U.S. Military Commission Trials of Dakota Indians After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 lasted from August 17th through September 24th.  It ended with 447 white people killed, more than 300 of whom were not in any battles, including at least 100 white children and 50 white women. In contrast, only 29 Dakota Indian men had been killed. The U.S. Army also captured many Dakota men, women and children.[1]

Colonel Henry H. Sibley
Colonel Henry H. Sibley

On September 27th Henry H. Sibley, who had been appointed by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey to be in charge of the militia fighting the War, issued an order creating a military commission to try the captive Dakota Indians. Another order the next day stated that the commission of five officers would “try summarily the Mulatto [Joseph Godfrey],[2] and Indians, or mixed bloods . . . and pass judgment upon them, if found guilty of murders or other outrages [rapes] against the whites, during the present state of hostilities of the Indians . . . . [to be] governed . . . by Military Law and Usage.”[3]

BachmanbookGodfrey was the first to be tried. His Charge was “Murder” with the following two specifications:

1. “Godfrey , a colored man, did at or near New Ulm, Minn., on or about the 19th day of August 1862, join in a War Party of the Sioux tribe of Indians against Citizens of the [U.S.] and did with his own hand murder seven white men and women and children more or less, peaceable Citizens of the [U.S.].”

2. “Godfrey, a colored man, did at various times and places between the 19th day of August 1862, and the 28th day of September 1862, join and participate in the Murders and Massacres committed by the Sioux Indians on the Minnesota Frontier.”[4]

His trial on these charges started with his own detailed testimony that he had felt coerced to join the initial Dakota war party, that minimized his own participation and that he had not killed anyone, but only hit a white man with the blunt edge of a hatchet. Six witnesses testified that Godfrey had appeared to be a willing participant and had said he had killed people, but none said they had witnessed any such killings. His trial took one or two days. Thereafter, Godfrey testified in other cases on behalf of the prosecution.[5]

The commission subsequently issued its decision that Godfrey was “guilty on the charge [of Murder], and second specification [of participation in murders and massacres by the Indians], and not guilty on the first specification [of murdering anyone himself].” The commission, therefore, sentenced him “to be hung by the neck until he is dead,” but recommended “a mitigation of the sentence to imprisonment for ten years.” [6]

The commission also conducted trials of 391 other Dakota Indians over no more than 30 days. Of these, 302 were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging; 20 were convicted and given prison terms of one to five years; and 69, including one Dakota woman, were acquitted.[7]

After all the cases had been tried and decided, the commission sent a message to Sibley renewing “their application for a commutation of the sentence of . . . Godfrey . . . .” They said his “testimony [in other cases] has been invaluable to the State, for without it a large number of men of the very worst character would have gone unpunished.” His evidence “has always proved truthful both by corroborative evidence and by the acknowledgements of the prisoners themselves.” Therefore, “his services . . . warrant the exercise of judicial clemency.”[8]

Sibley, however, refused this unique plea for clemency and did not commute Godfrey’s sentence of death by hanging.[9]

All of these convictions were put on hold when President Lincoln by a November 12th telegram decided that his Administration would review the military commissions’ decisions with an order to General Pope to forward the “full and complete record” of the convictions to the President.[10]


[2]  As discussed in a prior post, Godfrey was a black slave in Minnesota who had escaped his owner in the 1840s and gone to live with the Dakota Indians and who fought with the Indians in this War.

[3]  Bachman at 124-25.

[4]  Id. at 138-39.

[5]  Id. at 138-66.

[6] Id. at 180-81.

[7] Id. at 220-22.

[8] Id. at 218-19.

[9] Id. at 221-22.

[10] Id. at 239. President Lincoln’s review of the convictions will be the subject of another post. Another topic to be explored in another post will be certain legal issues raised by these trials and sentences.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “U.S. Military Commission Trials of Dakota Indians After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”

  1. Additional Resource on U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and Mass Execution of 38 Dakota Indians on December 26, 1862

    John Bessler has provided an interesting account of the mistreatment of the Dakota Indians by the U.S. Indian Service, circa 1862; the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862; the U.S. military commissions’ judgments for death by hanging for 303 Dakota for their alleged involvement in that war; Bishop Whipple’s advocating for commutation of many of these death sentences; President Lincoln’s review of the military commission’s judgments and commutation of many of death sentences; the demands for execution of all those found guilty from Minnesota officials and people; and the December 26, 1862, mass execution of 38 of the Dakota in Mankato, Minnesota.
    ========================================================

    Bessler, “On Lincoln’s Orders: Mankato’s Mass Hanging,” Chapter 2 in Legacy of Violence (Univ. Minnesota Press, 2003).

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