On August 17, 1862, four Sioux Indians attacked and killed five white settlers while on a hunting expedition in Minnesota. A series of attacks known as the Dakota War followed until the U.S. Army quelled the unrest. In the aftermath, President Abraham Lincoln approved the largest mass execution in U.S. history, a record that still stands today. But why did the Sioux launch the Dakota War in the first place?
The Dakota War?
The origins of the Dakota War can be traced back to 1851 when the U.S. government forced the Sioux Indians to sign the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and the Treaty of Mendota. These agreements required the Sioux to give up large parcels of land and move onto an Indian reservation near the Minnesota River. In exchange, the Sioux were given $1.4 million of money and goods. This amounted to about $0.03 per acre and the U.S. government profited handsomely by selling the land to white settlers for $1.25 per acre. In fact, it profited even more than you might expect since most of the promised compensation was never paid, was stolen by the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs, or was otherwise “lost.”
As the 1850s rolled on, the U.S. government continuously violated the two treaties and failed to make payments to the Sioux. The Sioux fell into a state of permanent debt with local traders and thus, the few payments that were made often went directly to the traders. At the same time, crop failure made the Sioux increasingly dependent on the payments. Hungry and angry about the very real possibility that they were being cheated by the Bureau and the traders, the Sioux demanded that the payments be made directly to them. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent refused to provide food or supplies under that condition.
Two days later, a Sioux hunting party attacked and killed five white settlers while on a hunting expedition. That night, the Sioux council effectively declared the Dakota War on the settlers. A series of attacks followed. After a few setbacks to U.S. forces, President Lincoln sent General John Pope to lead the counterattack.
“It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year. Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” ~ General John Pope
The Dakota War Ends…& Trials Begin
By December, the short-lived Dakota War was over. At least 500 U.S. soldiers and white settlers perished in the Dakota War. Sioux casualties are estimated about 70 to 100. In the aftermath, General Pope subjected hundreds of men, women, and children to five-minute military trials. 303 Indians were found guilty of rape and/or murder and sentenced to death. However, they were not given the opportunity to defend themselves and in any case, were condemned for participation in the Dakota War rather than for specific crimes.
President Lincoln Approves the Largest Mass Execution in History
General Pope and Minnesota’s representatives urged President Lincoln to approve the execution. However, Lincoln was still in the midst of the Civil War and was concerned that an execution of that size, based on no evidence and a heavily biased military tribunal, might anger European nations who would then throw their support to the Confederate States of America. So, he pared down the list to 39 names. In order to appease disgruntled settlers and Minnesota operatives, he promised to eventually kill or remove all Indians from Minnesota and offered $2 million in federal funds compensation.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux Indians were hanged, marking the largest one-day execution in American history (one Sioux was granted a reprieve). Within the course of a year, Lincoln made good on his promise, driving the remaining Sioux out of Minnesota and into Nebraska and South Dakota.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Thanks to the politically-motivated Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln might just be the biggest sacred cow in all of U.S. history. Even this mass execution is viewed favorably by many Lincoln scholars, as they point out that he spared the lives of over 260 Sioux Indians. But the fact remains that he ordered the execution of 38 individuals, despite knowing that their individual guilt in the Dakota War could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unfortunately, their deaths didn’t bring an end to the violence. After the Civil War ended, General Sherman waged war against the Plains Indians, designed to bring about “the final solution of the Indian problem.” By 1890, his dream had become a reality – all of the Plains Indians had either been killed or placed on a reservation.