Abraham Lincoln Authorized the Largest Mass Execution in US History

Largest Mass Execution in US History Was Authorized by Abraham Lincoln and it had little to do with the Civil War

On This Date in History: The conflict between the American Indians (aka Native Americans) and European (White) settlers goes back to the original landing of Europeans at Roanoke Island and Jamestown. Just about every time the Indians tried to flip a deal, that deal was broken, most often by the Whites. Sometimes it was by design. Other times, it was not from a formal governmental policy but instead from the fact that White settlers just ignored the treaties. When the British won the French and Indian War, a policy was implemented that prohibited settlements west of the Appalachians. Settlers went into the Ohio Valley anyway. Whether it be British or later American governments, they either had no ability or no desire to enforce the treaties. Many times, it was a combination of government policy, government indifference and settler behaviour that resulted in the fracture of any given treaty. In the end, the result was the same: the Indians got screwed.

In 1851, the Dakota in what is now the northern plains states figured that their only chance for survival was to make peace. On July 23, 1851 the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux called for two bands of the Dakota to cede a big chunk of the southwestern part of the Minnesota Territory (including present day parts of South Dakota and Iowa) to the United States for $1.665 Million. A few months later, two more bands of Dakota gave up a big chunk of the southeastern part of the territory for $1.41 Million. That’s a lot of money today and was an enormous sum back then. Remember, Alaska was purchased for $7.2 Million and about 1/3 of the continental US was had for $15 Million with the Louisiana Purchase. The French and the Russians accepted a check from the US Treasury but the Indians were basically given a promise in the form of future payments and annuities. Hmmm….guess what happened?

White Refugees Escaping the Battles

The Dakota was removed from their lands to reservations but the payments were not as forthcoming. The US government decided it was best to disperse payments over time through Indian Agents. It’s hard for me to ascertain but it appears that those agents, more or less, sub-contracted out some of the work to traders. I believe that, as far as the government was concerned, payments were being made. But, the agents and traders tended to either pocket much of the money for themselves or use it for other purposes. Agents often used monies intended for the Indians to pay claims made against the Indians by White settlers. Over time, the poor guys on the reservations began to starve. As they say, the natives became restless. In 1857, a group of Dakota had an uprising that resulted in the deaths of 40 settlers in what was known as the “Spirit Lake Massacre.” A year later, the Indians tried to make nice by ceding part of their reservation lands to the settlers. That didn’t get them anything except a smaller reservation.

Harper's Weekly Somewhat Propagandized the Affair

By 1862, the Civil War was raging and the Dakota was starving. Confederate agitators were providing some supplies to the Indians and encouraging them to rise up. Johnny Reb wasn’t so much concerned with the plight of the Native Americans as much as they were hoping that they would cause such a problem that it would divert attention and resources from the Union War effort. In any event, I don’t think that the Dakota needed much encouragement. They were getting fed up and their families were starving. Rumors that the payments were not going to be made in gold due to the war really got them going. And the deceptions of the White men involved were numerous and had a long history. So, on August 18, 1862 they staged a huge uprising. Well, that’s what many histories call it. Ultimately, what the Indians were doing to leaving the reservation in search of food and if some Whites got in the way, well that was too bad. At least one group went to a settlers chicken coop and grabbed some eggs.

To make a long story short (er), the Indians were defeated and several hundred Indian males were captured.  They had military trials and were sentenced to death.  The trials weren’t exactly fair but it also wasn’t the total case for murder that some sources cite.  See, if the crimes of violence were indeed violations of the law, then punishment was justified.  BUT…the trials were considered to be part of a military commission and the commanders decided that the defendants therefore were not afforded counsel.  Then, the level of criminality suitable for the death sentence seems to have been pretty liberal.  If someone were to have been shown to have provided ammunition, or fired a single shot or done anything to help, the sentence was death.  And the evidence provided even for those types of charges was pretty thin in many cases.  No doubt, some of the accused had done acts of violence that resulted  in death of combatants or innocent victims.  But, the standards for trial would not have come close to passing muster in a modern courtroom; military or civil.  They took the word of some Indians and “half-breeds” who turned states evidence in return for lenient sentences, but they refused to consider testimony related to those who were said to have prevented murder and rape.  So, 303 men faced the gallows.

