killed on July 3, 1863, near Hutchinson, Minnesota, while gathering raspberries with his teenage son. The pair had wandered onto the land of white settler Nathan Lamson, who shot at them to collect bounties. For killing Little Crow, the state granted Lamson an additional $500 bounty. For his part in the warfare, Little Crow’s son was sentenced to death by a military tribunal, a sentence then commuted to a prison term.
There has never been an official report on the number of settlers killed, although as many as over 800 settlers have been cited. Over the next several months, continued battles between the Dakota against settlers and later, the United States Army, ended with the surrender of most of the Dakota bands. By late Dec 1862, soldiers had taken captive more than a thousand Dakota, who were interned in jails in Minnesota.
Our 1862 Minnesota Ancestors, Uncles and Cousins
In the 1860 census, my 2nd Great Grandparents Guilford Dudley COLEMAN (1832 – 1903) and Ellen Celeste WEBBER (twin of Emma) (1835-1881) and their son Dana were living in Anoka, Anoka, Minnesota where Guilford was a blacksmith.
G.D. and Ellen emigrated from Maine to Anoka, Minnesota in 1856. G.D. was a blacksmith and an owner and driver of fine horses. He could drive his horse , Tony, by simple, quiet tones as “Turn to the left, Tony”, or “Turn to the right, Tony”. He wrote in 1900 (age 68) that he couldn’t shoe 200 horses in four weeks like he used to.
Ellen was educated in a New England “Female Seminary” and wrote beautifully and expressed herself elegantly. Since her family disapproved of her marrying Guilford Dudley, my grandmother believed they eloped when they emigrated to Minnesota. He was young and poor.
Ellen came to Minnesota as a bride with several nice dresses. Ellen’s sister Esther sent her a dress of her own, the beauty of which is rarely seen. It was a changeable silk of grey and pink made in the mode of that period, tight bodice with very full skirt, flowing sleaves with fringe of the same shade.
Ellen had excellent taste and she loved nice things, but she didn’t have them in Minnesota as she had had as a girl in Vassalboro. Guilford Dudley was a good man and did the best he could to provide for his family.
1 Dec 1862 Anoka, MN, Extract of Letter from Ellen to her mother Abigail. Ellen wrote beautifully and expressed herself elegantly, though it appears frontier life didn’t entirely agree with her.
The prices of dry goods and groceries in short, everything, we need are really frightfully high. Common factory cloth is 35 cents a yard, prints $0.23, flannel $0.75 delaines $0.35 and $0.40, etc.
But business is very good and wages high. Guilford had 40 dollars per month offered him to drive a horse team this winter in the pinery, but concluded he could do much better to attend to his own business.
We have no fears of the Indians now. About 200 of the Sioux are at Fort Snelling now, think we shall go down and see them this winter. Many of them have been tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but the President will not give his consent. Petitions are being sent asking him that justice should be done if the civil authorities do not execute them, the people are determined to sweep them from the face of the earth. An old acquaintance of ours, now a soldier, stopped two days with us two weeks ago. He was just from the Indian Country and of course we made many questions to ask, he says there have been 2000 people killed by them and Oh they have been so cruel.
The Minnesota River valley and surrounding upland prairie areas were abandoned by most settlers during the war. Many of the families who fled their farms and homes as refugees never returned. Following the Civil War, however, the area was resettled. By the mid-1870s, it was again being used for agriculture. I’m not including our numerous Anoka, Stillwater and Minneapolis relatives. Some of the kin below were in the war zone in 1862 and the rest were certainly there in the early 1870’s.
Seth RICHARDSON II’s granddaughter Mary “Polly” Richardson (1799 in Attleborough, Mass. –1888 Owatonna, Steele, Minnesota) ; m. 1 Sep 1822 in Vassalboro, Kennebec Co., Maine to Serenus A. Farrington ( 1799 Maine – 1888 Minneapolis)
In the 1860 census, Mary and Serenus were farming in Otisco, Waseca, Minnesota, 35 miles southeast of Mankato. They were two of the early settlers of Otisco in 1857, where they lived thirteen years. He then moved with his wife to Owatonna.
