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151 Years Ago Today

December 26, 2013

Hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato, MN, December 26, 1862

The day after Christmas brings to mind a tragic event, pictured above, that took place not that far up the road to the Twin Cities.

The execution of 38 Dakota was not the final event of the U.S.-Dakota War, but it was arguably the most dramatic.

The war took place in August and September, 1862. Most immediately, it started because Dakotas on their reservation strung along the Minnesota River’s south bank were hungry. Their treaty annunity payment hadn’t come (and no one could say when it was coming), and traders at the Lower and Upper Agencies wouldn’t extend them credit. More fundamentally, the war started because Dakotas were under immense pressure–pressure to give up their land and traditions. The pressure fractured the tribe. Some–but by no means all–of the Dakotas resorted to violence.

At the time, most white Minnesotans, and most American citizens (including Congress and President Abraham Lincoln) were preoccupied by the Civil War. More particularly, at the end of August came a Union defeat (Second Bull Run). President Lincoln had hoped that General John Pope, commanding at the battle, would provide a victory instead of the frustrating inaction of General George B. McClellan. (Pope was a friend of the Lincoln’s; after his loss, he was put in command of the new military department created to respond to the Dakota War.) Lincoln was waiting for a Union victory so that he could issue a preliminary emancipation proclamation that would change the direction of the war. With Pope’s defeat, Lincoln reluctantly fell back on McClellan. On September 17, McClellan gave Lincoln his victory: the single bloodiest day in U.S. history at the Battle of Antietam. (Over 6,000 men died at Antietam, and some 15,000 were wounded.)

The numbers of all the Dakota did not equal the casualties at the Battle of Antietam. The immediate dead and wounded of white and Dakota civilians and soldiers were in the hundreds, not thousands. Yet, the human cost of the war in Minnesota was still comparable to what was happening in the Civil War at the time, illustrating William Faulkner’s aphorism, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Hundreds of whites and Dakotas were held prisoner. The Dakota and the blameless Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) were uprooted from their then-homelands in Minnesota. While imprisoned, and while in transport, and while seeking to regain some equilibrium in new locales, many more American Indians died.

Further, and most publicly, there was the mass hanging in Mankato. A military commission tried 392 Dakotas and sentenced 303 to death by hanging. President Lincoln reviewed all the convictions and commuted all but 39. One Dakota was reprieved at the last minute, leaving, as the title of Scott W. Berg’s recent book words it, 38 Nooses for December 26 in Mankato.


A few years ago, my wife and I visited Upper Agency. This past July we stopped at some of the other sites in the U.S.-Dakota War: Birch Coulee, Ft. Ridgely, New Ulm.

Most moving for me, though, was Reconciliation Park, pictured on the right. The park is on Mankato’s downtown waterfront, next to the bridge crossing the Minnesota River and across the street from the Public Library. The park is the site of the December 26th executions.

At one end of the park are two plaques, made to resemble oversized hides. On one are the names of the 38 Dakota who were executed. On the other are a Dakota prayer and a poem. The poem is as follows:


by Katherine Hughes

Remember the innocent dead,

Both Dakota and white,

Victims of events they could not control.

Remember the guilty dead,

Both white and Dakota,

Whom reason abandoned.

Regret the times and attitudes

That brought dishonor

To both cultures.

Respect the deeds and kindnesses

That brought honor

To both cultures.

Hope for a future

When memories remain,

Balanced by forgiveness.

The last verse seems especially apt this Christmastide, when we remember the birth of One who through his death and resurrection is hope and forgiveness for all.


One Comment leave one →
  1. December 26, 2013 12:42 pm

    Reblogged this on Buffalo Doug.

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