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Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Dakota War

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Annie Sjoholm

on 14 February 2017

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Transcript of Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Dakota War

The Reservation System
On the reservation there were two American government agencies set up that bustled with European American traders and government workers. Because of being confined to a narrow strip of land, the Dakota were not able to hunt as they traditionally had been so they became extremely dependent on the U.S. government for annuities. There was also strife among the Dakota people themselves as some more readily adopted white culture while others resisted it.
How Lincoln Made the Decision
Broken Promises
Tensions rose as the terms of the treaties of 1851 and 1858 were not honored and annuity payments were regularly late or smaller than promised. By the summer of 1862, many Dakota were starving.
Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Dakota War
Was a military commission a just choice?
“The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status” Carol Chomsky, Professor at University of Minnesota Law School
Was Lincoln's Decision right?
Were there warning signs that a war could start?
George E.H. Day traveled throughout the state of Minnesota to see how things were for the Dakota prior to the war. On January 1, 1862, Day wrote President Lincoln reporting the injustices and wrongs of the Indian system in Minnesota. He stated, “The whole system is defective and must be revised or, your red children, as they call themselves, will continue to be wronged and outrage and the just vengeance of heaven continue to be poured out and visited upon this nation for its abuses and cruelty to the Indian”
The territory and state of Minnesota was established through a variety of treaties between the Dakota and Ojibwa nations and the United States government, the first treaty being in 1805. By 1862, the Dakota in Minnesota had lost all of their land except a narrow strip of land on the Minnesota River.
The U.S. Dakota War
On August 17, 1862, the growing tensions turned to bloodshed when four Dakota men killed five Minnesotan settlers in Acton, Minnesota over a disagreement about eggs.
Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, 1851

Dakota on the Reservation.
Elements of European and
traditional Dakota culture
are seen in this picture.
Andrew Myrick was a trader on the Dakota Reservation. He and many other traders refused to give the Dakota food. He is infamously rememebered as saying,
"So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass"
Dakota Treaty Delegation, 1858
War Continued
After six weeks of fighting the war ended at Wood Lake on September 23rd. 2,000 Dakota surrendered and many others fled.
Henry B. Whipple
Other than correspondence between Lincoln and Ramsey, Sibley, and Pope, the most notable correspondence that Lincoln had regarding the happenings of the Dakota War was when Episcopalian missionary Henry B. Whipple visited Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1862. Whipple then met with Lincoln in the fall and encouraged Lincoln to not allow the mass executions and deportations of the Dakota (Minnesota Historical Society).
After the U.S.-Dakota War ended, a military commission composed of five officers was put together to try the hundreds of Dakota that were taken captive after the war.
Approval by Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln took the request to approve the executions very seriously and saw the weight of his decision. He contacted Joseph Holt, Secretary of War, wondering if he could give the responsibility to someone else, knowing how time consuming such a decision would be and knowing that he was short on time.
Holt replied that Lincoln needed to do it
(Letter to Joseph Holt). The records of proceedings did not reach Lincoln until early December (Lincoln address to the Senate).
Abraham Lincoln's Infamous Decision
In December of 1862, President Lincoln made an infamous decision. President Lincoln ordered the execution of 39 Dakota Indians. This was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
At the same time, he spared the lives of 264 Dakota. This was the largest act of clemency in U.S. history.

Lincoln's letter to Sibley
Abraham Lincoln: Seeker of Peace and Justice
As historians have analyzed the military commission that was established to try the Dakota that had participated in the uprising, many have been concerned about the legality and fairness of the proceedings and therefore criticism has fallen on President Lincoln for approving the largest mass execution in U.S. History (Mansch 81).
Upon close analysis of why he narrowed down the list to 39 of those to be executed and considering the context within which Lincoln had to make the decision, President Lincoln skillfully upheld legal justice while also preventing mass rebellion of Minnesota citizens.
Key People during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862
Henry Sibley:
Colonel during the U.S.-Dakota War; former Minnesota governor; appointed war trial military commission after the Dakota War.
Alexander Ramsey
Governor of Minnesota in 1862.
Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Henry Sibley is direct. He introduced the letter by stating the fact that the names he has listed out should be hanged. He hand wrote out each name with painstaking accuracy ensuring accurate phonetic spelling to make sure that the wrong men would not be executed (Soodalter).
George E.H. Day:
Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He had studied the Dakota in Minnesota for a year prior to the U.S.-Dakota War.
General John Pope:
Man assigned to stop the Dakota uprising. Civil War General known for defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run.
Henry B. Whipple:
Episcopalian Minister who worked closely with the Dakota and advocated for their cause.
Abraham Lincoln:
President of the United States. Required to approve of the Dakota executions.
The Dakota were not unanimous on what to do, but since they expected retaliation for the event anyway and knew that the Civil War was preoccupying the United States, many of them decided to go to war
The war took a devastating toll on Minnesota. 70 U.S. soldiers and between 75-100 Dakota soldiers died, and more than 500 settlers had been killed mostly by raids done by the Dakota. Over 20,000 settlers fled to Minneapolis or St. Paul leaving Southwestern Minnesota basically empty.
Unfortunately letters like this were so common and President Lincoln was so preoccupied by the Civil War that nothing was done.
Thousands of settlers were forced to flee southwestern Minnesota.
Settlers at the Lower Sioux Agency

