On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota Sioux men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in what has been the largest single mass execution in United State history. Their crimes – which they may or may not have committed – were attacking the United States during the Dakota-US War in the summer of 1862.
Mankato acknowledges the executions with a downtown memorial. Reconciliation Park seeks to mend the issues that developed over the years following the mass executions. For me, it helps close a personal journey tracing my family’s Native history through Minnesota. Since mid-2015, I have traced my family’s roots through the Dakota-US War of 1862 to my ancestors’ imprisonment at Fort Snelling and the eventual forced relocation to northeast Nebraska at the Santee reservation.
Dakota-US War of 1862
The warriors’ stories began with late August battles in New Ulm, in southwest Minnesota. While a few white settlers were killed, the residents of New Ulm, founded about eight years earlier, held off their attackers. The battles allegedly started when a local official told starving Native Americans to eat grass or their animals’ dung.
Following the end of the short war – the last known battle between the Dakota (Santee Sioux) and the United States – more than 300 men were tried and sentenced to death, based on weak evidence. About 1,600 Dakotas, including my great-great grandparents and great-grandfather, were captured and imprisoned at Fort Snelling, near St. Paul.
President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences for all but 38 of the Dakota warriors in Mankato. Thousands of Minnesotans gathered the day after Christmas and watched as the 38 men were hanged from a specially-built scaffold. Their bodies dangled for about 30 minutes before they were cut down and moved to a mass grave near the Minnesota River.
Controversy over execution site
Controversy around Mankato’s recognition of the hangings, which included a monument marking the hangings, followed the city for years. Native Americans perceived the city was proud of the executions. Mankato built a public library on the site of the hangings. Local and state officials sought to resolve issues between Native Americans and locals. The“Winter Warrior” statue debuted in 1987 during the “Year of Reconciliation,” in an attempt to bridge the Native American and non-Native communities.
Ten years later, Reconciliation Park opened. Located across the street from the site of the hangings, Minnesota and tribal officials sought to acknowledge the impact of the hangings on the Dakota and mend issues between both sides. The park originally consisted on a large limestone white bison.
Memorial honors Dakota warriors
In 2012 – the 150th observance of the executions – a memorial listing the names of the men hanged, along with a poem by a Native American poet, was revealed at the park. It stands in a prominent spot. Seeing the traditional names of the executed listed on the memorial led me to consider their lives – before and after the war. What were they like before tribal leaders agreed to end hostilities and live on reservations near New Ulm? How did they spend their days when they could no longer hunt or serve their tribe on open land? What were their thoughts going into war? Afterward? What did they think in their final minutes?
In addition to the memorial, Mankato added a mural project along the floodwall that protects downtown from the Minnesota River. Mni Mural (Mni means water in the Dakota language) consists of several panels that feature nature along the river, created by several artists.
Reconciliation Park can never undo what happened. The 38 lives ended on that frigid December day. Whether they truly killed or harmed anyone may never be known. But, if the park allows Native Americans and others to have a sense of peace and fellowship, then it serves its purpose.
We recommend visiting the memorial when in Mankato. The city offers a self-guided tour of key Native American spots around the area.