President Abraham Lincoln’s cursive handwriting was steady and measured. He spelled out the English version of each name — in quotation marks — when he ordered the execution of 39 Dakota men for their role in the U.S.-Dakota War that began 155 years ago this month.
“Ta-te-mi-ma,” translated as Round Wind, was the ninth name Lincoln listed in his handwritten letter from the executive mansion in Washington to Brigadier Gen. Henry Sibley in St. Paul. That chilling letter, dated Dec. 6, 1862, lives online at the Minnesota Historical Society’s website: usdakotawar.org/history/aftermath/trials-hanging.
Twenty days after Lincoln wrote those 39 names, 4,000 spectators and soldiers surrounded a scaffolding on the day after Christmas in Mankato. The condemned men grasped hands as a single ax blow cut a rope, dropping the platform and sending 38 men to their deaths in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Round Wind was not among them.
“The night before the execution a dispatch was received from the President countermanding the order for his execution,” said Dr. Thomas Williamson, a medical doctor and missionary.
Round Wind’s conversion to Christianity, his age (about 65) and the sketchy testimony of two young German boys at his murder trial were among the factors saving his life on that deadly day. Williamson and another influential missionary, the Rev. Stephen Riggs, likely helped Round Wind escape the gallows.
“I never believed him guilty,” said Williamson, whose brother-in-law spoke with Round Wind after war broke out “and yet was not molested by him.”
A week after the war erupted in western Minnesota, Williamson said Round Wind found a 5-year-old girl settler in a deserted home, starving to death. Round Wind “took her home and had her carefully nursed till she got well,” the missionary said.
Round Wind was born about 1797 and became a leader of the Wahpekute, or Wahpeton, band in what would become western Minnesota, according to a Dakota research website. His sister married well-known, mixed-blood trader Joseph Renville — namesake of Renville County — and that connection might have helped Round Wind avoid the noose.
Back in 1851, Round Wind was among those who signed the Treaty of Mendota. That deal pledged $1.4 million to the Dakota on the condition they surrender much of their territory in southwestern Minnesota and move near modern-day Morton. Those unfulfilled government promises were among the factors prompting the Dakota to go to war to win back their territory.
Eleven years after the treaty, Round Wind expected to hang. He even dictated a letter to his wife the night before the Mankato execution, later translated by Williamson.
“You know that I did not murder any person and so I thought I should see you again, but now I shall soon die,” he told his wife. Then, reflecting on his religious conversion: “I shall walk in the path of the son of the Great God. … I think I shall now soon be happy in his house so pray much that you may see me there.”
Riggs said “the old man” was the only one of the 39 condemned Dakota who regularly attended Protestant worship. Williamson baptized him just days before his scheduled hanging.
Round Wind insisted he was on the other side of the Minnesota River and “unjustly condemned” for allegedly killing two settlers and participating “in various murders and robberies” committed by Dakota on the Minnesota Frontier.
His accusers were two young German boys who Williamson said “mistook him for another man.”
A transcript of Round Wind’s Sept. 28, 1862, murder trial, unearthed from the National Archives by historian Walt Bachman, shows Round Wind professed his innocence, but a 10-year-old boy named Augustus Gluth testified he was 20 paces away when “I saw this Indian” shoot a man who was praying. Another German boy, age 12, told the judicial commission Round Wind shot his mother.
Based on the boys’ testimony, the commission sentenced Round Wind “to be hung by the neck until he is dead,” despite noting that several women Gluth mentioned “were called in but could not identify the prisoner.”
After the six-week war, Round Wind became known as No. 15 in the government records of 392 Dakota men tried for allegedly murdering and raping settlers. In the end, the judicial commission sentenced 303 of them to death.
But Lincoln culled that list to 39, reviewing the trial transcripts to determine who committed crimes as opposed to engaging in the battles of warfare.
Lincoln later told the U.S. Senate he was “anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”
After the mass hanging in Mankato, the New York Times listed “Ta-tay-me-ma (Round Wind)” in a list of the 39 condemned Dakota. The word “respited” followed his name.
It’s unclear what happened to Round Wind after the mass hanging. He wasn’t listed as dying or being released from an Iowa prison, where many were sent. According to Dakota researchers, he might have been shipped with others to Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory, where 1864 tribal rolls have been badly damaged. He might have died on the South Dakota prairie.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.