America’s Greatest Public Execution

The story of the executions in Mankato, Minnesota that would be the final chapter of the Dakota War of 1862 seems to always miss the mark, at least for me.

Thirty-eight Dakota men hanged the day after Christmas on an execution order signed by Abraham Lincoln has been characterized many ways even as this story, hidden from American history, began to gain attention leading up to the 150th anniversary last year. But, to be clear, most of this awareness is shared only among a very small number of us.

But before I weigh in with my thoughts on the largest court/Presidential-ordered mass execution in the history of the United States, let’s go back to last year.

Last year, the much-celebrated “Lincoln” movie was all the rage. No, I’m not talking about the vampire slayer movie. I’m talking about the “real” Lincoln story, the one that took place during the same time period that this “Indian” problem occurred in Minnesota. Of course, nothing of the Dakota 38 or Mankato is in the film. Apparently the image of 38 Native men dangling at the end of a rope while the good people of Minnesota wrapped up their Christmas celebration with what was described even then as “America’s greatest public execution” was not sensational enough for Hollywood.

And as the 150th anniversary of the hangings drew near and came and went, barely a murmur was heard in the mainstream national media. But mere days after the anniversary of this horrific event, the media flocked to the National Archives building in D.C. to cover the free special displaying of the Emancipation Proclamation, all part of the 150th anniversary of its signing. No one ever suggested or even hinted at the hypocrisy of Lincoln’s hand laid on the Execution Order for the hangings on December 26, 1862 set against his “Proclamation” just six days later.

Scholars have fallen all over themselves debating the “Great Emancipator” but let’s look at the “Great Executioner” and “America’s greatest public execution.”

The trials where almost 400 “Indians and Half-breeds” stood as enemy combatants in a military court resulted in 320 convictions with 303 sentenced to death by hanging. Those condemned to death were characterized as murderers and rapists, although the latter seems to have been a gross exaggeration if not a complete fabrication. The trials lasted only a week with many individuals before the court for just 5 minutes. No defense was presented, no counsel provided and almost all were convicted on the word of a single accuser.

For the decade leading up to the Dakota War of 1862, the United States refused to make timely or appropriate payments for lands that were continuously encroached upon or otherwise swindled through treaties, congressional acts or outright theft. This was not a failure of U.S. policy. This was the U.S. policy.

Sixty years before the Dakota executions, it was Thomas Jefferson who not only laid the groundwork for the removal policies with the so called “Louisiana Purchase” – a scam sold to the Southern states as a place to “remove” the “Indians” to and a means of running Native people into debt to further destroy them.

Thirty years before the executions, it was Andrew Jackson who fulfilled Jefferson’s promise and drove thousands of Native people to their deaths in the forced marches of the Trail of Tears. Payments for the theft of Cherokee land would come years after the death marches.

It was now Lincoln’s turn. The removal policy of Jefferson and Jackson combined with Jefferson’s debt-to-destruction plan was perfect for the time. Disregard for timely payments and delivery of food to the Dakota exacerbated the tensions that exploded in 1862. Traders preyed on the slow-to-pay practice of the “Indian Agents” and had the Dakota so far in debt that the traders cheated them in their trades and ultimately managed direct payments from the agents so that no money ever made it to the Native people themselves and in many cases no goods either. Food distributions that were bound by treaty either never came or came spoiled and rancid.

Displaced and starving, the Dakota finally lashed out in the summer of 1862. The Dakota spent the next several months attempting to drive the White settlers from the Minnesota River valley. Lincoln would make claims that 800 men, women and children were killed in the conflict, although no official record backs up that claim.

Many of the websites and publications addressing this issue including those hosted or produced by Native organizations, suggest that Lincoln intervened in the death sentences and reviewed the trial records. Lincoln’s role here is often described as humanitarian. The fact was that Lincoln was required to issue the execution orders but was more concerned about perception, domestic and abroad. He ordered the records of the proceeding with a plan to only execute those convicted of murder combined with rape to avoid the international fallout of an execution order for 303 human beings.

Disappointed to learn that the rape claims were wildly exaggerated and that only two were convicted of the combined rape and murder charges and knowing he needed to give the good people of Minnesota more than just a double hanging, he persisted. By using his own standard for distinguishing a massacre from a battle, Lincoln then was able to bump the number up to 39, ordering their executions for participating in massacres. One of these would join the remainder of the 303 originally sentenced to death and the others convicted of lesser crimes, avoiding the gallows but still to only die in prison anyway. In total, more than 1,000 Dakota were imprisoned.

