This Day In History: 300 Santee Indians Are Sentenced to Die In Minnesotta (1862)

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On this day in 1862, a court in Minnesota sentences 300 Santee Sioux to death. The men were all sentenced to die for their role in a series of attacks on white settlers. In these attacks, many white Americans were brutally killed and many women raped. Some weeks later President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of over 250 men into life imprisonment. Later another Indian was pardoned at the last minute. However, the rest of those sentenced were later executed. They were executed after the denial of their last minute appeals and they were all hung simultaneously. The hangings as was the custom were carried out in public and witnessed by a group of cheering locals.

The men who were sentenced to death had all taken part in the ‘’Minnesota Uprising’. This revolt by the Indians was part of a series of wars that devastated much of the frontier during the nineteenth century. The prelude to the uprising was a massive influx of white settlers. The meant that the Santee Sioux were forced to leave the Minnesota Valley and eventually forced onto reservations.

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A postcard illustrating the mass executions of Santee Sioux

On the reservations, the Indians were brutally treated by federal agents and contractors. The Santee could not hunt and they began to run low on food and the contractors refused to supply them with food until they received some kickbacks. The Indians were starving and many died, especially children. The federal agents and the contractors ignored the situation and left the Indians to starve and die.

The Santee Sioux were desperate and they choose war rather than a slow and lingering death by starvation. The broke out of their reservation and they attacked local white settlements and killed the men and kidnapped the women and held them as hostages. The Americans sent a unit of the army to the area to suppress the rebellion but they were defeated at the Battle of Birch Coulee. The Federal government decided to withdraw some units from the war with the south and sent them to Minnesota.  At the Battle of Wood Lake, the army led by General Henry Sibley defeated the Indians and recovered many of their hostages.

The majority of the Indians surrendered. Many of the warriors were put on trial. At the trial, there was no attempt to explain why the Indians had revolted and what led them to massacre white settlers. The mood among the white settlers was ugly and they wanted revenge. President Lincoln a trained lawyer was more objective and he took a longer-term view of the situation. This convinced him that he should commute the majority of the Indians. The Minnesota Uprising took place during a difficult phase of the American Civil War and it came at one of Lincoln’s most difficult periods in office and yet still he could act in a magnanimous fashion.

The Santee Sioux Indians were later relocated to a reservation in Nebraska.

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