MANKATO — In late November 1862, about 300 Dakota men condemned to death huddled against brutal cold and snow in a makeshift prison in Sibley Park.
They burned their straw bedding and boards from the walls, awaiting word from their Great Father in Washington — President Lincoln — on whether their lives would be spared.
The soldiers at Camp Lincoln were in tents lacking stoves or adequate blankets, guarding not only their prisoners but hearing disquieting reports that area residents and even militia officers were planning a mob lynching.
The prisoners had arrived in the camp after a month of speedy trials held on the western prairies.
On Sept. 28, 1862, just two days after the Dakota surrendered, Col. Sibley appointed a five-member military commission to “try summarily” Dakota and mixed-bloods for “murder and other outrages” committed against Americans.
The trials to follow were increasingly speedy, according to John Isch, a New Ulm historian who recently released the book “The Dakota Trials,” in which Isch transcribed and reprinted every trial transcript.
“What struck me was the variation in the trials themselves. The first trial transcripts went for seven or eight pages, the defendant testified, there were witnesses who testified,” Isch said.
As the trials progressed, they became much shorter. That’s because the military commission would convict any Dakota who admitted he was involved in a battle.
“The transcripts just said, the defendant said he was at New Ulm and he shot a gun. That was all that was needed,” Isch said.
While the trials would never hold up by today’s standards, Isch said he was surprised they were even held.
“As I looked back over the settlers from Europe and how they treated the Native Americans, the history had been that if you come upon Indians who did something wrong you slaughtered them,” Isch said. “What surprised me is that they held trials at all. Sibley did set up a trial, however ill-functioning, and said we’re going to try them and take them to Mankato and see what Lincoln decides.”