It’s December 26, 1862 in Mankato, Minn. The cold air and snowfall surround 38 Dakota men awaiting their death by hanging for crimes allegedly committed during the US-Dakota War of that year. A great mood of retribution and anger has enveloped white settlers following the six-week war in southern Minnesota.
The hanging in Mankato is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. It’s also considered by many to be the largest miscarriage of justice in U.S. history. The Dakota men were tried by a military court without juries or representation. The verdicts, in many cases, were decided in a matter of minutes.
A century and a half later, Minnesota State Representative Dean Urdahl is trying to right that wrong, or at least symbolically make amends.
The U.S.-Dakota War
In August of 1862, after a poor harvest and delays in payments from the federal government, many Dakota were angry and starving. After pleading for food at the Indian Agency at the Lower Sioux Reservation near present-day Morton, Minn., they were told to “eat grass.” War broke out and blood was shed.
The Dakota signed a treaty in 1851, ceding their land to the government to accommodate settlers arriving rom the east. Minnesota was once the vast homeland of the Dakota. Now they were reduced to parcels of land in the Minnesota River Valley. Many Dakota took up farming — a system totally foreign to them. Some were successful, but many others were not. The government offered payments to the Dakota, but most of the money was taken for “debts owed “ to the traders, leaving little to cover the cost of food and other goods the Dakota needed to survive.
The fighting went on for six weeks. Many Dakota women and children were marched to Fort Snelling where they would spend the winter before being shipped out of the state in May of 1863. There is still a law on the books today that states the Dakota tribe is not allowed in the state of Minnesota.
Originally, 303 men were sentenced to die. A list was given to President Lincoln. He consulted his staff and came up with the number 39 (one was reprieved later). When the 38 warriors were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862, Chaska was among them, although he had not been designated to die. It may have been a mistake, or, as some believe, an intentional punishment meted out by settlerswho were outraged by Chaska’s close relationship with Sarah Wakefield.
Many people ask, “If you pardon Chaska, why not pardon the other 37?,” acknowledges Urdahl, a former teacher and Republican leader of the House of Representatives who has written several historical novels about the Dakota War. Urdahl says he consulted with many Dakota and non-Dakota and decided that doing this one thing — pardoning Chaska — could perhaps rub a little salve on the wound.
Minnesota’s Darkest Period
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota war of 1862. If you talk to any Dakota person still living in the state — it’s like it happened yesterday. The wounds are fresh, the pain so palpable that many would rather not talk about it at all. The Dakota were banished from Minnesota, women and children forcibly marched to an internment camp at Fort Snelling before being put on boats and sent down the Mississippi River, then up the Missouri, to exile in harsh conditions in what is now South Dakota. Those who chose to stay in Minnesota went into hiding. The trauma over loss of language and culture remains today.
On the other side of the war, many relatives of settlers still feel angry. Descendants of those in New Ulm and throughout the River Valley want their side of the story told as well.
In addition to serving on the Legacy Committee in the Legislature — a committee tasked with preserving Minnesota’s environmental, historical and cultural legacy, Urdahl also co-chairs the Civil War Commemorative Task Force. Urdahl has written three books about the U.S.-Dakota War — Pursuit, Retribution and Uprising.