On December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in United States history took place in Mankato, Minnesota, when 38 Dakota men were hanged before a crowd of 4,000 onlookers. The tragic event took place in the aftermath of the U.S. – Dakota War, a deadly conflict between a small sect of the Dakota people and the citizens and soldiers of southern and southwestern Minnesota.
Immediately following the conclusion of the war, 391 Dakota men were tried before a military commission for their roles in the U.S. – Dakota War. The trials were done in haste and were flawed for many reasons. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of the trials, the head of the Military Commission, General Henry Hastings Sibley, condemned 303 men to death by hanging. The majority of those condemned received their sentence for having admitted to firing a gun during the war or having been present at a battle.
Though it has become well known that thirty-eight Dakota were hanged in December 1862, with two additional Dakota being hanged in 1865, it is lesser known how officials arrived at the number thirty-eight. At the time, Minnesotans applauded the execution sentences of those 303 condemned to hanging leading the St. Paul Press to comment, “This [execution] is no longer the petition of the people of Minnesota. It is their demand.” But, before Sibley could proceed with the executions, he required the approval of the commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln.
On November 8, following the conclusion of the trials, missionary and interpreter Stephen Riggs forwarded to Washington the list of those condemned Dakota. General Sibley had expected the President to approve the sentences quickly, but that was not the case. Instead, on November 10, Lincoln requested “a full and complete record of their convictions.” The court transcripts were then forwarded to Washington on November 15.
The delay angered many Minnesotans who considered it intolerable. They feared Lincoln might release the Dakota back into their midst, leading newspaper editor Jane Swisshelm to write, “Get ready, and as soon as these convicted murderers are turned loose, shoot them and be sure they are shot dead, dead, DEAD!” In addition to public pressure to approve the sentences, Lincoln also received much political pressure. At the time Lincoln was engulfed with matters of the Civil War and Emancipation. In his annual address to Congress on December 1, 1862, he dedicated just one paragraph to horrific events in Minnesota. (Read the Address here)
With so much mounting pressure, Lincoln had to act. At first he sought to set guidelines for sentencing and then send the trial transcripts back to Sibley, but, his judge advocate general advised that “the power cannot be delegated.” So, Lincoln employed the help of two aides, George C. Whiting and Francis H. Ruggles, instructing them to review the transcripts and to identify only those guilty of violating females. Newspaper reports and civic leaders had led Lincoln to believe that many Dakota had been found guilty of such acts, but to his surprise his aides came back with evidence for only two Dakota men. Then, Lincoln instructed his aides to identify “all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles.” With these instructions Whiting and Ruggles identified thirty-eight more Dakota men, bringing the total to 40 men.
With the report of Whiting and Ruggles at hand, Lincoln decided not to approve the sentence of Joseph Godfrey, a mixed-race black Dakota and former slave who had been recommended by the commission for leniency because of his role as an eyewitness throughout the Dakota Trials. Lincoln approved the death sentences of 39 men. He forwarded his order with the names of those condemned to General Sibley on December 6. Although he only approved thirty-nine sentences, he did not commute the sentences of others. Rather, as stated in his order, “The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders…” When prompted for an explanation of his decision to approve just thirty-nine sentences, Lincoln wrote that he was “Anxious not to 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…”
The order, which set the date of execution for December 19, was not received by Sibley until December 15. With so little time to prepare, Sibley requested a delay, which was granted until December 26. Shortly before the executions were to take place, word was received in Mankato that the Dakota named Tatemima was reprieved by Lincoln because of an alibi provided by the missionary Thomas Williamson. This dropped the number to thirty-eight.
With military law in place, thousands of men and women lined the streets of Mankato on the morning of December 26 to witness the execution. With the use of a specially designed scaffold, the Dakota 38 held hands and sang chants while the nooses were laid around their necks. Then, with one swing of an axe, the thirty-eight fell dead and the crowd cheered. In the months to follow, all Dakota people were expelled, by law, from the state of Minnesota, completing the decades-long transfer of land from the native Dakota to the United States Government.
For his part, President Lincoln may be viewed either as a villain who approved the largest mass-execution in United States history against a wronged and maligned people, or as a humanitarian who used sober judgement in a time of extreme chaos.
All quotes and the majority of information from: Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, (Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013).
Konnie LeMay, “Sham Trials: The Traumatic Truth of What Happened to the Dakota 38,” Indian Country Today, Published December 26, 2015, Accessed December 25, 2017, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/events/sham-trials-the-traumatic-truth-of-what-happened-to-the-dakota-38/.
John A. Haymond, The Infamous Dakota War Trials: Revenge, Military Law and the Judgement of History, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2016).
Paul Finkelman, “I Could not Afford to Hang Men for Votes – Lincoln the Lawyer, Humanitarian Concerns, and the Dakota Pardons,” William Mitchell Law Review, (39:2), 2013.
“Lincoln’s Sioux War Order,” Minnesota History Magazine, (33:2), 1952.
Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, (Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013).