Learning from the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History

It was the day after Christmas, 1862, in the town square of Mankato, Minnesota, that 38 Dakota warriors were hanged at the order of president Abraham Lincoln. After 150 years, it is still the largest mass execution in American history.

Mankato is about 80 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. In 1862, it was a frontier town in the thick of growing tensions between the quickly multiplying white settlers and the increasingly marginalized Dakota natives. The mass execution was essentially the memorable conclusion to what is now known as the U.S.-Dakota War (also known as the Sioux Uprising of 1862, as the settlers called the natives Sioux Indians).

How War Erupted

In the summer of 1862, the new state of Minnesota — only four years old — was a powder keg on the prairie. Relations between the settlers and natives were strained by land-stealing, lies, insults, and deception.

On August 17, four Dakota warriors murdered five white settlers in Acton, about 90 miles north of Mankato. At least a dozen versions of why and how this happened have come down to us over the years. This one incident alone is terribly complex and messy, not to mention the whole conflict that ensued. Both sides were guilty of greed and hatred and more.

The four natives fled 40 miles south to their village in the Minnesota River and reported what they had done. One chief consulted with others. They knew the white man would take retributive action. Some saw an opportunity and wanted the Dakota to strike first. Others wanted peace and knew defeat would be inevitable. The Dakota were split.

38 to the Scaffold

The war party prevailed, and Little Crow was the name of the chief they selected as their leader, even though he initially did not want to war against the whites. The Dakota struck first and took the early advantage — killing an estimated 600 settlers, traders, and soldiers in all — but soon the tide turned. Even with many Minnesota settlers away fighting the Civil War, the Dakota were no match for the numbers and technology of the U.S. Army. The Dakota would be driven from their land, some to what is now South Dakota, others to Nebraska, others still to Canada. Some 1,600 would be marched 150 miles in horrible conditions, a veritable trail of tears, to Fort Snelling, for a winter internment.

The army tried and condemned to death over 300 Dakota warriors. But an Episcopal bishop named Henry Whipple went to Washington and petitioned Lincoln on behalf of the Dakota. Lincoln gave his ear, and two White House lawyers reviewed the trial transcripts. Lincoln exonerated all but the 39 deemed most malicious. One was pardoned at the last minute, and the final count came to 38.

On the day after Christmas, 1862, the convicted Dakota warriors

walked from a makeshift jail to a scaffold in the center of Mankato. They sang death songs on the way. . . . As their heads were covered, the men reached out to take each other’s hand. The floor dropped from beneath them all at once. Hundreds of people . . . watched them fall to their deaths. (Annette Atkins, Creating Minnesota, page 56)

Awakened to an Ugly Past

I’ve lived in Minnesota now for nearly a decade. Granted, I didn’t grow up here — I learned South Carolina’s history in middle school, not Minnesota’s — but it wasn’t until this past August, at the anniversary of the Acton incident, that I’d heard anything about the U.S.-Dakota War and how much the Minnesota of today is shaped by that conflict. (Thanks in large part to the excellent articles by StarTribune reporter Curt Brown that now appear in the ebook exclusive In the Footsteps of Little Crow; also the November 23, 2012, episode of This American Life told of this “Little War on the Prairie.”)

It’s been a convenient thing for Minnesotans to forget, especially when trying to lure more settlers to the new state in the late nineteenth century. “This is a history that was rarely taught in Minnesota schools, and didn’t even start appearing regularly in school history books until the 1990s,” says StarTribune editor Nancy Barnes in the foreword to Brown’s book. “Yet, one cannot understand how Minnesota and the Dakota states were settled without understanding what happened here in 1862.”

The Uglier Sin Gets

The more digging I did, the uglier it got. In trying to give a fair read to both the old prevailing histories (that tell the settlers’ side of the story) and the new versions (that are particularly sympathetic to the Dakota), I found both accounts to be lacking. Like so much of world history, there is simply too much sin to make it simple.

“This is a story of very complex people on all sides,” says Kate Perry, the assistant managing editor for Brown’s project (quoted by Barnes in the foreword). “There are few simple heroes or villains. Breathtaking atrocities and cruelty were done by the U.S. Army, local leaders, the Dakota, and the settlers. . . . whether it was the Dakota slaughtering settler families or the settlers exacting horrific revenge on Dakota families.”

The more accounts I read, the more the picture points not to settler justification or Dakota victimization, or vice versa, but profound human depravity. I ache for the Dakota who were deceived and taken advantage of and unjustly lost their lives and land, and I ache for the settlers who were unrighteously attacked and tortured and raped and killed. Dig 150 years below the surface of Minnesota Nice and there’s the muck and stench of deep human wickedness, white and native.

A Reminder from the Ruin

It is a sobering thought that the land today on which we have the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is less than a mile from where 1,600 Dakota were concentrated in a camp at Fort Snelling during the winter of 1862–1863 following the war.

It’s strange to remember that Target Field and the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul and our land of 10,000 lakes once, not very long ago, had no European settlers or their descendants. Even today, tensions between the natives and the rest of us johnny-come-latelies is pronounced at times.

Here on the 150th anniversary of the Dakota hangings, one lesson, among many, for the Christian is how easy it can be to idealize the past and downplay the sins of our ancestors. Perhaps even especially we Christians are prone to have a woe-is-our-day nostalgia about the past that sentimentalizes our reformers or puritans, or the 1950s, and presumes things were much more golden in days gone by.

But when we start digging beneath the surface — if we read enough that’s honest enough to get some dirt underneath our fingernails — we find again and again how fallen they were “back then.,” We see how much world histories turn on one act of unrighteousness after another. We see how deep human depravity runs, and how profound is our need for a Savior from the outside. The human race, with all its nations, cannot produce the Help we need.

Red and Yellow, Black and White

It is not only our human dignity that levels the ground between peoples, but also our depravity. Here is how John Piper puts it in a sermon called “The Reformed Faith and Racial Harmony.”

Most often Christians celebrate the great positive common denominator among races, namely, that we are all created equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9). That is true and powerful and relevant. But there is a problem if we treat that doctrine in isolation. . . . What is desperately needed is another conviction — no less strong, but shattering to pride — namely, the conviction that all human beings, including me, are corrupt, depraved, guilty, condemned, and under the just sentence of hell where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth: red and yellow, black and white.

Whatever racial sins and civic unrighteousnesses formed the city or state or nation in which we live, we all share one final recourse, and only one true hope: a Jewish carpenter, with no place to lay his head, treated more unjustly than any settler or native. The Lord of the universe made himself a slave that we might one day emerge with him from the muck and mire of this depraved first creation. This is why Christmas is so precious, and why there is hope even for the day after.