Close Reading for "Understanding Lincoln" Course sponsored by Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute
On December 6, 1862 President Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in American History. In modern text books this event is overshadowed, even eclipsed, by the much greater event of the time, the Civil War. As Commander and Chief, the President most certainly had more pressing concerns than the Indian problems in the south and the west, but his inability to pursue the reforms that he acknowledged were necessary and respond to rampant corruption, most certainly played a role in the outbreak of the Great Sioux Uprising in Minnesota a.k.a. Dakota- U.S. Conflict in 1862.

The uprising began in August, when 4 young Dakota men murdered 5 settlers, after one of the Dakota youth was taunted into proving he was not afraid of the white man. But there is far more to the story of how and why this war began. Like so many other Native American conflicts, this can be traced to broken treaties, continued loss of land and their traditional Indian livelihood, as well as corruption among those whose job it was to serve the Natives.
As the Minnesota territory opened up and settlers poured into the unclaimed area, another treaty was signed in which the Dakota agreed to settle onto yet a smaller strip of land along the Minnesota River. As a result, the Dakota people's way of life changed dramatically. A once proud hunter and gatherer tribe was reduced to relying on government annuities (regular payments and supplies) and subject to government appointed agencies who were inevitably corrupt. The year prior to the conflict had been very difficult for the natives. Attempting to assimilate, the Dakota's crops had failed, the winter was unusually harsh, there was little wild game, and the upcoming crop was weeks away from harvest. To make matters worse, the annuity payment that was due from Washington in June was late, and while the warehouses were full of food, the agents and traders refused to extend credit and distribute the food. One trader, Andrew Myrick reportedly said, "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung."[2] Hunger was likely the spark that led to the violent outbreak. Two days prior to the initial incident, Little Crow (the chief who will reluctantly lead his people to war ) confronted agent Thomas Galbraith with these words,"We have waited a long time. The money is ours but we cannot get it. We have no food but here these stores are filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement so we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry, they help themselves." [3] Galbraith refused to help, leaving a desperate people to resort to desperate measures.
1862MAP.jpg[4] The shaded area marks the Dakota reservation approximately 20 miles wide and 110 miles long.AndrewMyrick.jpgAndrew Myrick-"let them eat grass". Early in the conflict Myrick will be found dead with grass stuffed into his mouth.

henry whipple_0.jpg
Prophetic warnings came from many, including the Episcopalian Bishop Henry Whipple who wrote to Lincoln on March 6th of the "sad condition of the Indians of this state...I ask only justice for a wronged and neglected race..." Lincoln responded on March 27, of 1862. "I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your esteemed favour ...and to state in reply that I have commended the matter of which it treats to the special attention of the Secretary of the Interior".[5] Secretary of Interior Caleb Smith (in a classic case of pass the buck) acknowledged in a letter to Whipple that the agents were corrupt and were financially benefitting while the Natives were not. But Smith dismissed responsibility by saying that the agents were local men for whom the President did not know. He went on to say he would be referring the matter to the Congressional Committees of Indian Affairs.[6]
How does the conflict end?
  • The annuity payment, the natives so desperately needed, arrived ONE day too late.
  • The war extended into September.
  • When it was over, between 400 and 600 whites -men, women and children-were dead
  • Up to a hundred Dakota were dead
  • Over 1200 Dakota were held as prisoners
  • Colonel Sibley appointed a 5 member military commission who quickly heard nearly 400 trials (some lasted as little as 5 minutes) convicted 323 and sentenced 303 to death by hanging[7]
  • Sibley sent Lincoln a telegraph asking permission to proceed with the execution at once
  • Lincoln asked for the complete records for which to review. After his review he authorized only 39 executions (one will be given a last minute reprieve)
  • Following is the letter Lincoln writes to Sibley

Executive Mansion, Washington,
December 6th. 1862.

Brigadier General H.H. Sibley
St. Paul Minnesota.

