Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Dakota War & The Mankato Thirty-Eight

 It’s no secret that the government of these United States has a long history of disregarding its treaties with Native Americans, and the Dakota treaties of 1851 were no exception.   This includes two, both with the Dakota Sioux:  the Traverse des Sioux MN treaty of 23rd July, and the August 6th Mendota MN treaty, in which the Dakota people sold 35,000 square miles at twelve cents an acre.   .
Fueled by both land speculators and a declining fur trade, which had previously been the main enterprise in Minnesota Territory (then including parts of both the Dakotas and Iowa), the U.S. government representatives justified these treaties as a way to satisfy the rising tide of migration west.  In fact, the tide did not begin until the land was handed over; at the time, an area of 9,000 square miles held just over 6,000 settlers—hardly a rising tide of humanity. The treaties stipulated the Dakota would retain a twenty mile swath of land, and receive $3,750,000.  Of that amount, debts owed to the fur traders were paid off, another $60,000 was to be paid to blacksmiths to help with the natives’ switch to farming, and five per cent of the remainder would be paid annually to the Dakota—with half of that to buy goods and services from the traders.  In fact, the government hoped to change the Dakota culture away from communal property to individual ownership.
By 1862, four years after Minnesota had become a state, the 8,000 Dakota affected by these treaties were starving. In 1858, the Dakotas had been forced to give up the northern half of the small band of land they had been left.  Delayed payments and the refusal of the traders to give any more credit resulted in hunting parties going out.  On August 17, 1862, while the Civil War raged back east, one such hunting party killed five white settlers.  That night a council of Dakota led by Chief Little Crow decided to drive the settlers out of the Minnesota River valley. Over the next six weeks, what is now called the Dakota War of 1862 raged with massacres and atrocities committed on both sides.
The war ended with the Dakota Sioux surrender at Camp Release.  The Army had captured more than 1,000 Native Americans.  Some eight hundred white settlers were said to have died. Subsequently, 392 prisoners were tried, 303 were condemned to death, and sixteen were given prison terms.  The cases, which had purportedly been handled with unseemly haste and little attention to detail, were then handed on to President Lincoln for his approval.
Lincoln found himself under intense political pressure to let these death sentences go forward. Keeping in mind that this had been called a War—a situation in which opposing sides do not normally thereafter hold executions of soldiers unless there is a further crime—and also remembering Lincoln had other things on his mind, it is amazing that the President was able to go over these cases and reduce the condemned to just thirty-nine (one sentence was later commuted). He did this by narrowing the guilty to those convicted of rape and massacre, as opposed to just taking part in battles.
The executions took place in Mankato, Minnesota, on 26 December, 1862.   It was the largest mass execution ever held in the United States. More than one quarter of the Dakota Sioux who had surrendered died the following year.  Others were sent to reservations in Nebraska, North Dakota, or left for Canada.
Print, Library of Congress

In 2012, 150 years after the executions, a memorial was unveiled in Reconciliation Park, Mankato.  It was preceded by a sixteen day horseback trek of Dakota from South Dakota to MN. This ride has been repeated every year since 2005.  In addition, a documentary about the hangings and the commemorative ride was brought out in 2010.  More recently, in 2017, a so-called sculpture of the scaffold on which thirty-eight men died was erected by the Walker Art Center in Mankato.  After numerous protests that the sculpture was a reminder of a “bad past,” it was taken down and burned.


Patti Sherry-Crews said...

As always when I read something like this, I wonder at the psyche of people who lived in the west at that time and had to deal with that conflict. I really cannot imagine. The sheer number of families who lost loved one on either side is heartbreaking. I'm sorry to hear they took down the sculpter!

Hebby Roman said...

This is a little known "situation" from history, Andrea, and such a sad footnote in the Indian Wars, which, unfortunately, appears to have been made up of sad footnotes. I'm shocked they took down the sculpture in 2017. It's as if no one wants to learn tolerance from history. So sad, both the history, and the present-day events, too.
Great blog, shedding light on little-known history. The deeper you dig into history, the more interesting it becomes.

Andrea Downing said...

Patti, they mostly took the sculpture down because of complaints from Native Americans. They felt that a sculpture of an object on which 38 men died was not appropriate. Many Native Americans are actually unable to put behind them the past they have inherited; they feel there is something genetic in their make-up that leads to their depression because of their past. In fact, one of the men who did the memorial ride to MN from SD later committed suicide.

Andrea Downing said...

Hebby, I guess I didn't explain too well about the reasons for taking down the sculpture as both you and Patti seem to have misunderstood--apologies, it's from trying to keep a post a reasonable size! Please read my response to Patti above, and thanks for stopping by!