Isaac MILLER’s daughter Hannah was born 3 May 1820 Northampton New Brunswick, Canada. She married John Grant. Hannah died died 30 May 1885 Kasota Hill Cemetery, Le Sueur County Minnesota (25 miles north of Mankato)
The Grants lived in Canterbury,New Brunswick before immigrating to Wisconsin and Minnesota by covered wagon in 1848. John was a Tanner and farmer. It was reported that two of his sons were such large men, they were obliged to make their own boots. On their journey westward, John and Hannah visited for some time with her mother, Harriet, and stepfather Tristram Hillman in Utica, NY. Tristram and Harriet are found on the 1850 census of that town.All of Hannah’s brothers and sisters also moved to the U.S. about this time. The Grants second stop was at Lemonweir Wisconsin before moving on to Winnebago, Martin County, Minnesota in 1862. Winnebago is 35 miles south of Mankato.
Canterbury NB Mile 0
Utica NY Mile 638
Lemonweir WI Mile 1578
Winnebago, MN Mile 1813
Joseph COLEMAN’s granddaughter Mercy Ann Sturges (830 in Vassalboro, Maine -1904 in Lewiston, Maine) married 18 Jul 1888 Age: 57 Madelia, Watonwan, Minnesota to Manoah Delling (1819 Madelia, Minnesota – 5 Nov 1892) He first married Hester Eliza Vought (b. ~1818 in New York – d. 1886 in Madelia) Madelia is 25 miles west southwest of Mankato.
Joseph COLEMAN’s granddaughter Hannah Jennie Sturges ( 1832 in Vassalboro, Maine – 1909 in Augusta Maine) married 22 Dec 1869 Age: 37 Androscoggin, Maine to Harrison Pullen Gilbert (1816 in Kingfield,, Maine – 1898 in Madelia, Watonwan, Minnesota)
In the 1860 census, H P Gilbert was farming in Madelia, Brown, Minnesota 25 miles west southwest of Mankato.
In the 1880 census, Hannah J and Harrison were farming in Madelia, Watonwan, Minnesota.
Isaac MILLER’s granddaughter Mariah Grant (1841 in Canterbury, New Brunswick – Aft 1880 census) m1. 1865 in Minnesota to Frank Durant (1844 – ); m2. Henry (Elias) Belnap (b. 1820 New York) In the 1870 census, Mariah Durant was living next to her father John Grant in Nashville, Martin, Minnesota with three small children and no husband at home, Martin County is on the Iowa border 50 miles southwest of Mankato.
Abraham ESTEY’s and Isaac MILLER’s grandson Colin John Estey ( 1849, Winnebago, Wisconsin – 1902 Pocahontas, Iowa;) first married 3 Apr 1874 in Mankato, Blue Earth, Minnesota to Henretta C. [__?__] (b. 1839 Pennsylvania- d. Aft 1910 census ); m2. abt 1900 to Minnie C [__?__] (b. Jan 1872 Iowa) Her father was born in Denmark and her mother in Illinois.
Isaac MILLER’s granddaughter Albertha J. Grant ( 1851 New Brunswick, Canada – 1948 St. Paul, MinnesotaO) married 29 Nov 1874, Blue Earth Co., Minn to Millard Boyden (1845, in Rochester, NY – 1903 in Cumberland, Wisconsin.)
Isaac MILLER’s grandson Leonard Jarvis Grant ( 1845 Canterbury, New Brunswick – 1926 Prairie, Montana); m. 10 Jun 1873 in Kasota, Le Sueur, Minnesota to Alwilda “Polly” Shaw. Leonard came to the United States in 1859 and to Minnesota in 1862
Dudley COLEMAN’s son-in-law Milton David Lapham (1827 in Minot, Maine – 1899 in Anoka, Minnesota) enlisted as a Sargent in Company C, 1st Minnesota Volunteer Cavalry Regiment the “Mounted Rangers” on 17 Oct 1862. He mustered out on 31 Oct 1863.
First Cavalry.–Col., Samuel McPhaill; Lieut.-Col., William Pfaender; Majs., John H. Parker, Solomon S. Buell, Orrin T. Hayes. This regiment was made up of twelve companies, organized in the fall of 1862 and was composed largely of men who had lost their wives, children or relatives in the Sioux massacre the previous August and September.