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 named, towit
Lincoln List.jpg
Te-he-hdo-ne-cha.” No. 2. by the record.
“Tazoo” alias “Plan-doo-ta.” No. 4. by the record.
“Wy-a-tah-to-wah” No. 5 by the record
“Hin-han-shoon-ko-yag.” No. 6 by the record.
“Muz-za-bom-a-du.” No. 10. by the record.
“Wah-pay-du-ta.” No. 11. by the record.
“Wa-he-hud.” No. 12. by the record.
“Sna-ma-ni.” No. 14. by the record.
“Ta-te-mi-na.” No. 15. by the record.
“Rda-in-yan-kna.” No. 19. by the record.
“Do-wan-sa.” No. 22. by the record.
“Ha-pan.” No. 24. by the record.
“Shoon-ka-ska.” (White Dog). No. 35. by the record.
“Toon-kan-e-chah-tay-mane.” No. 67. by the record.
“E-tay-hoo-tay.” No. 68. by the record.
“Am-da-cha.” No. 69. by the record.
“Hay-pee-don—or, Wamne-omne-ho-ta.” No. 70. by the record.
“Mahpe-o-ke-na-ji.” No. 96. by the record.
“Henry Milord”—a Half-breed. No. 115. by the record.
“Chaskay-don”—or Chaskayetay.” No. 121. by the record.
“Baptiste Campbell” a Halfbreed. No. 138. by the record.
“Tah-ta-kay-gay.” No. 155. by the record.
“Ha-pink-pa.” No. 170 by the record.
“Hypolite Ange” a Half-breed. No. 175 by the record.
“Na-pay-Shue.” No. 178. by the record.
“Wa-kan-tan-ka.” No. 210. by the record.
“Toon-kan-ka-yag-e-na-jin.” No. 225. by the record.
“Ma-kat-e-na-jin.” No. 254. by the record.
“Pa-zee-koo-tay-ma-ne.” No. 264. by the record.
“Ta-tay-hde-don.” No. 279. by the record.
“Wa-She-choon,” or “Toon-kan-shkan-shkan-mene-hay.” No. 318. by the record.
“A-e-cha-ga.” No. 327. by the record.
“Ha-tan-in-koo.” No. 333. by the record
“Chay-ton-hoon-ka.” No. 342. by the record.
“Chan-ka-hda.” No. 359. by the record.
“Hda-hin-hday.” No. 373. by the record.
“O-ya-tay-a-koo.” No. 377. by the record.
“May-hoo-way-wa.” No. 382. by the record.
“Wa-kin-yan-na.” No. 383 by the record

The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.

A few days later Lincoln will address the issue with the Senate.
To the Senate of the United States: December 11, 1862
//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, in view of first ordering the execution of such as had been proved guilty of violating females. Contrary to my expectations, only two of this class were found. I then directed a further examination, and a classification of all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles. This class numbered forty, and included the two convicted of female violation.[8]
According to David Nichols (who wrote a book called "Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising) the people of Minnesota wanted far more than the appeasement that President Lincoln offered. Lincoln's words show that Lincoln believed that the wholesale killing of settlers could neither be condoned nor ignored. Later a Minnesota politician suggested that Lincoln would have fared better at the polls if he had supported the original orders, he responded, “I could not hang men for votes.”

On Dec. 26, 1862 -38 were hanged at Mankato in front of a large crowd.
How the STORY ends. After the mass hanging Minnesotans demanded that the Dakota be removed. They will be pushed again onto smaller tracts of land in South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota. As in the Trail of Tears, the Indians suffered great hardships during and after this relocation.

In the coming decades plains Indians continued to fight back, most notably, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. The final scene, yet even more tragic; Wounded Knee in 1890.

Despite many pressing demands, President Lincoln exerted his Commander and Chief powers to commute the sentences of 273 Dakota warriors. And while it could be argued that he could have done more to diminish the exploitation that led these desperate people to resort to desperate measures, he was able to alleviate the amount of bloodshed in Mankato on December 26, 1862. Afterwards, when asked about what to do with the Indians he remarked, "if we get through this war, and if I live, this Indian system shall be reformed."[9]

Lingering questions:
  1. How did others exploit the Dakota both during and after the signing of the treaties?
  2. Did the Dakota really think they could win the war?
  3. How fair were the trials the Dakota received?
  4. How did the treatment of the enemy in the Dakota Uprising compare to the treatment of the enemy in the Civil War? How do you account for the differences?
High interest areas:
  1. What is the relationship between the renowned Mayo Clinic and the mass hanging?
  2. Why was one of the 39 given a reprieve at the last minute?
  3. We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee was executed on that day-was he on Lincoln's list? Explore.
Life after relocation:
  1. Describe life on Crow Creek in South Dakota.

  1. ^ Little War on the Prairie-Public Radio. NOV 23, 2012
    Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen says, nobody ever talked about the most important historical event ever to happen there: in 1862, it was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged after a war with white settlers. John went back to Minnesota to figure out what really happened 150 years ago, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it much after. Long but enlightening in terms of how "unknown" this event really is.
    • Sibley once a friend to the Dakota..he was in debt...helped negotiate treaty of 1851 for which he personally benefitted.
    • Jefferson's idea on how to get Indians in debt and then make treaty by which the whites could attain the land
  2. ^ Website: "US Dakota War" Sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society. Includes more detailed accounts of the event and wonderful interactive maps throughout.
  3. ^ Hughes, Michael.ed. "Journal of the Indian Wars Volume 1, Number 3: The Indian Wars' Civil War" p. 25
  4. ^
  5. ^ Title: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 5.
    Author: Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
    Publication Info: New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953.;submit=Go;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=whipple
  6. ^ Prucha, Francis Paul. "The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians" (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984) p. 140-443-445
  7. ^

    Soodlater, Ron. "Lincoln and the Sioux". New York Times. August 20, 2012
  8. ^

    Title: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 5.
    Author: Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
    Publication Info: New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
  9. ^

    Nichols, David. Lecture to the Minnesota Historical Society. June 29, 2013