The Star Tribune's March 25 story “ ‘A long shot’ for Dakota pardon 150 years later” about a Mankato City Council member’s effort to improve on President Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 pardon of 265 Dakota out of 303 condemned to hang by a military “kangaroo court” in Minnesota (425 were tried) indeed describes a long shot. And that is as it should be.
There is no disputing that Minnesota Indians were treated unfairly back then, going back to the treaty of 1851 when they were forced to give away their land for practically nothing, basically to pay off unscrupulous Indian traders and merchants. But it cannot be argued that all of those made to pay the ultimate price for their subsequent inexcusable reactions — rape and murder of innocent civilians including children — were treated inappropriately by the standards of the time.
Lincoln got into enough trouble demanding that the trial transcripts be telegraphed to him at a cost of $400 and standing up to a tide of local sentiment calling for mob law and lynching. Despite the fact that Minnesota had been the first state to volunteer 1,000 recruits when Lincoln called for help a year earlier to put down the rebellion in the South, the president listened to eastern Quakers and humanitarians who suggested Minnesotans were out to exterminate all Indians.
In the 1960s, amid urban renewal, some Mankatoans tried to rewrite history when the local Jaycees wanted to transform an earlier generation’s historic marker — “Here were hanged 38 Sioux Indians, Dec. 26th, 1862” — first called by Clarence Darrow “a notorious monument.” They sought to inscribe clasped hands representing the two opposing forces and the words “Peace and Friendship.”
That didn’t fly, and the city moved the 1912 pioneer-established marker into storage until a suitable location could be found. (Eventually, the marker disappeared.)
By 1972 (marking the 110th anniversary of the event), I wrote a full-page story for the Mankato Free Press, complete with the never-before-published 1862 sketches by Robert O. Sweeney of some of the executed, along with their confessions and/or evidence against them. It was around this time that it was finally agreed that “reconciliation” was long overdue.
By the 150th remembrance of this terrible event two years ago, it appeared that all were in agreement that “ … remember and not forget” was appropriate, but that forgiveness on both sides should prevail. Mankato had put up a new, carefully worded monument satisfying both pioneer descendants and present-day Dakota, who in recent times have come frequently to this sacred site.
Now this new petition. It appears that some want to go the next step and have everyone forgiven, no matter how terrible their deeds.
Yes, Chaska apparently was hanged by mistake, and certainly, he should be pardoned. But Cut Nose — who boasted of how he killed white babies by bashing out their brains on trees and of murdering many women and children — he should be pardoned?
Should we pardon Andrew J. Myrick, the corrupt Indian trader who told the Indians they could go eat grass and was found slain, with his mouth stuffed full of grass?
The standards of the time said “no,” and the standards of today say “no.”
With all of the wrong that occurred in 1862, Lincoln, with the guidance of Minnesota’s Episcopal Bishop Whipple and others, did the meaningful pardoning that could be done. Now, 150 years later, it is not our place to rewrite history, to pass judgment on those who lived in a time and a place where injustice was rampant.
We are not guilty for the sins of our great-grandfathers. We have agreed on reconciliation, and we have agreed that it is time to move on. Let’s do that and push for a peaceful future with our sisters and brothers of all races and cultures, so that we can hold our heads high, and no one much later will feel compelled to rewrite our history.
John Haack, of Maple Lake, is a retired history teacher and Mankato Free Press history correspondent.