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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Arts and Entertainment
Ugne, 32, is a Lithuanian bodybuilder
tvThey include a Lithuanian bodybuilder who believes 'cake is a sin' and the Dalai Lama's personal photographer
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon have just launched their new streaming service in the UK
music
News
Donald Trump
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Retail Team Leader - Clothing / Footwear

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Does this sound like you? - Fri...

Recruitment Genius: Head Chef

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an indepe...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Team Leader

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - North West - Registered Charity

£31800 - £35400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This registered charity's missi...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food