They were the last two high-profile holdouts.
The bloody U.S.-Dakota War had been over for three years. Thirty-eight Dakota men had been hanged in Mankato. But white military and political leaders weren’t satisfied.
They felt they had to show, once and for all, that they’d handled the Indian problem and the frontier was back in business for immigrant settlers who could replenish the fledgling Minnesota economy.
So just after noon on Nov. 11, 1865, 425 soldiers marched in formation to surround a specially constructed double gallows at Fort Snelling.
More than 400 St. Paul citizens turned out 150 years ago to watch the hangings of two Dakota leaders: Medicine Bottle and Shakopee. They had eluded soldiers for years, escaping across the Canadian border to Manitoba with more than 500 Dakota refugees from the war.
Their flight ended in January 1864, when Shakopee and Medicine Bottle stopped by the home of a white friend near Winnipeg’s Fort Garry. That Canadian trader, John McKenzie, was secretly in cahoots with a U.S. Army major across the border in what would become Pembina, N.D.
McKenzie plied both Indian leaders with alcohol laced with drugs. Shakopee, then in his 50s, was dosed with chloroform and rendered unconscious. Medicine Bottle, in his mid-30s, struggled longer but several men subdued him. Both Dakota men were tied to dog sleds and taken to Pembina, then Fort Abercrombie, en route to Fort Snelling.
The Minnesota Legislature forked out $1,000 — big money in the 1860s — to McKenzie as a bounty. Trials were held and both men were convicted despite sketchy evidence that they had committed atrocities during the war. They were blamed in the death of Philander Prescott, 60, who had lived among the Dakota for more than 40 years. He was beheaded on the first day of the war as he fled toward Fort Ridgely.
“It would have been more creditable if some tangible evidence of their guilt had been obtained,” said an editorial in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, published the day before the hangings.
The newspaper said “no serious injustice will be done by the execution,” but warned of a dangerous precedent of “hanging without proving.” Saying the men were probably guilty of murder, the paper nevertheless pointed out that “no white man, tried by a jury of his peers, would be executed upon the testimony thus produced.”
President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated seven months earlier. He had stepped in to reduce the number of Dakota men hanged in Mankato from 303 to 38.
One of Medicine Bottle’s descendants, Dakota researcher and filmmaker Sheldon Wolfchild, insists Lincoln would have halted the hangings. But the president’s successor, Andrew Johnson, quickly approved the executions of Medicine Bottle and Shakopee.
Wolfchild, 68, lives in Morton, Minn., and has produced a film about the era that saw his ancestors swept from the area five generations ago. He will give talks this week about what happened to the bodies of Medicine Bottle and Shakopee after their executions. His presentations are slated for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Fort Snelling’s interpretive center.
After their hangings, some of the witnesses ran up and cut off pieces of the nooses for souvenirs. St. Paul photographer Joel Whitney snapped glass-plate images showing white caskets at the feet of the dangling men.
Wolfchild says rocks went in the caskets that were buried in a nearby cemetery, with onlookers thinking they had witnessed the interments of important Dakota figures.
Their bodies, instead, were taken away in a horse-drawn cart at the behest of two doctors with offices near 7th and Jackson Streets in St. Paul. Some accounts say the doctors dug up the bodies the next day.
Wolfchild says Shakopee’s body was preserved in a wooden whiskey barrel and sent to a Philadelphia medical school where a professor Pancoast used it in anatomy lessons. St. Paul doctors dissected Medicine Bottle’s body.
“Who is the savage here?” Wolfchild asks. “Running to the scaffold to get a piece of the rope? The bottom line is they had to dehumanize us to where we were little more than beasts so they could get rid of us.”
Wolfchild says that his grandfather five generations ago, Medicine Bottle, didn’t die instantly when his body dropped at the Fort Snelling gallows.
While Shakopee’s neck snapped immediately, he said, Medicine Bottle dangled for 10 minutes before dying.
“He was saying: ‘We don’t die like that. You cannot kill us with a rope,’ ” Wolfchild said. He’s trying to find any remains that might still exist of the two men hanged 150 years ago this week, pointing to the Missing In Action banners popular since soldiers went missing in the Vietnam War.
“We feel the same way about our ancestors, they are missing in action and their bodies are in universities, museums and private homes,” he said, “waiting for proper burials so they can continue their journey to the spirit world.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.