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Largest Government-Sanctioned Execution in U.S. History

September 23, 2021

Earlier this year I was totally captured by William Kent Kreuger’s book This Tender Land. I stumbled onto it while searching for a new read, and wound up ordering a couple copies for friends once I had finished it. And after placing the Kleenex box off to the side. The book was a most exquisite read.

The book starts at the Lincoln Indian Training School, which can only be described as a pitiless place where Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. One of the boys, Muse who is of Sioux heritage and mute, will join with three other children and run away from the facility.

While I had a rough idea of the events which played out with the Indian Wars in the 1860s I was not aware that because of the conflicts in Minnesota the end result would be the largest government-sanctioned execution in U.S. history.

Thirty-eight Dakota will be hanged on December 26, 1862. The knowledge of this leaves a deep soul-searching journey for the boy in Kreuger’s book.

The enormity of that one line about the executions left me searching for a far-better historical understanding of the events that led up to Chief Little Crow and the Dakota pushed to the limits of their futile attempts to have the federal government abide by treaty obligations. From there to the atrocities in Southeastern Minnesota which leads to the gallows.

That is when I landed upon Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses. The epic-sized account (but contained within 400 pages) allows for a background of the treaties along with the broad lay of the land with cliffs and flatlands well painted in the mind of the readers.

Berg provides well-rounded views of the various players, among them, Governor Alexander Ramsey who likes to embellish events for the readers back East, General John Pope who any Civil War reader knows to be a dunce on horseback and furthers that incompetency in the nation’s 32nd state, and President Lincoln’s personal secretary John Nicolay who travels by train to the region to marshal the facts which will be required back in the White House. Berg even provides the title of the book Nicolay is immersed in as he rides the rails. (History of Minnesota by Edward Neill.)

It also needs to be noted Berg includes portions of the letters back-and-forth between the famed White House duo, as John Hay gives his colorful commentary from the White House back to Nicolay. Those who enjoy the flavor of the Lincoln White House will find reasons to enjoy this book.

Cherokee Chief John Ross

The book also includes Cherokee Chief John Ross in the the pages. Many who read history know him from the  from the “Trail Of Tears”.  I am most proud of being the first cousin, 6 times removed, from Chief John Ross.  He was also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), and was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828–1866.

Chief Little Crow

The main character is, of course, Little Crow who, as the opening pages show, agreed to move his Dakota band to a reservation near the Minnesota River in exchange for government promises of food and cash annuities to the tribe. The brutal winter of 1861, along with a devastating growing season, and delayed federal payments resulted in a predictable response.

Religion plays a role in the book, too, with Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple working to forge the idea in Washington for a new federal relationship with Indian tribes based on professional qualifications as opposed to political patronage. There are also the attempts by men of the cloth to compartmentalize the abuse of slaves in the South, while the Civil War plays out, with the racism running wild on the Minnesota prairies and in the Big Woods.

The most horrific part of the book is the ‘legal process’ that plays out for the roughly 300 Dakota who are rounded up and face trials. Language difficulties, lack of a lawyer and due representation, inability to refute the evidence, and in some cases having rushed trials where 4 or 5 Indians were all convicted at once provides a sampling of why no one can read the book and not simmer.

There is also the legal difference playing out of combatants in a military setting firing shots as opposed to violent actions outside of the war theatre. All that is obliterated by the absurd judicial system that adds to the dark stain that runs down the pages of this book.

President Lincoln is the calm arbiter of the law and moral reasoning as he spares the vast majority from death. But his hand is, nonetheless, involved in the hangings which occur the day after Christmas 1862.

To say I was mesmerized and totally taken in by the events and the manner in which Berg shapes his narrative would be a severe understatement. When I found myself with this book in hand at 2:30 A.M. I knew the author had succeeded in his mission.

If you think you know part of the story of this chapter of American history, as I did upon opening to page one, let me assure you there is so much more to learn.

And so it goes.

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