On the day after Christmas in 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged under order of President Abraham Lincoln. The hangings and convictions of the Dakota 38 resulted from the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in southwest Minnesota.
In addition to the 38 men hanged the day after Christmas, there were terrible injustices committed against 265 others in the form of military convictions and inhuman injustices to more than 3,000 Dakota people who were held captive, then forced to march west out of Minnesota.
How It All Started
The conflict erupted when treaties restricted the lands of the Dakota people to an area that could no longer sustain them. Promised compensations were slow or non-existent and the Dakota people feared starvation heading into a brutal Minnesota winter.
The Dakota also faced terrible racism, one white settler historically quoting, “Let them eat grass.”
As skirmishes and interactions between whites and Native people heightened on August 17, 1862, four young Dakota hunters were credited with killing five settlers. A war council was held that evening and a decision was made to go to war. Taoyateduta, Little Crow, supported the decision as is part of the council process, but he was apprehensive as were other Dakota leaders.
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 encompassed 37 days of fighting. The aftermath of the war fatality estimates included 77 American soldiers, 29 citizen-soldiers, 358 settlers and 29 Dakota warriors.
U.S. Colonel Henry H. Sibley contacted Taoyateduta in an attempt to stop the fighting but Sibley’s requests, which included taking hostages, were denied.
In September of 1862, some Dakota left with their families. Other Dakota leaders surrendered to Sibley, who said he would only punish those who attacked the settlers. Sibley took more than 2,000 into custody.
The Military Commission That Sentenced Hundreds to Death
An immediate court of inquiry and military commission was created. The panel then sentenced 20 Dakota to prison and 303 Dakota were sentenced to death. The time for the trials took 42 days between September 28 and November 8, 1862.
In the years since the convictions, historians often question whether a military commission was legitimate in cases where the main charges were murder, rape and robbery. Additionally, all of those appointed to the commission had fought in the war, which brings to question the bias of those handing out convictions.
Another point to consider is that most of the Dakota did not speak English, did not know that they were being tried for crimes and most did not have counsel defending them.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Decision
Since the war commission was a military proceeding, President Abraham Lincoln had the ultimate say on the punishment, and asked to review all 303 execution convictions.
Initially, Lincoln considered approving execution where rape had been proven, but only two men would be executed. Lincoln decided on those convicted of participating in civilian massacres and approved 39 executions, though one was later suspended.
Lincoln had made a decision based on convictions that were based on witnesses, who testified in multiple trials, many of whom were also facing charges and possible execution. One witness gave evidence in 55 cases, who was later sentenced to hang (he was not part of the Dakota 38).
One of the condemned men, Hdainyanka, Rattling Runner, sent an angry letter to his father-in-law. “I have not killed, wounded or injured a white man or any white persons… and yet today I am set apart for execution.”
Angelique EagleWoman, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota professor of law at the University of Idaho College of Law criticized the actions of Lincoln. She previously told Indian Country Today, “I think he should have followed general military practice at the time. They should have been released. He made a political decision, made based on the racial hatred… Lincoln was a lawyer, knew that this was improper.”
The 38 executions were originally scheduled for December 19, but were delayed for fear of mob retaliation. It was not until December 22 that the prisoners learned of their executions. On the 23rd, the condemned men danced and sang and were permitted visits with family to say goodbye.
At the same time as convictions were being doled out, a massive wagon train of approximately 3,000 Dakota tribal members and prisoners moved out to Fort Snelling. A crowd attacked the Dakota community on their way out; one baby was pulled from its mother’s arms and beaten to death.
As the prisoners made their way to Mankato–the location of the hanging scaffold created for the occasion– a crowd of men, women, and children threw bricks and stones, seriously injuring prisoners and guards. The hangings took place December 26, 1862.
It is believed that at least two men were executed at the mass hanging by mistake—one man answered to a name “Chaske” or “first son” that was misidentified and another young white man, raised by the Dakota, who had been acquitted but was hanged.
More than 4,000 people crowded the square. They cheered when the hanging was done.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s U.S.-Dakota War website describes the execution and the aftermath:
“After dangling from the scaffold for a half hour, the men’s bodies were cut down and hauled to a shallow mass grave on a sandbar between Mankato’s main street and the Minnesota River. Before morning, most of the bodies had been dug up and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.”
In the days that followed, several prisoners were given pardons due to lack of evidence. Others were taken to a prison camp in Iowa.
More than 25% of the thousands who surrendered to Sibley would be dead before the end of 1863. Thousands were exiled to the Dakotas, Montana or as far as Manitoba.
The List of Those Who Were Executed
The following is a list from Marion Satterlee’s “A Detailed Account of the Massacre by the Dakota Indians of Minnesota in 1862,” published in 1923. The spellings and translations are as Satterlee recorded them.
A photocopy of her list and the hand-written list from Abraham Lincoln of those to be executed is found on a page of Minnesota Historical Society’s U.S.-Dakota War website.
Tipi-hdo-niche, Forbids His Dwelling
Wyata-tonwan, His People
Taju-xa, Red Otter
Hinhan-shoon-koyag-mani, Walks Clothed in an Owl’s Tail
Maza-bomidu, Iron Blower
Wapa-duta, Scarlet Leaf
Wahena, translation unknown
Sna-mani, Tinkling Walker
Radapinyanke, Rattling Runner
Dowan niye, The Singer
Xunka ska, White Dog
Hepan, family name for a second son
Tunkan icha ta mani, Walks With His Grandfather
Ite duta, Scarlet Face
Amdacha, Broken to Pieces
Hepidan, family name for a third son
Marpiya te najin, Stands on a Cloud (Cut Nose)
Henry Milord (French mixed-blood)
Dan Little, Chaska dan, family name for a first son (this may be We-chank-wash-ta-don-pee, who had been pardoned and was mistakenly executed when he answered to a call for “Chaska,” reference to a first son; fabric artist Gwen Westerman did a quilt called “Caske’s Pardon” based on him.
Baptiste Campbell, (French mixed-blood)
Tate kage, Wind Maker
Hapinkpa, Tip of the Horn
Hypolite Auge (French mixed-blood)
Nape shuha, Does Not Flee
Wakan tanka, Great Spirit
Tunkan koyag I najin, Stands Clothed with His Grandfather
Maka te najin, Stands Upon Earth
Pazi kuta mani, Walks Prepared to Shoot
Tate hdo dan, Wind Comes Back
Waxicun na, Little Whiteman (this young white man, adopted by the Dakota at an early age and who was acquitted, was hanged, according to the Minnesota Historical Society U.S.-Dakota War website).
Aichaga, To Grow Upon
Ho tan inku, Voice Heard in Returning
Cetan hunka, The Parent Hawk
Had hin hda, To Make a Rattling Noise
Chanka hdo, Near the Woods
Oyate tonwan, The Coming People
Mehu we mea, He Comes for Me
Wakinyan na, Little Thunder
Wakanozanzan and Shakopee:
These two chiefs who fled north after the war, were kidnapped from Canada in January 1864 and were tried and convicted in November that year and their executions were approved by President Andrew Johnson (after Lincoln’s assassination) and they were hanged November 11, 1865.