Friday, April 26, 2013

38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End by Scott W. Berg

With a growing interest in the history of the state of Minnesota and continuing interest in Abraham Lincoln, I chose naturally to read 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End by Scott W. Berg, which tells the story of the Dakota Uprising of 1862. The events are known by a variety of names including Sioux Uprising, Dakota Conflict, and Little Crow's War. Little Crow was an aging chief in August 1862 when warriors of the Dakota nation killed several hundred white settlers in communities strung along the Minnesota river southwest of St. Paul, the capital the new state. Little Crow was reported to have argued against the uprising but stepped up to lead it once some younger men started the conflict. He became a central figure in a tragedy that seemed at the time inevitable.

The Dakota were living in western Minnesota after a series of treaties with the United States moved them off their traditional lands. Though the treaties promised them annual payments in gold for their sale of lands, the tribes had discovered by 1862 than much of each payment disappeared into the hands merchants, Indian agents, and government officials every year. In late summer 1862 the payments were already long overdue and many Dakota were near starving. There was also a report that the U.S. had no gold to deliver, thanks to the cost of the Civil War, and was bringing paper money instead. With whites constantly encroaching on their territory, some of the Dakota were ready to rise, hoping they could chase the whites out of Minnesota.

In 38 Nooses, Berg recounts the events leading up to and after the mass execution in Mankato, Minnesota of 38 participants in the uprising. I was a little surprised that the description of this central event itself is fairly brief. The cast of characters in the narrative is large, but certain names recur frequently, including Sarah Wakefield, a woman who was held hostage by the Dakota, and Episcopal minister Henry Benjamin Whipple who lobbied with President Lincoln for reform of the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lincoln's role was that of ultimate judge, reducing the number of executions from over 300 to what was still the largest mass execution on U.S. soil.

Because 1862 represents a turning in the affairs of North American Indians, 38 Nooses is an valuable title for students of 19th century America.

Berg, Scott W. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End. Pantheon Books, 2012. 364p. ISBN 9780307377241.

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