We spent the day in Mankato, MN, the location of the largest mass execution in U.S. history, to meet with author, artist, poet and Ph.D, Dr. Gwen Westerman, a descendant of the Dakota people. We learned about Gwen while listening to a wonderful podcast episode from the “Seeing White” series by Scene On Radio. If you are looking for a good podcast, we highly recommend this series.
Gwen and her husband Glenn graciously gave us eight hours of their day sharing history, stories and generations of wisdom. The name “Minnesota” is derived from the Dakota phrase “Mni Sota Makoce,” meaning the land where the waters reflect the clouds. Minnesota is a beautiful state and the Dakota are a beautiful people.
One of the most heartbreaking parts to our day was to stand on the site of that mass execution which came at the end of the US-Dakota War of 1862. There is a memorial to the 38 Dakota in Mankato today as seen in the below picture. There were indeed atrocities on both sides, but it is important to understand the events that led up to the violence. As was often the case with the United States government’s dealings with Native Americans, the government failed to meet its treaty obligations with the Dakota people. With many Dakota facing starvation and growing frustrated, a group of Dakota warriors raided an American settlement, killing five settlers. Many believe that this was the beginning of the war that took the lives of nearly 500 settlers and 150 Dakota. I disagree. The violence began long before this day. This is the truth we don’t like to discuss because it makes America look bad.
A sobering account from the Minnesota Historical Society describes the day:
At 10:00 am on December 26, 38 Dakota prisoners were led to a scaffold specially constructed for their execution. One had been given a reprieve at the last minute. An estimated 4,000 spectators crammed the streets of Mankato and surrounding land. Col. Stephen Miller, charged with keeping the peace in the days leading up to the hangings, had declared martial law and had banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within a ten-mile radius of the town.
As the men took their assigned places on the scaffold, they sang a Dakota song as white muslin coverings were pulled over their faces. Drumbeats signalled the start of the execution. The men grasped each others’ hands. With a single blow from an ax, the rope that held the platform was cut. Capt. William Duley, who had lost several members of his family in the attack on the Lake Shetek settlement, cut the rope.
After dangling from the scaffold for a half hour, the men’s bodies were cut down and hauled to a shallow mass grave on a sandbar between Mankato’s main street and the Minnesota River. Before morning, most of the bodies had been dug up and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.