The first battalion of three companies was sent out as soon as organized for guard and patrol duty. In the spring of 1863 nine companies under Col. McPhaill assembled at Camp Pope for the campaign of the Missouri, the other three companies remaining for patrol duty. The regiment was in the Battle of Big Mound., where the 1st battalion led the attack. It fought its way up the steep hill, put the Indians to flight and followed them for 15 miles. The regiment was in the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake, and was at Stony lake, when the Indians attacked in great force. It reached the Missouri July 29, and returned to Fort Abercrombie. Col. McPhaill, with several companies of cavalry, was sent to Fort Ridgely, which place he reached Sept. 1. The 1st battalion was sent to Fort Ripley and the various companies of the 1st cavalry were mustered out during the fall and winter of 1863-64.
Hendrik TURK’s grandson-in-law Harvey Terpenning (1820 Cortland, NY – 1899 in Geneva, Ashtabula, OH) enlisted in Company I, Iowa 6th Cavalry Regiment on Feb 2 1863 and mustered out Oct 17 1865 at Sioux City, IA.
Moved to Sioux City, Dakota, March 16-April 26, 1863. Operations against hostile Indians about Fort Randall May and June. Moved to Fort Pierre, and duty there until July. Sully’s Expedition against hostile Sioux Indians August 13-September 11. Actions at White Stone Hill September 3 and 5. Duty at Fort Sully, Fort Randall and Sioux City until June, 1864. Sully’s Expedition against hostile Sioux Indians June 26-October 8. Engagement at Tah kah a kuty July 28. Two Hills, Bad Lands, Little Missouri River, August 8. Expedition from Fort Rice to relief of Fisk’s Emigrant train September 11-30. Fort Rice September 27. Duty by Detachments at Fort Randall, Sioux City, Fort Berthold, Yankton and the Sioux and Winnebago Indian Agencies until October, 1865. Mustered out October 17, 1865.
Regiment lost during service 1 Officer and 21 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 1 Officer and 74 Enlisted men by disease. Total 97.
William LATTA’s son Dr. William Story Latta (1826-1903) was a Physician, Army surgeon, President National E. Medical Association, President State Medical Association, Dean of Medical Facility, Professor of Pathology and Microscopy at Nebraska Christian University and Dean of Medical Faculty at Cotner University at Lincoln, Neb. Editor Nebraska Medical Journal in 1891. He went to Stockton, Calif. October 7, 1904.
William was mayor of Rock Bluff Nebraska when Sidney and Calista MINER moved there. He came to Plattsmouth, Neb., April 17, 1857, locating at Rock Bluff, Cass County, where he resided sixteen years, excepting two that he served in the army.
He was also a member of the Sixth Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Nebraska, which met in Omaha in December of 1859.
When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Latta enlisted as a private in the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry, and was commissioned Assistant Surgeon for the Second Nebraska Cavalry Regiment . He was chief surgeon over all the territory from Brownville, Nebraska north through the Dakotas. In 1862 he established the first military hospital at Omaha, and in 1863 went into active field service. He was mustered out in 1864.
The unit was initially organized at Omaha, Nebraska on October 23, 1862 as a nine-month regiment, and served for over one year. They were attached to General Sully’s command, who was in a campaign against Indians in Western Nebraska and Dakota, who were forced to move south from Minnesota following the Dakota War of 1862.
The 2nd Nebraska participated in the Battle of Whitestone Hill, (Dakota Territory
Present-day Dickey County, North Dakota) which began on September 3, 1863 when General Sully’s troops engaged upwards of 2,000 warriors under Chief Two Bears of the Yanktonai Sioux. Of the 20 US troops killed in the battle, seven were from the Second Nebraska. Fourteen from the unit were also wounded in the action. The regiment was mustered out December 23, 1863. A number of its veterans were re-enlisted in the 1st Battalion Nebraska Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, which served until 1865 when it was merged with the 1st Nebraska Cavalry Regiment.
The Battle of Whitestone Hill was the culmination of operations against the Sioux Indians in Dakota Territory in 1863. Brigadier General Alfred Sully attacked a village September 3–5, 1863. The Indians in the village included Yanktonai, Santee, and Teton (Lakota) Sioux. Sully killed, wounded, or captured 300 to 400 Sioux, including women and children, at a cost of about 60 casualties.
