In Little Crow's wake, horrors for the Dakota

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2012 - 4:13 PM

The defeated Dakota endure a forced march, angry mobs and calls for their extermination. More than 300 men are sentenced to hang.

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Little Crow and his followers vanished into the northern plains beyond Minnesota.

Charred remains of farmhouses littered the Minnesota River valley. Settlers' bodies were still being found in fields and ravines. The frontier was emptied by fear, and a bumper crop withered in the fields.

Most Minnesotans were in no mood to differentiate between the Dakota who went to war and those who resisted fighting and helped their white neighbors survive. The Dakota left on the reservation were easy prey for mobs seeking vigilante justice. With so many men arrested or out west with Little Crow, the women, children and old people could starve or freeze out there over the winter.

Officials from the state on up to the U.S. secretary of the interior mulled various options for the Dakota. Indian agent Thomas Galbraith wrote down their ideas in his 1863 annual report: "extermination, massacre, banishment, torture, huddling together, killing with small-pox, poison, and kindness." He concluded: "The Indians must leave Minnesota, says one. So say I, emphatically."

Among the ideas bandied about was to banish all 47,000 Dakota, Ojibwe, Winnebago and Menominee in Minnesota to Isle Royale in Lake Superior to "starve or survive," or to ship them to the Tortuga Islands off the Florida Keys.

Instead, the Dakota were divided in two groups. About 1,600 women, children and men unconnected to the violence would be force marched more than 100 miles from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling. A wooden stockade was being built on the river flats below the fort to hold roughly 200 tepees.

Nearly 400 men seen as culpable for the war would face speedy trials before a five-man military commission established by Henry Sibley, now promoted to brigadier general for his part in the war.

Mob vengeance

The brisk winds of early November signaled winter was near. Officials decided to move the Dakota before heavy snow.

Seventeen-year-old Sam Brown, released in late September with the rest of Little Crow's hostages, was now working as an Army scout. He joined the detachment escorting the Dakota on their long march along the Minnesota River to Fort Snelling. He was half Dakota and his language skills came in handy.

As the slow-moving line of unarmed Dakota families passed through Henderson, an angry mob of white citizens armed with guns, knives, clubs and stones attacked.

"I saw an enraged white woman rush up to one of the wagons and snatch a nursing babe from its mother's breast and dash it violently upon the ground," Brown wrote in his journal. The baby died within a few hours and Brown watched the burial ceremony.

"The body was quietly laid to rest in the crotch of a tree," he recalled, "in perhaps the last ceremony of its kind within the limits of Minnesota."

Brown served as more than just a translator. He wrote of helping the military stage a ruse to get "234 of Little Crow's fiercest warriors" separated from their families and unarmed so they could be arrested. Brown explained to the Dakota that the men who were heads of families needed to be counted separately in order to receive double annuity payments. He told them to stand apart from their families and hand in their guns and tomahawks. But instead of getting the payments, the men were shackled and dragged before Sibley's military court.

The Dakota had no lawyers to explain the proceedings and defend them. A French Canadian-black warrior named Otakle, or Godfrey, stood trial first and was convicted of two murders. His death sentence was commuted when he testified against eight Dakota accused in the massacre of 50 people near Milford in the war's first day.

The military commission took some time with the first 29 cases, which alleged murder or rape, and brought in many women to testify about their weeks as captives. Former hostage Sarah Wakefield, the doctor's wife at the Upper Sioux Agency, pleaded to spare a man named Chaska who had saved her family repeatedly during the war. She failed to sway the court.

After that, the other 263 cases were speedy affairs, with as many as 40 men tried a day in trials lasting as little as five minutes. At times, groups of eight defendants were ushered in and read a general charge that included an allegation of murder. It was not made clear to the Dakota men that they could wind up with a death sentence simply for admitting they had joined in a battle. Missionary Stephen Riggs, who spoke Dakota, served as a one-man detective and prosecutor. He later said many were "condemned on general principles," the charges unproven.

In the end, 303 Dakota were sentenced to be hanged.

Turning to Lincoln

The condemned Dakota found an eloquent defender in Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple, who was appalled at the war and the vengeance erupting in its wake.

He went to Washington to plead for clemency with President Abraham Lincoln, whose new general of the Union Army was Whipple's cousin. He detailed the fraud, annuity siphoning by traders, the devastation of alcohol sales to the Dakota, and other outrages that spurred the war.

He asked particularly for leniency toward the peaceful chiefs who resisted fighting. "Are we to reward their fidelity by a cry for extermination?" Whipple asked. "Punishment loses its lesson when it is the vengeance of the mob."

Whipple's words moved Lincoln, who later told a friend that the bishop "talked to me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down in my boots. If we get through this [Civil] war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed."

Lincoln drew a line between those he said "were proven to have participated in massacre ... and female violation, as distinguished from participation in battles." He asked two Washington lawyers to review the trial transcripts.

