Local media again fails to tell the truth about the Dakota War

On Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan tweeted:

The Pioneer Press article she retweeted explains:

After a several-month consultation process, the Minnesota Historical Society has agreed to return the “Mankato hanging rope,” used to execute a Dakota man in 1862, to the Prairie Island Indian Community.

The noose in question was used to execute Wicanhpi Wastedanpi (also known as Chaske), one of 38 Dakota men imprisoned and hanged in December 1862 in Mankato following the United States-Dakota War of 1862, according to the historical society. The hanging of the Dakota men remains the largest single-day mass execution in U.S. history.

Indeed, Chaska’s execution may well have been in error. In his book 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, Scott W. Berg writes:

[The Sioux] had known of their ultimate fate only since Monday, when a company of soldiers had entered their log stockade at the heels of former Indian agent Joseph R. Brown, who gathered the 303 convicted men together to read out thirty-nine names. After answering, some with a grunt and some by saying “Ho,” each man was told to step forward so that he could be separated from his partner in chains.

At least one of the men who stepped forward, however, had done so as the result of an entirely preventable mistake. When Brown read out “Chas-kay-don,” he should have been presented with a reason to take special care. At least three men of the 303 in the enclosure, and probably more, answered to the name “Chaska,” which simply means “firstborn, if a male” in Dakota, and the three known examples present on that fateful day were in very different straits. Only one, Chaskaydon, was on the “black list,” condemned for killing and cutting open a pregnant woman in the settlements. Another Chaska, a Christian Dakota who also called himself Robert Hopkins and had been convicted of taking part in several battles, but not of murder or rape, had been singled out in a note from President Lincoln, following direct appeals from the missionaries Samuel R. Riggs and Thomas Williamson, vouching for his character and pointing out his efforts to save whites in the first days of the war.

The third Chaska, Sarah Wakefield’s protector, was also not on the list of thirty-nine forwarded from Washington. But when the men were removed to their final prison room next door, there he was, marked for death, while the condemned Chaskaydon remained behind, with no inkling as yet of what a momentous turn his life had taken. No record exists to answer a set of crucial questions: Did Brown, or another officer, call out the name, after which Chaska stepped forward? Or did someone point at Chaska? Is it possible that he momentarily assumed that he was being separated out for further questioning or even to be set free? The question is unanswerable; in any case, Chaska did step forward. In that single awful moment his fate was sealed, though still he did not know it.

How did this awful situation come about? The Pioneer Press reports:

In the 1850s, before Minnesota officially became a state, the population of homesteading settlers skyrocketed from about 6,000 to nearly 170,000 by 1860. To make room for them, the U.S. government pressured local Dakota leaders into a series of treaties to give up much of their historical farming and hunting land in exchange for payments and food relief.

By 1862, with the federal government focused on the Civil War, the payments and food were not arriving on time. Facing forced relocations, starvation and hostility from the settlers, a small Dakota uprising turned into a five-week war between tribal leaders and U.S. troops led by Col. Henry Hastings Sibley, according to the historical society.

This is a rendering of history so partial it is difficult to believe the omissions were made in good faith.

As I wrote in our magazine Thinking Minnesota in Spring, 2022:

On the morning of Sunday, August 17, four Lower Sioux — Killing Ghost, Breaking Up, Runs against Something When Crawling, and Brown Wing — were hunting deer near Acton Township in Meeker County. Coming across the farmstead of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson Jones, they found some eggs and debated whether to steal them. They goaded each other into doing rather more.

They went to Jones’ store and then followed him to the house of his son-in-law, Howard Baker. There, they challenged Jones, Baker, and another visitor, Viranus Webster, to a shooting contest, which they accepted. Jones and Baker fired but did not reload. The Sioux then turned and shot the Joneses, Baker, and Webster dead. They rode away, passing Jones’ store where his 15-year-old daughter, Clara, was watching from the doorway. She, too, was shot dead.

That night the four came before Little Crow, the most respected Sioux leader. With other chiefs, they debated what to do next. Some saw an opportunity to retake the land lost to the immigrants: “All the white soldiers are in the South fighting other white soldiers,” Red Middle Voice said. “We have no choice. Our hands are already bloody.” Little Crow, who had visited eastern cities, disagreed. “The white-men are like the locusts,” he said, “when they fly so thick that that the whole sky is a snowstorm…Yes, they fight among themselves, but if you strike at one of them, they will all turn upon you and devour you and your women and little children, just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day…Kill one, two, ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you.”

But Little Crow recognized that many would fight with or without him, so, with little enthusiasm, he agreed to lead them. The following morning, they would attack the Lower Agency.


Little Crow might have hoped to limit the Sioux to a manageable conflict that could end with something less than the extermination he prophesied; “I gave orders to kill only traders and government agents, who have cheated the Indians,” he said later. But while he was nominally in charge, he failed to impose this strategic vision on his warriors. Almost immediately, some pursued the strategy proposed by those like Red Middle Voice instead: the ethnic cleansing of white immigrants from the Minnesota River Valley.