On the day of the battle, Sully arrived about 6 p.m. on the ridge overlooking the large, much dispersed Indian encampment. He estimated that only 600 to 700 of his men were present. He saw the Sioux packing up their tipis and departing and concluded that the Indians were more inclined to flee than fight. Sully’s objective was to “corral” the Indians and he deployed his force to cut off their escape routes and to advance on the village. He sent Colonel Wilson and the 6th Iowa to his right flank and Colonel Furnas and the 2nd Nebraska to his left to occupy several ravines which offered the Sioux an opportunity to conceal themselves from the soldiers and escape. Covered on both flanks, Sully with three companies and artillery advanced into the encampment without serious opposition. Two chiefs, Little Head and Big Head, and about 150 of their followers surrendered. Because of the close quarters and chaotic nature of the battlefield, Sully was unable to use his artillery.
Many of the Sioux were caught between the Sixth Iowa and the Second Nebraska, with the Iowa soldiers advancing on foot and pushing the Sioux into the arms of the Nebraskans who exchanged fire with the Indians at a range of only 60 yards. With darkness approaching, however, Colonel Wilson of the Sixth Iowa ordered an ill-advised mounted charge with one battalion. However, in his haste he failed to order some of his men to load their weapons and heavy fire from the Sioux caused the cavalry horses to bolt and the charge to break down. The battalion fell back and took up defensive positions on foot.
On the left, Colonel Furnas also withdrew his Nebraskans to a defensive position, fearing friendly fire and losing control of his soldiers in the increasing darkness. The soldiers spent a harrowing night, “the Indians pillaged the battlefield and scalped the dead soldiers; squaws were screaming and wailing” and a wounded soldier screamed for help but the soldiers thought he was a decoy to lure them out of their defenses. They found him next morning, still alive but dying from lacerations inflicted by the Indians. The Sioux escaped in the darkness.
The next morning the camp was empty of Indians except for the dead and a few lost children and women. Sully sent out patrols to attempt to locate the fleeing Sioux but they found few Indians. Sully ordered all the Indian property abandoned in the camp to be burned. This included 300 tipis and 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of dried buffalo meat, the winter supplies of the Indians and the product of 1,000 butchered buffalo
Union casualties were approximately 22 killed and 38 wounded. Some probably resulted from friendly fire. No reliable estimates of Sioux killed and wounded are available, with estimates ranging from 100 to 300, including women and children. Captured Sioux totaled 156, including 32 adult males. Indian sources often call Whitestone Hill a “massacre” with Sully attacking a “peaceful camp” and killing a large number of women and children. One of Sully’s interpreters, Samuel J. Brown, a mixed-blood Sioux, said “it was a perfect massacre” and “lamentable to hear how those women and children was massacred.” The contrary view is that Sully had a “long demonstrated concern for the Indians and a spotless record of honor and integrity.” The substantial casualties of the soldiers demonstrate, in the opinion of some historians, that Whitestone Hill was a battle, not a massacre.
Due to the poor condition of his horses and mules and his lack of supplies, Sully was unable to pursue the Sioux. About 600 Sioux, mostly Santee, took refuge in Canada after the battle. They were followed by 3,000 more in 1864. Minnesota expelled all Sioux, including those who had not participated in the Dakota War of 1862 and, also, expelled the friendly Winnebago. The State confiscated and sold all Sioux land in the state. Soon, only 25 Santee, steadfast friends of the whites, were allowed to live in the state.
After mustering out with the 2nd Nebraska in December 1864, William Story Lattta returned to his practice at Rock Bluff, where he remained for sixteen years. There he acquired an excellent reputation, and performed many major operations.
William L LATTA’s grandson Judge Samuel Nichols Latta (1818 in Lattasville, Ohio – 1880 – Leavenworth,, Kansas) was a leader during the Bleeding Kansas series of violent political confrontations involving anti-slavery Free-Staters and pro-slavery “Border Ruffian” elements, that took place in the Kansas Territory and the neighboring towns of Missouri between 1854 and 1861 During the summer of 1855, he was recognized as a leader of the Free State party, and, in the fall of that year, was elected a member of the convention which framed the Topeka constitution.
