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Isch: Trials of Dakota were horrific

August 17, 2012
By Fritz Busch - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - A retired Martin Luther College professor compared the Dakota War Trials to the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War itself Thursday noon in the Brown County Historical Museum Annex.

"The trials of 392 Dakota must have been the most horrific thing that happened to the Dakota after the war," said John Isch. "It would have been better to die in the war than be one of 38 Dakota hung in front of several thousand spectators in Mankato."

"Why should they be hung for fighting a war?" Isch asked.

His research included examining more than 2,000 pages of notes about the trials held in September and October 1862. The trials allowed hearsay evidence and confessions whether or not defendants knew they were making confessions. They required four of five military members to convict them of murder and/or rape.

"We liked to execute people more in those days," Isch said. "Between 400 and 500 Union Civil War soldiers were executed for various offenses including desertion, falling asleep on watch, and other things."

He added that using a military commission for the trials was better than civilian court trials that would likely have resulted in lynching of the accused due to the prevailing public attitude about the Dakota in those days.

Isch said a number of innocent Dakota were hanged merely for being present when settlers were killed by other Dakota. Other Dakota were misidentified by their accusers or they mistakenly stood up when they thought their name was called the day the hangings took place in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862.

"Another Dakota was sentenced to be hung for firing two shots at Fort Ridgely," Isch said. "The validity of the trials could be questioned if you consider the Dakota a sovereign nation. The Dakota were not given U.S. citizenship until 1924. Some didn't want it then, claiming they were sovereign and didn't need it."

Minnesotans including General Sibley were outraged from President Lincoln reduced the number of Dakota to be hung from 303 to 39. One Dakota received a last-minute stay of execution

About 1,600 Dakota held at Fort Snelling after the hangings included more than 30 Dakota leaders who saved settlers and refused to go to war.

Several hundred Dakota cooperated with the Army and were allowed to stay in Minnesota. Some converted to Christianity.

About 1,300 Dakota were forcibly removed to Davenport, Iowa, then up the Missouri River to the Crow Creek Reservation in central South Dakota.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at



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