Learning from the Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History


It was the day after Christmas, 1862, in the town square of Mankato, Minnesota, that 38 Dakota warriors were hanged at the order of president Abraham Lincoln. After 150 years, it is still the largest mass execution in American history.

Mankato is about 80 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. In 1862, it was a frontier town in the thick of growing tensions between the quickly multiplying white settlers and the increasingly marginalized Dakota natives. The mass execution was essentially the memorable conclusion to what is now known as the U.S.-Dakota War (also known as the Sioux Uprising of 1862, as the settlers called the natives Sioux Indians).

How War Erupted

In the summer of 1862, the new state of Minnesota — only four years old — was a powder keg on the prairie. Relations between the settlers and natives were strained by land-stealing, lies, insults, and deception.

On August 17, four Dakota warriors murdered five white settlers in Acton, about 90 miles north of Mankato. At least a dozen versions of why and how this happened have come down to us over the years. This one incident alone is terribly complex and messy, not to mention the whole conflict that ensued. Both sides were guilty of greed and hatred and more.

The four natives fled 40 miles south to their village in the Minnesota River and reported what they had done. One chief consulted with others. They knew the white man would take retributive action. Some saw an opportunity and wanted the Dakota to strike first. Others wanted peace and knew defeat would be inevitable. The Dakota were split.

38 to the Scaffold

The war party prevailed, and Little Crow was the name of the chief they selected as their leader, even though he initially did not want to war against the whites. The Dakota struck first and took the early advantage — killing an estimated 600 settlers, traders, and soldiers in all — but soon the tide turned. Even with many Minnesota settlers away fighting the Civil War, the Dakota were no match for the numbers and technology of the U.S. Army. The Dakota would be driven from their land, some to what is now South Dakota, others to Nebraska, others still to Canada. Some 1,600 would be marched 150 miles in horrible conditions, a veritable trail of tears, to Fort Snelling, for a winter internment.

The army tried and condemned to death over 300 Dakota warriors. But an Episcopal bishop named Henry Whipple went to Washington and petitioned Lincoln on behalf of the Dakota. Lincoln gave his ear, and two White House lawyers reviewed the trial transcripts. Lincoln exonerated all but the 39 deemed most malicious. One was pardoned at the last minute, and the final count came to 38.

On the day after Christmas, 1862, the convicted Dakota warriors

walked from a makeshift jail to a scaffold in the center of Mankato. They sang death songs on the way. . . . As their heads were covered, the men reached out to take each other’s hand. The floor dropped from beneath them all at once. Hundreds of people . . . watched them fall to their deaths. (Annette Atkins, Creating Minnesota, page 56)

Awakened to an Ugly Past

I’ve lived in Minnesota now for nearly a decade. Granted, I didn’t grow up here — I learned South Carolina’s history in middle school, not Minnesota’s — but it wasn’t until this past August, at the anniversary of the Acton incident, that I’d heard anything about the U.S.-Dakota War and how much the Minnesota of today is shaped by that conflict. (Thanks in large part to the excellent articles by StarTribune reporter Curt Brown that now appear in the ebook exclusive In the Footsteps of Little Crow; also the November 23, 2012, episode of This American Life told of this “Little War on the Prairie.”)

It’s been a convenient thing for Minnesotans to forget, especially when trying to lure more settlers to the new state in the late nineteenth century. “This is a history that was rarely taught in Minnesota schools, and didn’t even start appearing regularly in school history books until the 1990s,” says StarTribune editor Nancy Barnes in the foreword to Brown’s book. “Yet, one cannot understand how Minnesota and the Dakota states were settled without understanding what happened here in 1862.”

The Uglier Sin Gets

The more digging I did, the uglier it got. In trying to give a fair read to both the old prevailing histories (that tell the settlers’ side of the story) and the new versions (that are particularly sympathetic to the Dakota), I found both accounts to be lacking. Like so much of world history, there is simply too much sin to make it simple.

“This is a story of very complex people on all sides,” says Kate Perry, the assistant managing editor for Brown’s project (quoted by Barnes in the foreword). “There are few simple heroes or villains. Breathtaking atrocities and cruelty were done by the U.S. Army, local leaders, the Dakota, and the settlers. . . . whether it was the Dakota slaughtering settler families or the settlers exacting horrific revenge on Dakota families.”

The more accounts I read, the more the picture points not to settler justification or Dakota victimization, or vice versa, but profound human depravity. I ache for the Dakota who were deceived and taken advantage of and unjustly lost their lives and land, and I ache for the settlers who were unrighteously attacked and tortured and raped and killed. Dig 150 years below the surface of Minnesota Nice and there’s the muck and stench of deep human wickedness, white and native.

A Reminder from the Ruin

It is a sobering thought that the land today on which we have the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is less than a mile from where 1,600 Dakota were concentrated in a camp at Fort Snelling during the winter of 1862–1863 following the war.

It’s strange to remember that Target Field and the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul and our land of 10,000 lakes once, not very long ago, had no European settlers or their descendants. Even today, tensions between the natives and the rest of us johnny-come-latelies is pronounced at times.