After the success, of the Free State and Republican party, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln, recognizing the services of Judge Latta in behalf of freedom, appointed him agent of the Indians of the Upper Missouri, in which capacity he had charge of the seven tribes of Sioux Indians, the Arickarows, Mandans, Growvouts, Assinibones and Crows, extending up the Missouri river from Fort Randall, Dakota, to near Fort Benton, Montana, holding the office from 1861 till the fall of 1866.
Joseph COLEMAN’s grandson-in-law Leonard Mooers (1818 Maine – 1890 in Minnesota) enlisted in Company D, Minnesota 10th Infantry Regiment on 21 Aug 1862. Company D, Captain W.W. Phelps; Company D, under Captain Phelps was stationed at Henderson MN. Mustered out on 21 Mar 1865 at Keokuk, IA.
The 10th Minnesota had troops dispatched to the Dakota War front as soon as Companies were formed.
Two years later, the 10th Minnesota’s charge up the slope and capture of Shy’s Hill was a turning point in the Battle of Nashville Dec 15-16 1864 It was one of the largest victories achieved by the Union Army during the war, representing the end of large-scale fighting in the Western Theater of the Civil War and largely destroying Hood’s army as an effective fighting force.
In early December, 303 Sioux prisoners were convicted of murder and rape by military tribunals and sentenced to death. Some trials lasted less than 5 minutes. No one explained the proceedings to the defendants, nor were the Sioux represented by a defense in court. President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed the trial records to distinguish between those who had engaged in warfare against the U.S., versus those who had committed crimes of rape and murder against civilians.
Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota and a reformer of U.S. policies toward Native Americans, first wrote an open letter and then went to Washington DC in the Fall of 1862 to urge Lincoln to proceed with leniency. On the other hand, General Pope and Minnesota Senator Morton S. Wilkinson told him that leniency would not be received well by the white population. Governor Ramsey warned Lincoln that, unless all 303 Sioux were executed, “[P]rivate revenge would on all this border take the place of official judgment on these Indians.” In the end, Lincoln commuted the death sentences of 264 prisoners, but he allowed the execution of 39 men.
Lincoln wrote to state leaders that he was “anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak … nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty.”
This clemency resulted in protests from Minnesota, which persisted until the Secretary of the Interior offered white Minnesotans “reasonable compensation for the depredations committed.” Republicans did not fare as well in Minnesota in the 1864 election as they had before. Ramsey (by then a senator) informed Lincoln that more hangings would have resulted in a larger electoral majority. The President reportedly replied “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”
The lithograph below was printed on the 20th anniversary of the execution, in 1883; newspaperman John C. Wise, who founded several papers in Mankato, claimed the copyright. It’s unclear how this image would have been distributed, but it seems fair to assume that Wise would have sold copies for wall display in Mankato.
The subject of the scene is less the execution itself and more the orderliness of the troops and citizen onlookers ranged around the execution platform. Before the execution, the governor of Minnesota had to beg his people to forswear vigilante justice against the prisoners; the arrangement of the scene served as proof that this entreaty worked.
Several witnesses mentioned that the Sioux held hands as they were executed. If you zoom into the lithograph, you can see that this detail didn’t make it into the visual record; the figures stand, arms stiffly held at their sides.
The mass execution was performed publicly on a single scaffold platform. After regimental surgeons pronounced the prisoners dead, they were burieden masse in a trench in the sand of the riverbank. Before they were buried, an unknown person nicknamed “Dr. Sheardown” possibly removed some of the prisoners’ skin, Small boxes purportedly containing the skin later were sold in Mankato.
At least two Sioux leaders, Little Six and Medicine Bottle, escaped to Canada. They were captured, drugged and returned to the United States. They were hanged at Fort Snelling in 1865
The remaining convicted Indians stayed in prison that winter. The following spring they were transferred to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, where they were held in prison for almost four years. By the time of their release, one third of the prisoners had died of disease. The survivors were sent with their families to Nebraska. Their families had already been expelled from Minnesota.
During this time, more than 1600 Dakota women, children and old men were held in an internment camp on Pike Island, near Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Living conditions and sanitation were poor, and infectious disease struck the camp, killing more than three hundred.
