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The end of an 1862 war sends 38 Indians to the gallows; 150 years later, memorial riders trying to heal the wound

Riders in the Dakota 38 Plus 2 Reconciliation Ride prepare to take off Dec. 12 toward Woonsocket, S.D. The ride started at the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation and will end Tuesday in Mankato. Forum Communications photo/Chris Huber

They were Dakota warriors. They met their fates with courage 150 years ago. The 38 condemned men, their hands bound behind them, rushed to the gallows that had been specially built for them on the edge of the Minnesota River in Mankato, Minn. They danced in place as the rough-hewn nooses were pulled over their heads. All wore white muslin caps with flaps on them, pulled down to obscure faces adorned with ceremonial paint.

The 1862 Dakota War was coming to a deadly climax.

According to an eyewitness report in The New York Times of the largest mass execution in American history, most of the men on the scaffold sang a slow Indian death song. Some of the condemned, including a few of mixed blood who had embraced Christianity, sang a song of their faith. Several had worked their hands free, and clasped a final grip with the man next to them.

Meanwhile, about 4,000 people watched. They were being monitored by more than 1,400 uniformed soldiers in the Minnesota Sixth, Eighth and Ninth regiments, there to ensure the warriors died of hanging and not of a mob attack.

Just after 10 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 26, 1862 — 150 years ago Wednesday — a drum was sounded three times. Capt. William Duley stood ready with a knife at the base of the platform.

Duley had been wounded, had lost three children during the conflict, and his pregnant wife and two other children had been taken hostage. Laura Duley later said she was repeatedly assaulted and lost the child she was carrying during captivity, he would learn when they were reunited.

As the final drumbeat echoed, Duley severed the heavy rope on his second try, releasing the traps beneath the warriors’ feet. All plunged down from the 20-foot-high platform.

Some died instantly, their necks snapped. Others writhed in agony as they choked to death. One man, known as Rattling Runner, plummeted to the ground, the rope around his neck having broken.

As he was brought back to the platform and a second rope placed around his neck, the crowd — and the soldiers — cheered long and loud when they saw all 38 bodies swinging in the frigid morning air.

One little boy, who reportedly had lost his parents in the 1862 Dakota War, was heard to shout, “Hurrah! Hurrah!” according to The New York Times report.

That mass hanging was the culmination of the 1862 Dakota War, also known as the Dakota Conflict, the Sioux Uprising of 1862, and Little Crow’s War, among other names. The executions were held after weeks of attacks, skirmishes and battles between white settlers and soldiers and Indians angry about the loss of their homeland and being denied access to food.

Hundreds, many of them settlers who were surprised by sudden attacks, died in August and September 1862. The Mankato hangings were intended to put the war to rest, but it has remained a heated topic among many Indians and some whites for 150 years, while others, even some who live in the region, are completely unaware of the bloody late summer of 1862.

Lyle W. Miller Sr., a Crow Creek teacher and 1993 Dakota Wesleyan University graduate, spoke on the 1862 Dakota War during a Dec. 14 presentation at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.

“When I think about that time in 1862, and I think about the reasons why it started — it had to happen,” Miller said. “A lot of people think war isn’t ever supposed to happen, but at this time, let’s put it this way: There’s no good about a war, but sometimes it has to happen. The little ones were starving. What do you do when you’re faced with a position like that?”

Reconciliation ride

This month, dozens of American Indians, along with other supporters and friends, have ridden horses across South Dakota and into Minnesota. They are scheduled to arrive Tuesday in Mankato and will take part in a solemn ceremony at the site of the executions.

Wilfred Keeble is taking part in the ride. The 54-year-old Keeble, a former Crow Creek tribal chairman, said he views the ride as a chance to connect with younger people, teach them their history, and guide them to reconciliation with white people.

But he also understands why the Dakota attacked the settlers and soldiers.

“I see the boys back then as being forced into it,” Keeble said. “I see justification for what happened.”

He joined the effort to encourage reconciliation shortly after it was started in 2005 by Jim Miller.

Miller had a dream in the spring of 2005 that he was riding horseback, headed to Minnesota. He said at the time that he had never heard of the 1862 Dakota War, or of the mass execution.

In the documentary “Dakota 38,” he explained what happened then.

“When you have dreams, you know when they come from the creator. ... As any recovered alcoholic, I made believe that I didn’t get it. I tried to put it out of my mind, yet it’s one of those dreams that bothers you night and day.”

He is not on the ride this year, but he has taken part in past 330-mile journeys from Lower Brule to Mankato. Miller said it’s an opportunity for his people to move on, and that’s what he wants the ride to symbolize.

“We can’t blame the wasichus (greedy newcomers) anymore. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs. We’re killing our own people,” he said. “That’s what this ride is about, is healing.”

‘Let them eat grass’

Healing has come slow to a deep wound.

