ITEM: "The Execution". Wood engraving, 7x5 inches, printed ca. 1865. Fine condition. $125.00
Ref: JF Ptak Science Books Post 1298 (Continuing Post 669)
The great mystery was how those Indians were smuggled out of the grave, in spite of the watchfulness of those guards. From the Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Parker
One of the darkest moments of the spectacular Lincoln presidency came on 26 December 1862 when the president chose to not interfere with the vengeful hanging of 38 Santee Sioux (just south of St. Paul, Minnesota). This was the legal outcome of a short-fought “war”(known variously as "The Great Sioux Uprising", "the Dakota War of 1862" and "Little Crow's War") between U.S. soldiers and several Siouan tribes. It was a war brought on by the desperate tribes after suffering failed crops and the reneged treaty obligations (including a long-overdue payment of $1.4 million for the purchase of 24 million acres, or about a nickel an acre) of their Great Father in D.C. It was really more like a hunting expedition—the Indians, who had rampaged and taken hostages and killed over 200 white settlers and farmers, were at the end of their endurance. The warriors were ill-equipped for almost anything, with little food and failing horses, and were positively no match for the federal troops who would hunt them down and destroy them. The end result was a six-week course of "trials", conducted by a commission of unsure legality, hearing the cases of 393 people over a span of 42 days, convicting 323, and sentencing 303 to death by hanging. Lincoln commuted most of the 303, but left 38 to be killed.
“Destroy” isn’t my choice for words—it is used over and over again in the communications between the field commander General Henry Sibley and the general in charge of the entire region, General John Pope. It turns out that Pope was of the Tecumseh Sherman school of Indian relations, writing for the record:
"It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromise can be made."
Sibley was a hardened veteran but comparatively understanding towards the Indian, though his communications read much harsher than that. At least he used the word "destroy" rather than "exterminate", though that was small comfort to those on the receiving end of that vocabulary. (In a letter written in October 1862 to four Sioux chiefs whose tribes might be seen as harboring the breakaway, “warring” tribal elements led by chief Little Crow, Sibley said that he was out to “destroy” Little Crow and that the chiefs should be as invisible as possible, as the Union soldiers “might not be able to distinguish you from the guilty bands” and could kill them also/instead.)
The war, which began in August ended almost immediately, found the troopers breaking the backs and the wills of the Indians at the Battle of Wood Lake in September 1862. From that point on, it was Sibley’s job to round up as many of the warring bands as possible and bring them to justice in a military court of law which would not disappoint those with vengeance in their hearts. The major difficulty seems not to have been the resistance of the Indians but of the problems of supply for the troops. The prairie grasses then were brittle and dry and brown, forage was extremely limited, and moving 2000 men was a difficulty. Little Crow and his followers of course had much less, plus they had already been semi-starved up to that point—now that they were on the run, their situation was beyond desperate.
And they weren’t hard to find. Sibley’s main concern was to get as many in for trial and judgment and (probable) execution as possible before word leaked out that the guilty were going to be killed and their women and children impounded. Sibley wrote to Pope on 3 October:
“It is probable I shall not order any execution of the guilty until I can get those understood to be coming down to surrender themselves in my power, as otherwise they might be deterred from returning."
Deterred, indeed. He continues:
“I shall send the Indians composing the friendly camp to the lower agency, in charge of a detachment of troops, to collect the corn and potatoes in the fields, which have remained hitherto undisturbed. This camp is composed of about 1,200 men, women, and children; mostly the latter, there being but about 250 men among them. How they are ultimately to be disposed of is a question for the determination of the proper authorities. They comprise perhaps nine-tenths of those who have not been actively engaged in the war.”
So Sibley was successful early on his round-up campaign, catching all of those women and children--sounds like of the 1,200 that he overtook, there were about 500-600 kids. The next day Sibley reported to Pope that the Indians were coming to surrender of their won free will, though they were doing it “slowly”.
Little Crow's people were “coming in but slowly” and “I may still be necessary to attack them”.
Attacking for slowness. In a later letter of 8 October Sibley notes that there is an actual reason for the slow movement:
The messengers dispatched by me to the upper camps returned last evening. They communicated my demand to their small camps, one of which, of 20 lodges, will be here this morning. They say that they dispatched young men to the larger camp, and they state that they were informed that all of the lower Indians were moving down, but slowly, as their horses and oxen are so poor and weak that rapid marches are impossible.
On 6 October Sibley reports to Pope on some other bands of the guilty Indians starting to slip away, writing of “destroying” them as well:
“The bands of Lower Sissetou Sioux, headed by Sleepy Eyes and White Lodge, consist of perhaps 100 or more fighting men, and these have gone with their families toward the Cotean des Prairies; they will probably be found on or near the Big Sioux or James River, where they usually make their fall hunts, and they can only be overtaken and destroyed by a sufficient force of mounted men…”
The next day, 7 October, Sibley seems to continue to play a diminishing role of understanding-the-Indian, telling Pope that the lawbreakers “small mercy”, preferring to wait until all of the Inians were brought in before he started to hang anyone. Of course thius was all pre-trial conversation.
If I succeed in securing them, as I hope to do, I shall have in my hands three- fourths of those principally concerned in the outbreak, and I promise you they will receive but small mercy at my hands. I have 20 prisoners under sentence of death by hanging. 1 have not yet examined the proceedings of the military commission, but although they may not be exactly in form in all the details I shall probably approve them, and hang the villains as soon as I get hold of the others. It would not do to precipitate matters now, for fear of alarming those who are coming forward to take their chances.