Most would never see a trial. Those who did not die in prison were expelled to Nebraska and South Dakota to live on the concentration camps called reservations. The Dakota claims to Minnesota lands would be abolished by the U.S. Congress.

The next 30 years would see, most notably, the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), the failed attempted massacre by Custer at the Little Bighorn (1876) and the Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred 123 years ago on December 29, 1890. This event took place 28 years to the week after Abraham Lincoln signed the Execution Order for “America’s greatest public execution” and the Emancipation Proclamation.

By 1890 the Native population of California had been reduced from an estimated 300,000 (in 1850) to 15,000. This 95 percent “reduction” was not the result of disease or natural disaster. It was U.S. policy. It was not a U.S. failure. It was a U.S. success story. While Lincoln “proclaimed” the freedom of the Black man as a strategy to cause slave revolts in the South, Native boys and girls were being bought and sold to the West. Boys were bringing $60 for slave labor while girls were getting $100 and more as sex slaves.

The next 100 years would see residential schools where Native identity and lives of our children would be snuffed out in the policy of “Kill the Indian and Save the Man.” Some schools would show a 50 percent mortality rate. These schools would be the beginning of the “Indian” child market that continues today in the foster care and adoption programs of the U.S. and Canada.

So don’t for a second think that the Dakota War or the executions at Mankato were failures of American justice or policy. Don’t think for a second that “Honest Abe” was just in a tough spot in 1862 but emerged as an American hero. Lincoln did what they all did – he lived up to the name our ancestors gave to the office of the US Presidency: Rahnatakaias, meaning “Town Destroyer.”

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  1. The Dutch in New Amsterdam (now New England) made the Two Row Wampum with Indians. The British made Covenant Chain agreements with Indians.

    The British Crown later issued the Royal Proclamation in 1763 to clamp down on British subjects in North America.

    Unfortunately, that outraged British subjects in what is now the U.S.A. because it hampered their ability to get land easily and expand westward so they rebelled and revolted against British rule during the American Revolution.

    After the British rebels won their revolution and became Americans, the Royal Proclamation would have been extinguished in the U.S.A. and U.S. governments used military means to defeat Indians in the U.S.A., round them up and march them to reservations.

    In what is now Canada, British and Canadian governments didn’t use the military like the U.S. government to massacre and march Indians to reservations.

    In what is now Canada, British and Canadian governments retained the 1763 Royal Proclamation (which is now in the Canadian Constitution) and made agreements and treaties to obtain land from Indians.

    I know aboriginals were not always treated well in what is now Canada but I hope, after reading the article, people don’t get the impression that British and Canadian governments treated indigenous people in Canada anywhere near as badly as early U.S. governments treated many indigenous people in the U.S.A.

    1. Education is a wonderful thing Garry and I see you as a person who does not shrink from that worthwhile endeavour. In that spirit, I would like to recommend a book to you that should hopefully enlighten you further. I do this in response to your last paragraph.
      British and Canadian governments did, in fact, always treat Canada’s Native peoples in the most devious and underhanded way possible. The only difference between the U.S. and the British/Canada way of dealing with the “Indian” problem was, Britain/Canada did not actually declared a state of war with Canada’s Indigenous people, but the results of their chicanery was equal to that of the U.S.
      The indisputable evidence backing up what I say is irrefutable. There exists NO evidence to the contrary. Having said that, yes, in all of this, there are records that tell us there was an incredible groundswell of support for our people by many whites whom we could correctly say, were of the “good mind” where the abysmal treatment of us was concerned. Not everyone was as evil as many of those charged with our well-being. Dr. Peter Bryce from Paris, Ontario, being one of the good ones.
      Two books I think will provide you a greater insight are:
      “White Man’s Law” by Sidney L. Harring. Essentially, it proves beyond all doubt that the laws Canada concocted to “deal” with us then AND to this day, has NO concrete foundation on which to stand. The author’s credentials, as well as those who endorse this book, are….impeccable.
      “We Were Not The Savages” – Daniel N. Paul…. another author with impeccable credentials. This should be a very effective book that will serve to dash your hopes as described in your last paragraph. The author makes many claims that are also irrefutable as everything he claims is backed up by documents from Canada’s own archives. It would seem the officials of the day were more than adept at keeping records of their own crimes and misdeeds.
      So Garry, here’s hoping you take the road to enlightenment.
      Clive Garlow.

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