Review – Lincoln and the U.S. Dakota War Speech

 Hosted by Minnesota Historical Society
War within War: Lincoln and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862
By David A. Nichols
Reviewed July 28, 2013

 Items of Interest

Nichols wrote Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics. He was introduced by a member of the MHS staff.

 A report by George E. H. Day is discussed in the Introduction and by Nichols. The following is summarized from Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians…:
In August 1861, George E. H. Day was sent to Minnesota to “use and recommend such measures as will be most likely to promote peace between the Indians and the whites.” In October 1861, Day reported he had facts “showing voluminous and outrageous frauds upon the Indians.” He implicated the Indian Agents up to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The U.S. Indian Office took no action. Day sent a letter to President Lincoln. It isn’t known if Lincoln saw Day’s letter. No action was taken on Day’s report. Day threatened to take this to the public if the administration did nothing. To view a copy of Day’s letter to Lincoln, see:

General Comments

  • The title of this video implies this speech is about the Dakota War of 1862. A good part was about Indians and Indian officials in other states.
  • Unbalanced – While the Dakota War, the trials of the Dakota, the hanging of the 38 and the removal of Dakota from Minnesota are mentioned, there is no mention that the hostile Dakota killed more than 650 white men, women and children.

Most Objectionable Statements 


 In 2 instances, Lincoln’s policy toward American Indians, or lack there of, intersected with his prosecution of the Civil War with disastrous results. His seeming indecision and inattention to Indian Territory had long lasting negative consequences for the people of the…tribes.
—Disrespectful – Lincoln was very busy with the Civil War. The North wasn’t doing very well in the early part of the war. Lincoln must have been overwhelmed at this time.

In early 1862, federal investigator George Day cautioned Lincoln that the mass corruption within Minnesota’s Indian agencies would lead to disaster if left unchecked. The President never acknowledged that warning.
—Incorrect – In early 1862, George Day sent a letter to Lincoln. Do we know if Lincoln ever saw this letter?
—Incorrect – The speaker assumes Day’s report was correct. It appears that Day never took this report to the public. No one mentioned by Day was ever charged and tried for corruption. No one was permitted the opportunity to defend themselves. Was Day correct? Unfortunately, there are people who accept Day’s report as fact. At best, it is supporting evidence but not proven fact. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”
—Incorrect – The speaker assumes that the corruption noted by Day was the cause of the Dakota War in 1862. While this may have contributed, there were many other causes.

 When war broke out 8 months later, Lincoln told Ramsey, “attend to the Indians, necessity knows no law.” In light of the war’s terrible aftermath, it was a statement that Lincoln would come to regret.
—What does this mean? – “it was a statement that Lincoln would come to regret.” 

David A. Nichols

 Licensed traders provided retail outlets for goods, costs of which could be charged to the annuities.
—Incorrect – While this may have been true at times, it was not always true.

Agents through kick-back and partnerships could become very wealthy men. There was much money to be made throughout this system.
—Disrespectful – Name those who were corrupt and show proof.

George Day wrote that one agent spent one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand dollars while earning a small salary.
—Incorrect – Because George Day wrote this, does not make this true. See my comments above on the Day report.

Henry Sibley represented the traders in Treaty of 1851. He put in a claim for over-payment. He got it. Sibley became rich and went into politics.
—Disrespectful – Prove that Sibley put in a claim for over-payment and that he got what he asked for.
—Incorrect – Sibley biography Rhoda Gilman said that Sibley at best broke even in the fur trade.
—Incorrect – Sibley was already in politics.

The Dakota War broke out on August 17, 1862, when in an incident near Acton, when some settlers were killed by braves seeking food. And the Dakota, particularly Little Crow, feared a reprisal, launched a preventative war.
—Incorrect – The Dakota War started on August 18, 1862.
—Incorrect – The incident was in Acton Township.
—Disrespectful – “Braves” is not politically correct.
—Incorrect – We don’t know that these Dakota men were seeking food. Eyewitness accounts do not say they asked for food.
—Incorrect – 100-150 members of a Lower Sioux soldiers’ lodge made the decision to go to war. Not all of the Dakota Leaders were involved in this decision nor did they favor war.
—Incorrect – Little Crow did not want war. He tried to talk his soldiers’ lodge out of war.
—What does this mean? – “preventative war”

Pope said he would launch a campaign that would utterly exterminate the Sioux…When we talk extermination, we aren’t just talking about warriors; we were talking about women and children and old folks.
—Unbalanced – Didn’t the hostile Dakota exterminate the white women and children and old folks? To criticize Pope and not the hostile Dakota is prejudice.

