38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End
“A nation which sowed robbery would reap a harvest of blood.”
~ Bishop Henry Whipple, letter to Abraham Lincoln, March 1862
In August of 1862, President Lincoln is weighed heavily by continued criticisms of his slave ideology and by the danger of a Confederate invasion of the North by Robert E. Lee. Lincoln's commanding general, George B. McClellan, has been slow in his movements and growing more infuriating. By August 29th, Lee and James Longstreet have joined and commenced battle with the Union forces at the Second Manassas/Bull Run. At this point of the war, Lincoln has been biding his time, waiting for a key victory that would permit him to play what he considers his trump card: the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus far, he has had to keep it held in his pocket. Waiting.
Out west, in Minnesota, events are unfolding that for a majority of people is a little-known or long-forgotten moment of history, one that would shape the fate and future of the American West forever. In 38 NOOSES, author Scott W. Berg does a great service to the history of Minnesota and of the nation, exploring the dark chapter of our history that is rarely discussed as it is often lost in the greater conflicts of the Civil War battlefields of the East.
The Dakota tribes are growing weary of failures by the white government to properly fulfill their annuity payments for ceded land, and the traders are manipulating credit dealings that are driving the Dakota to the point of unspeakable debt. Yet another case of treaties being broken or simply ignored intentionally. This frustration reaching its boiling point, a small band of warriors killed a group of white hunters. Returning to camp, they spoke of their anger to their leader, Little Crow. Initially reluctant to begin a full offensive, he eventually agreed to bring battle to the white traders, and the Dakota War began.
Dakota war parties moved through the lower Minnesota River Valley, burning villages, and indiscriminately killing civilian men, women and children. By the time the actual fighting had ended, over 300 civilians were dead with hundreds missing. This is the greatest casualty by whites in any Indian war in America. Yet through all his bluster and threats, Little Crow did not have the forces to match General Pope and Colonel Sibley. The Dakota leader and a hundred or so followers would flee west while the majority of his people would remain behind and surrender under white flags of truce, believing Sibley and his claim that no harm would come to those who turned themselves in. Quickly establishing a military commission, Sibley and his men would hold 392 trials over 30 days, sentencing 303 of the surrendered Dakota to hanging for simple complicity in the war, finding men guilty for merely firing a shot during battle, even if they had not engaged in the atrocities along the River Valley.
Far away, in Washington, DC, Lincoln established his own board of review and halted the executions of the 303 Dakota until proof of their atrocities could be confirmed. When all was said and done, 39 were sentenced to hang as Lincoln's commission had found the majority were not guilty of the vilest offense. Prior to hanging, one more would earn a reprieve, bringing the final total to 38.
"Scott W. Berg does a great service to the history of Minnesota and of the nation, exploring the dark chapter of our history that is rarely discussed as it is often lost in the greater conflicts of the Civil War battlefields of the East."
On December 26, 1862, 5,000 Minnesotans, including Dr. William W. Mayo, who would one day establish the renowned Mayo Clinic, watched as 38 Dakota were hanged in what was, and still remains, the largest mass execution in US history. From this moment on, the US government began a quick dispersal of the Dakota people, shipping them out of Minnesota and doing their best to eradicate them from the area by any means. Sibley continued his hunt for Little Crow, who would ultimately be shot, scalped, beheaded, and have his body dumped in a gravel pit in Minnesota the following summer.
38 NOOSES drives home the point that --- despite the end of the war and Little Crow meeting his end, no matter that 38 Dakota were hung for their crimes, overlooking that the Dakota were scattered to pathetically located and unsustainable reservation lands --- the war to eliminate the native presence in the west had truly begun in these months. The pursuit of Little Crow and his followers did nothing but fuel further urges to drive the tribes farther west. Berg highlights the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, which was a loss for the native peoples in terms of casualties, but it did what Little Crow had failed to do in Minnesota: it united varied bands together, this time under the leadership of a survivor of Killdeer Mountain --- the Hunkpapa warrior Sitting Bull, who refused any treaty talk and understood that to give any land was to lose all land.
Berg does a surprisingly good job weaving together the many individual stories, which goes a long way into making this more than just a dry historical text.
- The passion of Governor Ramsey addressing the state legislature, saying “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”
- General Pope, angry at being relieved of command in the Civil War out East and having to deal with Indian affairs out West, and just as eager to see Ramsey's wish fulfilled.
- Sarah Wakefield's flight from her home and subsequent capture by the Dakota, falling under the care and protection of one named Chaska, who guarded her and her young children from malfeasance by anti-white warriors in camp, and her lifelong shunning by the white community after she was freed, cast aside as an “Indian lover.”
- Bishop Whipple's desire to see the Indian matter handled and reformed, knowing from his time among them that they were being manipulated and lied to by government agents and traitors alike.
- President Lincoln, desperate for the tide to turn in the Civil War, finally able to push his Emancipation Proclamation into daylight and his determination to see that only the truly guilty in the Dakota War were hung.
- Chaska, who defied Little Crow and others by caring for Sarah Wakefield, who was removed from the execution list by Lincoln, but was hung anyway, leaving Wakefield wracked with grief and guilt for the remainder of her days.
- Little Crow and his hesitation to begin a war he knew would end in the extinction of his people, his flight for freedom and protection in Canada, only to be turned away by every native and British settlement he encountered.
- Colonel Sibley and his drive to seek justice for the slaughter of innocents, even by finding guilt in the smallest of supposed infractions to justify a higher execution count.
One of the book’s greatest achievements is that Berg shows that events do not live in a historical vacuum. They do not begin and end within the covers of the book, neatly started and stopped before moving to the next major event. Not only does he illustrate how the Dakota War led to the more rapid extermination and usurpation of the Native American people of the West, his final chapter surprisingly cycles back to the front, discussing the Black Hawk War and Lincoln's involvement as a young man not yet decided on politics, hunting down Chief Black Hawk in 1832. Lincoln never found Black Hawk during his brief military service, but the government agents sought help from other tribes in tracking him down. One such hunter was Jack Frazer, who in 1862 would be spared by Little Crow and would become a scout for Sibley. His Dakota companion in hunting Black Hawk? Taoyateduta, who would become Little Crow.
In 38 NOOSES, Berg does not simply choose sides. Actually, he does little to dissuade the fact that the horrors the initial assaults by the Dakota had were some of the most heinous imaginable. Yes, he does offer the historical record and the explanation that these acts, in the minds of their undertakers, may have been justified. Yet he himself walks that fine edge, showing that a great many ills existed on both sides of the matter. However, he does --- and quite rightly so --- do a great service in bringing more light to the plight of the native people of the day, and how they were wrongly dealt with over many decades, victims of the corrupt, the greedy and the powerful. He quotes Edwin Stanton in one of the most moving and infuriating passages, in response to Bishop Whipple's pleas for better dealings with the native people: “If he has come here to tell us of the corruption of our Indian system and the dishonesty of Indian agents, tell him that we know it. But the Government never reforms an evil until the people demand it. Tell him that when he reaches the heart of the American people, the Indians will be saved.”
Stanton's words echo an eternity, both in our prior handling of the issues of the Native American people and in our modern everyday governmental practices. They illustrate the carelessness by which those in power continue to act without regard for the outcomes, even when they know of the ills, and how the American people remain duplicitous in their continued silence.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on December 7, 2012