In a letter to the U.S. Senate, Lincoln described his balancing act, saying he was "anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak" but worried about acting "with so much severity as to be real cruelty."

Lincoln was surprised that despite reports of widespread raping of settler women during the war, in the end only two of the 392 Dakota tried were convicted of "violating females."

In Mankato, the delay caused by Lincoln's involvement infuriated the citizenry. Local officials turned a blind eye to a mob planning to kill the Dakota men held in a crude jail in the town. The plot was foiled at the last minute only when a colonel got wind of the scheme and ordered a cavalry company to intercept the mob.

Lincoln next outraged Sibley, Gov. Alexander Ramsey and many Minnesotans by paring the number of Dakota to be hanged from 303 to 39. Lincoln's hand-written original letter, painstakingly listing each man condemned to die, is on display at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. One of the 39 would receive a last-minute reprieve.

But even with the list reduced, Lincoln's action set the stage for what remains the largest mass execution ever on U.S. soil.

A bitter day in Mankato

There wasn't enough rope to make all the nooses, so the hangings were delayed until the day after Christmas.

Amid the chill of a 25-degree morning, nearly 4,000 citizens -- kept orderly by 1,400 armed soldiers under martial law -- crowded on rooftops and building stoops in Mankato, elbowing for vantage points as the doomed Dakota were marched onto a large square scaffolding constructed of massive timbers.

Many wriggled their tied wrists loose so they could grasp hands with the next man, chanting a slow, rhythmic Dakota death song as muslin hoods were rolled over their faces.

Joseph Brown, the former Indian agent who survived Birch Coulee and whose mixed-blood wife, Susan, had become Little Crow's hostage and confidante, tapped a drum three times to signal executioner William Duley at 10 a.m. Two of Duley's children had been killed at Lake Shetek and his wife and other children taken prisoner until the war ended.

Duley whacked the rope with a large knife, but it failed to snap. With a second, quicker motion, he severed the rope, sprung the trap doors and 38 bodies jerked and twisted. One rope broke and a Dakota known as Rattling Runner was strung up again.

"There was one, not long, but prolonged cheer from the soldiery and citizens," one newspaper account said. "And then all were quiet and earnest."

The bodies were buried in a shallow grave, only to be dug up that night by doctors who drew lots to get the cadavers for anatomy research. Dr. William Mayo claimed the body of a man known as Cut Nose to use teaching his sons Will and Charlie before they formed their famous clinic.

Sibley sent Lincoln a telegram the next day, saying he was "honored to inform you that the 38 Indians and half-breeds were hung yesterday at Mankato at 10 a.m. Everything went off quietly and the other prisoners are well secured."

The next year, two other Dakota would be found in Canada, drugged, kidnapped and eventually hanged at Fort Snelling, for a total of 40 official executions.

'Children were dying'

Private Levi Neill of Eden Prairie was patrolling up and down the Minnesota River valley, feeling feverish and fighting a dry cough.

By the time a splotchy rash revealed he had the measles, the disease was spreading through Fort Snelling. Neill soon died.

It wasn't long before Dakota children in the nearby stockade came down with fevers. A measles epidemic raced through the crowded, squalid conditions.

"Children were dying day and night," Gabriel Renville, a mixed-blood incarcerated there, later recalled. "The news then came of the hanging at Mankato. Amid all the sickness and these great tribulations, it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning."

Newspaper accounts reflected the dire conditions at the stockade. When a Dakota woman was killed by an errant shot from a soldier engaged in target shooting, the St. Paul Pioneer wrote: "We doubt not but there will be many such accidents." Another newspaper reported a Dakota woman gathering firewood outside the stockade "was seized by a number of soldiers and brutally outraged." After the hangings, another newspaper detailed the suicide of one of the executed men's sisters, who "literally starved herself to death, Lo, the poor Indian!"

It remains unclear precisely how many Dakota died at the camp, mostly from malnutrition and disease. The Rev. Thomas Williamson, a missionary who regularly visited, estimated 10 percent died, or roughly 160 Dakota between Nov. 13, 1862, and the early days of 1864. Many historians agree with that number, although some estimate the death count as high as 300. There were reports of Dakota burying their dead beneath tepees, fearful that vengeful whites would mutilate the corpses if they were buried outside the stockade.

None of Little Crow's close relatives were among the initial group at the fort. But eventually about 90 relatives, including wives and children, were captured or surrendered and wound up there. A memorial marker at the site labels it a concentration camp.

Some mixed-bloods crowded into the stockade possessed vouchers entitling them to 640 acres of land under treaty terms. Many sold them to buy food and avoid starvation. Early Minneapolis founders, including Franklin Steele, bought up the vouchers at deflated prices and sold them to land speculators and developers in a land-grab that formed early Minneapolis.

Others also made fortunes in the war's aftermath. Amherst Wilder's foundation remains a philanthropic giant in Minnesota, serving many vulnerable communities, including American Indians. His fortune was built in part by securing government railroad contracts to supply the military and Indians in the West.