By 1862, the Indians had surrendered most of southwest Minnesota in a pair of 1851 treaties, and still more land was lost after Chief Little Crow and other Indians leaders went to Washington, D.C., in 1858 to ask for explanations on why they were being cheated.

In the 1850s, two reservations were carved along the Minnesota River from what was once the Dakotas’ land. They were named the Upper Sioux Agency, with headquarters in Granite Falls, Minn., and the Lower Sioux Agency, based in Redwood, Minn.

The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of the Dakota, also known as the Santee Sioux, primarily resided in the Lower Sioux Agency. They were angry about lower than promised annuities, and often felt cheated by the traders who were supposed to provide them with food and supplies.

The loss of the land where they and their ancestors had hunted, fished and gathered wild rice and other food made the situation more desperate. At the same time, many Indians were following coverage of the Civil War in newspapers at the trading posts, and they saw that the North was losing, and calling for more men from its states.

As more and more settlers poured into Minnesota, and statehood was granted in 1858, once cordial relations between the Indians and the whites became increasingly strained. All that was needed for an inferno of violence was a spark.

Enter Andrew Myrick, a blunt-talking trader who was mistrusted by the Indians.

During a dispute over access to a warehouse packed with grain and other food on Aug. 15, 1862, a loud argument broke out between Indians and whites, including Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith, who was also a state senator. The Civil War was raging, and the attention, and dollars, of the federal and state government were focused on that war.

The treaty payments were late, again, and this time the traders were unwilling to extend credit. This caused a battle of words.

Myrick reportedly said this: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”

The Indians who heard this were deeply offended, and shouted in anger. While the heinous statement has long been credited with sparking the war, it was just one of many factors. But it did have an impact on the warriors who were told of his remarks.

Blood is shed

The first bloodshed occurred on the night of Aug. 17, 1862, when four hungry young men, Sungigidan (“Brown Wing”), Kaomdeiyeyedan (“Breaking Up”), Nagiwicakte (“Killing Ghost”), and Pazoiyopa (“Runs Against Something When Crawling”) found a hen’s nest with some eggs in it on a farmer’s land.

“Don’t take them, for they belong to a white man and we may get into trouble,” one of the Indians said to the others, according to an 1894 interview with Chief Big Eagle, who fought in the war and later served three years in a Minnesota prison

The would-be thief called his friend a coward and said he was afraid of white men. He promised to show them he was not afraid. That youthful boast started a deluge of slaughter that would roll across the southwest corner of Minnesota.

The four young men killed Robinson Jones, his son-in-law Howard Baker and his wife and their 14-year-old daughter, and a Mr. Webster that night. The attack was sudden and unexpected.

The young warriors, fresh from the kill, then returned to their village and explained what they had done. Some of their people were excited, while others said the murders would lead to disaster for the Dakota. The Indians asked Chief Little Crow, who was in his 60s and weary of battle, to lead them against the whites in an effort to reclaim their land.

Little Crow at first rejected the idea, telling the warriors that they were doomed, since he had seen the vast eastern cities during his trip to and from Washington, D.C., four years earlier.

“Kill one, two, 10 — and 10 times 10 will come to kill you,” he famously said.

But he also knew many of the white men were away, fighting in the Civil War. Perhaps they could win, the chief said, but he knew the odds were against them. He also realized the young men’s blood was up, and they were ready, even eager, for battle.

“You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon,” Little Crow said, and he then used his Indian name to inspire the warriors. “Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”

There was one chance, he reasoned. The Dakota would need a swift victory, before the federal government could aim its forces at them.

Miller, in his speech in Mitchell, asked his listeners to put themselves in Little Crow’s moccasins.

“The young men were hard to control. Very young men,” he said. “Like the people in the military today. They want to do battle when something hurts the United States of America.”

The first battle of the war was an Indian attack on the Redwood Agency on Aug. 18, 1862. Federal troops sought to aid the settlers, and they also fell under attack. Among the dead was Myrick, the foul-tempered trader.

When his body was found after what became known as the Battle of Lower Sioux Agency, his mouth and stomach were stuffed with grass.

“Myrick is eating grass himself,” several Indians said, according to numerous accounts of the battle.

On Aug. 19, Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey named his predecessor as governor, Col. Henry Sibley, as commander of the American volunteer forces. Meanwhile, settlers in the area were killed as the Indians tore a bloody path through the area.

Many settlers headed for the town of New Ulm, where a small barricade had been set up. On Aug. 23, more than 600 Dakota warriors attacked New Ulm. Almost 100 settlers and soldiers were wounded, and 34 of them died.

The town burned, but as many as 2,000 settlers and soldiers huddled together as the attacks diminished. After two days, they fled to the north and headed for Mankato.

Meanwhile, Fort Ridgely was under attack from Aug. 20 to 22, and hundreds of warriors kept the fort under siege until Sibley and 1,400 troops arrived on Aug. 27.

