The bloodiest chapter in Minnesota history is written on a balance sheet, a simple matter of debts and repayment.
Schemes by the U.S. government plunged the Dakota Sioux permanently into arrears, bleeding them of land and resources. Treaties carved great swaths of tribal land down to a 10-mile wide reservation in southern Minnesota, a humble wedge unbefitting hunting nomads.
Side deals put most treaty money in the pockets of fur traders. The remainder let the Sioux eke out a humiliating existence on the government dole. In the summer of 1862, those payments were late and the Natives were starving. They found no sympathy from the white man. Eat grass, one said.
A few weeks later, his body was found riddled with arrows, tufts of grass stuffed in his mouth.
The Sioux had cause to make war. None summed it up better than the influential Shakopee, who convinced a reluctant Chief Little Crow, pointing to a lobbyist who’d skimmed tens of thousands of dollars of the tribe’s payments.
“The money for the land goes to Hugh Tyler,” Shakopee said, “and no Dakota knows who Hugh Tyler is. The annuity does not come. Some say it will never come again. If it does, the white man will say it is his and take it away.”
If the Dakota could not regain their land, they could at least extract reimbursement in blood.
And so they did, first surprising unprepared soldiers, then marauding through settlements, slaying hundreds of civilians, most of them unarmed.
An overwhelming U.S. Army force quelled the uprising a month later. Three hundred Dakota combatants were hustled through sham military tribunals and sentenced to death. The intervention of President Abraham Lincoln convinced local authorities to hang only 38 men; this was done the day after Christmas, the largest mass execution in American history.
Shakopee and another leader, Medicine Bottle, fled to Canada, where Americans put a bounty on their heads. A year later, they were drugged, captured, strapped to sleds, and shipped back across the border. The $1,000 tab owed to their kidnappers was paid by the Minnesota Legislature.
On November 11, 1865, Shakopee and Medicine Bottle were hanged at Fort Snelling before a crowd of 400-some military men and an even larger crowd of curious civilians, among them Joel Emmons Whitney, a St. Paul businessman and avid photographer.
Whitney captured the moment: two hooded figures suspended in midair, framed on one side by top-hatted executioners, dolled-up onlookers on the other. Their coffins lie open below them.
It’s a haunting image. And it can be yours for $5,000.
A listing on eBay offers a “nice UNUSED REAL PHOTO” of one of the “RAREST OF THE RARE IMAGES of the SIOUX UPRISING.”
The seller is Paul Ostlie, who grew up in Montevideo and caught the history bug from his mother. After heavy rains, young Paul and his brother would scour their farm for arrowheads and other artifacts.
Now a retired dentist living in Iowa, Ostlie’s started a “second career” as a collector, trader, and seller of historical artifacts.
He admits some have a “visceral reaction” to seeing his photo, a 1910 reprint of Whitney’s original. He’s not one of them. “To me, graphic photos show history going on.”
An informed viewer must see the Dakota conflict “from both sides,” he says. The Sioux were “getting the short end of the stick.” In retaliation, they went too far.
Shakopee and Medicine Bottle “were 100 percent implicated in the atrocities, active parts in brutally killing people. I hate to say it, but I don’t see any real major moral issue against what was done to these two.”
There’s some dispute on this. Shakopee and Medicine Bottle were tried and convicted by the very military men who’d fought against them, and on the hearsay of witnesses — white and Native — who acknowledged they’d never seen either man kill anyone.
A St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial on the eve of their hanging said the men probably were guilty, but “no white man, tried before his peers” would be hanged on such flimsy proof. “About the only admirable element in the whole course of the cases was the serene and dignified behavior of the chiefs in their last hour.”
Shakopee knew the score. Informed of his sentence, he said, “I can die whenever the white man wishes.”
Gwen Westerman, a Dakota author and English professor at Minnesota State, Mankato, preferred not to speak to the execution itself. But she has reached a verdict on Ostlie’s eBay sale.
“There are descendants of those men alive today,” she says. “How would someone selling an image like that address those descendants?”
Besides, the same image can be bought for “a lot less than $5,000” through the Minnesota Historical Society. (A 16 x 21 reprint goes for $30.)
Ostlie’s confident the price is right. A few months ago, an Ohio auction house sold one of the few remaining originals for just under $20,000.
The image belongs in a museum, Westerman says, where the painful moment can be dealt with “sensitively, with respect.”
Ostlie says it “would be nice” if a museum bought the piece, though he’d also sell to a private collector who “appreciates” the history it captures.
This would all make a certain dark sense to Shakopee and Medicine Bottle. It was government greed that drove them to war, and a bounty that delivered them to their deaths.
That they might still be for sale would come as no surprise. They would expect someone, somewhere, to be trying to make money. That was the America they knew.
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