As awful as this sounds, Sibley was a little too liberal and deliberate for General Pope, who wanted to get things settled immediately if not sooner—Pope actually wanted the Indians shipped to him so that he could dispatch the offenders upon arrival. Sibley to his credit fought this.
Once the deed of rounding up the Sioux was completed, there was a quick trial, and 303 of the braves were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The text of the orders from the Executive Mansion--and signed by Abraham Lincoln--to General Sibley read as follows:
"Ordered that of the Indians and Half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the military commission, composed of Colonel Crooks, Lt. Colonel Marshall, Captain Grant, Captain Bailey, and Lieutenant Olin, and lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the nineteenth day of December, instant, the following names, to wit”… [39 names listed by case number of record: cases 2, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 19, 22, 24, 35, 67, 68, 69, 70, 96, 115, 121, 138, 155, 170, 175, 178, 210, 225, 254, 264, 279, 318, 327, 333, 342, 359, 373, 377, 382, 383]. The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.
The condemned did of course have names but I haven’t been able to find them as yet.
The detail of the wood engraving that I've shown above may have these men shirtless in the bitter cold. They were being watched by men in columns, at attention. Then there were others who were standing on a barrel to get a better view. Others were on horseback. Outside the obvious monstrosity of the situation, not having your feet on the ground, not standing, not bothering to keep yourself erect as witness to the enormity, was inexcusably bad behavior.
The sentences of all but 38 were commuted. On the morning of execution the men were marched in 35 degrees below zero cold twelve miles to the place of execution at Mankato (outside of St. Paul). The scene is reported by eyewitness Theodore Potter (recorded in The Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Potter):
"On the morning of December twenty-sixth our company was ordered to march to Mankato and act as guard at the execution. We were in our saddles and on the way before daylight. The distance was only twelve miles, but the thermometer registered thirty- five degrees below zero, and before we reached Mankato many of the men had frozen ears and feet, and all suffered severely from the intense cold."
Potter describes the execution thus:
"At Mankato we met several other companies of our regiment who had been ordered here for the same purpose as we. Hundreds of angry men who had suffered at the hands of these savages were camped within sight of town. They were well armed and officered and were determined that the two hundred and eighty-two Indians who were not to be executed that day by the law, should suffer execution at their hands. Colonel Miller, who was in command of the troops had a force of fully two thousand men, including one battery of artillery, with which to protect his prisoners. The execution took place in the early afternoon. The thirty-nine Indians were ranged on one long platform and executed at the same moment, in sight of a vast multitude of people besides the two thousand troops. At the appointed moment W. W. Dooley, a former member of my militia company and a chief of scouts, whose family had been killed by the Indians at Lake Shetook, stepped forward and cut with an axe the two-inch rope that held the scaffold suspended and the entire number were plunged to death. The prisoners met their end like true soldiers of the plains. Missionaries who had been with them for years were permitted with them during their last days. When the time came for them to go to the gallows the braves asked to have the chains taken from their legs so that they could go in Indian style, single file. This was allowed, and they marched to the scaffold singing their Indian war- song, which was joined in by all the other prisoners. Each Indian placed the rope around his own neck and sang while the death cap was drawn down over his eyes. For five minutes after the scaffold fell everything was as hushed and silent as death itself. Then the crowd began to quietly disperse. The settlers who had formed in companies prepared to make an attack on the barracks, but Colonel Miller had his force well disposed to repel any attack, and the people saw that it would be foolhardy to make an attempt to storm the jail protected as it was by the force of disciplined soldiers. Nearly all the soldiers present were Minnesota men and many of them had had friends killed by the Indians, so that their sympathies were with the settlers and it was well understood among them that if an attack was made on the barracks, and they were ordered to fire on their own friends, they would do so indeed, but would see that none of the attacking party should get hurt. Fortunately the attack was not made and the settlers dispersed."
The hanged men were buried in a mass grave, though they didn't stay buried for very long at all. Potter concludes:
The executed Indians were ordered buried on an island in the river near the spot of their execution. All were to lie in one grave and a strong guard was stationed to protect their remains. That night our company returned to St. Peter. On the way several sleighs passed us at different times with only two men in each sleigh. The surgeon of our regiment, a Dr. Weiser, who was riding at my side, remarked that it looked as if those sleighs might have dead Indians in them in spite of the guard at the grave. I jokingly assured him that even if there were dead Indians in those sleighs, there was no danger of his losing his scalp to them. That night after reaching St. Peter and supper at the Nicolet Hotel, the doctor invited me upstairs to the third floor, saying that he had some valuable Indian relics he would like to show me. There on the floor lay three of the Indians that had been buried that afternoon and placed under a guard consisting of a full company of live Minnesota soldiers. The great mystery was how those Indians were smuggled out of the grave, in spite of the watchfulness of those guards. It was soon known to all that their bodies had escaped the grave and were distributed among museums and hospitals in this country and abroad.
Unfortunately, as we all know, these actions were all "normal". The aftermath of all of this in Minnesota was that all of the remaining tribes were expelled and all Indian reservations were abolished. That pretty much ended the "Indian problem" in Minnesota.