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Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862

Military Commission Appointed To Try Dakota Warriors

On September 28, 1862, Colonel Henry Sibley, field commander of American forces, appointed a five-member military commission to "try summarily" Dakota Sioux and mixed-bloods for "murder and other outrages" committed against Americans. Whether Sibley had authority to appoint such a commission is a matter of substantial dispute. The commission was convened immediately, meeting near Camp Release along the Minnesota River in western Minnesota.

Reverend Stephen Riggs, a man who spoke the Dakota Sioux language and knew many of the Indians as a result of years of missionary work in the area, undertook the job of gathering evidence and witnesses. Isaac Heard, recorder for the trials and the leading historian on the war, wrote that Riggs "was, in effect, the grand jury of the court." He assembled half-breeds and white survivors in a tent and interrogated them concerning the suspects. Charges were written and names of witnesses were appended to each charge.

The commission conducted 16 trials the first day it met, convicting and sentencing to death 10 prisoners and acquitting another 6. Over the six weeks that followed, the military court would try a total of 393 people, convicting 323 and sentencing 303 to death by hanging. According to the trial recorder, the defendants that were found guilty ranged from boys of about 15 to "old men scarcely able to walk or speak." The only Sioux woman tried by the commission was acquitted.

The trials were quick affairs, becoming shorter as they progressed. The commission heard nearly 40 cases on November 3, the last day it met. The commission believed that mere participation in a battle justified a death sentence; therefore, in the many cases—perhaps two-thirds of the total—where the prisoner admitted firing any shots at all, it proceeded to a guilty verdict in a matter of a few minutes. Trials in which the charge was the murder or rape of settlers usually required more deliberation because in those cases admissions were rare.

Under the procedures adopted by the commission, the trials opened with a reading of the charges, or "specifications." The defendant then gave whatever response he cared to make to the charge. Prosecution followed. When prosecution witnesses contradicted the testimony of the defendant, the commission almost invariably found the prisoner to be guilty.

The best witnesses for the prosecution turned out to be some of the accused. Convicted in the commission's first trial, Joseph Godfrey, or Otakle, a mulatto married to a Dakota Sioux woman, gave evidence in 55 cases. Recorder Isaac Heard described Godfrey as "the greatest institution of the commission." According to Heard, when a defendant proclaimed his innocence and Godfrey knew him to be guilty, Godfrey "would drop his head upon his breast, and convulse in a fit of musical laughter." With his "melodious voice" and "remarkable memory" he seemed to Heard "specifically designed as an instrument of justice." In return for his testimony for the prosecution, Godfrey's death sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison.

Some of the prisoners found guilty had committed horrific crimes, while others had simply been one of hundreds who had only participated in the battles. The most notorious of the convicted—a Dakota Sioux called "Cut-Nose" by the trial recorder—was found to have tomahawked to death 11 women and children as they huddled in wagons near the Beaver Creek settlement. Cut-Nose also, according to prosecution witnesses, snatched an infant from its mother's arms and riveted the small child to a fence, leaving it to die, "writhing in agony."

Henry Whipple, an Episcopal bishop who had worked among the Indians, criticized the commission for its refusal to distinguish between degrees of guilt. "There is a broad distinction," Whipple wrote, between those "committing fiendish violence" and the "guilt of timid men who under threat of death engaged in some one battle."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862 - Military Commission Appointed To Try Dakota Warriors, Were The Trials Fair?, President Lincoln Reviews The Dakota Cases