Executed in haste, exonerated at leisure

Dakota Indian among victims of mass execution may be pardoned

In its fury, America deemed that the civilian courts were too good for these men, who would go instead before a military tribunal, without defence counsel and with relaxed rules for the admissibility of evidence. That one of those condemned would prove later to be innocent was not so surprising.

But this is not about Taliban-trained terror suspects in 2010, but Dakota Indians in 1862, the year when warriors of the tribe, starved of food and money and diminished by the confiscation of their lands, rose up against settlers on the Minnesota frontier. When it was over, they counted among the dead 358 settlers and 77 soldiers.

The response was savage, too: on 26 December of that year, 38 Dakota Indians, followers of their leader Little Crow, were led on to a specially built gallows in the town of Mankato and, in front of a surging public hungry for revenge, hanged. It remains the largest mass execution in US history and as its 150th anniversary approaches, some historians and journalists are looking for ways to bring it back to the attention of the American public and of politicians in Washington. They are doing it in part by focusing on the tale of the one innocent man who died on that Boxing Day with all the others.

His name was We-Chank-Wash-ta-don-pee, also known as Chaska, and he was among scores of defendants whose death sentences had been commuted days before by President Abraham Lincoln after the five-man military tribunal had originally designated no fewer than 303 of the Dakota for execution.

In the rush and the melée of "justice" delivered with almost mad haste, he was muddled with another of the detainees and hanged in error. Whether the hanging of Chaska was in fact a simple accident or if more disturbing forces were at play remains a matter of debate. He had been accused of kidnapping a white woman, Sarah Wakefield, and her children and when she later testified that she admired him, rumours spread that the two had become lovers.

Though in its infancy, a campaign is now gathering for a posthumous federal pardon for Chaska. The case was given oxygen by an author and teacher of journalism at Northwestern University, Robert Elder, writing at length about the case and its history in yesterday's New York Times.

"It's time to talk about it and time for people to know about it," said Gwen Westerman, a professor of English at Minnesota State University at Mankato. She is planning to charge her students with doing research to back up the case for a pardon and "put together some more pieces of the puzzle".

Some seedlings of support are already sprouting on Capitol Hill meanwhile. A posthumous pardon for the Dakota Indians would be "a grand gesture and one I think our Congressional delegation should support," said Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Congressman who lost re-election this year. "A wrong should be righted".

Similar, if somewhat flimsy, encouragement was offered by a spokesman for the junior US senator from Minnesota, the former comedian and author Al Franken. "Senator Franken recognises that this is a tragic period in history. The senator will continue to look into this incident in the next Congress."

Pardons for dead people, even in cases going back more than a century, are not unheard of in America, stirring some to question the validity of such gestures when in the present day, DNA science offers entirely contemporary evidence of the innocent being put on Death Row.

The campaign for a pardon for Chaska will be seen by some as especially important, not just because of the lessons that could be learned from that time, when the Dakota defendants often got hearings lasting less than five minutes.

America, after all, is right now passionately debating the use of tribunals at Guantanamo today. But it is also an opportunity to direct fresh attention to a period of American history – and shame – that remains thinly discussed.

The pardoning of one of the 38 hanged in Mankato would not satisfy many in Dakota who still pause every Boxing Day to commemorate their deaths. But Leonard Wabasha, a local Dakota leader, told the Times that it would at least help to "shine a light". He added: "It would cause people to read and research into it a little deeper. It would be a step in the right direction."

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

Cover Supervisors needed in Cheshire & Shropshire

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Supervisor...

Welsh Medium Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Primary Tutors needed in Chester

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Primary Tutoring in Cheshire West &amp...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits