Pardon sought for Dakota warrior hanged in Mankato

Artist W. H. Childs' portrayal of the public execution of 38 Dakota Indians at Mankato in 1862. They were found guilty for their actions during the Dakota Conflict.
Library of Congress

Nearly a century and a half later, the sense of injustice that led to the U.S.-Dakota War is still fresh in the voice of Sheldon Wolfchild.

The former Lower Sioux Tribal chair says his ancestors went to battle as a last resort.

"We just didn't have a war to go to war for nothing," he said.

Wolfchild said the Dakota had suffered a long list of abuses at the hands of the federal government. "They were being starved and cheated for years," he said. "How much can one people take?".

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The U.S.-Dakota War was a brief, bloody affair. It started in August 1862 in Wolfchild's home area, the Lower Sioux Reservation near Morton on the Minnesota River in the southwest part of the state.

When it ended, hundreds of settlers, Indians and soldiers were dead. The victorious soldiers and settlers called for revenge. Military leaders imprisoned almost 400 Dakota fighters.

Some were accused of killing civilians, some of rape, but for many the charge was that they shot at soldiers.

A military commission convicted most of the Indians. But University of Oklahoma Historian Gary Clayton Anderson said the so-called trials fell far short of the accepted judicial standards of the day. He said the Dakota were convicted on hearsay evidence, in individual trials that lasted little more than five minutes.

"It was a travesty, an absolute travesty," Anderson said.

Among the men sentenced to hang was a warrior named Chaska, who had kept a white woman prisoner during the war.

Lincoln's execution order
The text of President Abraham Lincoln's letter reads: "Ordered that of the Indians and Half-breeds sentenced to be hanged by the military commission, composed of Colonel Crooks, Lt. Colonel Marshall, Captain Grant, Captain Bailey, and Lieutenant Olin, and lately sitting in Minnesota, you cause to be executed on Friday the nineteenth day of December, instant, the following names, to wit [39 names listed by case number of record]. The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape, nor are subjected to any unlawful violence. Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States"
Minnesota Historical Society

With some 300 sentenced to death there was a public outcry. Many religious leaders, including Minnesota Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple, protested the executions to President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln reviewed each case and reduced the number sentenced to die to 38. Chaska was among those Lincoln spared and was sentenced instead to a prison term.

But Anderson said when it came time to carry out the executions, Chaska still was sent to the gallows.

"The one Chaska who was executed was the wrong Chaska," Anderson said.

The most likely reason for the mistaken execution was a name mix-up, he said. Chaska was a common Dakota name meaning 'first born' and there were at least five Chaskas imprisoned.

Richard Milda
Richard Milda carries the family staff of Chief Little Crow.
MPR photo/Marc Sanchez

Anderson said when the condemned were called forward by name the prisoners did not know they were headed for the gallows.

"Apparently, the officer just read off the name Chaska. And the nearest Chaska got up and said, 'Here I am,'" Andrson said. "And he was grabbed and carried off."

There is a second theory though, involving the woman Chaska held prisoner, Sarah Wakefield. After she was released, rumors circulated that she and Chaska had become lovers.

Wakefield denied those allegations in a book published a year after the war. She also accused the soldiers of believing the rumors and executing Chaska to punish him. But she wrote that Chaska had actually protected her during the conflict.

"It has caused me to feel very unkindly towards my own people, particularly those in command at Mankato. There has been all kinds of reports in circulation respecting Chaska and I, but I care not for them. I know I did what was right, that my feelings were only those of gratitude towards my preserver. ... I loved not the man, but his kindly acts," Wakefield wrote.

As the hangings approach their 150th anniversary, some Dakota leaders and supporters want a federal pardon for Chaska. Sen. Al Franken has said he will study the issue. But Dakota leader Sheldon Wolfchild says pardoning Chaska alone would be another injustice.

"I think all 38 plus two should be pardoned," Wolfchild said.

The "plus two" stands for Little Six and Medicine Bottle, Wolfchild's great-great-grandfather. Both were executed in 1865 for their participation in the war.

Wolfchild said if the federal government had honored their treaties, the war would not have taken place, and his ancestors would not have been hanged.