On December 6, 1862, President Lincoln notified Brigadier-General Henry H. Sibley that he should “cause to be executed” thirty-nine Dakota warriors.
The condemned, were participants in what has come to be know as the Sioux Uprising or the Dakota Conflict. The conflict erupted when the US Government failed to meet its obligations under treaties with Dakota tribes. The treaties guaranteed the tribes money and food in exchange for millions of acres of their territory.
The US Government did not pay the tribes directly. Treaty money was dispensed to “Indian Agents” who, in turn, were to hand out food to the tribes. The Indian Agents kept much of the treaty money and much of the food was sold to white settlers. The food that did eventually make its way to tribes was often spoiled.
The tribes were forced to go off reservation to acquire food.
During August and September of 1862 there were countless raids on warehouses, military posts and private homes. The US Military rounded up hundreds of Dakota peoples and held them at Mankato, MN.
It is rumored that President Lincoln held off the hangings until after Christmas so as to avoid a dampening of the Christmastime spirits in an already distraught population.
On December 26th, at about 10AM the 38 condemned men (one was given reprieve at the last minute) were taken to the scaffold. It is said that the warriors sang the Dakota death song until soldiers pulled white caps over their heads and placed nooses around their necks. At the signal from an army officer, the control rope was cut and the warriors hung until dead.
A spectator is to have boasted that this was “America’s greatest public execution.”
The bodies were buried in a mass grave on the banks of the Mississippi River. They did not stay buried for long.
During that time there was a demand for cadavers for medical study. The bodies were soon exhumed and distributed to medical professionals in the area for dissection.
One of the bodies, that of Mahpiya Okinajin, was to become the possession of W.W. Mayo, one of the brothers who established the world renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.
In 1998, after passage of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Mahpiya Okinajin’s skull was returned to a Dakota tribe for burial. The rest of the skeleton has yet to be returned.