Reconciliation with the Dakota Sioux in Mankato

By Roger Nichols


Every­one read­ing this blog has seen mon­u­ments to his­tor­i­cal events or nation­al heroes. But how many of you have seen a memo­r­i­al to a mass hang­ing? Out­side the movies or TV, few peo­ple today have ever seen a pub­lic hang­ing. That was not true a hun­dred years ago when crim­i­nals’ lives often end­ed at the end of a noose. The largest pub­lic hang­ing in Amer­i­can his­to­ry took place on Decem­ber 26, 1862, in Manka­to, Min­neso­ta. That day, fed­er­al troops exe­cut­ed 38 Dako­ta Sioux Indi­ans for their part in the Min­neso­ta Sioux War that had just end­ed. By some accounts, up to 4,000 whites jammed the town square or sat atop near­by build­ings to watch the mass exe­cu­tion. The crowd cheered loud­ly when the trap­doors opened and all 38 men hung at the end of the ropes. Why not take a few min­utes to find out why this grue­some spec­ta­cle hap­pened 134 years ago and how the city of Manka­to – often asso­ci­at­ed with the Lit­tle House on the Prairie TV series – has dealt with this legacy? 

This mass hang­ing came at the end of a short, bit­ter war between the Dako­ta Sioux who lived along the Min­neso­ta Riv­er and crowds of near­by set­tlers. The intrud­ing whites had set­tled land near the two Indi­an agen­cies lim­it­ing the Dakota’s abil­i­ty to hunt the deer they need­ed for food. As a result, some of them accept­ed Amer­i­can demands that they become farm­ers, leav­ing more land avail­able for the whites. They received food and oth­er neces­si­ties from the local Indi­an agent, and their neigh­bors assumed they posed no threat. It came as a ter­ri­ble shock in August 1862 when bands of Dako­ta men attacked the set­tlers, set­ting off a war and killing near­ly 800 whites. When the fight­ing end­ed, U.S. forces held 1,500 Indi­an cap­tives, and a mil­i­tary com­mis­sion tried many of the men for mur­der, rape, and rob­bery. At the tri­als, 303 of the men were sen­tenced to death. After review­ing the pro­ceed­ings, Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln par­doned all but 38 of them.

Sched­uled for Decem­ber 26, 1862, the hang­ings took place on a spe­cial­ly built large square gal­lows that would allow all of the men to be exe­cut­ed at the same time. Infu­ri­at­ed white spec­ta­tors had threat­ened to kill all of the cap­tive Sioux, not just those to be hanged, so hun­dreds of troops stood guard to pre­vent vio­lence. Once all of the pris­on­ers had died, author­i­ties removed their corpses and buried them in a shal­low grave. Because of the high demand to get cadav­ers for anatom­i­cal stud­ies, local doc­tors opened the grave that night and removed all of the corpses.

Local inter­est in the mass exe­cu­tion fad­ed, and the event dropped out of pub­lic dis­cus­sion until 50 years lat­er. As ear­ly as 1902, the Manka­to news­pa­per men­tioned that peo­ple had offered to raise funds for a memo­r­i­al to the event, and in 1911, two men who had been in the war formed a com­mit­tee to locate the site of the hang­ings. Their efforts led to pub­lic sup­port for erect­ing a memo­r­i­al to the event on the site it had occurred.

Almost from the start, peo­ple ques­tioned hav­ing a pub­lic memo­r­i­al to such a gris­ly event, but its sup­port­ers claimed that it hon­ored the mem­o­ry of the pio­neers who died in the con­flict. By 1922, objec­tions to the mark­er led to pub­lic dis­cus­sion call­ing for some­one to remove the mon­u­ment. Lorin Cray, leader of the effort to build the mon­u­ment, defend­ed it say­ing that “the hang­ing of those Indi­ans was an act of jus­tice … and it should not be for­got­ten.” His oppo­nents coun­tered that “the exe­cu­tion of the Indi­ans is not the sort of thing to which Amer­i­cans erect mon­u­ments.” Mean­while, the mark­er had to be moved in 1942 and again in 1965, so that it no longer stood on the spot of the hang­ings. By 1971, the social rev­o­lu­tion that swept through Amer­i­can soci­ety brought the mat­ter to a head, and author­i­ties removed the exist­ing mon­u­ment. A few local lead­ers worked with the Min­neso­ta and the Blue Earth Coun­ty His­tor­i­cal soci­eties to begin cre­at­ing a new memo­r­i­al “accept­able to both Indi­an and white.”

Pho­to cred­it: Sarah Deer

In 1977, they erect­ed a mod­est-sized plaque at the coun­ty library. Ten years lat­er, the City of Manka­to declared a Year of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and began an edu­ca­tion day for all third grade chil­dren to learn about Dako­ta cus­toms. In 1992, the city bought the hang­ing site, estab­lished Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Park, and placed the stat­ue of a large white buf­fa­lo there. Twen­ty years lat­er in 2012, they erect­ed a memo­r­i­al that looked like a large buck­skin engraved with the names of the men who died there.


Dak­to­ta 38 rid­ers arrive in down­town Manka­to on Dec. 26, 2012 for the com­mem­o­ra­tion cer­e­mo­ny. Pho­to cred­it: The UpTake


Each year, Dako­ta tribe mem­bers hold a run from Ft. Snelling in Min­neapo­lis to Manka­to as their way of mark­ing the event. As part of activ­i­ties relat­ing to the hang­ings, Manka­to hosts an annu­al Pow­wow cel­e­bra­tion to bring whites and Indi­ans togeth­er. Today, through its rec­on­cil­i­a­tion efforts, the city has replaced near­ly all signs of the 1862 hang­ings and has erased pub­lic ref­er­ences to the worst pub­lic exe­cu­tion in Amer­i­can history.

A Min­neso­ta art exhib­it also marked the 150 anniver­sary of the mass hanging.

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Roger L. Nichols, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Affil­i­ate Fac­ul­ty in Indi­an Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona, has pub­lished eleven books on Amer­i­can fron­tier and Indi­an top­ics. His strange new hob­by is giv­ing papers at Euro­pean Amer­i­can Stud­ies conferences.