1862 - Santee Sioux uprising

        The Santee Sioux uprising in Minnesota, ultimately put down by General Sibley, exposed conflicting forces that were soon to erupt in violent conflicts on the Great Plains.   This uprising - as were most uprisings - resulted from 1) a failure of the federal government to make good on treaty promises; 2) a refusal to enforce restrictions on an encroachment by white settlers, or 3) a combination of both.

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         The Santee Sioux uprising in October of 1862 was a confrontation over treaty rights (stemming from 'a combination of both') that President Lincoln was ill prepared to manage from distant Washington.

Abraham Lincoln

         Bureaucratic delays in paying Indian annuities (see  Annuity System failures) lay at the heart of this conflict, as the destitute and hungry Sioux faced starvation at the onset of winter.  Their agent's tireless efforts to get them food had come to naught, while his supplier was on the record as stating: "So far as I'm concerned, if the Sioux are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung."

         In August, six young warriors raided a farm in Acton, killing five white settlers.  From this incident violence spread like a prairie fire throughout southwestern Minnesota.  Before the uprising could be contained more than 350 whites lay dead in the largest massacre of whites, by Indians, in the nation's history.

         Lincoln was so fixated on Robert E. Lee's forays into Maryland that he had little time for Indian affairs on the frontier.  He sent General Pope (below) - fresh from a humiliating defeat at the Second Bull Run, to take charge of the situation, but Pope approached the assignment with resentment and transferred his anger to the Sioux.   When he arrived in Wisconsin he found "panic everywhere," and predicted an all out Indian War would break out unless the Indians were severely punished.   He announced to his troops that his objective was to "utterly exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so...and they are to be treated [by us] as maniacs or wild beasts."


         Minnesota officials liked this man.  Here was an opportunity to use Pope's animosity toward the Indian to rid themselves of their red neighbors and take ownership of all their lands.  Pope's command broke the back of the rebellion in October and a military commission put more than 1,500 Indians on trial in a notorious spectacle. 

         President Lincoln was the first to admit that he was poorly informed on Indian affairs.  John Ross, the Cherokee chief, urged him to offer military protection to the Cherokees who had fallen under confederate control, but he dodged the challenge by replying that he had his hands full with the war in other places.  Like most whites of the time, Lincoln regarded Indians as a barbarous race of people who were obstacles to progress.  When at their most patronizing, Washington politicians enjoyed visits by Indians chief.  They brought color and exotic culture to the city, where men like Lincoln spoke to them in pigeon English and explained that the world 'is a great, round ball.'

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         By early November, Pope sent Lincoln a list of 303 Sioux men the military court had found guilty and condemned to die.  Lincoln ordered complete transcripts of the trials, and after reading them (over the protests of an indignant Pope), he commuted the sentences of all but thirty-nine.  When he heard of the commutations, Senator Morton (Minn.) threatened Lincoln with an ultimatum: "Either the Indians must be punished according to law, or they will be murdered without law."

Sioux Hanging

Thirty-eight Sioux were hanged at a public executiion in Mankato, Minnesota

         On December 26, in the largest public execution in American history, thirty-eight men swung from the gallows (one more had been pardoned at the last moment).  Lincoln's clemency of the others set off a firestorm of rancor among whites that carried over into the next election.  Republicans lost strength in Minnesota in the election of 1864, which took place the same month as the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado.  Governor Ramsey admonished the president that had he hanged more Indians he would have received a much larger majority.

         "I cannot afford to hang men for votes," Lincoln replied.