The facts don't tell the whole story, but they certainly make vividly clear what happened to the Dakota people who were incarcerated after the fighting ceased. Of the 300 or so who were not hung--reprieved by President Lincoln--120 died in the next three years, when most of them were imprisoned at Camp McClellan, in Iowa. Of the 1600 men, women, and children, locked up at Ft. Snelling in Minnesota, many of them guilty of no crime, 300 were dead by spring, 1863. To say that conditions were deplorable is to baldly understate the suffering.
The hate which had arisen since the August attacks was as poisonous as it was overwhelming. When contrary voices were heard--largely the voices of clergymen--about the horrid conditions, those voices were roundly criticized. Preachers were actually accosted. Revs. Stephen Riggs and Thomas Williamson and Bishop Whipple (who had intervened personally with President Lincoln) regularly kept religious services with the imprisoned Native people, and were scorched by newspaper editorials. "Holiest rites of the church given to red-handed murderers," one journalist wrote. "God was mocked."
Basically, the war created such venomous hate that the white settlers of Minnesota wanted nothing less than to be rid of all its first residents--if not by death, then banishment; and that included other Native peoples from tribes and bands who weren't even involved in the war.
Hundreds were crammed aboard steamboats for a long trip down the Mississippi River to St. Louis, the, brought across the state to St. Joseph to be jammed into yet another boat that took them up the Missouri, all the way to Crow Creek, in the Dakota Territories. Rev. Williamson protested: "When 1300 Indians were crowded on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed on musty hardtack and briny pork, which had not half a chance to cook, diseases were bred which made fearful havoc."
When they finally reached the Crow Creek Reservation, an arid place that looked nothing at all like their Minnesota homeland, they were so weakened by starvation and disease that 150 died in just a few weeks, 300 by the end of the summer.
That's justice--some white folks said. The only solution, said others. For what they did, vengeance maintained, many hundreds had to die. And they did. An eye for an eye, a life for a life.
Let me repeat what's been said a thousand times--most of this story begs not to be recounted.
And how does a Christian assess all of this? How do I read it? Where might one begin to bring to bear a moral reading of the entire horrible tale?
The Reverend Stephen R. Riggs found some hope in the incredible spiritual turnabout he witnessed by way of his own persistence in ministering to the needs of the Native people throughout their horrifying tribulation after the war. When the attacks began at the Lower Sioux Agency back in August, Riggs had to be convinced to abandon the mission station he'd built himself a quarter century earlier among the Dakota. It was Riggs who admitted, in his memoir, that looking back that day on everything God himself had built among the Dakota, he couldn't help but wonder whether all of that work had been in vain.
But when he ministered to people who were imprisoned that winter, he was shocked by how many Native people were suddenly hungry to hear about this man Jesus Christ. "Some of these men, in their younger days, had heard the Mr. Ponds [another missionary pastor] talk of the white man's religion. They were desirous now, in their trouble, to hear from their old friends, whose counsel they had so long rejected. To this request, Mr. G. H. Pond responded, and spent some days in the prison assisting Dr. Williamson. Rev. Mr. Hicks, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mankato, was also taken into their counsels and gave them aid. For several weeks previous, many men had been wishing to be baptized, and thus recognized as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This number increased from day to day, until about three hundred--just how many could not afterward be ascertained--stood up and were baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The circumstances were peculiar, the whole movement was marvelous, it was like a 'nation born in a day.' The brethren desired to be divinely guided; and after many years of testing have elapsed, we all say that was a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit."
That phenomenal procession to grace was, to Riggs, an answer to prayer--and the answer to the riddle so many of us face so often in life--why all the suffering if God is in control?
"This first communion in the prison made a deep impression upon myself," he wrote in his memoir. "It began to throw light upon the perplexing questions that had started in my own mind, as to the moral meaning of the outbreak. God's thought of it was not my thought. As the heavens were higher than the earth, so his thoughts were higher than mine. I accepted the present interpretation of the events, and thanked God and took courage. The Indians had not meant it so. In their thought and determination, the outbreak was the culmination of their hatred of Christianity. But God, who sits on the throne, had made it result in their submission to him. This was marvelous in our eyes."
I'm not so sure as he is of God's specific plans--for the Dakota or the settlers--although it is impossible to doubt the salvation of those, like the thief of the cross, who truly sought the Lord.
I wish I could be so confident as he was, or seems to be. Riggs was a fine man, a courageous Christian, someone who didn't abandon his people--the Dakota--when almost every other white person did. Maybe he deserves the joy he took from so many decisions for God. Without a doubt he needed some vast outpouring of grace himself amid all the hellish suffering.
But 150 years later, I'm not as blessed as he was by the mass conversions he witnessed, not that I doubt that someday the new heavens and new earth will be populated by the hundreds who came to Jesus in their despicable horror and depravation.
I choose to let the Reverend Riggs alone in his solace. It's probably just as easy to make light of his comfort as to share it with him. Who knows what God wanted for him, His humble servant?
But what do I think of this awful story? How does it affect my heart, my soul?
I am humbled by the arrogance of human will, the sin that resides in all of us. There are, in this story, as many heroes as horrors, as many bloody savages among the Dakota as among the white settlers. We all have sinned. We all have gone astray.
I've tried to live in the story as best as anyone can from the distance of time and cultural character. I've tried to tell it as best I could. I've tried to be fair. Several times, I've wondered if, in fact, we would all be better off simply to forget.
What I know, however, is that going as far as I could into a terrifying chapter of American history has done this at least--it has humbled me, because I can feel in my bones the anger of the starving, penned-up Dakota at countless broken treaties, empty promises, and hateful agents. But I know too how I could come to hate the red man for the atrocities, the horrific murders of babies yet to be born, of children, of women and men. I can feel all of that emotion in me, rising, rising. And with that, my soul weeps.
And this I know too from the emptiness in me--Lord knows, I need a savior.
The photo above is the grave marker of Rev. Thomas Williamson, in an abandoned cemetary not far from St. Peter, Minnesota.