In April 1863 the U.S. Congress abolished the reservation, declared all previous treaties with the Dakota null and void, and undertook proceedings to expel the Dakota people entirely from Minnesota. To this end, a bounty of $25 per scalp was placed on any Dakota found free within the boundaries of the state. The only exception to this legislation applied to 208 Mdewakanton, who remained neutral or assisted white settlers in the conflict.
In May 1863 Dakota survivors were forced aboard steamboats and relocated to the Crow Creek Reservation, in the southeastern Dakota Territory, a place stricken by drought at the time. Many of the survivors of Crow Creek moved three years later to the Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska.
After suffering a long internment at Fort Snelling, the Dakota and Winnebago peoples were forcefully removed, precipitating the near destruction of the area’s native communities while simultaneously laying the foundation for what we know and recognize today as Minnesota.
An act of Congress banished thousands of Dakota from Minnesota. The law, though now unobserved, remains on the books.
Because of high demand for cadavers for anatomical study, several doctors wanted to obtain the bodies after the execution. The mass grave was reopened in the night and the bodies were distributed among the doctors, a practice common in the era. The doctor who received the body of Mahpiya Okinajin (He Who Stands in Clouds), also known as “Cut Nose”, was William Worrall Mayo.
Mayo brought the body of Mahpiya Okinajin to Le Sueur, Minnesota, where he dissected it in the presence of medical colleagues. Afterward, he had the skeleton cleaned, dried and varnished. Mayo kept it in an iron kettle in his home office. His sons received their first lessons in osteology from this skeleton. In the late 20th century, the identifiable remains of Mahpiya Okinajin and other Native Americans were returned by the Mayo Clinic to a Dakota tribe for reburial per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
By the late 1920s, the conflict began to pass into the realm of oral tradition in Minnesota. Eyewitness accounts were communicated first-hand to individuals who survived into the 1970s and early 1980s. The stories of innocent individuals and families of struggling pioneer farmers being killed by Dakota have remained in the consciousness of the prairie communities of south central Minnesota.
Little Crow’s skull and scalp were put on display in St. Paul, Minnesota. The city held the trophies until 1971, when it returned the remains to Little Crow’s grandson.
In 1972, the City of Mankato removed a plaque that had commemorated the mass execution of the thirty-eight Dakota from the site where the hanging occurred. In 1992, the City purchased the site and created Reconciliation Park. There is purposely no mention of the execution, but several stone statues in and around the park serve as a memorial. The annual Mankato Pow-wow, held in September, commemorates the lives of the executed men, but also seeks to reconcile the European American and Dakota communities. The Birch Coulee Pow-wow, held on Labor Day weekend, honors the lives of those who were hanged.
Among the 38 hung was a man named Chaska, who experts now agree was mistakenly executed. The noose used to hang him is the one in the historical society’s archives.
A doctor’s wife, Sarah Wakefield, had testified that Chaska protected her and her children when they were taken captive. But Chaska wound up on the gallows anyway. A soldier named J.K. Arnold stole the noose right after the hanging and hid it for seven years, according to his letter in the archives, violating orders to ship all the nooses to Washington.
The Chaska noose is now in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection which makes some angry.
The history center invited Dakota and settlers’ descendants to join separate panels to respond to plans for the anniversary exhibit and events. They showed the groups the noose and other items this month, but refused a Star Tribune request to photograph or see it. They did not include it when the 1862 exhibit opened last summer.
“Partly out of sensitivity to the Dakota people, we feel strongly that the noose would tend to overwhelm the whole story and it would just become the noose exhibit,” said a spokesman for the historical society. “It would detract from what we really want people to understand, which is this whole chain of events that leads to this war, and if there’s culpability people can see it.”
Republican state Rep. Dean Urdahl has introduced resolutions to pardon Chaska and to urge Congress to repeal the Dakota Exclusion Act. Even those efforts have aroused controversy.
Some Dakota oppose the pardon as an attempt to “assuage white guilt” by clearing a Dakota who helped a white woman instead of the other 37 hanged warriors, who they say were patriotic Minnesotans protecting their homeland from intruders.
Find Out More
This American Life “Little War on the Prairie“ Broadcast Nov 23, 2012
North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd 2010