President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the Military Commission’s Convictions and Sentences of the Dakota Indians

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

Before he participated in the U.S. Military Commission’s convictions and sentences of the Dakota Indians, President Abraham Lincoln was involved the U.S.-Dakota War itself in August-September 1862.[1]

Lincoln reentered this drama on October 14th at a Cabinet meeting when Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, read aloud a report from General John Pope that the War was over and that the Army held about 1,500 Dakota prisoners. “Many, Pope said, “are being tried by military commission for being connected in late horrible outrages and will be executed.”[2]

Lincoln and the Cabinet were upset with Pope’s apparent plan to execute many of the captives, and three days later Pope was directed that there be no executions without the President’s approval.

Roughly three weeks later (on November 8th), after the completion of the military commission trials, Lincoln received a telegram from Pope containing a list of the 302 Dakota men who had been convicted and ordered to be hung.[3]

Immediately (on November 10th) the President by a telegram put all of these convictions on hold pending his Administration’s review of these convictions. Lincoln instructed Pope to submit the “full and complete” trial records for these cases to the President along with any materials that might indicate which of the men were the most guilty along with a “careful statement” regarding the commission’s judgments.

This instruction annoyed Pope, who responded the next day not with a “careful statement,” but with a vehement objection to the order. According to the General, “the only distinction between the culprits is as to which of them murdered  most people or violated most young girls.” Moreover, Pope said, “The people of this State [of Minnesota] . . . are exasperated to the last degree, and if the guilty are not all executed, I think it nearly impossible to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of all the Indians–old men, women and children.”

Pope reiterated these sentiments on November 24th when he urged the President to make a speedy decision. He warned, “Organizations of inhabitants are being rapidly made with the purpose of massacring these Indians.”

Exactly what the presidential review would entail was not immediately clear. Lincoln contemplated setting guidelines for executing “only a part” of the 302 men and sending the cases back to Minnesota for an “officer on the ground” to make case-by-case designations. But on December 1st Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General, advised the President that the power of review could not be delegated.

Therefore, that same day (December 1st), the President asked two aides (George C. Whiting and Francis H. Ruggles) to make a “careful examination” of all the transcripts and identify those Dakotas who “had been proved guilty of violating females.” The aides soon responded there were only two who had been so convicted.

Lincoln was surprised so few rapists were among the 302 on death row. Therefore, the President asked his aides to make “a further examination” to identify “all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles.” Whiting and Ruggles did just that and reported that 38 additional Dakota men had participated in massacres. The report contained a brief summary of the proof against each man plus the transcripts of their trials.

The first man on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey, the escaped black slave who had been the first to be tried by the military commission. The summary of his case by Whiting and Ruggles said, “Engaged extensively in the massacres, and, though sentenced to be hung, recommended to have his punishment commuted to imprisonment for ten years, because of the valuable testimony and information furnished the commission.”

On December 5th or 6th Lincoln reviewed his aides’ report and trial transcripts. He then personally penned his execution order to Colonel Sibley with the names and trial numbers of 39 men to be executed on December 19th.[4] They were the 2 convicted for rape and 37 of the 38 men convicted for participation in massacres. The only one on the latter list of 38 who was not included on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey.

On December 11th in response to a Senate resolution, the President forwarded to the Senate the Whiting-Ruggles report, the trial transcripts and related materials. In his cover letter Lincoln referred to his aides’ list of 38 men convicted for participation in massacres, but said, “One of the [38 men] . . .  is strongly recommended by the [military] commission which tried them, for commutation to ten years’ imprisonment.” Lincoln, however, did not mention the name of this individual (Godfrey) or his black race. This review, Lincoln added, was done “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”

Throughout this period, the President and his Administration were under great pressure to approve all of the ordered executions in addition to the pleas from General Pope.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was running for election to the U.S. Senate in January 1863, urged the President to order the execution as soon as possible of all those condemned by the commission. “It would be wrong upon principle and policy to refuse this,” Ramsey said. “[Otherwise] private revenge would . . . take the place of official judgment on these Indians.”

Minnesota’s other public officials and newspapers echoed these sentiments as did letters, petitions and memorials submitted to the White House.

