About the Time Abraham Lincoln Ordered the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History
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About the Time Abraham Lincoln Ordered the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History

By Dustin Rowles | Pajiba Storytellers | January 8, 2013 | Comments ()


Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

In 1862, in one of the uglier episodes of United States history, Abraham Lincoln ordered the mass execution of 38 men, each of whom who were piled onto a single scaffold, had ropes tied around their necks and bags put over their head before the floor of the structure fell out, killing all 38 men. It was a nasty affair, rarely discussed in history books because it took place in the midst of the bloodiest year of the Civil War, and because of the kind of men who were killed: Native Americans.

Despite ordering the executions, it was Abraham Lincoln that came out of the debacle looking as close to a hero as anyone involved, and in light of the renewed interest in the 16th President, in the Tarantino movie that SHOULD be made -- as the third movie in his historical fiction revenge trilogy -- only Abraham Lincoln should survive Tarantino's gratuitously violent revisionism. Wouldn't it seem natural to follow up movies about the holocaust and slavery with one about another of the blackest marks in world history: The genocide of Native Americans? This piece of history would serve as the perfect centerpiece.

Before we get to the details, let me back up: A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Silas Hagerty, a filmmaker who made a documentary called Dakota 38, which was screened at the Smithsonian a couple of months ago, and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. The doc follows Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, as well as a group of fellow riders (including Hagerty and his film crew) as they retrace on horseback -- in the dead of winter -- the 330-mile route from Lower Brule, S.D., to Mankato, Minn., the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. It's a powerful and stirring documentary, which is less about the executions themselves as it is about the descendants and others commemorating the event, honoring the dead, and attempting to put the episode behind them through the spiritual journey. (If you're interested in the subject, you can also read an extensive interview with Hagerty about making the film, and the profound effect it had on him and the other riders).

The documentary was the first I'd ever heard of that episode in our history, and it sent me scurrying to the Googles to find out more. For the purposes of this Storytellers piece, and the Tarantino flick that should be, I will spare you from the extensive history lesson, and offer this cursory bullet-point summary:

  • In the 1850s, the Dakota people -- who lived in Minnesota -- signed a treaty and were forced by the United States onto a relatively small tract of land in exchange for goods and money. As the years went by, the Dakota were forced into smaller and smaller tracts of land, and to compound all of that, the United States failed to make good on their payments, in some part because we were preoccupied with the Civil War.

  • In 1862, with their entire way of life disrupted, the Dakota were starving, and requested food and supplies from the United States. The government refused to provide it without payment, and the government's agent, Andrew Jackson Myrick, was said to have responded, "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung." (That didn't sit well; during the subsequent skirmish, Myrick was found dead with grass stuffed in his mouth. Touche Dakotans!)

  • In August of 1862, the treaty payments arrived, but not before four Dakota men killed five white settlers, which would ultimately lead to a full-blown battle between the frustrated, hungry, and displaced Dakotans and the United States. The Dakota launched an offensive to take back their land, and killed and raped scores of white settlers along the way. However, the government eventually called in Army reinforcements, and the Dakota were soundly defeated at the Battle of Wood Lake. By the end of September, the outmatched Dakota had completely surrendered.

  • In December of that year, 303 men were convicted of the rape and murder of white settlers. In many cases the trials for these Dakota men lasted less than five minutes, there was no representation afforded the Native Americans, and no one explained to them the "rules." Nevertheless, they were all sentenced to death.

  • Despite the urgings of Minnesota politicians to kill all 303 men for the good of the members of the state's Republican party (who believed that more hangings would lead to better results at the polls), Lincoln granted clemency to all but 39, reportedly stating, "I could not afford to hang men for votes." On the day after Christmas in 1862, 38 men were hung and buried en masse. The skin was removed from many of the executed, while others bodies were removed from the grave that night and distributed to doctors as cadavers for study.

  • The aftermath was even uglier. The Dakota people were expelled from Minnesota, the prisoners who were not convicted were imprisoned for over four years, during which time many of them died, and over 1600 Native Americans were put into internment camps under poor conditions, where a large number of them died from the rapid spread of infectious diseases. As part of expelling the Dakota from Minnesota, a bounty of $25 was put on the scalp of any Dakota person found free within the borders of Minnesota. Eventually, the remaining survivors were all relocated to the Dakota territory, which -- of course -- was experiencing a drought at the time.

