MANKATO — At 10 a.m. on the day after Christmas in 1862, 38 Dakota men were led out of a nearby prison to a scaffold specially constructed for their execution.
An estimated 4,000 spectators crammed the streets of Mankato. Col. Stephen Miller, charged with keeping the peace in the days leading up to the hangings, had declared martial law and had banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within a 10-mile radius of the town.
The scaffold itself was an engineering feat, designed with a single platform that would fall with the cutting of one rope.
As the men took their places on the scaffold, white muslin coverings pulled over their faces, they sang a song and grasped each other’s hands.
Capt. William Duley, who had lost several members of his family in the attack on the Lake Shetek settlement, cut the rope with a single blow from an ax as spectators cheered.
The bodies dangled from the scaffold for a half hour before being cut down and taken to a shallow mass grave on a sandbar between Mankato’s main street and the Minnesota River.
That night, most of the bodies were dug up and taken to physicians for use as medical cadavers.
While the war and execution remain the most dramatic historical events in Minnesota history, the somber reality is that the Dakotas suffering and death toll would grow dramatically following the war.
“The consequences for the Dakota didn’t end on Dec. 26, 1862. They didn’t end in 1863. I’m not sure they’ve ended yet for them,” said Ben Leonard, director of the Nicollet County Historical Society.
And Leonard said the U.S.-Dakota War was just the beginning of much more bloodshed to come.
“If you look at the grand scheme of history, the U.S.-Dakota War wasn’t an isolated event, but the first event in the war between the U.S. and the Plains Indians that didn’t end until Wounded Knee.”