Virtually the only Minnesotans suggesting some mercy were Minnesota’s Episcopal Bishop Henry P. Whipple and other pastors.

Lincoln perhaps drew some comfort from a December 17th petition from 38 Dakota leaders that said “the bad [Dakotas] ought to be punished” and all “of the Indians who were engaged in killing the white men and women and children should be hanged.” The “good” Indians, on the other hand, should be “well treated” and permitted to return to their homes on the reservation.

On December 23rd, Lincoln directed the reprieve of one of the 39 to be executed as a result of a last minute plea by a Presbyterian missionary (Rev. Thomas Williamson) and his sister (and endorsed by Brigadier-General Sibley) on the ground that the certain evidence at the trial was unreliable.

Accordingly on December 26th, 38 Dakota men were hung to their death in Mankato, Minnesota.

The fate of the other 264 Dakota men (including Mr. Godfrey) who had been convicted and sentenced to death by hanging by the military commission was not addressed directly by President Lincoln. But they were not pardoned. Instead, they were transferred to a U.S. detention facility in Davenport, Iowa, where most of them spent the next three years. After they were released from detention, they were transferred to several reservations for the Dakota. Joseph Godfrey went to a Nebraska reservation where he lived until his death in 1903.[5]


[1]  As discussed in a prior post, On August 21, 1862, Lincoln’s focus on the worsening situation in the Civil War was interrupted by the news of the start four days earlier of the U.S.-Dakota War in southern Minnesota. About a week later the President reluctantly granted a de facto, indefinite extension of time for Minnesota to fulfill its quota for more troops for the Civil War so that the State could provide men to fight the Dakota War. In addition, on September 5th the President created a new military Department of the Northwest to be in charge of the Dakota War under the command of General John Pope.

[2] This post is based upon David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics Ch. VIII (Minn. HIst. Soc’y Press 1978, 2000, 2012) and Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota:The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey at 221-22, 228-32, 239, 243-45, 252-56, 262-66,, 352-56 (Pond Dakota Press; Bloomington, MN 2013).

[3]  The commission had sentenced 307 Indians to be hung, but five were removed from the execution list before it was submitted to the President.

4 The original of the President’s order is at the Minnesota Historical Society. Davis, TWO Sioux War Orders: A Mystery Unraveled, Minn. History at 117 (Fall 1968). Through a  subsequent exchange of telegrams the date of the executions was postponed to December 26th. 

5 An evaluation of President Lincoln’s involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War and of legal issues relating to the commission trials and judgments will be the subjects of other posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln
Governor Alexander Ramsey
Governor Alexander Ramsey
Edwin Stanton
Edwin Stanton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On August 21, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln learned about the start four days earlier of the U.S.-Dakota War in southern Minnesota. This was the news in a telegram from Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It said, “The Sioux [Dakota] Indians on our western border have risen, and are murdering men, women, and children.” [1]

Another telegram came from Governor Ramsey four days later (August 25th). He said the War was worsening, and the “panic among the people has depopulated whole counties.” As a result, Ramsey requested an extension of the deadline for a U.S. draft of an additional 5,360 men for the Civil War.

This was not good news for Lincoln and his Administration. The Civil War was not going well for the North, which desperately needed more troops. Indeed, earlier that month the President had ordered the call up of 300,000 additional men. Although Minnesota’s quota of 5,360 was not large, such an extension could set a dangerous precedent for other states and thus the Union Army. In addition, the Administration needed the troops because of fear that the Confederate states were attempting to enlist Indians in the northwest as allies.

Therefore, Secretary Stanton denied Ramsey’s request, prompting the latter’s August 27th direct request to Lincoln for a month’s extension to cope with half of the state’s population being “refugees.” This time Lincoln responded the same day to Ramsey. Lincoln’s telegram said, “Attend to the Indians. If the draft can not proceed, of course, it will not proceed. Necessity knows no law. The government cannot extend the time.” (Emphases in original.) In other words, a de facto extension was granted.

General John Pope
General John Pope

In addition, on September 5th the Administration granted another Ramsey request, this one to create a new military Department of the Northwest. Its commander appointed that day by Lincoln was General John Pope, who had just suffered defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas) and whom Lincoln wanted out of the Civil War.

