Tuesday, March 26, 2013

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

Last year I realized that my knowledge about Native American history was pathetically lacking and I felt I needed to do something to remedy that. When I heard about this book, it caught my attention immediately as a fascinating topic.

Little Crow and his Dakota were involved the The Dakota War in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, and there is a direct line from this incident to Crazy Horse and the Indian success at Little Big Horn, followed a few years later by the Massacre at Wounded Knee, which was really the end of any Indian rebellions to speak of. Yet, I was completely unfamiliar with this Dakota War, although the name Little Crow was familiar.

A couple of very young men from Little Crow's tribe in Minnesota killed a family of farmers on the frontier, and they excited other teens and young Indians to join them on a bit of a rampage, pillaging, raping, and murdering. While Little Crow didn't want the whole tribe to get involved, he got pulled in, and he wasn't about to abandon his people. It didn't take a lot to incite the Dakotas, as the promised money from the U.S. Government was months overdue, which meant the Dakota were actually starving. When they tried to get one of the shopkeepers to extend more credit to them, for food, he said they could eat shit and grass. After he was killed, his body was found with his mouth stuffed full of grass. I had trouble feeling sorry for him. Although the rest of the settlers were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the killings were really a result of the Native Americans starting to get sick and tired of making treaties with the U.S. Government, that the U.S. apparently had no intention to uphold.

I found the background of Lincoln's involvement quite interesting. In 1786, his grandfather was killed by Indians, and his uncle Mordecai saved his father's life. That family history likely would have impacted anyone's feelings about Indians, justified or not. But Lincoln, ever the fair lawyer, did insist on reading over every single trial transcript from the 303 Indians who were convicted of murder and rape after the war. Has there ever been a war where the other side was later charged with murder? This whole story was bizarre. In the end, 38 Dakotas were hanged in the largest government-sanctioned execution in U.S. history.

The story was a little dry, but it read quickly and certainly had plenty of excitement and horror. Any American history buff ought to like this and we all ought to know more about this chapter in our country's history.

(On a side note, knowing about this war made Caroline Ingalls's fear of Indians in the Little House books more understandable, since this was recent history to them, and only one state away.)

I checked this book out of the library.

1 comment:

Kelly TheWellReadRedhead said...

I know very little about this portion of our history as well...add it to the long list of "areas of history about which I am ignorant." Haha. Thanks for this review though, sounds like you learned a lot.