Minnesota Sesquicentennial of Hate: The Hanging of the 38 on Dec. 26, 1862
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the most terrible event in Minnesota’s history: The mass execution in Mankato of 38 Dakota Indians that followed the war between the Dakota Sioux tribes and the new state government. Revenge and rage drove the flawed legal proceedings behind the kangaroo-court convictions of 303 Indians who surrendered after the U.S.- Dakota war of that autumn. Only President Lincoln’s aversion to mass punishment limited the hangman’s toll to 38. But the stain of those official killings, followed by the official banishment of the Dakota Sioux from their home (banishment or extermination was the state’s policy) left a mark of shame on Minnesota that has colored all the years since, and which has made it almost impossible to even talk about the events of 1862. Now, proposals have been made to extend a posthumous “pardon” to one of the hanged. Pardoning one man doesn’t even come close to an official recognition of the wrongs done to the Dakota, or to comprehending the scale of an avoidable tragedy that claimed hundreds of lives on all sides of the racial divide that was the cradle of Minnesota’s birth. I have written a lot over the years about the Dakota Conflict of 1862, especially during 1987 — the 125th anniversary of the war — when John Camp and I, with the help of photographer Joe Rossi, spent most of that year re-examining the conflict through the eyes of the Dakota, and telling the impact of the war on Indian-White relations in Minnesota. I hope someday soon to post some of that work on this blog. We published five special sections in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, as well as many other individual reports and opinion pieces. I don’t believe any other mainstream media outlet has done better in terms of trying to understand the war and its affect on the shaping of Minnesota.
Since my return to my first newspaper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis in 2003, I have touched many times on the themes found in the reporting I did in the Pioneer Press (Here, here and here, to mention just a few), and have discovered through the kind of readers’ comments those efforts have received that the well of ignorance and outright racism remains deep and largely unplumbed in this state.
Writing about the causes of that war and its aftermath remains a huge challenge. To offer just a very small start, I reproduce here today’s newspaper column, in which I write very briefly about this very large, very misunderstood, and very important story for Minnesota:
From my Dec. 19th column…
December is a time for reflection and for
taking care of unfinished business, so it is
fitting, perhaps, that the end of the year in
Minnesota always comes with a painful
reminder of a deeply troubled past that
remains difficult to resolve.
Next Sunday, Dec. 26, will mark the 148th
anniversary of America’s largest mass
execution, the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians
in Mankato in a proceeding attended by
thousands and done under the color of law
but which nonetheless was flawed in how it
was carried out and how those marked for
death were chosen.
Justice had little to do with the event.
Vengeance was what it was all about.
Swindled out of their land, cheated of the paltry payments they were supposed to
receive, pushed to the point of starvation,
confined to tiny reservations and facing the
collapse of their traditional culture, the
Dakota exploded in rage and fear and tried to
wipe the Minnesota River Valley clear of the
expanding white population.
If the original sin of Minnesota was the
injustice perpetrated against its original
inhabitants, the violence of 1862 and the
retribution that followed was the flood that
destroyed the old and gave the new state a
But in the view of historian Gary Clayton
Anderson, a Moorhead native and an expert
on frontier Indian and white cultures, the war
and its aftermath were the defining events
that made Minnesota.
Born in blood and fire, the state had a rocky
start that is still being debated.
Last week, the New York Times reported on
a proposal to “pardon” one of the Dakota
hanged at Mankato, a man named Chaska, a
common name given to first-born sons.
There were several “Chaskas” among the 303
condemned prisoners sentenced to death by
military trials — trials that were brief
Below: The warrior Chaska: Hanged by mistake? Or in reprisal?
Chaska was among the majority of the
prisoners spared from the gallows by
President Abraham Lincoln, who was aware,
unlike the authorities in Minnesota, that
executing 300 Indians would not look good
to the world.
Chaska was supposed to be reprieved, but
was hanged anyway. He may have been
confused with another prisoner with the
But some believe it is very possible Chaska
was hanged because he had taken a white
woman under his protection and because
rumors of a sexual relationship between
Chaska and the woman had outraged whites.
The story makes quite a potboiler (I have
written extensively about it in the past), but it
is important for what it reveals about the
lynch-law justice of 1862, and for what it
says about our efforts to cope with that
history. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, according to the
Times, may introduce a bill issuing a
posthumous “pardon” to Chaska…