Pope arrived in Minnesota on September 16th and immediately wired his superior in Washington, D.C. that there would be a loss of half the population of Minnesota and Wisconsin and “a general Indian war all along the frontier, unless immediate steps are taken to put a stop to it.”

Colonel Henry H. Sibley
Colonel Henry H. Sibley

Therefore, General Pope ordered Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley to destroy Indian farms and food. Pope said, “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux [Dakota] if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” (Emphasis added.)[2]

By the end of September, however, the U.S.-Dakota war was over with the surrender of many Dakota to the U.S. Army and the escape of the other Indians to the west. Military commissions were then established to try the captured Dakota men. These commission proceedings and President Lincoln’s review of its judgments will be subjects of future posts.

Another important issue was weighing on President Lincoln at this time was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation and deciding when to release it.

He did so in a preliminary version on September 22nd that declared he would order the emancipation of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America which had not returned to Union control by January 1, 1863. None returned.

Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation

Thus, the actual Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863, proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the U.S. Army (and all segments of the Executive branch) to treat as free all those enslaved in that territory.


[1]  A prior post contained a brief account of the War. This post is based upon Chapter VII “Rebellion in Minnesota: ‘A Most Terrible and Exciting Indian War,'” in David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics (Minn. Historical Soc’y Press; 1978, 2000, 2012). This enjoyable book is regarded as the definitive study of President Lincoln’s policies and actions regarding Native Americans, and a future post will rely upon its discussion of President Lincoln’s review of the U.S. military commission’s convictions and sentences of Dakota men after the War.

[2] General Pope’s statement along with a similar statement at the time by Governor Ramsey raise interesting legal issues that will be discussed in another post.

Minneapolis and St. Paul Declare the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 “Genocide”

The Minnesota Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul recently adopted resolutions declaring that the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was “genocide.”[1]

Mpls seal

Minneapolis did so on December 14, 2012. Unanimously introduced and adopted, the City Council’s resolution commenced by stating that the War “led to the mass execution of 38 Dakota, the largest in the history of the United States, and the genocide of the Dakota people.” The resolution also said, “Indigenous women, children and elderly were held in a concentration camp at the base of Fort Snelling, separated from the men, before being exiled to reservations in neighboring states and Canada, and later being stripped of their culture and traditions in boarding schools and subjected to white culture and religions.”

With these factual predicates, the Minneapolis resolution declared that:

  • “every effort must be made to ensure that the Dakota perspective is presented during the year 2012-2013, through discussions at forums, events, symposia, conferences and workshops, to include the complex issues listed above;”
  • “the City of Minneapolis works to promote the well-being and growth of the American Indian community, including Dakota People;”
  • “these efforts during the years 2012 and 2013 will mark the beginning of future dialogues and efforts to rectify the wrongs that were perpetrated during, and since, the year 1862, a tragic and traumatic event for the Dakota People of Minnesota;” and
  • “the year 2012-2013 is hereby designated “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling,” from December 26, 2012 to December 26, 2013.”

StPaullogo

St. Paul joined its sister city on January 9, 2013, with a nearly identical resolution by its city council. It labeled the War as the start of “the genocide of the Dakota people” that included holding them after the war “in a concentration camp at the base of Fort Snelling.” This resolution declared 2013 as “the Year of the Dakota.

In addition, the St. Paul resolution directed “the City of Saint Paul and its Parks and Recreation Department . . . [to] work with the Dakota Bdote Restoration Consortium to identify, name, and interpret sacred Native American sites at and nearby the sacred Bdote from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to Mounds Park; including listing, mapping, identifying Dakota site names in the Great River Passage Plan, and participating in on-going collaborative research to further describe, dually name, publicize, and interpret significant Dakota sites in the Great River Passage Park Implementation;”

Afterwards these resolutions were praised by some. Chris Mato Nunpa, a retired professor and Dakota advocate from Granite Falls, said, “What I regard as significant and important is that key terms were used … I really am elated and excited I have lived long enough to see something like this happen here.”

