Abraham Lincoln’s Dakota Legacy, Part One

Nov 28th, 2013 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn


On November 19, 2013, America marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Many media outlets celebrated the speech that forever changed American political prose and oratory. Yet it’s just one of Lincoln’s accomplishments: we also rightfully celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and his signing of legislation creating land grant colleges. We’ll soon mark anniversaries of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery, the Civil War’s peace settlement, and Lincoln’s tragic assassination. Amongst all of the fanfare surrounding the man many Americans and most historians consider to be the greatest U.S. president, the public has all but forgotten that Lincoln also handwrote an execution order that sent 38 Dakota tribal members to the gallows—the largest mass execution in American history. Like most tragic figures, Lincoln’s flaws are often ignored by those who prefer to romanticize his triumphs, but those of us who work for tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) owe it to our students to reflect upon the repercussions of Lincoln’s Dakota decision.

The conflict now known as the Dakota War of 1862 occurred after years of mistreatment of the 6,000 Eastern Sioux who consented to treaties that reduced their once vast land base to a 20 × 140–mile parcel in Minnesota. The new boundaries didn’t allow the Dakotas to engage in their traditional hunting and gathering practices, forcing them to depend on treaty payments that were often delayed or only given to tribal members who assimilated and embraced farming. Unable to leave their reservation in search of food, many starved, which prompted settler Andrew Myrick to infamously state, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” Tensions reached their apex when four young Dakota hunters clashed with a settler and his family. The young men claimed they acted in self-defense, but the upshot was that five settlers were killed in the skirmish. The young men fled to Chief Little Crow—who would ultimately lead his people into battle against the revenge-hungry settlers—for guidance.

The war lasted just over a month during the fall of 1862. By the time it concluded, at least 350 settlers and a smaller number of Dakotas had been killed. Many remember that the non-empathetic Myrick was found dead with a mouthful of grass, but there were no heroes in this war. Both sides tortured, raped, eviscerated, and even slaughtered children and the unborn. No non-Natives were charged for their crimes, but 392 Dakotas were brought before a court martial that heard the cases in 15 minutes or less. Often the same witnesses attested to the alleged offenses. In the end, 303 Dakotas were sentenced to be hanged. Just a few months prior, Congress had ordered that “the judgment of every court martial shall be authenticated by the signature of the President.” Lincoln exercised his authority and ordered that no executions occur without his sanction.

The President asked his staff to review the trial transcripts for evidence of guilt, as the decision of whether or not to execute weighed on him. Although he was distracted by the Civil War, Lincoln knew that a lynch mob might try to carry out all of the executions if he was too lenient. However, he never divulged his thoughts on the matter beyond stating that he was “anxious not to act with so much clemency to encourage another outbreak…nor with so much severity to be cruel.” On December 6, he handwrote the death sentence for 39 Dakotas, one later reprieved, and 20 days later the executioner’s noose snuffed out the lives of 38 warriors.

Lincoln’s decision to pardon some and execute others was never popular. His modern sympathizers point to Minnesota newspaper editorials that “warned” the President against clemency of any kind, stating that their “vengeance can only be satiated by the blood of their destroyers” and that the Civil War would “pale in the presence of the intensity of the war against the savages.” Sympathizers also cite Lincoln’s compassion in pardoning so many Indians despite the fact that Lincoln’s grandfather had been killed in 1786 by warriors from an Ohio Valley tribe.

Lincoln’s reputation as a man who symbolizes American racial equality isn’t universally warranted. Just as both his proclamation ending slavery and his instruction for General Ulysses S. Grant to “let (the rebels) up easy” after the Civil War impacted many lives, we need to remind our students that Lincoln’s judgment of the Dakota people also impacted generations to come. Lincoln set a precedent that the United States would condone the execution of “hostile” Indians while simultaneously ignoring the atrocities non-Natives inflicted upon America’s Indigenous people. The repercussions of Lincoln’s decision can be seen in the way America responded to the Sand Creek Massacre, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Wounded Knee Massacre, and countless other conflicts.

The reason TCU faculty should remind students of Lincoln’s decision and the trauma it caused is because they deserve an education that teaches the whole story. American Indians are still living with the burdens of Lincoln and his successors’ Indian policy. As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The reality is that wounds fester until they’re cauterized. The twenty-first century Dakota people can’t change the injustices their ancestors endured over a century and a half ago, but they can find ways to cope with the past when the whole story is told.

Millions of Americans will remember the triumphs of Abraham Lincoln throughout this and each forthcoming year, but we at TCUs can help ensure that more people take the time to reflect upon the repercussion of the mass execution that he sanctioned.

Ryan Winn teaches English, Theater, and Communications at College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI), where he also serves as the Humanities Department Chair. In the past eight years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 12 plays for CMN, coached their AIHEC speech team, and has been recognized as an American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year. He is currently serving as the Acting Editor of the Oneida Nation Arts Program’s literary journal, Yukhika-latuhse. Additionally he writes “The Writer’s Corner” column, published at tribalcollegejournal.org.


Berg, S.W. (2012). 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the beginning of the frontier’s end. New York: Pantheon.

Friedersdorf, C. (2013, November 19). “The Gettysburg Address at 150–and Lincoln’s impromptu words the night before.” The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/11/the-gettysburg-address-at-150-and-lincolns-impromptu-words-the-night-before/281606/

Hirsch, M. (2008). “A multitude of cares: Abraham Lincoln and the Dakota Uprising of 1862.” National Museum of the American Indian 9(4).

Merry, R.W. (2013). Where they stand: The American presidents in the eyes of the voters and historians. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Swanson, J.L. (2010). Bloody times: The funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the chase for Jefferson. New York: William Morrow.

Westerman, G. (2012). Mni Sota Makoce. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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