On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in what remains the largest mass-execution in United States history. Originally, the military commission that tried the captured Dakotas, had sentenced three hundred three men to the gallows. The following excerpt is taken from an 1864 publication which reflects the general sentiment at the time:
“The final result of the war of progress is the extermination of the resisting element: that element may lie in some false and pernicious theory, or in the particular race or branch of the races of men, who stubbornly stand in the pathway of humanity, and attempt to stay its onward movement. In this position are all savage races, warring in their blindness with the advancing steps of civilization carrying westward the star of empire!”
Charles S. Bryant and Abel B. Murch. A History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians, in Minnesota. Cincinnati: Rickey and Carroll, Publishers, 1864. (page 464)
Despite such sentiment, President Lincoln and his lawyers thought better of hanging over three hundred. After a review of the trial transcripts, the executive order was given on December 6, 1862, that forty men would be hanged. Two were later commuted leaving the final number at thirty-eight. The remainder, as ordered by the President, were to be held subject to further orders. In the Spring of 1863, these condemned prisoners were sent to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, where they were treated as convicts of the state prison.
Below is an excerpt from Thy Eternal Summer of the executions:
Once released from the building, the Sioux men walked swiftly up the wooden stairs and took their places along the long, narrow, wood frame gallows. Thirty-eight nooses hung still in the soft and calm morning air. The crowd looked on attentively but silently as each man took his spot behind a noose. Once in place, the white caps were rolled down over their heads and light was shut out from their eyes forever. The mournful, rhythmic death chant began once again.
“Hooo-haa-aa-aa, Hey-haa-aa-aa”, their chants rose long and loud and echoed over the crowd. It sounded like an amazing chorus of voices that no one present would ever forget. As the men continued to chant, they also reached their hands out to each side while trying to find the hand of the man next to him. It was eerie the way each man knew exactly when to reach out despite having no vision. Many succeeded in finding the hand of another, creating strings of three and four men while some men merely grasped the air. The condemned men continued to sing and chant as the ropes were placed over their head and secured snuggly around their necks. There was never a display of fear or cowardice, just noble acceptance of death. When each prisoner was ready, Captain Redfield pointed to Major Brown, who began to beat the drum slowly and rhythmically.
“Boom, boom, boom,” he made measured, distinct beats. The beat of the drum created a great and indescribable hush among the audience and it caused the Indians to end their chant. All that could be heard now was the resonating drum beat. The scene can only be described as a moment of breathless suspense.[i]
Mr. William Duley was enlisted to cut the rope at the proper time. Mr. Duley had tragically lost his wife and five children during the outbreak. He raised his axe high in the air and was ready to release it. Major Brown slowed his beats even further. Each beat grew louder and more powerful and seemed to echo on and on toward infinity. One…two…three. Mr. Duley cut the rope and in one fell swoop thirty-eight bodies fell like heavy stones through the gallows’ floor. With a sudden and simultaneous thud, all life evacuated the thirty-eight men. The silence was broken and a cheer rose from the crowd. People applauded and whistled and lifted up shouts of joy. The men dangled like heavy bricks and swayed back and forth as if they were pendulums keeping time. Some still twitched their arms and legs while others as still and motionless as a wet bag of sand. After a few minutes, the men were examined by doctors and all were confirmed to be dead. As the men were lowered from the gallows and dropped in a wagon, the crowd slowly dispersed. The spectators walked away without even looking back and continued their lives like nothing had happened that morning. Once all of the men had been lowered from the gallows they were taken to a sand bar in the front of town. There they were dumped in a long and shallow hole. Their bodies were lined, one next to another, with their feet toward the center and their head toward the outside. There was no ceremony, no mourners, and no final words. They found their final resting place.
I was left to myself still staring at the gallows in the town square. I was not sure where the officers went or even how much time had passed since the execution. I was stuck, not in thought, but in disillusionment.