Others were critical of calling the War “genocide” of the Dakota people. State Representative Dean Urdahl, a longtime history teacher whose ancestors were involved in the war and who has introduced resolutions urging Congress to repeal the Dakota Exclusion Act, said he did not think “the terms genocide and concentration camp accurately portray what it was without further explanation. Horrible things happened, but it wasn’t completely one-sided.”

Comments

Although I am sympathetic to the intent of these resolutions, it has to be noted that in 1862 “genocide” was not a concept or a defined crime in U.S. or international law.

Raphael Lemkin
Raphael Lemkin

The word itself was created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It became a legal concept after World War II with the 1948 adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Thus, there never has been, and never could have been, any official adjudication with the attendant due process protections that any individuals or governmental agencies in 1862 were guilty of the crime of genocide.

If that Convention or treaty had been in effect in 1862, then there are several candidates for prosecution for such a crime.

Governor Alexander Ramsey
Governor Alexander Ramsey

First, as already mentioned in an earlier post, then Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey in a public speech to the Minnesota Legislature in September 1862 proclaimed: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . . They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.” (Emphasis added.)

Today this statement would be a crime under Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention as a “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide,” which is defined, in part, in Article II (a) of that treaty as “killing members of [an ethnical or racial] group” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [the group].”

General John Pope
General John Pope

Second, as discussed in another prior post, during the War, U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising, said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” (Emphasis added.) The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

This statement and action would be a basis for charges of the crime of “incitement to commit genocide” against General Pope and the U.S. federal government albeit only human beings, not legal entities, are subject to criminal liability under this treaty.

Third, other possible hypothetical charges under Article III of this treaty would be against individuals (conceivably both white and Dakota people) for acts of “genocide,” “conspiracy to commit genocide,” “complicity in genocide” and “attempt[s] to commit genocide.” For this broader purpose, “genocide” is defined, in part, in Article II of that treaty as committing any of the following acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:”

  • (a) “Killing members of the group;”
  • (b) “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;”
  • (c) “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

The key issue in any such hypothetical case would be whether the individuals acted with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” (Emphasis added.)


[1] This account of the two resolutions is based upon the following: Melo, St. Paul City Council commemorates U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Pioneer Press (Jan. 9, 2013); Duchschere, St. Paul follows Minneapolis in labeling U.S.-Dakota War as ‘genocide,’ StarTribune (Jan. 10, 2013); Steinmann, Year of the Dakota Resolution passed in St. Paul, denouncing genocide, Daily Planet (Jan. 10, 2013).

Personal Reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

When I moved to Minnesota at age 30 in 1970, I had no knowledge of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 or the execution by hanging of some of the Indian leaders of that war. I had not grown up in the State and had not been exposed to its history, and although I had majored in history in college and had studied U.S. history, the War was not covered.

BannerUS-Dakotawar

By the time I went to church on October 7, 2012, I was aware that during the U.S. Civil War there had been a short war with the Indians in Minnesota and that subsequently some of the Indian leaders were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. That was the sum total of my knowledge of these events.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

The moving worship service that day at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was devoted to remembering that War and its aftermath, especially its impact on the Dakota people. The beautiful Indian music and the sermons by Westminster’s Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and by Jim Bear Jacobs made me realize that the War and the executions of the Indian leaders were important events that had lasting effects to this day at least upon the Dakota people and Native Americans more generally.

I immediately wanted to share this moving and beautiful worship service with others by writing a blog post about it. I soon realized that there was so much to say about the service itself that I would have to break it up into three posts. I also realized that I needed to know more about the War and about the commemoration this year of the 150th anniversary of the War. This lead to my researching and writing separate posts on these subjects and another about the contemporaneous reaction to the War by my second great-grandfather, Rev. Charles E. Brown.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
General John Pope
General John Pope

The additional research turned up the September 1862 exhortation by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey for “extermination” of the Dakota Indians. The same disgusting clamor also was made that year by U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising. Pope said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

The evident anger and fear of the white settlers perhaps are akin to that experienced by the American people after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, as noted in a prior post, these public incitements, if made today, would constitute one form of the crime of genocide under international law.