On Sept. 2, Little Crow led his warriors to victory over Sibley’s troops in the Battle of Birch Coulee. It was the crest of the Dakotas’ success, and was followed by a series of small skirmishes and attacks.

The desire for war against the whites was not universally shared among the Dakota.

In the Upper Sioux Agency, most of the Sisseton and Wahpeton were against the war, and Chiefs Red Iron and Standing Buffalo said they would attack hostile Indians who encroached upon their area. When given a chance, they seized white captives and turned them over to Sibley.

As the tide turned, the soldiers gained their first major victory on Sept. 23, when they turned the Indians back at the Battle of Wood Lake. Three days later, Sibley seized the Dakota reservation and eventually 2,000 men, women and children were taken into custody.

The war was over, and hundreds of people — perhaps as many as 1,000 — lay dead. Towns and villages had been ransacked, farms destroyed and buildings burned down. A large crop remained in the fields.

A devastating aftermath

What happened in the wake of the war further outrages Indians today.

About 1,600 Indians and people of mixed blood, called “half-breeds” by both sides at the time, were rounded up and marched to Fort Snelling, where they were imprisoned for the winter of 1862-63. Many Indians today, including Keeble, refer to it as a “concentration camp.”

The Indians were kept in inhumane conditions and suffered greatly. Between 130 and 300 died, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The ones who survived reported being assaulted and starved. Many had to surrender what items they owned and agreed to sign over land deeded to them to get enough food and supplies to endure the Minnesota winter.

In May 1863, the Indians were dispersed, with some ending up in South and North Dakota, and others in Nebraska and Canada. Where once 6,000 Dakota had called southwest Minnesota home, only a few dozen remained.

Some were taken to a new facility named Fort Thompson, located eight miles upstream of the small tributary stream called Crow Creek in modern-day South Dakota.

The fort was named for Clark W. Thompson, its first superintendent, and the Crow Creek Agency was created as a “repository” for Indians.

John P. Williamson, a Christian missionary, came to Fort Thompson with the refugees, who had briefly been held in Missouri.

Williamson said 1,300 Indians were shipped there, and 300 quickly died in the harsh conditions. More died in the coming months.

“For a time a teepee where no one was sick could scarcely be found, and it was a rare day when there was no funeral,” he wrote. “So were the hills soon covered with graves. The very memory of Crow Creek became horrible to the Santees, who still hush their voice at the mention of the name.”

Miller said Fort Thompson was essentially a POW camp.

“A lot of bad things happened at Fort Thompson. They didn’t have shelter, they didn’t have blankets … food, clothing,” he said. “The lowest level on the hierarchy of needs was not met. Lots of lives were lost.”

After three years, they were released from custody. Some went to Santee, Neb., some back to Minnesota, while others stayed and settled in central South Dakota. They were adrift, ripped from their homeland, Miller said.

As he discussed this, he started to cry.

“My children are part Dakota. A lot of the students that I taught were part Dakota, ancestors of these people,” he said. “They suffer internally. Deep depression. A deep, generational depression.

Grudges remain

It is a grim history. But some see shafts of light amid the darkness.

Wilson, the Mankato educator, will attend the reconciliation ceremony Wednesday.

Wilson said the annual ceremonies are brief and beautiful. Their roots go back to the efforts of two Mankato-area men and fishing buddies, Amos Owen, a Dakota elder, pipe maker and from the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Community, and Bud Lawrence, a Mankato businessman.

They started a conversation in the late 1950s on the need for healing, and in 1965 helped launch the first Mankato wacipi, or pow-wow, in almost 100 years. Since 1972, the three-day Dakota Mahkato Mdewakanton Wacipi has been held the third full weekend in September.

It is now held in the Dakota Wokiksuye Makoce Park, the Land of Memories Park. Wilson, who is of Cherokee origin, said she grew up attending the pow-wow and was always moved to see so many Indians gathered together.

She said as time has passed, she senses more racial understanding.

“I do, I do,” said Wilson, 34. “We dealt with an awful lot of racism in the school system.”

She said her father met racism head-on and would not allow any disdainful treatment to his children. That included explaining how terms and practices that whites thought nothing of were deeply offensive to many Indians.

But Wilson said some white and Indian families in the New Ulm area “still hold grudges” over the war.

“It’s taught generationally,” she said.

Wilson said she also feels the history of the war has been too centered on men. Many of the victims were women and children.

That was pointed out to her when she went on the Dakota Commemorative Walk, a 150-mile sojourn dedicated to the memory of the Indian elders, women and children who were force-marched from southwest Minnesota to Fort Snelling, near the Twin Cities.

“What about the innocent bystanders?” she said.

But the reconciliation ride is another positive development, she thinks.

“I think it is raising the awareness of everybody to the true history of the area,” she said. “I believe it is reconciliation.”

Miller said he is told the riders will receive a great welcome.

“It’s about reconciliation and healing,” he said.

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