Pope set up a military commission under Sibley to try all of the male combatants.
—Incorrect – Sibley set up this military commission.
—Incorrect – All of the male combatants were not tried.

Dakota trials lasted 10-15 minutes with little evidence.
—Unbalanced – If the white trial system is discussed, the Dakota trial system needs to be discussed.

 Despite the lack of evidence, Lincoln decided there had to be a blood sacrifice. He decided to execute 39.
—Incorrect – Lincoln decided that those who committed rape, murders of civilians and unfair warfare were to be executed. One of the 39 was given a reprieve.

One prisoner was executed by mistake.
—Incorrect – According to Walt Bachman, 2 were executed by mistake.

Lincoln authorized the largest official mass execution in American history.
—Incorrect – This was the largest simultaneous mass execution in American history.

Lincoln struck a bargain with MN. He agreed to continue the incarceration of the Dakota not executed.
—Is this correct?

Lincoln traded lives for land and money.
—What does this mean?

Of 329 prisoners at Mankato, Lincoln pardoned 26 more.
—Incorrect – I believe these 26 were pardoned at the Davenport prison.

Prison conditions were awful – Another 67 died in prison.
—Incorrect – It is implied this happened at Mankato. This happened at Davenport.
—Is this correct? – Did 67 die at Davenport?

Sibley had the 1600 women and children in custody at Fort Snelling.
—Incorrect – There were also men and elders in this group.
—Incorrect – The U.S. had them in an internment camp at Fort Snelling.

Following the Dakota War, Whipple said the Indian system was the cause.
—Incorrect – The causes of the Dakota War were many and complicated. Whipple’s base was 100 miles away in Faribault. Did he really understand what caused the war?

Whipple talked to Lincoln, but Lincoln did not stay focused on Indian system reform.
—Disrespectful – Lincoln was busy with the Civil War.

2 thoughts on “Review – Lincoln and the U.S. Dakota War Speech

  1. Hi John!
    George E.H. Day was not an investigator sent from Washington. He was a banker/land speculator/money lender who had previously lived with his family in Ohio and then Milwaukee; they apparently moved to St. Anthony about 1855, although there were times when they subsequently appeared on Milwaukee censuses as well. They are in the 1857 pre-statehood Minnesota census. He may have been a participant in the reform-minded St. Anthony cohort that became Republicans, anti-slavery activists, and critics of the Indian Agency but as of now I have no evidence of this, just suspicions. He is described in a comic way in “Old Rail Fence Corners,” a revival attendee praying for high interest rates.

    He was originally named a special investigator to check on a shady logging deal in Ojibwe country by Dorillus Morrison, a St. Anthony entrepreneur. Day did so, then expanded his job description and began looking into many practices and personnel in the Ojibwa Agency in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He also looked into Dakota Agency issues, but I do not believe to the same extent. (The Ojibwe Agency was rumored to be particularly shady) Officials at Washington were unwilling to allow Day to audit Agency records or enlarge his original contract and budget; they expected him to do his fact-finding without helpful paperwork. His famous letter to Lincoln was probably written out of frustration with the Washington Indian Office and the Minn. Superintendency.

    Among the reforms that Day proposed was that clergy persons or the like were not only to witness annuity payments but also to participate in the making of the role and the budgeting and distribution. I have found a letter that proves this. (Although the Board of Visitors concept was one of the reforms that was implemented following the Dakota violence of 1862, the “visitors” were hamstrung by imprecise definition of their role and were thwarted by clever traders and local agents. Bishop Whipple experienced this firsthand, as a “visitor.”)

    Day was also involved with freedman advocacy activities during the war and after. He was one of the original trustees of Lawrence University in Wisconsin. I suspect he he was a Methodist.

    Linda Bryan, Maplewood, Minnesota

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