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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