A Mankato City Council member has launched a petition on a White House website in hopes of winning a presidential pardon for 40 Dakota fighters hanged more than 150 years ago after the bloody, six-week U.S.-Dakota War.
“I think it’s time to do some healing and reconciliation,” said Jack Considine, a 16-year council veteran and retired county jail counselor.
The “We the People” website allows people to post petitions. If 100,000 signatures are electronically gathered within a month’s time, Considine says President Obama’s staff would consider the petition’s request to “grant an immediate posthumous Presidential Pardon” for 40 executed Dakota.
Considine’s petition, which calls the hangings “an embarrassment to our country,” has a long way to go. With fewer than 400 signatures collected as of Tuesday night, he needs more than 99,600 by March 29.
His petition focuses on the trials of 392 Dakota in front of a military court set up by Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor.
“Of almost 400 trials, they lasted on average three to five minutes,” Considine said. “If you go to court today, the judge will talk to the bailiff longer than that.”
He points out that Dakota had no defense attorneys and the proceedings were done in English. In the end, 303 Dakota were convicted to be hanged. But President Lincoln stepped in and reduced the list to 38, hanged the day after Christmas 1862 in Mankato in what remains the largest mass execution on U.S. soil. Two other Dakota leaders were kidnapped in Canada and hanged the next year at Fort Snelling.
Historians point out that the first 29 cases, which alleged murder or rape, took some time. The military commission brought in many women to testify about their weeks as captives. The rest of the 263 cases were speedy affairs, with as many as 40 men tried a day. Simply admitting they had joined the battle proved enough for many Dakota to be convicted rather than held as prisoners of war. Missionary Stephen Riggs, the one-man detective and prosecutor who spoke Dakota, later said many were “condemned on general principles” – the charges unproven.
Considine’s petition is already coming under attack from some settlers’ descendants, who point out the brutality involved in many killings of an estimated 600 mostly immigrant farmers during the war.
“The petition is grossly inaccurate or materially misleading on virtually every point it makes,” said Walt Bachman, a New York lawyer, historian and author on the subject whose great great-grandfather was killed early in the war.
“The historical evidence, the trial records, and Lincoln's review of the trials, in my view, would not warrant blanket pardons of all of the men found guilty of murder, rape, or other war crimes,” Bachman said.
Bachman has formerly offered to debate Considine on the topic in Mankato next month, an invitation the city council member has yet to accept.
To see the Star Tribune's six-part serial narrative on the war, click on www.startribune.com/dakota