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Dakota Executions


This day, December 26, one hundred and forty-five years ago, marks the largest mass execution in American history.

The executions were the closing chapter in the US-Dakota Conflict of 1862. The conflict had been several years in the making as adjustment to life on a small reservation and broken promises by the federal government exacerbated a crop failure in 1861.

The thirty-seven days of fighting that followed in 1862 claimed the lives of nearly 80 US soldiers, over 400 white civilians and several Dakota.

Another 1,200 captured Dakota were being held prisoner and the number would continue to grow in the weeks that followed. A decision had to be made as to what to do with them.

Colonel Henry Sibley appointed a five-member military commission to try the captured Dakota charged with "murder and other outrages" committed against Americans. The commission was convened immediately.

The trials were quick affairs. The commission concluded that any participation in a battle or massacre justified the death penalty. Thus death sentences were handed out to each prisoner that had, according to the commission, either "fired in battle, or brought ammunition, or acted as a commissary in supplying provisions to the combatants, or had committed some separate murder." A prisoner need only admit to firing shots before a guilty verdict was reached. As a result, the commission could hear up to forty cases a day.

Many convictions relied upon testimony of others accused, who then plea-bargained in return for leniency. One mixed-blood named Godrey testified for the prosecution in 55 cases and as a result, his own death sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment. Nine other defendants also served as prosecution witnesses. According to Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, there is no proof "that any of the Dakota or mixed-blood prosecution witnesses were untruthful, and it could be argued that their identifications were more likely to be accurate than that of white witnesses."

Over the next six weeks, the military court would try nearly 400 cases. Of those tried, 303 were sentenced to death by hanging.

General John Pope, who had been appointed by President Lincoln to head the military forces in the area, notified the president that death sentences were to be carried out on over 300 of the convicted Dakota. In response, Lincoln requested a copy of the conviction records before the executions were to take place. He believed a distinction should be made between those who participated in battles and those who participated in massacres. After identifying those convicted of rape or participating in the massacre of settlers, Lincoln ordered that only 38 of the 303 be executed.

In Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, thirty-eight prisoners wearing white muslin coverings and singing Dakota death songs were led to the gallows.

These executions concluded the US-Dakota Conflict of 1862, but it marked the beginning of nearly three decades of intermittent warfare between the Plains Indians and the United States government.

Written by Christina Sunwall


The Dakota Conflict Trials- http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dakota/dakota.html

E-Museum @ Minnesota State University Mankato-http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/mnstatehistory/thedakotaconflict.html

Inside Lincoln's Clemency Decision Making- http://ednet.rvc.cc.il.us/~PeterR/Papers/paper4.htm