The impact of the War on Native Americans is only one of the many ways in which what has become the dominant culture of the U.S. has denigrated Native Americans. The result is high incidences of public school drop-outs, alcoholism and suicide among Native Americans. All of this reminded me of the testimony in the Minneapolis school desegregation case by a Native American educator who said he was a “well-balanced schizophrenic,” i.e., he had one foot in Native culture and the other in the dominant culture.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

RoundHouseAnother insight into Native culture was provided by my recent reading of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which was awarded the 2012 National Book Prize for fiction. One of the central events in the novel is the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime.

In an Afterword, Erdrich, who lives in Minneapolis not far from my home, cites a 2009 Amnesty International report that points out that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime, that 86% of such rapes and sexual assaults are by non-Native men and that few are ever prosecuted.

The novel also discusses something I never learned in law school or in 35 years of practicing law. In Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823), the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall, stated that radical title to U.S. land was obtained by European powers upon their “discovery” of the land and that the U.S. government inherited such title upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this context, “tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages.”

Two other U.S. Supreme Court cases were also mentioned in the novel as bearing on the jurisdictional issue presented by the fictional rape. In Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall for the Court decided that the federal government had the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America. Nearly 1.5 centuries later the Supreme Court in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), determined that Indian tribal courts did not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.

This research, thinking and writing prompted further reflection on the subject of memory and the October 7th Scripture—Numbers 15: 37-41:

  • “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

God understands that we humans are forgetful and that individuals and especially groups of people need reminders of important things. Indeed, constant, physical reminders like fringes on the corners of your garments are useful because of our forgetfulness and our sinfulness. Similarly many Christians wear necklaces and pins with crosses for the same reason and to proclaim that they are Christians.

Such practices and the re-telling of important stories also help educate the omnipresent newcomers to the faith or the history. They help to keep the faith or history alive. That certainly happened at the October 7th worship service and at the Minnesota History Center’s exhibit about the War and the other events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the War.

For the same reasons the various ways in which Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is remembered are important. So too the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C. and around the world help us remember the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

At the same time, my reaction to the October 7th Westminster worship service suggests another phenomenon. Memory can be asymmetrical. Most white Anglo-Saxons like myself have or had no memory or understanding of the U.S.-Dakota War. For the Dakota people and Native Americans generally, on the other hand, the War and the executions of the Dakota 38 is an ever-present, painful memory. Thus, this worship service and the events commemorating the War are especially important ways of trying to break through the ignorance of the dominant culture.[1]

My reactions to this worship service also help me understand that the third-part of the Westminster worship service—Responding to the Word—does not end when you leave the sanctuary after the service. It should continue in how you live your life and how you continue to think about and probe the meaning of the Word that day. My contemplation of this worship service and the Word will continue beyond this posting.


[1] A recent article discussed this asymmetrical phenomenon in the context of an individual’s new love for another person. It said that human beings are prone to “hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes” and that “[h]edonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences  are  involved . . . . We’re inclined–psychologically and physiologically–to take positive experiences for granted.”

Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

August 17, 2012, marked the sesquicentennial of the incident that started the U.S.-Dakota War in southwestern Minnesota in 1862. This dark side of U.S. and Minnesota history has been commemorated in various ways in Minnesota this year.

Governor Mark Dayton’s Proclamation

Governor Mark Dayton

Our current Governor, Mark Dayton, proclaimed August 17th a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in the State.

The Governor said that on August 17, 1862, the “first victims of the ‘U.S.-Dakota War of 1862’ lost their lives . . . . The ensuing attacks and counter-attacks killed hundreds more U.S. soldiers, Dakota braves, conniving traders, and innocent people. Tragically, those deaths started a vicious cycle of hate crimes, which continued long after the war was ended.”[1]

Moreover, he said, the “events leading to those atrocities actually began before 1862. The United States Government, through its agents in the new State of Minnesota,  . . . persuaded, deceived, or forced the state’s long-time inhabitants from Dakota and Ojibwe Indian tribes to give up their lands for promises of money, food, and supplies. Many of the government’s promises were repeatedly broken.”

As a result, the “displaced Dakota and Chippewa tribes watched newly arrived settlers claim the lands that had been theirs. They were denied their treaty payments of money and food, which resulted in starvation for many of their children and elderly. Often, when annuity payments did finally arrive, they were immediately plundered by some dishonest officials and traders.”

