In 1857, the U.S. government had an agreement with American Indians to issue annuity payments (goods, money, food) which the Native Americans used to survive, but over the years, the annuity payments grew progressively smaller until they stopped altogether.
“Times were hard and the economy was so bad that the U.S. Congress was struggling to find a way to pay the Indians,” said Booth Western Art Museum historian Jim Dunham.
By June 1862, annuities stopped and soon there was unrest brewing among American Indians that was sparked an attack by four Indians on the home of a white settler in Minnesota.
More attacks followed and they grew and spread over several cities and lasted months, Dunham said.
“The battles got worse and worse,” Dunham said.
By September 1862, 400 people had been killed in the six-week battle. Nearly 300 hostages — mainly women and children — had been taken and were used to negotiate a truce before the military regained control, Dunham said.
In the aftermath, some 392 Indians were tried for their roles in the fighting and 303 were sentenced to death, he said.
After hearing of the scheduled executions from General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, President Abraham Lincoln penned a letter to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt.
The letter, dated Dec. 1, 1862, sought Holt’s opinion on the President’s legal duties in regards to the execution of the Indians.
After Holt’s same day response that confirmed the president’s final authority over the executions, Lincoln sent two staffers to Minnesota to review all 303 cases and based on their information led to 69 acquittals and reduced the number of executions to 39.
Eventually 38 Dakota Sioux Indians were hanged after one Indian was granted a stay of execution.
Though brief, the letter conveys the weight of the responsibility of the president in the fate of the condemned natives.
“This is an absolute find and a wonderful part of America’s history,” Dunham said.
It is on display at the Booth and Dunham said its significance makes it important to the museum and in a historical context.
The letter can be seen in the museum’s Carolyn and James Millar Presidential Gallery, where letters from all of the nation’s presidents are on display.
“Probably of all the letters that we have, this is probably the single most important historical letter from any of the presidents we have in our gallery,” Dunham said.