This Date in Native History: On November 5, 1862, a five-man military commission convicted 319 Dakota men in connection with a series of armed conflicts in southwestern Minnesota. Of the 392 tried, 307 were originally sentenced to death—later reduced to 303—and 16 to prison terms. Ultimately, 38 men were hanged after a review of those 303 cases by President Abraham Lincoln.
The trials were the culmination of a bloody autumn in rural southwestern Minnesota that left more than 600 non-Indians dead (of those about 120 were soldiers or armed civilians). An estimated 75 to 100 Dakota fighters were killed, not including the 38 who were hanged. Ultimately, as many as one-quarter of the 1,700 Dakota people who surrendered to the U.S. Army died within the following year because of brutal concentration-camp conditions at Fort Snelling and later on a march to the Dakota Territories—North and South Dakota today.
The battles ignited in August 1862 after almost a year of starvation conditions for the Dakota people whose 1861 crops had been sparse and hunting restricted after they were limited to reservations. Government payments based on signed treaties were not forthcoming in the summer of 1862 and Mdewakanton Dakota Chief Taoyateduta (or Little Crow), who would lead the war against the settlers and Army, gave the local government agent this warning: “We have waited a long time. The money is ours but we cannot get it. We have no food but here these stores are filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement so 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.”
The powder keg ignited August 17 when four young Dakota hunters attacked and killed five white settlers in Acton, Minnesota. They retreated to Little Crow’s community, asking for asylum. Many Dakota men felt this was the right time to reclaim their homelands since the treaties were not being kept and the people were starving.
A series of attacks followed against settlement communities and battles with the U.S. Army led by Gen. Henry Sibley, who had been involved in making the treaties and was widely believed to have been involved in siphoning money owed to the Dakota people.
The war raged from August 18 to September 26, when the several hundred settlers taken captive were surrendered at what was called “Camp Release.” Other Dakota people helped protect settlers, who might also be relatives by marriage, against attacks by the Dakota fighters.
After some 1,700 Dakota people—many of whom were women, children and elderly not involved in the conflicts—surrendered at Camp Release, trials began for the 392 men.
A correspondent for the St. Paul Press, quoted in the New York Times November 23 issue, reported that as many as 40 cases were tried daily, with as many as eight prisoners chained together and brought in for trial. Prisoners were asked, through a translator, if they were guilty and, sometimes, witnesses were called. “Then if there was any doubt as to his guilt, or as to his being a willing participant in the outrages, he was allowed to call witnesses in his favor. Perhaps this may seem to those who were not on the ground, an unjustifiably summary mode of proceeding; but it was as lengthy an examination as necessity would permit, and whatever necessity requires, it justifies. Besides no individual injustice is probably come, as ninety-nine hundredths of these devils are guilty, and witnesses in their favor would be about as useless as teats on a boar.”
The trials surprised and angered many of those Dakota fighters who surrendered, who had been told they would be treated as prisoners of war, rather than tried for murder.
After 303 of those convicted were sentenced to execution, Lincoln demanded the trial transcripts for review. He and his attorneys examined them and in a December 11 statement sent to the U.S. Senate, determined that 39 would be hanged.
To arrange for the mass execution—probably the largest in U.S. history—the hanging was delayed a week until the day after Christmas, December 26, 1862. A special gallows was built so all could be hanged at once. More than 4,000 spectators attended and martial law was declared—there was fear the mob might try to lynch the other prisoners.
The Minnesota Historical Society website says, “Following the mass execution on December 26, it was discovered that two men had been mistakenly hanged. Wicaƞḣpi Wastedaƞpi (We-chank-wash-ta-don-pee), who went by the common name of Caske (meaning first-born son), reportedly stepped forward when the name “Caske” was called, and was then separated for execution from the other prisoners. The other, Wasicuƞ, was a young white man who had been adopted by the Dakota at an early age. Wasicuƞ had been acquitted.” In the end, 38 were hanged that day, one man received a last-minute reprieve.
Calls were raised to “exterminate” all Dakota people in Minnesota or to at least move them all out of the state, whether or not their communities were involved in the conflict. One suggestion, reported in the New York Times, was to send them all to Isle Royale in Lake Superior. After the hangings, about 1,700 men, women and children who surrendered to Sibley at Lower Agency were marched four miles from Camp Release to Fort Snelling, and on the way being attacked with “knives, guns, clubs and stones” in Henderson. As many as 300 Dakota people died from illness while in the camp, and the next spring were forcibly relocated to Dakota Territory.