Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Dakota War--XIV



"They must be exterminated," wrote one newspaper editorial, "and now is a good time to commence doing it."

Once the dust settled over southwest Minnesota, once most of the worst of the Dakota thugs had left north to Canada or west to the Dakota Territories, once four hundred Dakota men were rounded up and their wives and children brought into camp, the war-like drum beat from white folks still bleeding from too many horrific attacks began. No longer could white settlers live in any kind of peace with savages who'd often simply walked up to their doors and killed their loved ones. There were only two possible answers to the problem, white folks maintained, banishment and--even better--extermination.

Throughout the Dakota war, stories of heroism, of courage and immense human strength abound; but those are individual stories of men and women who somehow found within themselves the will to do what few others could or would, stories of selflessness and grace. The big story, the story I'm trying to tell here--the Dakota War of 1862--is simply awful, beginning to end. The end of all the shooting, all the killing did not mean the end of suffering.

The Dakota had every right to believe that they would be treated as enemy soldiers--many were told, in fact, that in exchange for their surrender under a flag of truce, they'd be treated as prisoners of war. They were not. White Minnesotans were in no mood for conciliation or reconciliation; retribution--vengeance--stormed through the Minnesota River valley and throughout the state.

"There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith," wrote Gen. John Pope, the military commander appointed by President Lincoln to quell the uprising. "It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux, if I have the power to do so. . . .Destroy everything belonging to them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts."

Almost immediately, military trials began, one after another, for Dakota men. The pastor, Stephen R. Riggs, was appointed a kind of grand jury, since his knowledge of the Dakota language enabled him to talk to and with the Sioux. He was the one who brought charges, once he'd determined, rightly or wrongly, what had gone on, who had done what, who had been where, and what degree of culpability each enemy combatant had in the war.

The political atmosphere was thick with bleeding vengeance, and Gen. Sibley, who appointed the men who conducted the hearings, understood that prolonged inaction (he'd been blamed for not acting fast enough ever since he'd been appointed to run the war) would only further inflame more hate--for everyone, including him.

Sometimes hearings for individual Dakota warriors lasted no more than five minutes. Sometimes if a warrior said he was at the battle of New Ulm or Ft. Ridgely or Birch Coulee, his mere presence there was sufficient grounds for a death sentence. Starting at the Upper Sioux Agency, then moving to the Lower, the hearings eventually sentenced 307 Native Minnesotans to death by hanging, 16 more to jail, and officially exonerated 69 others.

Anywhere other than Minnesota and the surrounding areas, the mere idea of hanging 307 human beings was impossible to comprehend. In Washington, pressure arose for President Lincoln to intervene somehow; so the administration asked for, and received, a full listing of those condemned to death, as well as what paper existed to prove their guilt.

Meanwhile, 4000 Dakota men, women, and children were marched east, through the very killing fields where people had been murdered and property burned, through New Ulm, whose residents had beaten off two full-blown attacks, through settlements where fear and hatred supercharged the citizenry. In several places, the cavalry had to draw swords and affix bayonets to keep white folks from willful murder among the phalanx that spread out four miles long. What had happened to the settlers was evil, horrible. By surrendering, the Dakota were getting their due, according to the white citizenry. Hundreds of whites were murdered, hundreds of Dakota would hang--there was, to some white folks, a kind of justice to that equation.
But President Lincoln listened to the pressures from afar and commuted the sentences of all but 39 of those Dakota prisoners. In a three-page letter that he wrote in his own hand, Lincoln condemned those who he believed to be plainly guilty of rape and murder, sentencing the others to prison terms.

One of those sentenced was later commuted, but on December 26, the day after Christmas, 1862, on a specially built scaffold created just for the occasion in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota men refused the hoods that traditionally accompanied hanging, choosing instead to have their faces visible, sang their death songs, and then were hung, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

William R. Duley was among the very first white settlers in Murray County, Minnesota, one of a group of pioneers who built cabins around Lake Shetek. Even though they were miles and miles away from the Lower Sioux Agency when the killing began, Duley and the other settlers became its victims nonetheless, when 200 Dakota made their way south and west to the white settlement, where they began to kill settlers.

When others heard about the deaths of some of their friends, they got together in an effort to fend off more death. Deception followed, and soon they left that cabin bound for New Ulm, far more than a day's travel away. When the Dakota attacked them, they took refuge in a slough, still to this day called Slaughter Slough, where, sadly, many of them were killed, several of those shot in the back while begging for mercy. Among the dead were two of William Duley's children, ages 6 and 10. Mrs. Duley reportedly had gotten down on her knees to beg for her children's lives. The Dakota promised her that her children would not be hurt, then simply murdered William, Jr., who was ten, right before her eyes.

Her husband, shot in the wrist, lived through the attack by escaping the slough in another direction. It was that man, William R. Duley, who played executioner and pulled the single rope connected to 38 gallows that awful day in Mankato, Minnesota, a man who'd lost a wife and two children in the uprising.

But somehow the whole story is even further darkened by a memory written in old history of the area, an explanation that goes like this: "Duley was a little inclined to boast of his prowess but the people that knew him thought very little of him after his leaving the slough where the women and children were."

In 2012, those Minnesotans who know anything at all about the story will know that 150 years have passed since the Dakota War of 1862. Whether or not anyone should talk about it, much less commemorate it, is a good question. There are heroes galore, really, in the story, but nothing in the tale itself is heroic.

Today, in downtown Mankato, a sculpted buffalo stands just across the street from the city library in a park that's called "Reconciliation Park." Almost everyone passing by--residents or travelers--will miss it. It is an indistinguishable street corner, and is itself an icon of an immensely sad story in the history of the region, the state, and the country, a story we would all rather forget.

There's more to say. I'm just not sure it's over.
 So much about it simply begs to be forgotten.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another version of the battle of Jericho? Where do the children of those Dakota live now, today?

Anonymous said...

Did anyone keep a death tally for both sides of this American victory?

Anonymous said...

Who was reconciled near Reconcilation Park and the buffalo stone monument. What is that story? How many buffalo and Dakota are living around there now?

Paul Vander Klay said...

Thanks for telling this story and telling it well. pvk

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Anonymous said...

I thought I read your accounts of the Dakota Conflict thoroughly but I can't seem to find the part where you describe the events and climate leading up to the events of 1862. Your account seems to start with some rascally young Indians that were up to mischief and, on a dare, randomly murdered some white people. This doesn't do history justice. I haven't read the part explaining what lead to the kind of despair the Dakota were faced with at the time. Dakota people were facing death by starvation and extortion from corrupt agents and shop keepers. You bet your ass them kids trying to steal eggs were hungry. You would be too. This whole blog just reads like a list of evil things that them bad Indians did to the poor white settlers. There was so much more going on than is accounted for here.

Anonymous said...

I thought I read your accounts of the Dakota Conflict thoroughly but I can't seem to find the part where you describe the events and climate leading up to the events of 1862. Your account seems to start with some rascally young Indians that were up to mischief and, on a dare, randomly murdered some white people. This doesn't do history justice. I haven't read the part explaining what lead to the kind of despair the Dakota were faced with at the time. Dakota people were facing death by starvation and extortion from corrupt agents and shop keepers. You bet your ass them kids trying to steal eggs were hungry. You would be too. This whole blog just reads like a list of evil things that them bad Indians did to the poor white settlers. There was so much more going on than is accounted for here.