The Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History: A timeline to understand how Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men

The Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History: A timeline to understand how Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men

On December 26, 1862, 158 years ago today, thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in what remains the largest mass execution in United States history. The hangings were ordered by President Abraham Lincoln in response to a series of battles between U.S. and Dakota forces commonly known as the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. The war began on August 18, 1862, when several hundred Dakota soldiers attacked the people living at the Lower Sioux Agency. After several attempts to overrun the defenses at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, the Dakota retreated along with their captives and were eventually defeated by U.S. forces led by Colonel Henry Hasting Sibley at the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862. It should be noted that the war and its results were a part of a much broader context of mismanagement and mistreatment of the U.S. government toward Native peoples. 

A framed color lithograph hanging in Mankato, December 26, 1862. MNHS Collections.

This post presents a timeline of events between the Dakota defeat at The Battle of Wood Lake and the hangings on December 26. It is meant to give readers a clearer view of those things that transpired prior to the tragic mass execution that has left an indelible stamp on Minnesota’s history. While the military trials that followed the U.S. – Dakota War were highly questionable for the manner in which they were conducted, this timeline is meant to present the facts as they are known without considering the moral, ethical, or legal implications. 

The information conveyed here has been collected largely from the important and valuable scholarship of John Haymond and Walt Bachman. Any mistakes in the historical accuracy of the timeline are my own. 

Read more about the mass hanging on December 26, 1862

September 23  
The Dakota are defeated by U.S. forces at The Battle of Wood Lake.

September 23
Following their defeat, the Dakota are split between those who flee toward the western plains and those who remain to protect the captives and surrender to U.S. forces. 

September 26
U.S. forced led by Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley the Dakota camp and take the captives safely into custody. The new encampment is named Camp Release. 

A photograph taken at Camp Release, 1862. MNHS Collections.

September 27
Colonel Henry Sibley issues an order to establish a three-man military commission consisting of Colonel William Crooks, Lieutenant-Colonel William Marshall, and Captain Hiram Grant. Missionary Stephen R. Riggs is appointed as deposer of witnesses and translator and Isaac V.D. Heard is appointed Recorder of the Commission. 

September 27 and 28
16 Dakota men are arrested. 

September 28
Sibley issues instructions that no one is allowed to depart the camp without a special permit from the commander. 

September 28
In Order No. 55, Sibley expands the military commission adding Lieutenant Rollin C. Olin as Judge Advocate and Captain Hiram S. Bailey. 

September 28
In a letter to Major General John Pope, Commander of the Military Department of the Northwest, Sibley declares, “I have apprehended 16 Indians . . . If found guilty they will be immediately executed . . . although I am somewhat in doubt whether my authority extends quite so far.” 

September 28
Pope to Sibley: “[The Indians] are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” 

September 29
Sibley is promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. 

Henry Hastings Sibley was the convening officer of the Military Commission that condemned 303 Dakota men to death by hanging. MNHS Collections.

October 4
Sibley orders the relocation of the entire camp—about 1500 men, women, children, and elderly—approximately 20 miles downriver to Yellow Medicine. At this point 29 Dakota men have been arrested and remain at Camp Release.  

October 7
Sibley reports to Pope that he has convicted 20 prisoners under sentence of death by hanging. 

September 28 – October 7
29 cases are conducted by the military commission. (2.9 cases per day) 

October 7
Pope to Sibley: “The slightest effort that is made to interfere with the well merited death of these Indians will be considered treason to the Govt., and treated accordingly . . . We have and can have troops enough to exterminate them all, if they furnish the least occasion for it.”

October 11
After more Dakota people have surrendered themselves at Camp Release, four companies of Sibley’s army surround the Dakotas at Camp Release, seize their weapons, and take all men into custody. 

October 11
Pope orders Sibley to move all Indians in his charge, whether guilty or innocent, to the Lower Sioux Agency. 

October 12 (on or about)
After being told to expect their annuity payment, all weapons are confiscated from the Dakota men at Yellow Medicine. At this point there are 234 men at Yellow Medicine and approximately 100 at Camp Release. 

October 15
Lieutenant Colonel William Marshall is replaced on the military commission by Major George Bradley. 

October 15
Sibley directs his judges to streamline the remaining cases, declaring that they should proceed in each case only until they were satisfied as to a man’s “voluntary participation” in the war. 

October 16
Sibley learns from Pope that all sentences of death must be approved by the President. 

October 21
Sibley to Pope: “The commission is proceeding with the trials of prisoners as rapidly as possible. More than 120 cases have been disposed of, the greater part of whom have been found guilty of murder and other atrocious crimes, and there remain still nearly 300 to be tried . . . I shall suspend the executions until the pleasure of the President is known.” 

October 23
Sibley orders the relocation of the entire encampment from Camp Release to the Lower Sioux Agency, approximately 45 miles downriver. 