In the spring of 1863, the Dakota men with commuted death sentences were shipped by steamboat to military barracks in Davenport, Iowa, far from where their families would be going.

Two Minnesota Republicans in Congress and friends of Lincoln's -- Sen. Morton Wilkinson of Mankato and Rep. William Windom of Winona -- were perturbed about Lincoln commuting the 264 Dakota death sentences. They were the first to push for removal of all Dakota from Minnesota, as well as the peaceful Winnebago who lived on a reservation in Blue Earth County. Rumors of their involvement in the siege of New Ulm never solidified during the military commission.

Windom and Wilkinson sponsored bills to remove the two tribes from Minnesota. The measures passed with little opposition in early 1863, with $50,000 attached to move 3,000 Dakota beyond any states, to unoccupied land "well adapted for agricultural purposes."

One Mankato newspaper proclaimed: "Glorious News, The Winnebagoes to be Removed."

The new law dissolved the reservations in Minnesota and canceled the treaties.

Pushed into exile

Among the Fort Snelling detainees were more than 30 Dakota leaders who had resisted going to war and saved settlers.

Hearing that they were about to be pushed west, out of Minnesota, along with all the other Dakota, they signed a petition that was translated and sent to Washington. Wisconsin Sen. James Rood Doolittle read it to the U.S. Senate.

It described a Dakota nation divided by war.

"Last August our young men all broke out and butchered a great many white men and women and children," the petition explained. They argued that the warriors were jealous of Dakota who were assuming white ways of farming. Reuniting Dakota who resisted the war with traditional "blanket Indians" who had fought, they argued, would get the Dakota who helped the whites killed.

"We did not want to go to war, but we were few and they were many, and we could not prevent them. We think we ought to be dealt with as our great Father does with his white children: the bad ought to be punished and the good to be well treated."

Some asked to resettle in the Dakota Territory 15 miles west of Big Stone Lake and others asked to be permitted to "go back to our farms and there live as white men. We humbly and respectfully ask that our great Father take pity on us. We must have food and clothing and in the spring somewhere to live. We know not what to do."

In the end, a couple of hundred Dakota who cooperated with the Army in identifying the warring Dakota were allowed to remain. A small group settled on Sibley's land in Mendota, dozens served as scouts for the Army, and about 100 who had converted to Christianity were allowed to pitch tents near Whipple's Faribault church.

In Davenport, Iowa, 120 of the reprieved Dakota died in the military barracks that served as their prison. During three years there, their chains were removed and, when no one tried to escape, they were allowed to make and sell trinkets in town.

Most of the roughly 1,300 Dakota left at Fort Snelling were put on steamboats and shipped down the Mississippi and up the Missouri River, then hauled by boxcars to the desolate, arid Crow Creek reservation. Many starved that first winter. Some survived by plucking grain from the dung of livestock.

Other Dakota eventually moved from Crow Creek to similarly isolated reservations in northern Nebraska, the Dakota plains and Canada, where tens of thousands of their descendants remain.

The state sets a bounty

Southwestern Minnesota was largely empty in 1863, settlers hesitant to return amid reports of sporadic attacks by Dakota fighters who made forays back across the border. The isolated incidents stoked a panic even in St. Paul, where some white citizens packed up their possessions on wagons and left under the false belief that the Big Woods were crawling with Dakota.

To stanch the fear, Minnesota Adjutant General Oscar Malmros ordered the creation of a team of experienced hunters to scour the Big Woods from Sauk Centre to northern Sibley County. These men were paid $2 a day. But on July 4, 1863, Malmros signed another order offering $25 for each scalp of a Dakota male, requiring proof that the Dakota were hostile. By September 1863, new Gov. Henry Swift boosted the bounty to $200. Although many went looking, few Dakota were found -- only a half-dozen bounties were ever paid.

To further ensure that the Dakota left for good, the U.S. secretary of war authorized an independent battalion of soldiers to push the Dakota as deep into the plains as possible. Sibley spent the next two years leading soldiers on what were known as punitive raids into the Dakota Territory. He was no longer merely looking for Dakota involved in the bloodshed of the summer of 1862.

Sibley and Gen. Alfred Sully led massive forces -- at times more than 3,000 soldiers in a five-mile column -- searching the prairie for any sign of the Dakota, intent on driving them far from Minnesota settlements forever. Firmly believing the U.S.-Dakota War didn't end with the Mankato hangings and was an ongoing military campaign, Sibley and Sully were indiscriminate in their killing.

On Sept. 3, 1863, Sully and his forces attacked a Dakota village at Whitestone Hill in the Dakota Territory. They killed and injured more than 150 men, women and children, and captured 156. But Sully and Sibley did not find the one Dakota atop their most-wanted list.

Chief Little Crow was camped with a dwindling collection of supporters near what is now Devils Lake, N.D.

As he waited out the harsh winter winds blowing over the rocky plains, Little Crow was laying plans to return to Minnesota in the spring.

Coming Friday: The legacy of Little Crow

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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