There is a memorial service down the street in honor of the 38 Dakotans executed during the Dakotan Conflict as I sit here at a bagel shop in downtown Mankato. There are a good number of people in attendance and police are directing traffic. You can read about it here.
The largest mass execution in United States’ history happened here. It’s been 150 years and there is going to be a new monument. It’s a 20 foot scroll with 38 names located across the street from the execution. A public library and a few statues sit on the actual execution site while a bridge leaves the site in its shadow.
The monument is an island. You can check out the Google Streetview here.
Riverfront Drive, a major arterial road, cuts on the north side of the site. All the decorative lights and flower planters in the world won’t help improve the joy of walking along Riverfront Drive, which hasn’t been connected to the Minnesota River in 5 decades. It should be called Concrete Wall Front Road. The new statue, along with the statue of the now-locally vanished American Bison, is wedged between this busy road, an industrial railroad track and a concrete retaining wall protecting the City of Mankato from a 200 year floods and from good, scenic views.
The monument is an island, and it’s practically located under a bridge. It’s not exactly hidden, but it certainly doesn’t have a prominent location or good civic location.
Unless you knew the local history, you’d never know it was an execution site. Maybe that’s intentional? By virtual of its location, it is a “drive by” statue. Ninety-nine point nine percent of people will experience the monument by automobile. I bring this up because I think it effects how we relate to our history.
I lived in Edinburgh – a city with an exciting (but tremendously violent) history. It’s hard to walk a few hundred yards without seeing an execution site, unmarked grave or an advertisement for a haunted catacombs tour (where countless anonymous black plague victims were tossed). These tragedies are part of Edinburgh’s history – and they are embraced. And by the way, this brief paragraph doesn’t even begin to describe the historical atrocities that occurred in and around Edinburgh’s city walls.
I can’t say whether or not the Scottish people are embarrassed by these tragedies, but I can say that they have embraced them. It’s not just Edinburgh, but violent histories have been accepted so much that they even play into the realm of marketing of place. There is a pub across the street from a public execution site in Edinburgh that, as the marketed history goes, gave a free pint to the soon-to-be executed. The execution block still stands, as does the pub. The last public execution there was on the site: June 21st, 1864 (FYI: the Mankato Mass execution: December 16th, 1862).
The difference is that those hung in Edinburgh’s public square were likely criminal, to what severity I do not know. Mankato’s victims, while many may not have been innocent, were victims of a much wider and complex set of scenarios (Listen to the This American Life episode titled, “Little War on the Prairie”). Minnesota doesn’t have a long history, so maybe that makes tragedies things stick out? Of course, what community wants their claim to fame to be “Home of the Largest Mass Execution in United States History”?
History is written by the victorious. In the United States, we have a history of tearing down our history – just look at our built environment. I feel that holds true more often than not, but destructing the Dakotan Conflict execution is seemingly more difficult. We acknowledge that it happened, but we don’t fully embrace it. We’ve built monuments to the event, but we place them practically under bridges.