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Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862

Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862

Defendants: 393 Dakota Sioux Indians and people of mixed racial background
Crimes Charged: Murder and "other outrages" against citizens of the United States
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Chief Prosecutor: None
Judges: Military Commission Officers Lieutenant Rollin Olin (judge advocate), Colonel William Crooks, Colonel William Marshall, Captain Hiram Grant, Captain Hiram Bailey, and Major George Bradley(replaced Colonel Marshall after the first 29 cases)
Places: Camp Release, Minnesota and Lower Agency, Minnesota
Dates of Trials: September 28-November 3, 1862
Verdicts: 323 defendants: Guilty; 70 defendants: Not guilty
Sentences: 303 defendants: Death by hanging (38 later hanged); 90 defendants: Imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The trials satisfied the vengeance demands of outraged white settlers for the Dakota Conflict (also known as the "Sioux Uprising"), which took the lives of nearly 500 Minnesota residents. The trials and harsh sentences bred resentment among the Dakota Indians, and American-Sioux conflicts continued for nearly 30 years, finally ending with the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.

In August 1862, about 7,000 Dakota Sioux lived on reservation lands on the Minnesota frontier. Many faced starvation because of failed crops. Annuity payments due to them for recent (and disputed) land cessions did not arrive on time, and Indian representatives pleaded with traders to distribute provisions held in agency warehouses on credit until the annuity payments finally arrived from Washington. Traders resisted the Sioux's pleas at an August 15 meeting. Andrew Myrick summarized his position in the bluntest possible manner: "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass."

Unbeknownst to the traders or the Indians, the long-delayed annuity paymentsin the form of a barrel containing $71,000 worth of gold coinswere already on their way to southwestern Minnesota. The gold reached St. Paul the next day, then was sent to Fort Ridgely for distribution to the Sioux. The payments, however, arrived a few hours too late to prevent an unprecedented outbreak of violence that left nearly 500 settlers and an undetermined number of Dakota Sioux dead.

Two days after the meeting, four Indians from a breakaway band of young malcontents while on a hunting trip came across some eggs along the fence line of a settler's homestead. One of the four grabbed the eggs, while another warned him that the eggs belonged to a white man. The first young man became angry, dashed the eggs to the ground, and accused the other of being afraid of white men, even though being half-starved. Apparently to disprove the accusation of cowardice, the other Sioux said that to show he was not afraid of white men he would go the house and shoot the owner; he challenged the others to join him. Minutes later the occupantsthree men, a woman, and a 15-year-old girllay dead.

Big Eagle, a Dakota Sioux chief, recounted what happened after the young men reached Chief Shakopee's camp late on that night:

The tale told by the young men created the greatest excitement. Everybody was waked up and heard it. Shakopee took the young men to [Chief] Little Crow's, and he sat up in bed and listened to their story. He said war was now declared. Blood had been shed, the payment would be stopped, and the whites would take a dreadful vengeance because women had been killed. Wabasha, Wacouta, myself and others still talked for peace, but nobody would listen to us, and soon the cry was "Kill the whites and kill all these cut-hairs who will not join us." A council was held and war was declared. Parties formed and dashed away in the darkness to kill settlers. The women began to run bullets and the men to clean their guns.

The Dakota Conflict, or "Sioux Uprising," began with an attack on the Lower Agency along the Minnesota River. One of the first casualties was trader Andrew Myrick, who was discovered dead, his mouth stuffed full of grass. Over the next few days nearly 200 settlers were killed, as the Sioux massacred farm families and attacked frontier fortifications. Southwestern Minnesota was largely depopulated, as refugees set off in wagons and on foot for larger towns to the east. Governor Alexander Ramsey mobilized the state's military forces to suppress the uprising. On September 6, Governor Ramsey sent a telegram to President Lincoln pleading for federal help: "It is a national war. Answer me at once. More than 500 whites have been murdered by the Indians."

