On this day in Minnesota, more than 300 Santee Sioux are found guilty of raping and murdering Anglo settlers and are sentenced to hang. A month later, President Abraham Lincoln commuted all but 39 of the death sentences. One of the Indians was granted a last-minute reprieve, but the other 38 were hanged simultaneously on December 26 in a bizarre mass execution witnessed by a large crowd of approving Minnesotans.
The Santee Sioux were found guilty of joining in the so-called “Minnesota Uprising,” which was actually part of the wider Indian wars that plagued the West during the second half of the nineteenth century. For nearly half a century, Anglo settlers invaded the Santee Sioux territory in the beautiful Minnesota Valley, and government pressure gradually forced the Indians to relocate to smaller reservations along the Minnesota River.
At the reservations, the Santee were badly mistreated by corrupt federal Indian agents and contractors; during July 1862, the agents pushed the Indians to the brink of starvation by refusing to distribute stores of food because they had not yet received their customary kickback payments. The contractors callously ignored the Santee’s pleas for help.
Outraged and at the limits of their endurance, the Santee finally struck back, killing Anglo settlers and taking women as hostages. The initial efforts of the U.S. Army to stop the Santee warriors failed, and in a battle at Birch Coulee, Santee Sioux killed 13 American soldiers and wounded another 47 soldiers. However, on September 23, a force under the leadership of General Henry H. Sibley finally defeated the main body of Santee warriors at Wood Lake, recovering many of the hostages and forcing most of the Indians to surrender. The subsequent trials of the prisoners gave little attention to the injustices the Indians had suffered on the reservations and largely catered to the popular desire for revenge. However, President Lincoln’s commutation of the majority of the death sentences clearly reflected his understanding that the Minnesota Uprising had been rooted in a long history of Anglo abuse of the Santee Sioux.