October 8 – October 23
110 cases are conducted by the military commission. (6.875 cases per day) 

October 27
The “Cookhouse Trials” begin at the Lower Agency.

U.S. – Dakota War prisoners awaiting trial outside the summer kitchen of François LaBathe at the Lower Sioux Agency. MNHS Collections.

October 27 – November 3
253 cases are conducted by the military commission. (36.14 cases per day) 

November 3
The Dakota trials are completed. In 37 days (if you include September 27) 392 cases were tried. 323 men were convicted of the charges against them. 20 were sentenced to imprisonment. 303 were sentenced to death by hanging. 69 defendants were acquitted, however 61 of those exonerated remained in close confinement.

November 3
Stephen Riggs records a list of the 303 condemned men. 

November 6
The list of condemned men is sent to Major General John Pope in St. Paul.

November 7
Approximately 1700 Dakota, who had not been sentenced to prison or death, begin a forced march from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling where they are detained throughout the winter.

November 9
The Dakota prisoners, approximately 375 in number, are marched from the Lower Sioux Agency to South Bend (near Mankato) where they are imprisoned at Camp Lincoln.

November 10
President Abraham Lincoln to Pope: “Your dispatch giving the names of 300 Indians condemned to death is received. Please forward as soon as possible the full and complete record of their convictions; and if the record does not fully indicate the more guilty and influential of the culprits, please have a careful statement made on these points forwarded to me. Send all by mail.”   

November 11
Pope to Lincoln: “The people of this state, most of whom had relations or connections thus barbarously murdered and brutally outraged are exasperated to the last degree, and if the guilty are not all executed I think it nearly impossible to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of all the Indians—old men, women, and children.”

November 12
In Mankato, 14 Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) Indians are put on trial for their roles in the U.S. – Dakota War. All of them are acquitted of charges. 

December 5
Lincoln directs White House legal advisors George Whiting and Francis Ruggles to review the trial transcripts and identify any men convicted of rape. After learning that only two cases meet this criteria, Lincoln directs Whiting and Ruggles review the transcripts again, this time identifying those cases where the convictions were based on specific charges of murder or massacre. Whiting and Ruggles identify 38 more cases, bringing the overall total to 40. 

Lincoln’s Execution List. MNHS Collections. See the full list and get more information.

December 6
Lincoln confirms the execution order of 39 Dakota men to take place on December 19. He also orders that the remaining prisoners are held subject to further orders. The one name he leaves off the list is Joseph Godfrey, a black Dakota who was recommended for clemency by the commission for his role as an expert witness throughout the Dakota trials.  

December 11
Lincoln explains his reasoning for confirming 39 cases for execution to the U.S. Senate writing: “Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I caused a careful examination of the records of trials to be made, in view of first ordering the execution of such as had been proved guilty of violating females. Contrary to my expectations, only two of this class were found. I then directed a further examination, and a classification of all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles. This class numbered forty, and included the two convicted of female violation. One of the number is strongly recommended by the Commission which tried them, for commutation to ten years’ imprisonment.” 

Read Lincoln’s Letter to the Senate.

December 15
Lincoln’s execution order arrives in Mankato. 

December 15 (on or about)
Shortly after the execution order is given, Colonel Stephen Miller, who is in  charge of the Dakota prisoners at Camp Lincoln, requests a postponement of the execution because he needs time to acquire more rope. There are also concerns about being able to correctly identify each of the condemned prisoners.  

An illustration of the Dakota prisoners waiting to hear the decision of President Lincoln. Printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 31, 1863, page 300. MNHS Collections

December 15
Sibley to Riggs: “Have you a list of the condemned Indians? I suppose it was here but it cannot be found and you probably have it. I cannot say more for fear of miscarriage of this letter. Only speed your way, and above all say nothing of your having been summoned by me.”

December 16
Lincoln approves the postponement of the executions and reschedules it for Friday, December 26. 

December 19
The list of condemned prisoners is found in possession of Major John Brown who is at Camp Lincoln. 

December 22
The 39 condemned men are removed from the log shanty jail at Camp Lincoln to a room in the nearby three-story stone Leach Building.

December 25
After Jane and John Williamson expose new evidence, Lincoln issues a reprieve of Tatemina who, until then, was sentenced to death by hanging. This reduces the number of condemned men from 39 to 38.  

December 26
Thousands gather in Mankato to witness the simultaneous execution of 38 Dakota men. 

December 27
Sibley to Lincoln: “I have the honor to inform you that the 38 Indians and half-breeds ordered by you for execution were hung yesterday at Mankato, at 10 A. M. Everything went off quietly, and the other prisoners are well secured.” 

November 11, 1865
After being kidnapped in Canada and smuggled across the border Sakpe (Shakopee) and Medicine Bottle are hanged at Fort Snelling. 


John A. Haymond, The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law and the Judgment of History, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016).

Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, (Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013).

Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and forgotten past.

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