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Abraham Lincoln and the Dakota 38

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The recent pressure to remove Confederate statues has spilled over into monuments to other historical figures, most incredibly including Abraham Lincoln. As more and more of the country shifts “Columbus Day” to a more appropriate “Indigenous Peoples Day,” Lincoln has been targeted for his role in what is often referred to as “The Dakota 38.” Unfortunately, Lincoln’s role has been misunderstood and mischaracterized, which does poor service to the indigenous goal.

Dakota 38 refers to the 38 Dakota (sometimes called Sioux) Native Americans who were hanged in 1862 for crimes such as rape and murder in southwest Minnesota. The incident followed a short armed conflict in which several bands of Dakota rose up against repeated treaty violations during the 1850s that had led to increasing starvation and chronic hardship. Dakota fighters made extensive attacks on white settlers, resulting in an estimated 800 settler deaths. Hundreds of Dakota were captured by U.S. Army soldiers led by Major General John Pope. Military tribunals were held and 303 Dakota were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Mired in the ongoing Civil War and two weeks prior to issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln assigned Pope to go to Minnesota to end the violence. Lincoln was unaware of the specifics at the time and was only informed of the capture, trials, and sentences long after they had occurred when on November 10th he received a telegram from Pope. Realizing the gravity of the sentencing, Lincoln immediately responded to Pope:

Your despatch giving the names of three hundred Indians condemned to death, is received. Please forward, as soon as possible, the full and complete record of these convictions. And if the record does not indicate the more guilty and influential, of the culprits, please have a careful statement made on these points and forwarded to me. Please send all by mail. [Lincoln to Pope, November 10, 1862, Collected Works 5:493]

Once received, Lincoln spent several weeks reviewing the trial records. The results were surprising.


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