Saying the largest mass execution in U.S. history was “an embarrassment to our country,” a Mankato City Council member is trying to use an online petition to gain presidential pardons for 38 Dakota hanged in his hometown 152 years ago.
But Council Member Jack Considine’s petition on the White House’s “We the People” website has a long way to go before a Friday deadline. The Obama White House gives anyone 30 days to gather 100,000 electronic signatures, promising to review and respond to those that cross the six-figure threshold.
In the last week, Considine’s tally has more than doubled to nearly 900 signatures. That’s less than 1 percent of the signatures needed for Obama’s staff to consider the petition’s request to “grant an immediate posthumous Presidential Pardon” for the executed Dakota.
“We’re starting to built momentum,” Considine said Monday, “but it’s a long shot at this point.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman added his name to the effort Monday and tweeted that he hopes his nearly 10,000 followers will do likewise. And musicians Trampled by Turtles and Atmosphere told Considine they will reach out to their fans.
“I think it’s time to do some healing and reconciliation,” said Considine, 59, a 16-year council veteran and retired county jail counselor.
He said he’s been researching the bloody, six-week U.S.-Dakota War since its solemn 150th anniversary two years ago. Considine’s ancestor was killed in the Civil War near Nashville and that soldier’s daughter — his great-great grandmother — witnessed the Mankato hangings.
He launched the petition after some residents resisted a memorial, arguing the hanged Dakota had been convicted in court. Considine started looking into those legal proceeding and was aghast at what he learned.
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 the 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. Two other Dakota leaders were kidnapped in Canada and hanged the next year at Fort Snelling.
Historians argue the first 29 trials, 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 speedier affairs, with as many as 40 men tried a day.
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.
He points out that the Dakota trials “were virtually indistinguishable” from trials of Union soldiers charged with rape or murder, tried without lawyers and executed on Lincoln’s orders during the Civil War which raged down South at the same time as the U.S.-Dakota War.
“If the basic premises of Considine’s petition are accepted — that blanket pardons should be granted to all unsophisticated defendants who were tried by military tribunals without benefit of legal counsel — there will be a considerable numbers of Union soldiers who would also warrant a pardon on the same grounds,” Bachman said.
To learn more about the U.S.-Dakota War, see the Star Tribune’s six-part series at www.startribune.com/dakota