by Scott W. Berg
Traditional history textbooks label President Abraham Lincoln as one of the truly great heroes of the history of the United States. He has been labeled “The Great Emancipator” for his Emancipation Proclamation and for his effort in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that outlawed slavery.
Clearly Lincoln played an important role in the defeat of the Confederacy. At one time, there were powerful forces completely tied to the institution of chattel slavery. Lincoln played a leadership role in coordinating the immense effort required to remove slave owners from their positions of power in this country.
Most people are not aware of the fact that Lincoln also ordered the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. This was Lincoln’s order to execute 38 members of the Dakota nation. Scott W. Berg has done the research to give a comprehensive background to the events surrounding Lincoln’s order in his book 38 Nooses – Lincoln, Little Crow, and the beginning of the frontier’s end.
A long history of genocide
We might start the background to this story with the colonization of the Western Hemisphere by European powers. All European powers effectively stole the land from its original inhabitants. However, the British were a bit different in their method of colonization.
The French, Spanish, and Portuguese royalties subjugated the Native Americans, but had the idea of living with them in the same area. These policies resulted in the fact that today the nations of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia have populations whose ancestors are predominantly Native American.
The British, on the other hand, always had the goal of complete removal of the Native population from their colonies. The United States government continued the policies of the British, and today only a tiny percentage of the U.S. population is Native American.
Native Americans saw this trend and understood that the United States government would be even more aggressive in removing them from their homeland. This is why many Native American nations supported the British in the so-called American Revolution. The Cherokee were one of the minority of native nations that supported the revolution against the British.
Then, in 1830 the U.S. government adopted a law called the Indian Removal Act. This law meant that the government would attempt to relocate all Native Americans who lived east of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma. At that time, Oklahoma was called The Indian Territory. This law stated that Native Americans would own the land in The Indian Territory “forever.”
The Indian Removal Act violated a treaty the U.S. government signed with the Cherokee. The Supreme Court agreed that removing the Cherokee from their homeland would be a violation of the law. This did not stop the government from driving the Cherokee out of their homeland and forcing them on a march of hundreds of miles. Thousands of Cherokee died on this forced march infamously known as The Trail of Tears.
The violation of this treaty with the Cherokee was one of close to 400 treaties the United States government has admitted that it violated with the first nations of this part of the world.
Little Crow and the Dakota decide to go to war
Little Crow (Taoyateduta) was the leader of one of the Dakota nations who resided in what is today southern Minnesota. Little Crow had fought with the U.S. armed forces to subjugate the Sac and Fox people, who were traditional enemies of the Dakota. When Abraham Lincoln was a soldier in the armed forces, he also fought in the war against the Sac and Fox.
Little Crow had signed several treaties with the U.S. government that gave up millions of acres of land. These treaties allowed for the development of the Midwest of the United States.
Traditionally the Dakota lived off of the land in Southern Minnesota and did not need any assistance in order to survive. However, when they lost most of their homeland, they needed assistance from the government in order to have enough food to eat. The government agreed to give the Dakota an allowance that would enable them to have the resources to live. Little Crow agreed to the terms of this treaty.
However, those who were charged with supplying the Dakota with food preferred to use those resources for their own profit. The U.S. government did nothing to rectify this obvious corruption. Little Crow appealed to a trader by the name of Andrew Myrick with the following words:
“We have no food, but here are these stores filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving.”
Myrick responded that as far as he was concerned, the Indians could eat grass or their own sh--.
At this point we might consider that treaties are international agreements. When one party violates a treaty, this is an act of war. When the government refused to honor their treaty with the Dakota, it was the U.S. government that effectively went to war.
Little Crow and the Dakota had difficult decisions to make. They understood that they would eventually be defeated in a war against the United States. However, they also knew that their lands would eventually be taken away, or they would starve to death. They decided to go to war. They felt it would be better to die in battle than to wither away from starvation.
Andrew Myrick would be one of the first to die as a result of the Dakota war. In this war, the Dakota killed about 93 white soldiers and between 400 and 600 white civilians, while suffering only about a few dozen fatalities of their own.
One aspect to this story that Scott Berg did not mention was a military tactic used by both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War. Both these generals expropriated foodstuffs from farmers who were loyal to the Confederacy. Any farmer who resisted these expropriations, could be executed by union soldiers. This was, in essence, the same strategy that was used by Little Crow and the Dakota.
General Ulysses S. Grant, who engaged in similar tactics as Little Crow, became President of the United States. The U.S. government would have a completely different response to the actions of Little Crow and the Dakota.
The Civil War and the Dakota War
All of this happened in the midst of the Civil War. Washington received news of the Dakota war at the same time as they received the news of thousands of deaths at the battle of Antietam. The Union victory at Antietam convinced President Lincoln that he had the momentum to announce his Emancipation Proclamation.
After the United States Armed forces captured many of the Dakota, there were military trials. Clearly the U.S. government had no intention of giving the Dakota a trial of their peers. No, the same government that violated their treaty with the Dakota, sat in judgment in trials that had no intention of being in any way fair. Most of the Dakota did not speak English and only had a vague idea of what was happening in their trial. Many trials lasted only ten minutes. Under these circumstances military judges declared that 303 Dakota were to be executed.
During this time the military was charged with protecting the Dakota against lynch mobs in Minnesota. The military failed in this effort with respect to a Dakota infant that was snatched from its mother’s arms. This infant died of its injuries after it was thrown to the ground.
President Abraham Lincoln understood that according to the law these executions could only take place with his consent. Lincoln and his cabinet members looked at the cases of the 303 the military ordered to be executed. Lincoln declared that only 38 of these Dakota would be sent to the gallows. The executions by hanging of these 38 Dakota represent the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.
Lincoln argued that his execution orders were not motivated by the lynch mobs of Minnesota. Scott Berg disagreed with Lincoln on this point. He argued that Lincoln’s execution orders were at least in part motivated by his desire to win electoral votes in Minnesota in the upcoming presidential election.
Little Crow and many other Dakota avoided capture by the military. Unable to find
refuge in this country or Canada, Little Crow returned to Minnesota with his son. A farmer shot Little Crow while he was picking raspberries on land his people called home for centuries. He was scalped, and his scalp sold for twenty-five dollars, which was the going price for Native American scalps.
The Dakota who were not executed and held under U.S. military control were sent to a series of concentration camps. In these camps they would die of preventable diseases by the hundreds. Many other Native American nations also shared a similar fate.
Lessons for today
Today much has changed from the 19th century. Certainly we need to consider that the genocide against Native Americans has been a central part of the history of the United States. However, today we have the opportunity to mount a struggle that would not have been possible in the 19th century. Today, working people who are Black, Caucasian, Native American, Latino, as well as immigrant can unite in one common struggle. We can only succeed in liberating ourselves if we’re conscious of the turbulent road we all needed to take in order to live in the present reality.