Sunday, May 12, 2013

38 Nooses

In 1862, on a frigid December morning in Mankato, Minnesota, over 4,000 spectators witnessed the United States government conduct the largest execution in American history. Thirty-eight men, white muslin covering their faces and singing a death song in their native Dakota tongue, dropped through the wooden scaffold's opened platform and dangled for over a half hour. Eventually their bodies were cut down and buried in a shallow mass grave on a sandbar along the Minnesota River - ending an uprising that began in August with the killing of five settlers by four Dakota hunters filled with frustration, whiskey and stolen eggs.

In 38 Nooses : Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, Scott Berg examines the motives and consequences of this conflict (referred to as the Dakota War of 1862) through the eyes of regional residents and national figures such as the Dakota leader Little Crow (who strongly opposed the attacks) and Abraham Lincoln. Too complicated and extensive to detail in a blog, here are the short facts. Six hundred whites - most unarmed civilians - and approximately 100 Dakota warriors died during the initial conflict. In mock trials, 303 captured warriors were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Through the persistence of the wife of the Reservation's physician, Lincoln - though embroiled in the Civil War - intervened and pardoned all but 38 men. Close to 2000 Dakotas were forcibly relocated to neighboring states, and approximately one-quarter of those people died within the following year.

Berg documents these events within the framework of state and national history, and chronicles an intimate study of individual experiences that were repeated throughout the nation until the end of the United States-Indian wars. Certainly not a beach read, the lives and deaths in 38 Nooses will stay with you long after your tan fades.

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