    Here is a chilling first-hand account from The New York Times from a reporter covering the executions:

    Precisely at the time announced -- 10 A.M. -- a company, without arms, entered the prisoners' quarters, to escort them to their doom. Instead of any shrinking or resistance, all were ready, and even seemed eager to meet their fate. Rudely they jostled against each other, as they rushed from the doorway, ran the gauntlet of the troops, and clambered up the steps to the treacherous drop. As they came up and reached the platform, they filed right and left, and each one took his position as though they had rehearsed the programme. Standing round the platform, they formed a square, and each one was directly under the fatal noose. Their caps were now drawn over their eyes, and the halter placed about their necks. Several of them feeling uncomfortable, made severe efforts to loosen the rope, and some, after the most dreadful contortions, partially succeeded. The signal to cut the rope was three taps of the drum. All things being ready, the first tap was given, when the poor wretches made such frantic efforts to grasp each other's hands, that it was agony to behold them. Each one shouted out his name, that his comrades might know he was there. The second tap resounded on the air. The vast multitude were breathless with the awful surroundings of this solemn occasion. Again the doleful tap breaks on the stillness of the scene. Click! goes the sharp ax, and the descending platform leaves the bodies of thirty-eight human beings dangling in the air. The greater part died instantly; some few struggled violently, and one of the ropes broke, and sent its burden with a heavy, dull crash, to the platform beneath. A new rope was procured, and the body again swung up to its place. It was an awful sight to behold. Thirty-eight human beings suspended in the air, on the bank of the beautiful Minnesota; above, the smiling, clear, blue sky; beneath and around, the silent thousands, hushed to a deathly silence by the chilling scene before them, while the bayonets bristling in the sunlight added to the importance of the occasion.

    Here's a sketch of the scene.


    You can watch Dakota 38 in its entirety on YouTube.

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  • Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

    • Peeps

      Look at all of these apologists. Lincoln was a great man, but he also did terrible things, your saint is just a man.

    • wildsoda

      The always excellent This American Life recently devoted an entire episode of their show to this very story: http://www.thisamericanlife.or....

    • marya

      Why did you have to put that asshat's face at the top of a perfectly interesting article? Blech.

      That's right. I'm starting my new year off right with a one-woman anti-Tarantino crusade. Oh, he'll know my wrath all right, by the way I ... continue to not see his movies. Ass.

    • LL

      I think Wounded Knee was the largest mass execution in the U.S. That we know about. We call it a "massacre" now, but it was an execution.

    • zeke_the_pig

      'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' - A beautiful, glorious, heartbreaking book that makes the blood boil and the fists clench.

    • DarthCorleone

      Another good story you have highlighted for us - thanks!

      I wouldn't want Tarantino on the job of this specific tale, though. Let him spin his own tongue-in-cheek yarn about native Americans certainly, but I'd let this story have the gravitas.

    • Protoguy

      Gotta agree. As much as I respect Tarantino's ability to make a fun movie, but something like this - he's not the guy. I liked everything about Inglourious Basterds except the stupid fantasy ending.

    • e jerry powell

      Oh, gosh.

      White people.

      Seventy-five percent of my ancestors were still on the plantations at the time.

    • jon29

      "Myrick was found dead with grass stuffed in his mouth."

      Well, that's better than the other thing.

    • Sara_Tonin00

      Wow, what a show of solidarity among the condemned. And a pretty amazing eyewitness account.

      I do wonder, though, what exactly helps a group of people "put the episode behind them" when they weren't a part of the episode because it took place 150 years ago?

      but I think Tarantino has many options to choose from if he wants to go Native American (though he doesn't go for actual history, now, does he?)

    • Anna von Beav

      U - S - A! U - S - A!

      WE'RE #1!
      WE'RE #1!


    • Felicia

      I'd also recommend the TAL pocast on this topic. Mindblowing considering I've lived most of my life in MN and never heard about it before.

    • MagsLivs

      check out the Minnesota flag, it commemorates the Dakota "leaving" Minnesota and the white settlers tending fields.

    • lowercase_ryan

      I have to disagree with courtsinsession, I find this completely believable.

      Americans still don't give a shit about Natives. They don't even rank as an afterthought in American culture anymore.

    • Bert_McGurt

      Most of Canada doesn't give a sh*t about the First Nations either. There has been a growing movement in the past month or so dedicated to getting government off their collective ass*s and start addressing the multitude of issues facing (mostly, but certainly not entirely) on-reserve people including land rights, environmental issues, housing, missing women, clean water, education, jobs, and the egregious costs of living. And the response from most of the rest of the country has been some form of denigration of the "lazy, tax-exempt, unemployed, substance abusing freeloading Indians wasting taxpayer money". It's absolutely sickening. It's the last bastion of acceptable racism here.

      What gets me the most is how arrogantly people take for granted the things they have access to in their non-reserve communities. Things like say, paying a normal price for a jug of milk or actual nutritious food. Or having decent, relatively local access to highfalutin' privileges like a hospital or a grade 12 education. Or not having to wait for the province (and the weather, obviously) to build a goddamned ice road before your community can receive supplies (which may or may not include the diesel fuel the community needs to run generators to actually keep the lights on) without them being flown in at grossly higher expense and much lesser capacity.

