The tension had been building for decades, and the outcome was largely inevitable. The result was the largest mass execution in United States history, yet few Americans are even aware of the Sioux War of 1862.

At 10 a.m. on the 26th day of December in 1862, some 38 Sioux prisoners were led to a scaffold in Mankato, Minnesota, that had been specially constructed for their execution. An estimated 4,000 spectators crammed the streets and surrounding land to extract a grim measure of revenge. Colonel Stephen Miller, who was charged with keeping the peace in the days leading up to the public hangings, had declared martial law in the region and banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within a 10-mile radius of the town.

As they took their assigned places on the scaffold, and white cloth coverings were pulled over their heads, the men sang a Sioux song. Drumbeats signaled the start of the execution, and the prisoners grasped each other’s hands. With a single blow from an ax, the rope that held the platform was cut. After dangling from the scaffold for half an hour, the 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 had been dug up and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.

It was a dark moment in American history

Photo: Blue Earth County Historical Society

Conflict fueled by starvation

The origins of the Sioux Uprising could be traced to a series of treaties the Sioux had signed in the 1850, collectively ceding nearly 24 million acres of prime agricultural land, which was legally opened to white settlers three years later. The treaties left the 7,000 Sioux confined to two reservations hugging the Minnesota River, each 20 miles wide and 70 miles long. As was customary, the federal government established administrative agencies on each reservation and white merchants opened stores where the Natives could spend their annuity money or trade furs for food and other goods.

By 1857, white settlers began pressuring the government to open the Sioux Territory for settlement. In the spring of 1858, a Sioux delegation led by Sioux Chief Little Crow and Sioux agent Joseph R. Brown traveled to Washington to negotiate a new series of treaties. The treaties of 1858 further reduced the Sioux reservations, ceding the strip that was north of the Minnesota River for an amount to be determined by the U.S. Senate. It would take two more years for the senators to decide on payment of just 30 cents per acre, a laughable figure that was well below the going rate at the time for such prime real estate. With the stroke of a pen, the Sioux had lost almost a million more acres of their homeland. 

Over the next few years the conflict between white traders and Natives escalated as unscrupulous traders received the annuity payments directly from the government and devised ways to pocket the money while forcing the Natives into debt. When wild game became scarce, the Sioux in the north became increasingly dependent on white men for food and other necessities. The traders’ greed was doubly resented, since virtually all of them had married Sioux women. 

A delay in annuity payments, caused by the worsening war between the Union and the Confederacy, sparked the Sioux War of 1862. Hungry Sioux men, desperate for food, broke into a government storehouse at Upper Agency to take flour and other items. Little Crow asked that the Sioux be given the food that was rightfully theirs. They were starving, he warned, adding, “When men are hungry, they help themselves.” Andrew J. Myrick, one of the leading traders, discounted the warning.

“So far as I am concerned if they are hungry they can eat grass.”

That same day, four young Sioux men were returning from an unsuccessful hunt when they stole some eggs from a white settlement. The youths soon found themselves in a confrontation with the hen’s owner, and the encounter turned tragic as the Sioux killed five members of the settler family. Sensing that they would be attacked, Sioux leaders determined that war was at hand and seized the initiative. 

An unimaginable tragedy

Led by Little Crow, the Sioux attacked the Redwood Agency, killing more than 40 civilians and soldiers. Among the dead was Myrick, whose body was found with grass stuffed in its mouth.

Throughout the next two weeks, bands of Sioux swept through the countryside, burning farmsteads, slaying men and seizing scores of women and children. An estimated 650 Sioux attacked the village of New Ulm. Although most of the town’s buildings were destroyed, the Sioux were driven back. By month’s end, much of the white population of Southern Minnesota had fled.

Image: Minnesota Historical Society

After making a plea to President Abraham Lincoln for help, Minnesota’s Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley to raise a volunteer force to defend the settlers. Sibley’s ill-armed and ill-equipped 1,400-man army advanced up the Minnesota River valley, eventually meeting Little Crow’s warriors at Wood Lake on September 23. The engagement amounted to a standoff, but it also ended the uprising. 

While Little Crow and other Sioux fled west, the soldiers herded about 2,000 Natives into custody. Sibley established a military commission to hold trials as the white community exercised its thirst for revenge. The trials of the 393 accused Sioux warriors made a mockery of justice with many lasting five minutes or less. 321 men were convicted, with 307 sentenced to death. Upon reviewing records of the proceedings, President Lincoln listened to pleas of clemency and eventually approved the executions of 38 Sioux who had been convicted of either rape or murder. 

Although casualty figures conflict, it appears that 71 Sioux (including those who were executed) lost their lives as a result of the uprising, along with 77 soldiers and more than 800 civilians. It was a tragedy with unimaginable consequences. Soon after, the federal government nullified the treaties, ordered the Sioux’s banishment from Minnesota, increased the bounty on their scalps, and conducted military campaigns against the Natives for three more years. 

Writing years later in a journal, one white survivor of the Sioux Uprising stated this:

“For had the Indians been treated as agreed, honest and upright, this bloody day in Minnesota’s history would have been avoided.”