Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 16th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
The largest mass execution in American history occurred under Abraham Lincoln’s watch.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were publicly hanged after being convicted of war crimes. The charges, originally brought against 393 Dakotas, stemmed from their attack of farmers and villagers in Minnesota earlier that year.
Known as the Dakota Uprising or the Sioux War, the one-month skirmish came after the Santee Sioux of Minnesota ceded their land to the U.S. and agreed to live on reservations. Then, as the federal government turned its attention to the Civil War, corrupt Indian agents failed to provide food and white settlers stole horses and timber. “The Dakota were literally starving,” said Paul Finkelman, a historian and professor of human rights law at the University of Saskatchewan. “They had no food and people who traded with them refused to give them any.”
Fully aware that the Civil War was under way and military troops were elsewhere, the Dakota attacked settlers, killing “not less than 800 persons,” Lincoln told Congress in December 1862. The U.S. immediately moved troops to Minnesota and, after several battles, crushed the uprising.
Under Gov. Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota held military trials, convicting 323 Dakotas of war crimes and sentencing 303 to death. But the trials were corrupt and “completely absurd,” Finkelman said. “The Dakota didn’t speak English and they didn’t have lawyers,” he said. “The trials were totally unfair.”
Under U.S law, however, death sentences could not be carried out unless the President signed the orders. In an unprecedented move, Lincoln ordered a complete review of every charge, and ultimately confirmed only 39 of the sentences (one prisoner was granted a reprieve).
“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,” Lincoln wrote in a message to the Senate in December 1862. The Army executed 38 prisoners by public hanging on the day after Christmas.
“This case was the largest mass execution in U.S. history,” Finkelman said.
Although all of the trials were shams and many of the convictions were unfair, it is significant to note that Lincoln reviewed the cases at all, Finkelman said. Minnesota leaders expected him to “rubber-stamp” the death sentences; instead, Lincoln pardoned 87 percent of those who were convicted.
The 16th president of the United States, Lincoln often is credited for his sympathy toward minorities and forward-thinking attitudes about equality. The author of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves and set in motion massive social and political changes, Lincoln also represents a shift in federal Indian policy.
“Indian policy was clearly secondary to the Civil War,” Finkelman said.
Born in a log cabin on the Kentucky frontier in 1809, Lincoln moved as a youth to Indiana and then to Illinois—both non-slaveholding states. Largely self-educated, Lincoln served as a captain in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War in 1832. He also worked as a store manager, postman and surveyor before becoming a successful trial lawyer and pursuing a career in politics.
Lincoln served four consecutive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. A member of the Republican Party, Lincoln began speaking against slavery in the late 1850s, earning him the Republican nomination in the 1860 election. He won the election as Southern states began to secede from the Union.
Lincoln served one full term in office, from 1861 to 1865. He was assassinated one month into his second term, on April 14, 1865.
The centerpiece of Lincoln’s presidency was the Civil War, but he also contended with Indian conflicts and genocide in the Midwest and Western frontiers, including the Sioux Uprising, the Sand Creek Massacre and wars with the Indians of the Southwest. Focused primarily on winning the war, Lincoln allowed army generals to dictate Indian policy.
In 1862, Gen. James Carleton began a war against Apaches and Navajos in New Mexico, where gold had been discovered on Indian land. Carleton told Col. Kit Carson that “All Indian men … are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them.”
In November 1864, Col. John Chivington led the Colorado militia against Chief Black Kettle in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre. The incident, which began when thousands of settlers in search of gold trespassed on Cheyenne and Arapaho land, ended with a dawn attack during which soldiers killed and mutilated more than 100 people, mostly women and children.
Meanwhile, Lincoln entertained Indian delegates at the White House, where he sometimes lectured them about civilization.
“I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is best for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life,” he told Indian leaders in March 1863. “I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth.”
In his third annual message to Congress, in December 1863, Lincoln urged Indians to reject tribal culture and embrace civilization, which included principles of Christianity.
“Sound policy and our imperative duty to these wards of the government demand our anxious and constant attention to their material well-being, to their progress in the arts of civilization, and, above all, to that moral training which under the blessing of Divine Providence will confer upon them the elevated and sanctifying influences, the hopes and consolations, of the Christian faith,” he said.
During his four years in office, Lincoln oversaw 19 treaties with Indian nations, including land-cession treaties with the Sauk and Fox, Chippewa and Tabeguache Band of Utah Indians. Other treaties called for establishment of forts, railroads, stage lines and telegraphs through Indian territory.
Lincoln also signed the Homestead Act of 1862, which promoted westward expansion and further displaced Indians. The act allowed prospective homesteaders to receive 160 acres of land that would become theirs after a five-year residency.
Aware of rampant government corruption during the Civil War, which often led to Indians’ starvation and suffering, Lincoln promised to remodel the Indian system. Urged by activists who pushed for the system to be overhauled, Lincoln replied, “If we get through the war and I live, this Indian system will be reformed.”
Although Lincoln was re-elected as president in 1864, he didn’t live to fulfill his promise to the Indians. One month into his second term, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, signaling the end of the Civil War.
Lincoln was killed five days later, at age 56. Vice President Andrew Johnson completed his term.