The war ended, Governor Dayton said, “but the attacks against innocent Indian children, women, and elderly continued. They were even encouraged by Alexander Ramsey, then the Governor of Minnesota, who on September 9, 1862, proclaimed: “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . . They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”

Governor Dayton said he was “appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them.” [2]

Therefore, Governor Dayton asked everyone on August 17, 2012, “to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.” Everyone, he urged, should “practice not only remembrance, but also reconciliation.”

Governor Dayton also offered his “deepest condolences” to “everyone who lost family members during that time” and ordered that state flags to be flown at half-staff on that day.

Other Commemorations

This Fall the Saint Paul Interfaith Network presented Wokiksuye K’a Woyuonihan  (Remembering and Honoring), a series of conversations about the War to witness and hear the personal stories and experiences of Dakota descendants; to engage in structured and facilitated dialogue about what was heard and what is experienced today; and to deepen understanding between American Indians and non-American Indians; creating a climate of respect and possibilities for new stories, acts of justice and healing.

One of the leaders of this series of conversations was Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Mohican people, one of 564 federally recognized tribes. A Christian with degrees in Pastoral Studies and Christian Theology, Jacobs believes that Christian faith and American Indian spirituality are complementary. The latter teaches us, he says, that it is inappropriate to hear a story and not give something back; the spirit gives us courage to hear voices long silenced; and it is our responsibility to recreate our spiritual vision in community.

On October 7th Jacobs and other Native Americans helped lead the World Communion Sunday worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which will be covered in subsequent posts.

This October the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul held a Symposium on “The Law and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.” Various speakers discussed (i) Military Tribunals, Executions & Pardons; (ii) Genocide, Human Rights, and the Need for Reconciliation; (iii) Reflections on my Ancestors: Artemas Ehnamani and the U.S.-Dakota War; (iv) Rethinking the Effect of the Abrogation of the Dakota Treaties and the Removal of the Dakota People from their Homeland; (v) A Program of Extermination: Governor Ramsey, the Minnesota Adjutant General, and Dakota Bounties; and (vi) Modern Communities: Court Systems of the Minnesota Dakota. The papers at this Symposium will be published in a future issue of the William Mitchell Law Review.

Minnesota History Center

A special exhibit about the War is being presented through September 8, 2013, at the Minnesota History Center, 345 West Kellogg Street St. Paul, Minnesota. The exhibit includes many, often conflicting, interpretations of events relating to the War. Visitors are encouraged to make up their own minds about what happened and why, to discuss what they are seeing and learning, and to leave comments. The History Center also has created a very useful website about the War.

James J. Hill House

There is an exhibit of works by 20 Native American artists created in response to the War–“Ded Unk’unpi—We Are Here.” The exhibit is open through January 13, 2013, at the James J. Hill House Gallery, 240 Summit Avenue in St. Paul.[3]

Fort Snelling

From November 7 through 13, a commemorative march from the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site on Highway 2 near Morton, Minnesota to Fort Snelling (near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport) will take place to honor the 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders who were forced to march 150 miles to a stockade at that Fort soon after the end of the U.S.-Dakota War. Along the way, they were assaulted by angry townspeople and soldiers, and an unknown number of Dakota were killed. Those who managed to complete the march were then held under brutal conditions at a concentration camp below Fort Snelling, where approximately 300 died during the winter of 1862-1863. In the spring of 1863, the survivors were exiled from the state. On the commemorative march this November the walkers at  approximately each mile will stop and place in the ground a prayer flag with the names of two of the families from the forced march. The names will be read aloud, and participants will offer prayers and tobacco.

Finally Dakota spiritual leader Jim Miller several years ago had a dream that ended up at a river bank where he saw his 38 ancestors hanged in Mankato on December 26, 1862. Afterwards Miller organized a ride on horseback tracing the journey of his dream, all in the interest of bringing healing among Native Americans and within the broader community. This ride is the subject of a documentary film, Dakota 38, that can be seen on YouTube.


[1] Prior posts gave a short summary of the U.S.-Dakota War and the contemporaneous account of the War by a white settler in nearby Iowa.

