The truth behind the 1862 hanging of 38 Sioux men in Mankato — the largest-ever mass execution on American soil — is more complex than revisionists want us to believe.
Author’s Note: Theodore C. Blegen’s Minnesota: A History of the State (1960) is still the best book on this subject despite being more than 60 years old. It provides much of the background for this article. William E. Lass’ more recent, shorter, Minnesota: A History (1983) is also cited.
On the war itself, the main sources are The Dakota War of 1862: Minnesota’s Other Civil War (2001) by Kenneth Carley, and Over the Earth I Come (1992) by Duane Schultz. The latter provides many of the quotes from contemporaries. A key source for the post-war period and executions is 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End (2012) by Scott W. Berg.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux men were executed in Mankato before a crowd of thousands. As the ropes were placed around their necks, “Their bodies swayed to and fro,” wrote an eyewitness, “and their every limb seemed to be keeping time…The most touching scene was their attempt to grasp each other’s hands, fettered as they were. They were very close to each other, and many succeeded…One old man reached out either side, but could not grasp a hand. His struggles were piteous.”
This is one of the most controversial — and misunderstood — episodes in Minnesota’s history. It came at the end of the Dakota War, about which many seem to know only that 38 Sioux men were executed at the end. As a result, falsehoods abound. Last year, for example, WCCO reported that “38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, for defending their people.” The truth behind the largest-ever mass execution on American soil is much more complex.
Earlier that summer, the Minnesota Sioux’s long-standing grievances with traders and the federal government had become acute.
By two treaties in 1851, the Upper and Lower Sioux bands sold 21 million acres in southern and western Minnesota, including their best hunting lands, in return for annuity payments from the federal government. These treaties were amended to the Sioux’s disadvantage during ratification and administered by a corrupt and inefficient federal bureaucracy. In 1858, with little choice, the Sioux signed another treaty giving up half the land they had retained, and immigrants flooded in to farm it: Between 1850 and 1860, Minnesota’s population rose by 2,731 percent. There was widespread feeling among the Sioux that they were being “swamped.”
This simmering resentment came to a boiling point that summer when the federal government failed to make annuity payments. The Sioux depended on these to buy food but, with the Civil War raging, Congress was late appropriating the money. The Indian agent, Thomas J. Galbraith, refused to release food until the payments arrived. The Sioux grew hungrier and angrier. They appealed unsuccessfully to the traders for credit. One, Andrew Myrick, is reputed to have said: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”
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.
Indeed, these atrocities repulsed many of their fellow Sioux. The Upper Sioux refused to join Little Crow’s war, with one chief, Wabasha, telling him that the uprising was not an act of war but rather a wanton slaughter of civilians, unworthy of true Sioux braves. The significant peace party tracked Little Crow, constantly pleading with him to release his captives. The atrocities were committed by a minority of a minority.
When Little Crow’s Sioux could surprise isolated groups of civilians or soldiers, as at Redwood Ferry (August 18) and Birch Coulee (September 2-3), they were victorious. But when they faced either soldiers or civilians who were prepared, as at Fort Ridgely (August 20-22) and New Ulm (August 19 and 23) — where civilians improvised a defense and fought off two assaults — they were defeated.
Minnesota’s governor, Alexander Ramsey, dispatched a hastily assembled column of 1,400 untrained men under Henry Sibley to relieve Fort Ridgely and defeat Little Crow. On September 23, the Sioux attacked Sibley’s camp at Wood Lake and were decisively defeated. The peace party seized the captives and Little Crow and a number of followers went west. Three days later, at a spot later named Camp Release, 2,000 Sioux surrendered with 269 captives.
The cry for revenge went up across Minnesota. “[The Sioux] must be exterminated,” wrote one newspaper editor, “and now is a good time to commence doing it.” He spoke for many.
Sibley was aware of this feeling. On September 28, he appointed a military commission to “try summarily the mulatto, and Indians, or mixed bloods, now prisoners, or who may be brought before them…and pass judgment upon them, if found guilty of murders or other outrages upon the whites, during the present state of hostilities of the Indians.” 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.
After a delay of one week while enough rope was gathered for the nooses, the 38 were hanged in Mankato. One, Chaska, who had sheltered captives, was mistaken for a Chaskaydon, who had killed and mutilated a pregnant woman, and executed in error. The executioner was Capt. William J. Duley, father of three children who had been murdered at Lake Shetek.
Little Crow’s cause was doomed from the start, as he knew. While the Confederacy could realistically hope to inflict a military defeat on the federal government so damaging it would have to sue for peace, the Sioux could hope for no such thing. Worse, what they did do contrary to his instructions — the murder of civilians — guaranteed an overwhelming response.
His warning came to pass. The Sioux, “friendly” and hostile alike, were banished from Minnesota, along with others like the Winnebagos, who had taken no part in the war, and many women and children died here. Further expeditions into the Dakota Territory began in the new year. With the question of slavery resolved by the end of the Civil War, the westward expansion of the United States — long held up by debates about “free” and “slave” states — began in earnest. The Dakota War began a period of near continuous warfare between the federal government and successive native tribes that did not end until Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1890. Little Crow himself returned to Minnesota in the summer of 1863 and was shot dead by a farmer while picking berries with his son.
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.