Here on the 150th anniversary of the Dakota hangings, one lesson, among many, for the Christian is how easy it can be to idealize the past and downplay the sins of our ancestors. Perhaps even especially we Christians are prone to have a woe-is-our-day nostalgia about the past that sentimentalizes our reformers or puritans, or the 1950s, and presumes things were much more golden in days gone by.

But when we start digging beneath the surface — if we read enough that’s honest enough to get some dirt underneath our fingernails — we find again and again how fallen they were “back then.,” We see how much world histories turn on one act of unrighteousness after another. We see how deep human depravity runs, and how profound is our need for a Savior from the outside. The human race, with all its nations, cannot produce the Help we need.

Red and Yellow, Black and White

It is not only our human dignity that levels the ground between peoples, but also our depravity. Here is how John Piper puts it in a sermon called “The Reformed Faith and Racial Harmony.”

Most often Christians celebrate the great positive common denominator among races, namely, that we are all created equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9). That is true and powerful and relevant. But there is a problem if we treat that doctrine in isolation. . . . What is desperately needed is another conviction — no less strong, but shattering to pride — namely, the conviction that all human beings, including me, are corrupt, depraved, guilty, condemned, and under the just sentence of hell where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth: red and yellow, black and white.

Whatever racial sins and civic unrighteousnesses formed the city or state or nation in which we live, we all share one final recourse, and only one true hope: a Jewish carpenter, with no place to lay his head, treated more unjustly than any settler or native. The Lord of the universe made himself a slave that we might one day emerge with him from the muck and mire of this depraved first creation. This is why Christmas is so precious, and why there is hope even for the day after.

Recent from David Mathis:

God with us and God for us

When we talk about the Incarnation, we are claiming two things to be true: 1) Jesus is truly God, and 2) Jesus is fully human.

Around Christmas, we say some amazing things about infant Jesus. Scriptures call baby Jesus Immanuel (God with us) and the Savior.

Christmas is all about God becoming human—the Incarnation. When we talk about the Incarnation, we are claiming two things to be true: 1) Jesus is truly God, and 2) Jesus is fully human. These two truths are absolutely essential to salvation, because only God can save, and as the early church theologian Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” In other words, for Christianity to work, Christians need to be able to talk about Jesus as human and Jesus as divine. As fully human and fully divine, Jesus is God with us and for us.

God with us

Immanuel, God with us, shows us that Jesus came to show his loves for us and to comfort us. A major theme of the Bible is God coming to live among his people: “I will live among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people” (Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:21).

Jesus is the fulfillment of this hope, because he is both fully human and fully God. As John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1–5). And we see in Colossians that, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9, NIV).

But what is happening in the Incarnation is more than metaphysics—it is love.

God for us

Jesus is the Savior who saves us from our sins. The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of “Joshua,” which means “the Lord saves” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus saves us by becoming our substitute. In his teaching, his ministry, his perfect sinless life, his death, and his resurrection, he showed that God is not only with us, but he is for us.

The greatest act Jesus did for us was his sacrificial death on our behalf. As Robert Capon writes, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.” John calls him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:14–15, 18; NIV).

Colossians 2:13–14 tells us that when we were dead in our sins, God made us alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

The Incarnation reveals God’s love, comforts us in this life, and redeems us from our sins. One historic prayer blends all these together:

You gave Jesus Christ, your only Son, to be born for us; who, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother; so that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin, and receive power to become your children.



This is the final post from Justin's series on Advent.
Read the full series here. 

Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come

Andrew Peterson, from Behold the Lamb of God:

Merry Christmas

It is a stay-at-home kind of Christmas this year. I always find it fun to run back through the blog posts from December 25ths of the past to see where my family was and what we were doing that day. Some years we head down to Chattanooga to join my parents and siblings, while other years we stay here in Toronto and meet up with my in-laws. This year we are right here at home.

The kids were pounding down the door at 7 this morning, ready to begin the day by raiding their stockings. As soon as a friend joined us (after coming off night shift) we had breakfast together and opened gifts. It has been a nice, leisurely morning, mostly dedicated to putting together the toys and other things the kids received. We’ll take it easy for another hour or two, and then get into the turkey routine. 

Of all the Christmases of my life so far, I think this is the one where I’ve focused most on the beauty and the wonder of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christmas has always been about family and gifts and other things that are objectively good and in of themselves. But this year I wanted to focus my thoughts on what it means that the eternal Son of God became a man and was born into this world. A month’s worth of thought and reflection was hardly enough to scratch the surface of something so amazing, but even then it was pure joy to consider what it means and to allow it to resound in my heart.

This song by Sojourn has been dear to me.

The glory of God has come to the earth,
The glory of God in our Savior’s birth,
Join with the angels to sing and proclaim
Glory to His name

Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us
Emmanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us now.

Eternity’s likeness has come into time,
A light in the darkness, now hope is alive,
Down from the heavens on this holy night,
Our God in a manger, our God as a child.

Whether you are at home or away, whether you are spending the day with family or pondering the incarnation (or both!) I wish you a merry Christmas.

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