The 19 foot by 9 inch Splinter

This week I finished my first-pass research  on the execution artifacts, including my findings on the beam reputed to be from the gallows that executed 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862:  Execution Artifacts Report in PDF form, “A Veiled Cabinet of Curiosities: A preliminary report on Minnesota’s 1862 execution artifacts.”

This is the photo that cracked the mystery:

The reverse side of this photo reads, “Beam from Scaffold where 38 Sioux Indians were hanged, Mankato, Minnesota, December 26, 186[sic] original timber in museum at University.”

It is obvious that people are captivated by the story of this artifact. Even if most of America has never heard of this controversy, it has consumed thousands of words in debate in articles and editorials and letters to the editor in the Mankato Free Press, the newspaper that broke the story of the controversy. A dozen historians and archivists at four institutions have  gone out of their way to materially contribute to my research –unprecedented cooperation. I spent a month I might have spent doing a dozen other things researching and writing the report.


If I was cynical I would posit self-interested motives: the desire of some to reinvent their public image and/or to emerge from the controversy with their donor base intact. Others, perhaps who feel they were deceived and manipulated, may wish to publicly vindicate themselves.

I suppose those who are cynical will question whether I waded in because the book I edited has just been released. For the record: my inquiry has been driven by the timing of MHS’s 1862 exhibit development, and the timing of BECHS’s recent revelations about their timber.

But beneath all of the potential motivators, I think this huge artifact has taken on a modern life of its own because, as I concluded my report, “The story of 1862 gallows beam still festers beneath the state’s skin like a 19 foot by nine inch splinter.”

One hundred and fifty years later, we’re discovering that the stories we’ve all believed about 1862 are closer to being kissing cousins with Paul Bunyan and Lake Woebegone than they are to being established historical fact. It is deeply unsettling to understand that we’ve all been duped by sources we trusted to give us the straight story.

After all, we consume media every day. If a news outlet reports an object is 24 feet long by one foot square, the specificity leads us to believe the reporter or someone he interviewed used a measuring tape, right? What if the reporter simply estimated?

We also all depend upon historical organizations, the institutions that in our broad social contract we’ve tasked with being the keepers and purveyors of historical memory. We expect them to supply the information we need to help us to consider our collective stories.

For example, up until now we’ve understood that the President of the Blue Earth Historical Society (BECHS) in 1927 deemed this beam a genuine artifact of such historical significance that he went out of his way to bring it back to Mankato. Now we must also consider the facts that the President of BECHS in 1927 was the son of one of the men who built the scaffold and as a six year old was an eye-witness to the mass execution.

How does this change the received story? It significantly complicates it.

We’ve never looked at the mass execution as the period equivalent of the first men walking on the moon or Princess Diana’s wedding: a spectacle so significant that parents in the 1862 crowd hoisted young children onto their shoulders to give them a clear view of the gallows and admonished, “Remember this. It is a sight you’ll never forget.”

That’s one of the reasons this piece of wood has such power: 150 years later, it carries more angst than the deaths of the ten men said to have been executed on it.

Until now non-Native Minnesotans and Dakotas alike have tended to view the 1862 gallows as a monument to what they did to us. In 2012, both sides are being asked to consider what we did to them.

The truth cuts painfully deep both ways.


Photo credit: Institutional files, the Minnesota Historical Society. Photo discovered by Benjamin Gessner of the Minnesota Historical Society and used with permission of MHS.

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