Mankato, MN

Hanging of the Dakota 38: The Largest Mass Execution in US History Took Place on December 26, 1862

Matt Reicher

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The execution of the Dakota 38Wikimedia Commons

"We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves" ~ Taoyateduta (Little Crow), 1862

At 10 AM on December 26, 1862, three successive drum beats rang out, and the executioner cut a rope to drop the platform underneath each of the thirty-eight condemned. Thirty-seven fell to their death, while one had their rope break and fell to the ground. He was soon rehung. This unspeakable moment, the largest mass hanging in American history, marked the end of the US—Dakota War.

The treaties of 1837, 1851, and 1858 led to an increasingly acrimonious relationship between white settlers and Native Americans in Minnesota. The Indians had ceded their land to the growing population of white settlers for a series of annuities. Over time, payments arrived later and later, and when they did, politicians and unscrupulous traders – often demanding compensation well beyond the value of the goods provided – were paid first.

Once swelled with an abundant population of animals with valuable pelts, the territory was now mostly ravaged. Consequently, the Indians had to depend on the settlers for timely payments in order to survive. Many accepted white cultural norms, cutting their hair and changing their clothes. Others resented change and loathed the ever-growing group of pushy invaders.

By the time the summer of 1862 approached, a lit wick of distrust move ever closer to a powder keg ready to explode. Annuity payments were again delayed in July, and rumors circled that the Civil War had used up the Dakota’s gold. Native Americans believed that if the annuities came at all, they would be paid in paper currency — worthless to them.

A large contingent of armed Dakota made their way down the hill to the Upper Agency at Yellow Medicine on August 4, 1862. Their people were hungry, many malnourished, and the men demanded food on credit instead of continuing to wait for promised annuities to arrive. Eventually, the door of the warehouse holding provisions was opened and supplies were distributed on credit to try and calm a potentially volatile situation.

Days later, Dakota leader Little Crow, spoke on behalf of the Lower bands at the Lower Agency. He asked representatives to release provisions for his people. Although he'd only asked for the same terms as the Upper Agency Dakota, his request was denied. Little Crow lamented his people's hunger. Trader Andrew Myrick, never one to shy away from confrontation, stated they could eat grass or their dung. ​

Tribal leaders couldn't understand why the settlers wouldn't extend credit to ease the troubles of the tribe. The Dakota people, especially the young male warriors, were incensed. Myrick's dismissive comments brought the two sides to the brink of war.

On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota decided to steal eggs from a farm while on their way home from an unsuccessful hunt. The farmer fought back, and in the end, the young warriors killed him and his family.

Soon after, to catch the settlers off guard before they retaliated, Dakota warriors attacked settlements along the Minnesota River. War had begun. Over the next five weeks, more than 500 white settlers and 150 Dakota lost their lives.

The September 23 Battle of Wood Lake served as the final defeat of the Dakota. They surrendered three days later.

On September 28, 1862, Gen. Henry Sibley appointed a five-person military commission to try the Dakota and mixed-blood combatants for murder and other atrocities against the settlers. The commission immediately convened at Camp Release in Southwestern Minnesota. Sixteen trials were conducted on the first day, resulting in convictions and death sentences for ten and acquittals for six.

Later the trials were moved to the Lower Sioux Agency. Over the next six weeks, the commission tried 392 cases, convicting 323 and sentencing 303 to death. Bishop Henry Whipple was eventually able to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to drastically lower the number of condemned.

The commission met for the final time on November 3.

Lincoln had initially asked aides to bring him the names of men convicted of raping women and children but was presented with only two. He eventually asked for the names of murderers, and the final number was 39 — a Dakota man named Tatemina was reprieved at the last minute.

The president, who had called for the hanging of 38 Dakota for their part in the Uprising, would go on to not sentence a single southern soldier after the Civil War.

On the day after the Christmas of 1862, four thousand men, women, and children gathered around the 24' x 24' square gallows to witness the death of those who fought in the Dakota War. Fourteen hundred US soldiers surrounded the structure, designed to hold ten men per side.

When the clock struck 10 AM, a single ax blow by executioner William J. Dudley cut the rope holding the platforms in place underneath the condemned Dakota. The men, each with a noose around their neck, dropped to their death.

Those in attendance cheered.

Sources

  • "1862 Dakota Conflict." Voices In Education. Last modified June 8, 2021. https://voiceseducation.org/1862-dakota-conflict/.
  • Anderson, Gary C. Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
  • Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
  • Haymond, John A. The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law and the Judgment of History. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016.
  • Linder, Douglas. "The Dakota Conflict Trials of 1862." School of Law | University of Missouri - Kansas City. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dakota/dakota.html.

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