      And of course that's not even touching on the decades of institutional racism suffered in the form of things like residential schools, and the after -effects of the attempted assimilation, physical and sexual abuse the survivors continue to face.

      Sorry for the rant. I know the history is different on either side of the border but it's a sh*t deal for the indigenous people either way.

    • lowercase_ryan

      don't apologize for that. ever.

    • Bert_McGurt

      Well, I meant it more for going off-topic from the subject of Dustin's post, not the rant itself. I'm just pretty bloody irate at my country and needed to let it out. The amount of ignorance, lies, and misinformation regarding this issue is astounding.

    • zeke_the_pig

      A thousand times this. I came with the intention of a rant, but you delivered for me. Cheers.

    • Sara_Tonin00

      I keep trying to decide if this is how Native Americans want it (culture-wise, not history-wise). I've got Cherokee blood (yeah, yeah, don't we all, but my Cherokee last name and relatives in the Carolinas keep me mindful of it) and I look around, and I don't see that there's an effort on the part of the tribes to claim a place in American culture. It doesn't help that there were so many different tribes that behaved in such different fashions and had different languages - it's not like the Maoris. And it also doesn't help, of course, that the US did such a thorough job of sequestering them.

      But I do wonder where the leaders are to stand up and cry for the attention that is needed - to demand more assistance for a better life in their "sovereign" nations, or to claim the general public's attention, or both.

    • Protoguy

      I am in no way informed as to Native American culture or their situation here, but the impression I get, right or wrong, is that part of the problem is the lack of leadership among the tribes. Not that they don't have leaders, they're just not very good ones who don't seem to be fighting as much for their communities as for their own wallets.

      My belief is that it's now a problem of culture. I'm a believer that people who hold to tightly to a culture that is no longer relevant or applicable to where they ACTUALLY live are damaging their own chances at living. Like it or not there is a natural tendency for every culture to shun other cultures. I know this sounds like I'm talking about the same evils that brought us Indian Schools and other problems associated with forced assimilation, but I'm talking about self-assimilation.

      You can't be part of a culture if you hold yourself apart from that culture. I'm not talking about abandoning your own cultures at all, but as long as you hold yourselves apart, the other side is not going to accept you or give you aid. The Reservation system was always a broken system. I admit to not knowing anything about how the interplay between the Nations and the Fed works, but it's not working and my opinion is because The Nations still hold themselves as separate from the rest of this Nation.

      I'm trying to word it so it doesn't sound like I'm blaming Native Americans for their problems. I know it's deeper than that, but it's my belief that they won't ever get solved as long as they consider themselves a different "country" within this country. The rest of the US will continue to see them that way as well and no progress will ever be made.

    • Sara_Tonin00

      I disagree, because Native Americans are not trying to live the way they lived 100 or 200 or 500 years ago. You can keep pockets of culture - you can keep your native religion, elements of native dress, native language alive - and still live in the world.

      Because of the fractured nature of Native American tribes in the US, I think culturally the best way to keep a presence is locally. And really, how much do they resent that they might even HAVE to band together - that would be like saying all that different descendants of European cultures like Basques, Gypsies, Magyars,etc need to band together to keep their small local traditions together, despite their different languages, dresses, etc

    • Protoguy

      I guess I feel like for a lot of people become insular and that in itself becomes their cultural demise. It's kind of my point. I don't think that banding together is a good thing and I guess I don't fully understand the 'why' of having to do so. I understand the 'wanting' to do it, but not 'having' to. I want to say that it's the whole 'reservation' system and the way it's set up to tie you as groups to that system, but I don't know enough about that system to criticize. I think that's also part of the problem. There's not enough education on the subject, but I'm sure that's obvious to Native Americans.

    • lowercase_ryan

      I think that is a big part of the larger problem. As a nation, we are so big that our problems almost need to be simplified before we can tackle them. Civil rights, gay rights, North vs. South, us vs. communism, Red vs. Blue, etc. The Native American situation doesn't lend itself to simplicity. It's hundreds of different peoples, all with varying desires, needs, and lives. Something that complicated will never be addressed by this country unless there is something major to be gained from it. And frankly, the country stands to gain nothing, except maybe self-respect. And that doesn't send the kids to college.

    • overandout

      Case in point, I think this was a footnote in a pretty progressive history textbook I had but now it's all over the place after that Thanksgiving This American Life. I guess if we want liberal America to actually give a shit about something, we should put Ira Glass on the case.

    • Blake

      Fantastic post, thanks Dustin!

      Speaking of Native Americans, below is the Mummer's tribute to "Indians" everywhere.


