By Rick Lybeck
— The Dec. 26 edition of The Free Press offered a few surprises for readers cognizant that the day marked the 150th anniversary of the mass hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato.
First up was “Call to Duty,” a story recounting the “incredible valor” of the men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, best known for their fighting at Gettysburg in the summer of 1863. Next up, “There was a mystique to the Minnesota men,” a story about a new book compiled by an “enthralled” Civil War re-enactor.
Then came an Our View column, the only piece acknowledging the importance of the day, but not without dropping a joke aligned with the edition’s colonial perspective: “The Dakota will come on their horses today and the whites maybe in their SUVs.”
I’ve written before that “Time and again, the Free Press re-establishes itself as a frontier newspaper” (1). It certainly delivered on Dec. 26.
Indulging in white hero worship and wisecracking about a Dakota lack of modernity on the day the new monument was being dedicated makes perfect sense considering what the paper anticipated printing on the 27th — images of Dakota people and quotes from them recounting past injustices. Such reporting apparently still makes whites uneasy.
Without the balance of a settler-oriented edition, some of them might even accuse The Free Press of bias. As with the textbook authors above, their journalists had to do something “to comfort descendants of the ‘settlers.’”
Bryce Stenzel’s My View column printed that same day demonstrates the beating history takes when representation gets trapped in this competitive, binary mode of thinking. Complaining that the “historical pendulum has completely shifted in favor of the Dakota side,” Stenzel laments the disappearance of the old hanging monument, a teaching tool that, in his view, was never properly understood by those who criticized it.
Attempting to account for early criticism of the monument, Stenzel cites Judge Lorin Cray, a Civil War veteran who proclaimed at the 1912 dedication ceremony that the intent was not to flaunt the fact that “we hanged the Indians,” but to hand down “the history to the generations to come in a correct manner.”
At this point, Stenzel, himself a reenactment enthusiast, takes Cray’s word for it before proceeding to tell the history of the marker, leading to the conclusion that “SIOUX” reflected politically correct language for 1912.
Because history, or perhaps more pointedly, Civil War veterans must be revered, Stenzel cannot give the full story of what Cray said at the dedication ceremony. He leaves out Cray’s quip that the marker was being erected to satisfy the curiosity of visitors to Mankato who would “want to know where the Injuns were hung” (2).
This remark was far from politically correct in 1912, but it was wholly in line with white-supremacist eyewitness testimonies of the hanging told by old soldiers to Cray and James Baker as they worked to determine where exactly the gallows pole once stood (3).
Cray’s slur says a great deal about a political divide that had occurred within the white community by 1912, a divide Stenzel alludes to but fails to explain. What of this divide? Why did some people not like the monument when it went up? Did it have to do with the term “SIOUX”? The fact that the marker didn’t identify who hanged the Dakota? Its big boastful number “38”? The date at the bottom signifying the second day of Christmas?
Maybe for some, but the larger issue had to do with the word “HANGED.” In the same year Cray and Baker carried out their hearing (1911), the death penalty was abolished in Minnesota, largely because of a number of botched hangings that had turned public sentiment (4).
The mass hanging in Mankato that saw a Dakota man hanged twice and a noose tightened ten minutes after the floor had dropped has to be counted among them (5). Because hangings often went this way, the Mankato execution was referred to by prominent whites as “an atrocious crime” and “legalized butchery” as early as the 1920s (6). The erection of the monument itself was even called out as a “deed of savagery” (7).
White historiography based on hero worship and claims to truth and objectivity will always result in partial, sanitized histories. The descendants of settlers may feel better from reading them, but they won’t come away any better informed.
Rick Lybeck lives in Mankato and is a Ph.D. student in English Education at the University of Minnesota. His dissertation research focuses on the public pedagogy of the U.S.-Dakota War, 1862-2012.
1. Rick Lybeck, “Free Press should take stand on amendment,” Mankato Free Press, Oct. 21, 2012.
2. Ken Berg, “Great debate,” Mankato Free Press, Feb. 18, 1978.
3. “Located site of hanging Indians,” Mankato Record, Nov. 20, 1911; also “Tablet for the spot where Reds met fate,” Mankato Free Press, Nov. 24, 1911.
4. John Bessler, (2003). Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
5. The Execution of the Thirty-eight Sioux Indians at Mankato, Friday, Dec. 26, 1862,” The Minneapolis Sunday Times, Feb. 11, 1900.
6. “Marker at Hanging Site Draws Varied Comment,” Mankato Free Press, Nov. 27, 1937.