Lincoln dispatched General John Pope, the general having recently lost the second battle of Bull Run, to be the commander of the new Military Department of the Northwest. Six weeks after the fighting began, the military effort by the United Statesassisted by "friendlies" (Sioux opposed to the war)succeeded in quelling the uprising. The end of heavy fighting left 1,250 Dakota Sioux warriors as prisoners of the U.S. government.

Military Commission Appointed to Try Dakota Warriors

On September 28, 1862, Colonel Henry Sibley, field commander of American forces, appointed a five-member military commission to "try summarily" Dakota Sioux and mixed-bloods for "murder and other outrages" committed against Americans. Whether Sibley had authority to appoint such a commission is a matter of substantial dispute. The commission was convened immediately, meeting near Camp Release along the Minnesota River in western Minnesota.

Reverend Stephen Riggs, a man who spoke the Dakota Sioux language and knew many of the Indians as a result of years of missionary work in the area, undertook the job of gathering evidence and witnesses. Isaac Heard, recorder for the trials and the leading historian on the war, wrote that Riggs "was, in effect, the grand jury of the court." He assembled half-breeds and white survivors in a tent and interrogated them concerning the suspects. Charges were written and names of witnesses were appended to each charge.

The commission conducted 16 trials the first day it met, convicting and sentencing to death 10 prisoners and acquitting another 6. Over the six weeks that followed, the military court would try a total of 393 people, convicting 323 and sentencing 303 to death by hanging. According to the trial recorder, the defendants that were found guilty ranged from boys of about 15 to "old men scarcely able to walk or speak." The only Sioux woman tried by the commission was acquitted.

The trials were quick affairs, becoming shorter as they progressed. The commission heard nearly 40 cases on November 3, the last day it met. The commission believed that mere participation in a battle justified a death sentence; therefore, in the many casesperhaps two-thirds of the totalwhere the prisoner admitted firing any shots at all, it proceeded to a guilty verdict in a matter of a few minutes. Trials in which the charge was the murder or rape of settlers usually required more deliberation because in those cases admissions were rare.

Under the procedures adopted by the commission, the trials opened with a reading of the charges, or "specifications." The defendant then gave whatever response he cared to make to the charge. Prosecution followed. When prosecution witnesses contradicted the testimony of the defendant, the commission almost invariably found the prisoner to be guilty.

The best witnesses for the prosecution turned out to be some of the accused. Convicted in the commission's first trial, Joseph Godfrey, or Otakle, a mulatto married to a Dakota Sioux woman, gave evidence in 55 cases. Recorder Isaac Heard described Godfrey as "the greatest institution of the commission." According to Heard, when a defendant proclaimed his innocence and Godfrey knew him to be guilty, Godfrey "would drop his head upon his breast, and convulse in a fit of musical laughter." With his "melodious voice" and "remarkable memory" he seemed to Heard "specifically designed as an instrument of justice." In return for his testimony for the prosecution, Godfrey's death sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison.

Some of the prisoners found guilty had committed horrific crimes, while others had simply been one of hundreds who had only participated in the battles. The most notorious of the convicteda Dakota Sioux called "Cut-Nose" by the trial recorderwas found to have tomahawked to death 11 women and children as they huddled in wagons near the Beaver Creek settlement. Cut-Nose also, according to prosecution witnesses, snatched an infant from its mother's arms and riveted the small child to a fence, leaving it to die, "writhing in agony."

Henry Whipple, an Episcopal bishop who had worked among the Indians, criticized the commission for its refusal to distinguish between degrees of guilt. "There is a broad distinction," Whipple wrote, between those "committing fiendish violence" and the "guilt of timid men who under threat of death engaged in some one battle."

Were the Trials Fair?

Then and ever since, the fairness of the trials has been questioned. In addition to concerns about the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the convictions; the rapidity of the trials; and the denial of legal counsel, commission members have been suspected of being prejudiced against the defendants. At the very least there appeared to be conflicts of interest. The commission membersthough believed to be men of integritywere also military men whose troops had recently been under attack by the very men whose cases they were judging.