Lincoln's order authorizing the execution of 39 men

Well, President Lincoln had a dilemma.  If he allowed the executions, then European nations may take a dim view of the Union and in 1862 things weren’t going so well for the North and there was a real fear that France, England and Russia might come to support the South.  So, Lincoln made a compromise.  He reviewed some cases and determined that 39 executions could take placeOn this date in 1862, the largest mass hanging in US history took place when 38 Dakota Indians were hanged for their “crimes.”  One lucky soul at the last moment was given a reprieve by the military commander.  It’s a little known and sad episode in America and one that is often lost in the historiography of Abraham Lincoln.  It seems to contradict the notion as “Father Abraham” being the “Great Emancipator.”  In fact, it is somewhat ironic that Lincoln had already announced his Emancipation Proclamation that would take effect just 6 days after the execution of the Dakota.  But, it’s difficult to make judgements using present day sensibilities and try to transport them back to the 19th Century.  It was  different time.

 Also, Lincoln’s main objective was preserving the Union and so he probably didn’t take the time to review the situation as much as he might have otherwise.  But, the story itself is an interesting example in how the injustices done to the Native Americans of this nation seem to take a back seat to the injustices done to African-Americans or other minorities or immigrants.  Even today, as the Indians figured out how to take advantage of their status and open up Casinos beyond the reach of the IRS, state governments have tried to use courts to force them to break the treaties of the past and force them to pay taxes.  Some things don’t change…then again…some do because the courts of the late 20th century have told the state and federal governments that they cannot get their hands on the pocketbooks of the sovereign nation.  But, that’s little consolation for the 38 who swung at the end of the rope.

Weather Bottom Line:  The cold stretch is about to come to an end for awhile.  I see most forecasts call for temps to get to the 50’s as we head to the new year.  But, it will be interesting to see how it shakes out because I’ve seen some modeling data that wants to create a huge ridge that takes warm, moist gulf air all the way to the Great Lakes and Louisville pushing 70 degrees on New Years Day with a line of very strong storms approaching.  Hmmmm….probably wont be 70 but don’t be surprised to ring in the new year with some thunderstorms,which I suppose at this point is a nice break from rain.  I think we could do without the severe stuff though but we’ve had tornadoes in January in the past few years.  Not predicting that, but it’s not totally out of the question.  After that (I hate long-term forecasts) but it looks like we fall back to seasonal levels but nothing overly brutal temperature wise but again, i”m talking 10 days out and the models tend to trend toward climatology that far out so we’ll see.  Nevertheless, expect a thaw to end 2010.

3 Responses

  1. Loved this – especially since so much of the history was centered in my growing-up state of Iowa. I didn’t learn much about the Dakota in school – at least not as much as about the Fox, Sauk, Pottawattamie and Iowa, since they were tribes that were more locally known. We used to go to Tama every year for the pow-wow. Whether that’s still an acceptable name for the occasion I don’t know.

    Love that droll caption, too: “Harper’s Weekly Somewhat Propagandized the Affair”. A fine, American tradition!

  2. a lot of people try to cite the temporal relativity argument in defense of the horrific acts committed in “the past”. but really, genocide in the 1800’s or genocide in 1915 or in 1945 or in 1994 or in 1995 or in 2025 is still genocide and is still a horrific unconscionable indefensible act.

  3. There is a difference between “defense” and “analysis” especially when one tries to be objective and leave emotion and modern sensiiblity out of the equation. And, while there was a wholesale attempt to move the native populations out of the way by deliberate extinction or otherwise, a single event of 38 executions hardly qualifies as evidence, particularly when Lincoln commuted so many sentences. Nevertheless, as I suggested in the piece, it was and is a sad chapter in American history and is illustrative of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence having limitations that the founders would fundamentally abhore, but in practice, not always uphold.

    Thanks for your contribution.

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