Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Anniversary of the Dakota War

The largest mass public execution in U.S. history was carried out in Minnesota 150 years ago. 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato after the so-called Dakota War.

Minnesota was shaped by that war and the executions; the names of the white military and civilian leaders surrounds us--on our counties, towns, schools, and buildings--every day. The story of the war was told by the victors, of course, but with each major anniversary, a little more of the story has come out.

With this sesquicentennial, a lot more has been written and shown. The Minnesota History Center mounted an exhibit called The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and this past week the Star Tribune's Curt Brown published a six-part series called In the Footsteps of Little Crow. I recommend the series strongly -- as well as the op-ed from today's paper offering more information about Sarah Wakefield, who was caught up in the conflict.

There are many facts in the stories that I never knew, but some that stand out from today's story:

  • 303 men were sentenced to be hanged. After an Episcopal bishop interceded with Abraham Lincoln, 265 of them were reprieved from hanging because they had participated in battle but not in killing civilians. What I didn't know was that 120 of those reprieved men died the next winter in a military barracks in Davenport, Iowa. 
  • Hundreds of noncombatant Dakota (including women and children) died in a detention camp at Fort Snelling near what are now the Twin Cities. The next year, they were shipped down the Mississippi, up the Missouri, and then sent in boxcars to the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota. Curtis wrote, "Many starved that first winter. Some survived by plucking grain from the dung of livestock."
  • William Mayo, who went on to found the Mayo Clinic, was working in a field hospital during the war. After the mass execution in Mankato, the bodies were buried "only to be dug up that night by doctors who drew lots to get the cadavers for anatomy research. Dr. William Mayo claimed the body of a man known as Cut Nose to use teaching his son Will and Charlie before they formed their famous clinic."
The war is still contentious in Minnesota, as evidenced by a series of letters that appeared in the Strib before Curtis's articles appeared. But Curtis's stories and the History Center's exhibit both provide a lot of substance and subtlety to an event that is much too easily oversimplified.

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