"We have waited a long time. The money is ours but we cannot get it. We have no food but here these stores are filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement so we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry, they help themselves."
Little Crow (Taoyateduta)
Even settlers recognized the problem and notified leaders of warning signs. On August 14, New Ulm residents sent a petition to governor Ramsey. In it, settlers mentioned the late payments to the Dakota, corruption within the Indian Affairs office, and fears that a war could break out at any time.
When the war broke out, Governor Ramsey wrote Abraham Lincoln explaining the situation and saying that the drafting of Minnesotan men for the Civil War needed to be suspended because of the U.S.-Dakota War. Lincoln responded,
“Attend to the Indians. If the draft can not proceed, of course it will not proceed”
(Lincoln letter to Ramsey).
Lincoln appointed General John Pope to
stop the uprising.
Public Reaction to the War
Newspapers created fears and demands for swift punishment.
The Commission
conducted 392 trials in under five weeks
, sometimes completing over 40 trials in one day. Guilt was assumed in each case, no legal counsel was offered, each defendant was allowed to make a statement, but no defendant was allowed to call a witness (Mansch 81).
By the end of the trials,
303 were sentenced to speedy executions, and the Minnesota public strongly supported this decision
(Mansch 81).
This trader's house at the Lower Sioux Agency is one area where Henry Sibley held trials. Soldiers are guarding the Dakota.
Letter From Gen. John Pope to Henry Sibley, September 28, 1862:

"The horrible massacres of women and children and the outrageous abuse of female prisoners, still alive, call for punishment beyond human power to inflict. There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith. 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.
John Pope telegraphed Abraham Lincoln for approval of the list of executions on November 8th, as required by federal law. Abraham Lincoln responded to Pope on November 10, 1862, by asking him to
“...forward, as soon as possible, the full and complete record of these convictions. And if the records does not fully indicate the more guilty and influential, of the culprits, please have a careful statement made on these points and forwarded to me” (Lincoln to John Pope).
Lincoln stated after meeting with Whipple in the fall of 1862,
“He came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots”
(Minnesota Historical Society).
Letter to Lincoln from George E.H. Day.
"...voluminous and outrageous frauds upon the Indians in Minnesota." George E.H. Day to Abraham Lincoln
There was extreme public pressure from Minnesotans to swiftly approve the executions. Governor Ramsey wrote Lincoln and demanded the swift approval of the 302 Dakota.
Abraham Lincoln’s abilities as a lawyer were shown in how he handled this decision.
Lincoln hired two lawyers, John C. Whiting and Francis H. Ruggle, to review the cases (Norris).
When deciding whom deserved execution, Lincoln tried to differentiate the men who participated in acts of warfare and the men who participated in massacres (Chomsky 89). The other indicator he used to differentiate the men was who had raped women (Lincoln to Senate).
In his address to the Senate on December 11, 1862, Lincoln stated,
“Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I ordered a careful examination of the records of trials to be made...”
(Lincoln to Senate). In this speech he provides a thorough record of his analysis and judgement.
Carol Chomsky found a lot of fault in the way that the commission handled the trials, yet recognized that it was not too different than what was used for other prisoners of war during other wars fought by the United States (Chomsky 63). She also recognized how common executions as a form of punishment
was at the time (Chomsky 14). She concludes that based on the evolving laws of war, Lincoln’s judgement of who should be executed was closer to having the Dakota treated as lawful belligerents and POWs, as they should be, instead of regular citizens (Chomsky 72). However Chomsky does not believe Lincoln treated the Dakota as a sovereign nation, which they were, and that the trials were so poorly executed that there was not enough clear evidence to convict those that were involved in the massacre (Chomsky 90).
Since Lincoln took the time to analyze what information had been given in the cases, probably assuming that the commission was fairly led, he acted justly by how he differentiated those who should and should not be executed based on the evidence he had access to. He also feared that if he showed to much clemency the Minnesota public would respond in an even more dire way toward the Dakota.
In Abraham Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln stated, “
I submit for your especial consideration whether our Indian system shall not be remodeled. Many wise and good men have impressed me with the belief that this can be profitably done.”
Seeker of Peace and Justice
Joseph Holt
December 26, 1862
38 Dakota Indians were executed in Mankato,
Minnesota. Unfortunately this was not the end to the
mistreatment of the Dakota.
"Honest Abe"
Considering the context and the time, Lincoln was much more progressive regarding Native American rights than most leaders of his time and he made an honest effort to do what was right regarding the U.S.-Dakota War.
How did Lincoln view Native Americans?
Abraham Lincoln is remembered as the “Great Emancipator,” a champion for freeing the slaves, and beginning the process of getting the United States closer to achieving greater civil rights. So, although a lot of analysis has been done about Lincoln’s views of African Americans there has not been as much study on his views of Native Americans. Christopher W. Anderson wrote a thought-provoking article that chronicles Lincoln’s views of Native Americans from Lincoln’s own grandfather being killed by a Native American to Lincoln’s time in service during the Blackhawk War. Anderson concludes that overall Abraham Lincoln “viewed Native Americans as simultaneously foreign and respectable.” Through Lincoln's handling of the U.S. Dakota War, Anderson’s conclusion is defended.
Black Hawk, the Sauk war chief and namesake of the Black Hawk War in 1832
Work Cited
Full transcript