[2] Today Governor Ramsey’s statement would be a crime under international law. Under Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention of 1948, it is a crime to make “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide,” which is defined, in part, in Article II (a) of that treaty as “killing members of [an ethnical or racial] group” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [the group].”

[3] James J. Hill, 1838-1916, who was known as “The Empire Builder,” was the chief executive officer of a group of railroad lines headed by the Great Northern Railway that served the Upper Midwest, the northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. His mansion in St. Paul today is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

White Settler’s Contemporaneous Reaction to U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

In 1862 Rev. Charles E. Brown,my maternal second great-grandfather, had been a Baptist missionary to the Iowa Territory and State since 1842, and he and his family lived in the village of Vernon Springs in Howard County in northern Iowa. This was not far from the U.S.-Dakota War in neighboring Minnesota.[1] (In the map to the left, Howard County is the third from the right in the northern tier of Iowa.)

About 31 years after the War Rev. Brown used his diaries to start writing his memoirs, including comments on that War.[2]

He said, “In August 1862, the Sioux Indians in Minnesota raided the homes and villages of settlers, murdering–and mutilating–men, women and children, and burning–and destroying– a large amount of property.”

The Indians, he added, were “[e]ncouraged by and taking advantage of the [Civil War], and incited by agents of the Confederacy, unscrupulous and possibly unauthorized.” The Indians were “brooding–over real and fancied wrong’s [sic] suffered in dealing–with the Government and its agents.” The Indians “took the war path and spread terror, death and destruction through the southwestern part of the State [of Minnesota].”

Because the U.S.-Dakota War was so close to northern Iowa, “thousands of people abandoned their [Minnesota] homes and fled for their lives into Northern Iowa.” By September of 1862, “the panic of the Minnesota settlers was at its height and the town [of Vernon Springs] and roads [were] filled with refugees.”

Into this commotion came Rev. Brown’s son, Charles P. Brown, a Second Sergeant of Company D, Third Regiment of the Iowa Infantry, on a furlough leave from the Civil War. The “blue coat and brass buttons of [his] . . . uniform [were]. . .  inspiring. . . . [The uniform] represented the war power of the government, and was looked on as the advance guard of military protection.”

The proximity of the U.S.-Dakota War also prompted “some families in our immediate neighborhood [to engage in] . . .  hastily packing . . . a few thing’s [sic] and leaving.”

In addition, The Iowa county where the Browns lived (Howard County) organized and mounted a  “company . . .  for home defense, armed with such weapons, rifles and shot guns as were available, and set out to meet the savages.” However, this “company of home guards did not meet any Indians.”

This undoubtedly was due, according to Rev. Brown, to the “prompt action by Governor Ramsey of Minnesota, and General Sibley with militia and volunteers, speedily overpowered the Indians, defeating, capturing and punishing them.”

Brown continued, “About twelve hundred Sioux Indians were engaged in the raid. Governor Ramsey estimated the loss of life among settlers at eight hundred.” In addition, between twenty and thirty thousand people had abandoned their homes, and the loss of property was estimated from two and one-half to three million dollars.”

“Five hundred Indians were captured, tried by a Military Court, and three hundred sentenced to suffer death by hanging. Of this number thirty-eight were executed December 26, 1862.”

The sources of Brown’s information about the War are not stated, but the essence of his account is consistent with what historians today have to say.

I, however, am disappointed that he did not see any of the reasons for the Dakota’s initiating the War (other than his acknowledging that they had suffered real wrongs in dealing with the Government and its agents). Nor does he seem to be aware of the due process problems of the military commission’s prosecution and conviction of the Indians. Most seriously, as a Christian pastor he does not cope with the obvious religious issues associated with Governor Ramsey’s demand for extermination of the Dakota Indians or with the execution of the 38 Indians on the day after Christmas.


[1] A summary of the War was provided in a prior post. Subsequent posts will explore this year’s sesquicentennial commemoration of the War and Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s October 7th worship service devoted to remembering the War and its consequences.

[2]  Charles E. Brown, Personal Recollections of Rev. Charles E. Brown with Sketches of His Wife and Children and Extracts from an Autobiography of Rev. Phillip Perry Brown 1790-1862 with Sketches of His Children and the Family Record 1797-1907 at 82-85 (Ottumwa, IA 1907).