One hundred and fifty years ago today, while some residents of Minnesota celebrated the advent of Christmas, near the levee on the Minnesota River in Mankato, Minnesota, soldiers and local citizens were constructing a monstrosity of a scaffold, about 24 feet square and about 18 feet high, large enough to execute 40 Dakota men at one time.
Across the street, more than 300 Dakota men chained to the prison floor, listened to the saws and hammers at work. The men were all accused of and had been tried for participation in the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. Most had been convicted and sentenced to death. Some, acquitted of the charges against them, were still in jail. 39 of them had been selected out and removed to another building.
Outside the prison somewhere, someone fashioned rope –at least 400 feet of it emergency-ordered from a rope maker upriver –into nooses.
Outside the prison, somewhere else, someone sewed pale muslin into long, blind hoods.
Outside the prison, behind closed doors, doctors were probably already discussing the impending chance to harvest dozens of fresh, frozen bodies for the medical cadaver trade.
For 150 years, speculation has swirled like gusts of snow that eddied the dirt in the street beneath the Mankato scaffold. Those 38 Dakota men executed on December 26, 1862: What were they actually accused of? On whose testimony were they convicted? On what grounds did President Lincoln allow their death sentences to stand?
The Trial Record
The answers to some of those questions lie inside the original trial records, which remain inaccessible to many, housed in Senate records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Decades ago, the National Archives produced an unnumbered microfilm edition of the 1862 trial records owned by a few libraries and researchers determined enough to track down and order a copy.
Answers to other questions, like guilt and innocence, depend upon how we interpret the extant record. To collectively consider these bigger questions, we all need access to those records.
Walt Bachman, a retired trial lawyer and historian, owns a copy of the microfilm and has twice examined the original records from which the film was made. Bachman has shared his parts of his unofficial transcription of the trial records with researchers and Dakota descendants for years.
Retired professor John Isch this summer published an annotated transcription of the 1862 trial record. Isch’s 558 page book, The Dakota Trials, is available from the Brown County Historical Society.
The 38 Trial Project
As we publicly commemorate the executions of the 38 Dakota warriors December 26, 1862, Isch and Bachman have agreed to help publish the trial records of the executed men to the Internet, making three key primary sources widely available for the first time:
- The December 5, 1862 Whiting-Ruggles Report summarizing the cases of the Dakota men whose execution Lincoln subsequently authorized
- The 1862 Military Commission file on each case presented in two forms: 1.) a PDF file of images made from the trials microfilm and shared by John Isch; 2.) Walt Bachman’s transcription of the corresponding case
- The so-called “Confessions of the Condemned,” Stephen Riggs’ synopsis of interviews he conducted with each man in the days preceding the execution
My contribution has been to supply the Whiting-Ruggles and Riggs transcriptions from my files, and to make a first-pass edit of Bachman’s transcriptions by comparing them with Isch’s PDFs. The lion’s share of the work has been Bachman’s and Isch’s and this project would have been impossible without their cooperation.
The result is a rough beginning. Records of this import are worthy of exacting transcription, annotation, and cross-referencing to other sources by a team of scholars, with critical attention paid to the Dakota names. But on the eve of the 150th commemorations of the executions, this project makes the trial records of the 38 executed men available, an important first step.
Each trial will be an individual post, making the content keyword-searchable, and allowing comments readers make on a specific trial to remain attached to that case. I will also collect the records on the “38 Trials” page on my Sources tab to make them easy to find in the future.
The 38 Trials series will begin on December 24, 2012 and continue until the cases of all 39 men whose execution Lincoln authorized (and the related cases of the two men wrongly executed) are posted, hopefully by December 31, 2012.
A note on name spellings
150 years later, there is no single, accepted English spelling of each man’s Dakota name. Multiple spelling schemes have been advanced by Dakota and non-Dakota scholars over the years, but none of them has stuck. I believe the question is ultimately up to Dakota people to decide, so have arbitrarily chosen the Whiting-Ruggles spelling, which in most cases is very close to the spelling recorded in the trial record. Bachman and Isch, working from the trial record both use the trial-record spelling.
This isn’t a satisfactory compromise. But questions like,”How should we spell this name?” have bedeviled representations of the trial record since 1862 and we have to start somewhere. Reproducing the recorded spellings, as wretched as they are, is a starting place.
An important convention has emerged in the scholarly community of referring to each Dakota tried in 1862 not only by his recorded name, but also by his (or, in one case, her) trial number. Using the trial number is the only way to accurately track a defendant across multiple period documents despite the many variant spellings of his name.
The transcription vs. the images vs. the holograph originals
This project has not used OCR software, so keyword searches will hit on the hand-generated transcription, not on the page images. However anyone interested in the particulars of a case should consult the PDF images as the transcriptions are abridged in minor ways, like noting a list of signatures rather than reproducing them.
However, the original case files in the National Archives contain margin notes and other jottings too faint to have registered on the microfilm from which Isch made the images. Lincolnarchives.us is in the process of making new digital images of the 1862 trials records directly from the holographs. When those appear, the images will very likely supersede the microfilm images.
In the mean time, I’m grateful that Bachman and Isch agreed to pool resources with me to make the trial records of the Dakota 38 public information.
Image Credit: painting by J. Thullen, 1884, in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Google Images.