    • Melissa

      I went to school in Mankato, there's a statue of a buffalo to commemorate the event. Cause the first thing you think of when you think of mass murder is a buffalo, I guess.

    • I grew up a half hour south, and this episode is largely ignored and glossed over. Midwesterners don't like to talk about anything more personal than the weather. While I college I worked at Historic Fort Snelling for two summers, providing 'historical interpretation' to visitors. Quite remarkable to think about the differences between the official line and what was really going on there in the 19th Century, recognizing that it was truly isolated from most of the news-reading world of Euro-settlers. I'm reminded a bit about listening to the news this week, with reports of displaced populations in other nations going through political and economic upheavals suffering at the hands of power if not subject to outright genocide. We're horrified and judgmental at the actions now, from our remove, but many of ancestors tolerated or perhaps participated in the same. The slow march of history.

    • Bert_McGurt

      Buffalo (bison) were pretty much the most important animal to the Dakota (and many other Prairie bands), for meat, tools, clothing, and shelter. So in that context it makes sense.

    • Melissa

      In that context, yes, but next to an empty train car, not so much.

    • theotherone

      Well like Native Americans buffalo were almost wipe out by white settlers and now only found in few national parks or "reserves".

    • BierceAmbrose

      Recovery of the Bison herds is a success story. At one time time they were down to a few hundred. Currently (wikipedia) about 15,000 "free range", 30,000 if you count "confined primarily by fencing", plus 500,000+ in captive commercial populations.

      Since Bison are huge, strong, fast, and can travel massive distances, I'm not sure how we return to free range herds of millions without eliminating all those pesky humans. I'm inclined to think some kind of management for coexistence, like with fences, is a good thing. Bison can forage, so as a source of commercial meat - tasty and less fatty than Beef - Bison can be range raised vs. the use of intensively-farmed grains in most beef. Net - more Bison for meat leaves more land closer to its "wild" state than with cattle.

      The ruminants are the easy part. Somewhat harder to recover is the complex, layered & deep-rooted prairie flora. "Broken" to allow farming, reestablishing the soil system is a hard problem & takes time. We might want to use less corn for ethanol as a fuel additive, freeing up that land to return to something more prairie-like, complete with Bison.

    • Peeps

      Well most of the range of the Bison is depopulated, homesteaders moved in and then by the dust bowl destroyed the land and moved out. There is your redistribution of wealth, coerce or murder the people, destroy their food source and then force them into concentration camps. Distribute their lands, destroy the ecology of the plains and then leave the remnants to a shattered people after you have no more use for it. A sad legacy for this country.

    • A

      Lincoln didn't order the execution; the execution was going to happen anyways after the men were convicted and sentenced. What Lincoln did was prevent all but 38 from dying. That's the difference from saying "he killed 3 people by setting them on fire" and "he pulled out all but 3 people from the burning building."

    • DarthCorleone

      I dunno...if you have the power to pull those last three people from a burning building and you don't do it, don't you then carry at least some responsibility? They were being tried under federal law, weren't they, and as chief executive of the federal government he had ultimate power to oversee and countermand that process, did he not?

    • Sara_Tonin00

      Without knowing all the details, but with knowing (based on the above) that the Native Americans did do a whole lot of killing, pillaging and RAPING - he may have pardoned the ones for which there was the least evidence. Or had some other mitigating something something.

      And no, the president doesn't "oversee" federal trials, but he does have the power to issue pardons. (He can't countermand it - that would mean he could say "courts ruled you innocent, but I find otherwise!")

    • Protoguy

      Seems to me that would have been seen as an abuse of power at the time, the President overturning a court's decision. He was already being accused of being a tyrant and grasping for power.
      "sic sempre tyrannus" - that's what Booth shouted after he killed him.

      I'm not condoning the execution, but to blame Lincoln is kinda glossing over how the whole thing works and how the country was sitting at the time.

    • DarthCorleone

      Protoguy >> Yeah, I considered that point and agree with you. I suppose he pardoned exactly as many of them as his political capital at the time allowed him. I just tend to get very cynical about the concept of political capital when it comes to direct decisions over life and death.

    • Protoguy

      Yeah, cynical kind of defines the entire scenario. But I don't think it was political capital so much as the country and it's mentality at the time and what it was able to tolerate. We're talking about people who were arguing over enslaving humans. I think even Lincoln's constituents would have killed him if he'd commuted all 300 of them. It's my understanding that there weren't too many pro-Indian people in those days.

    • courtsinsession

      Unbelievable. I, too, had never in my life heard of this story until I listened to the This American Life episode that aired Thanksgiving week covering this same event. I'll defiantly be checking out the documentary.

    • Sarah Carlson

      Here's a link to the episode. it's chilling. http://www.thisamericanlife.or...

    • ,

      Jesus Christ.

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