Camp Kearney.jpg

A drawing of the Camp Kearney Indian Prison in Davenport. The walkway across the top was for guards to patrol and look down at the prisoners, but it later was used for “tourists” to go see the “Indian curiosities.” 

If you thought the Civil War was the only war going on in the United States during the 1860s, you can be forgiven.

You’re not the only one who missed the U.S.-Dakota war of 1862, said Linda Clemmons, a professor of history at Illinois State University.

“Quite often it’s overshadowed by the Civil War,” she said. But Thursday, the six-week long war will take center stage as Clemmons — the author of a book called “Dakota in Exile” — comes to Simpson College to talk about the war, and its aftermath.

“There was a lot that led up to the war in 30 years,” Clemmons explained. The Dakota Indian tribe was living in Minnesota and over the years had lost land, had treaties that were not honored, and been moved to a reservation. When federal troops were removed from the area to fight in the Civil War, some Dakota saw an opportunity, and war broke out. It went on for six weeks, said Clemmons.

Mankato Hanging.jpg

An image of the 38 men who were hanged in Mankato, Minn., in December 1862.  It was the largest mass execution in US history. 

“The Dakota did kill a number of Minnesota settlers,” she said, with estimates ranging from 400 to 800 killed. President Abraham Lincoln sent troops to put down the insurrection and in the aftermath, “there was an outcry across Minnesota for the extermination of the Dakota,” said Clemmons. “If not kill them, exile them all from Minnesota.

“In the context of that call for extermination, there were trials,” she said. “Three hundred Dakota men were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged.”

Lincoln appointed a committee to review the trial transcripts, and the number of men to be executed was trimmed to 39. On the day after Christmas, 1862, 38 men were hanged at once — the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

After the executions, all Dakota were exiled from Minnesota, with women and children sent to the Crow Creek reservation in the Dakota territory, while the men went to a military prison in Davenport. Missionaries at the time estimated that 20 percent of the men sent to the prison died in captivity. Clemmons puts the number closer to 40 percent.

“It’s hard to get a firm number,” she said. The women and children sent to in the Dakota territory also suffered high death rates, she said, many from starvation. They had not been given guns to hunt, and even if they had, men traditionally did the hunting, she explained.

Clemmons said her talk will focus on the experience of prisoners in Davenport, where tourists, including an Iowa governor, traveled in large numbers to “see the Indians,” she said. “They were treated as animals at the zoo.”

But they also took advantage of the situation, she added, making trinkets and bows and arrows, that they sold and used the money for food, paper and ink to write to their families. Clemmons’ book is based in part on some of those letters, she said.

“One of the key things I want to get at is there was undeniably trauma that the Dakota faced,” she said. “But there was resilience and survival as well.”

Clemmons will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at 7 p.m. in Hubbell Hall, Kent Campus Center, at Simpson. A reception will precede the speech at 6 p.m.

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(1) comment

Nancy Neiman

This war and the hanging is included in the plot of This Tender Land, a novel by William Kent Krueger. It also details the boarding schools to which many native Americans were sent to be “civilized”.

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