The Lower Agency was wiped out and Myrick was reputedly found with grass stuffed in his mouth. But some of Little Crow’s Sioux — perhaps no more than 200 out of 2,000 — pursued fleeing survivors like Dr. Philander Humphrey and his family. Mrs. Humphrey was weakened from recent childbirth, so they rested in a house. Dr. Humphrey sent his 12-year-old son for help, but before he returned the doctor was shot dead and the house set on fire, burning his wife and two children alive. When Humprey’s son returned, he witnessed Sioux cutting off his father’s head.

The killings spread. More than 50 were murdered at Milford Township. At Lake Shetek, 15 were murdered including Willie, Belle, and Francis Duley, aged 10 years, 4 years, and 6 months respectively. Elsewhere, August Schwandt, then aged 12, recalled how Sioux approached his family’s cabin, shot his father, and hacked to death his mother, two brothers, pregnant sister and her husband, and a hired hand. August himself was beaten and left for dead.

Many of those who fled fared no better. Helen Carrothers was among an ambushed group. She recalled how a Sioux took a baby belonging to a seriously ill woman named Henderson and “holding her by one foot, head downwards, deliberately hacked her body, limb from limb, with his tomahawk, throwing the pieces at the head of Mrs. Henderson. Some of the Indians made a big fire and when it was burning fiercely, they lifted the feather bed on which Mrs. Henderson lay, and tossed bed and woman and the mangled portions of her children into the flames.”

It has been said that such survivor accounts are exaggerated, and they may be, but there is no doubt that hundreds of civilians were murdered by Little Crow’s Sioux. In his book, Minnesota: A History, historian William E. Lass gives the following casualty figures: “413 white civilians, 77 soldiers, and 71 Indians, including the 38 who were executed at Mankato.” Civilians accounted for 74 percent of deaths in the Dakota War. For the Civil War, the ratio was just 8 percent.

One can only write about the Dakota War without a single mention of the mass murders of civilians which accounted for three quarters of its fatalities, as the Pioneer Press does, only from profound ignorance or a desire to distort the historical record.

The Pioneer Press is not alone in this. I was inspired to write about the Dakota War myself after reading a WCCO report which stated that “38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, for defending their people.” In fact, at the war’s end:

Over five weeks, 392 people were tried resulting in 303 death sentences, 16 jail sentences, and 69 acquittals. Many of the trials were a farce by modern standards: some lasted just minutes, many were convicted on the testimony of an informer who had bargained for his own safety, and many of those condemned to death had been found “guilty” of fighting in battles like Birch Coulee and Wood Lake.

But Sibley was also aware of the limits of his authority. “If found guilty they will be immediately executed,” he wrote General John Pope, who had been sent by President Lincoln to take charge of the war after leading the Union army to defeat in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August, “although I am somewhat in doubt whether my authority extends quite so far.” It did not. Military commissions were a form of legal proceeding used when a standard court-martial or civil trial was impossible. As Scott W. Berg explains in his book 38 Nooses, “All sentences were subject to the review of a ‘convening authority,’ meaning that a superior had to sign off on every judgment…capital convictions usually went to the desk of the president.”

At a cabinet meeting on October 14, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton read a dispatch in which Pope wrote that he “was anxious to execute a number” of Sioux. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles noted, “I was disgusted with the tone and opinions of the dispatch…The Indian outrages have, I doubt not, been great — what may have been the provocation we are not told.” Lincoln must have shared this disquiet. He sent Assistant Interior Secretary John Palmer Usher to Minnesota on a fact-finding mission and, three days later, Pope told Sibley “the President directs that no executions be made without his sanction.”

For Lincoln, this was an especially low point in the Civil War. The federal government’s attempt to seize the Confederate capital, Richmond, had failed at Bull Run. In September, Robert E. Lee’s Confederates advanced on Washington, D.C. and were only stopped at the bloody Battle of Antietam. In November’s mid-terms, Lincoln’s Republicans lost their majority in the House.

Lincoln picked three men to help him examine the trial transcripts: Usher and his chief clerk George C. Whiting, both recently returned from Minnesota, and Interior Department lawyer Francis Ruggles. “At some point on or around December 1,” Berg writes, “the president provided Whiting and Ruggles with a very specific set of instructions: They were to scour the trial transcripts with great care and identify all cases of rape, all cases involving the murder of women and children, and all cases involving the killing of unarmed men in the settlements. These sentences, in Lincoln’s estimation, accorded with the purpose of a military commission and deserved speedy executions. Other instances of violence, meaning shots fired in battle against Minnesota militia or United States soldiers, did not.”

The three worked diligently, Berg noting “their careful trial summaries, as well as their numerous pencil notes and cross-references on the transcripts.” Finally, on December 5, Lincoln wrote Sibley: “Ordered that of the Indians and Half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the Military Commission…lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the nineteenth day of December, instant, the following names, to wit.” Thirty-nine names were included, those his review had concluded were “guilty of individual murders and atrocious abuse of their female captives.” The sentences of the rest were commuted.

This explains why Chaskaydon was sentenced to death while “Robert Hopkins” and the unfortunate Wicanhpi Wastedanpi were not.

I’ll end this as I ended my article:

The Dakota War is perhaps the darkest chapter in our state’s history. This year marks its 160th anniversary and the 38 men executed in Mankato will, no doubt, be remembered. But so, too, should those murdered at places like Lake Shetek. All those whose blood and bones are mingled together in the soil of this state deserve remembrance.