Critics of the trials believe that the commission wrongly treated the defendants as common criminals rather than as the legitimate belligerents of a sovereign power. They also contend that the trials should have been conducted in state courts using normal rules of criminal procedure rather than by military commission. Finally, many critics point out that the unsophisticated prisoners often did not understand the nature of the proceedings and, as a result, made damaging statements that sealed their convictions.

Colonel Sibley viewed summary trials by a commission as necessary to avoid vigilante justice by angry mobs of Minnesotans. Even with the swiftness of the trials, mob violence was a real concern: Angry white settlers attacked the 303 condemned prisoners in the southwestern Minnesota town of New Ulm as they were being transported to a prison camp after their trials to await execution. A month later, soldiers guarding the prisoners foiled a planned attack of the prison camp by several hundred armed local citizens.

President Lincoln Reviews the Dakota Cases

The final decision on whether to go ahead with the planned mass execution of the 303 Dakota and mixed-bloods rested with President Lincoln. General John Pope campaigned by telegraph for the speedy execution of all the condemned. Virtually all of the editorial writers, politicians, and citizens of Minnesota agreed with Pope. One of the few who did not was Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. Whipple traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and discuss the causes of the Dakota Conflict. Lincoln later wrote of Whipple's visit, "He came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots. If we get through this war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed!"

Lincoln knew full well that the lust for Indian blood could not be ignored; to prevent any executions from going forward might well have condemned all 303 to death at mob hands. Lincoln asked two clerks to go through the commission's trial records and identify those prisoners convicted of raping women or children. They found only two such cases. Lincoln then asked his clerks to search the records a second time and identify those convicted of participating in the massacres of settlers. This time the clerks came up with 39 names that were later included in Lincoln's handwritten order of execution written on December 6, 1862.

Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History

In Mankato, Minnesota, at 10 a.m. on the morning of December 26, soldiers led 38 prisoners (one person was reprieved between the date of Lincoln's order and the execution), wearing white muslin coverings and singing Dakota Sioux death songs, to gallows arranged on a circular scaffold. The warriors took the places assigned to them on the platform; ropes were placed around each neck. At the signal of three drumbeats, a single blow from an ax cut the rope that held the platform and 37 people fell to their deaths. One prisoner's rope broke and he consequently had to be rehung, prolonging whatever agony he may have felt before dying. A loud cheer went up from the thousands of spectators gathered to witness the event. The bodies were buried in a mass grave on the edge of town. Soon area physicians, including one named Mayo, arrived to collect cadavers for their medical research.

The hanging stands as the largest mass execution in American history.

The Aftermath

In April 1863, Congress enacted a law providing for the forcible removal from Minnesota of all Sioux. Most of the captured, after suffering through a harsh winter at an encampment near St. Paul, were removed to South Dakota. Convicted prisoners who were reprieved from execution were transported on the steamboat Favorite down the Mississippi to Camp McClellan, near Davenport, Iowa. After President Andrew Johnson ordered the release of the 177 surviving prisoners on March 22, 1866, they were moved to the Santee Reservation near Niobrara, Nebraska.

The acknowledged leader of the Dakota Uprising, Chief Little Crow, was not among the Sioux tried by the military commission. He, along with 150 or so of his followers, fled after the war to present-day North Dakota and Canada. In June 1863, Little Crow returned to Minnesota on a horse-stealing foray. On July 3, Little Crow was shot by a farmer while picking berries with his son in western Minnesota. The farmer received a $500 reward from the state.

The Sioux wars continued for many years. A military expedition carried the fighting into the Dakota Territory in 1863 and 1864. As the frontier moved westward, new fighting erupted. Finally, in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the generation of warfare that began in Minnesota in August of 1862 came to a final and tragic end.

Douglas O. Linder

Suggestions for Further Reading

Anderson, Gary Clayton and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

Board of Commissioners. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865 (Two Volumes).Minn.:1890, 1893.

Carley, Kenneth, The Sioux Uprising of 1862. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976.

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 1I. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1961.

Linder, Douglas O. The Dakota Conflict Trials. http://law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dakota.htm.

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