President Abraham Lincoln experienced many life-altering events in 1862. His son died of typhus, the Confederate Army advanced, and the Dakota War - one of the deadliest clashes of the Indian Wars - took place. Even though some scholars believe Lincoln was one of the best presidents, many people don't realize the man approved the largest mass execution in US history. And the action wasn't taken against Confederate troops who rebelled against their country. Instead, it was directed toward 38 members of the Santee Sioux Tribe.
In the 1800s, official government policy pushed Native Americans off their lands. The Trail of Tears, for example, destroyed thousands of Native lives because white settlers demanded their land. The Santee people, also known as the Dakota Sioux, lived in the area that became Minnesota and faced a similar situation. After an 1837 treaty, they were forced onto a reservation and promised an annual payment from the US government.
But when Congress, strapped with Civil War debts, failed to send the payment or the food needed during a drought, the nearly starving tribe revolted. An unjust military commission sentenced 303 of the rebels to death, and President Lincoln decided on the final number.
A group of Santee Sioux boys dared each other to steal eggs from a white settler while their community struggled with starvation. The dare eventually turned violent, and some alleged they would rob and kill the farmers. On August 17, 1862, the teenagers followed through with the plan, killing three men and two women.
When a group of Santee Sioux leaders, including Little Crow, Medicine Bottle, Shakopee, and Big Eagle, learned of the killing, they worried that regardless of their next actions, the white settlers would retaliate.
Little Crow warned that war with the whites would mean "10 times 10 will come to kill you." But the council eventually voted to declare it, believing more violence was inevitable.
The Santee Sioux territory stretched from Minnesota into Montana; it was lush and fertile. In 1837, a US government treaty pushed the Santee people away from the Mississippi River, claiming the Mississippi Valley for white settlers.
Those in charge guaranteed the Native Americans the remaining lands west of the river. The treaty also established a reservation for the displaced group in southwest Minnesota.
The starving Santee Sioux Tribe appeared to receive little sympathy from white settlers in the months leading up to the violence. A local trader, Andrew Myrick, dismissed the crisis, saying, "If they are hungry, let them eat grass."
During the Santee Uprising, the reservation agency, which managed the land, suffered first. Dozens died in the attack, and Myrick was one of the fatalities. Those responsible allegedly stuffed Myrick's mouth full of grass after his death.
Army outposts and Minnesota towns went down next.
White settlers in Minnesota and white Americans across the country wanted the Santee Sioux people to receive swift executions. One St. Paul, MN, resident wrote to Abraham Lincoln, describing bloodthirsty savages with tomahawks and scalping knives who ravished white women and children.
Jane Grey Swisshelm, an abolitionist, declared the Native Americans had "just as much right to life as hyenas" and recommended Lincoln's administration "exterminate the wild beasts." A newspaper headline proclaimed, "DEATH TO THE BARBARIANS!"
General John Pope suggested the president approve all 303 capital punishment sentences without much review, declaring, "The only distinction between the culprits is as to which of them murdered most people or violated most young girls."
Of the 303 Santee Sioux men sentenced, only two were convicted of sexual assault.