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December 26, 1862

By December 26, 2023 5 Comments

The State of Minnesota wants a half-section of land in Murray County to become once again what it was 200 years ago, when only Dakota people were here—and maybe an occasional Ojibwe plus a few thousand buffalo.

Renewing prairie is a worthy ambition, made even more so by the fact that this particular parcel isn’t just any half-section, but the spot where, in 1862, a frightful battle took place between Dakota warriors and white settlers who were part of an unrelenting stream of emigrants flowing into the Dakota’s world. “Slaughter Slough” has been labeled that way since the Dakota War of 1862, when the whole region was blood-red from the deaths of some 400 white settlers.

The story of the war is far bigger than a blog post, and it’s very hard to tell, a partial explanation for why few do. Who suffered most?—the settlers butchered here, or the Dakota, who lost land, culture, and identity? And what is more horrifying–400 settlers dead, or thousands of tribal folk wiped out by disease carried along by white folks? Do the math, if you can—if anyone can.

In August of 1862, William and Laura Duley and their five children were one of nine families living on the east shore of Lake Shetek, having staked a claim just a year earlier.

How hostility broke out is a mystery, but Dakota warriors from across the lake, for no apparent reason, murdered two settlers. When the rest of the homesteaders—there were 45—heard the awful news, they resolved to get east to safety. Some walked, some rode, and some climbed into a wagon.

But the Dakotas came after them. Gunshots rang out. The families ducked into the slough’s tall grass. Any movement brought a shower of lead. Several on both sides were wounded, some killed.

Sometime later, the Dakota told the settlers the women and children could leave; some stepped out of the tall grass only to be greeted by gunfire. Several more were murdered–even children, shot dead right there.

One of the children to die was William and Laura’s son Willie, Jr., ten years old. Isabella, his sister, just four, had been shot dead earlier at the cabin of one of the families. Mother Laura, daughter Emma, sons Jefferson and Francis were all captured, hostages, horribly mistreated.

The immensity of captives’ suffering in the horrible weeks that followed can’t really be fit into words; some claim Laura lost the baby she was carrying. Francis, another son, died in captivity. It’s difficult to imagine how any family could have suffered more than the Duleys. Rescued some months later, Laura Duley still lost her mind. William, husband and father, somehow escaped the slough, but all suffered the slaughter.

Throughout the region, anger burned into madness, intense and vicious. Armed lawmen had to struggle to keep white folks from killing the bound Dakota people being herded to Mankato. Statewide, a bounty was offered for dead Indians.

A makeshift court set up along the Minnesota River set quick trials and compiled a list of those determined guilty of the slaughter. For the record, 303 Dakota men were sentenced to be hanged. President Abraham Lincoln himself cut the list; and on this very date, December 26, 1862, the day after Christmas, right there in a peaceful little town named Mankato, 38 Dakota men were hanged at the very same moment before a lusty crowd of 4000 spectators who came to celebrate. For the record, that was 161 years ago today, the largest mass execution in American history.

Perhaps you wonder who could have been the executioner, the man or woman to pull the trapdoor rope that dropped 38 Dakota through the scaffold as each was singing their his death song. Maybe you have guessed—it was Mr. William Duley, who somehow escaped the slough his family did not. 

Revenge is a deeply human reaction, a seriously unstable emotion all of us feel and know. Even a mass hanging could not undo the grief and horror of the events at Slaughter Slough and the month-long 1862 Dakota war.

“In taking revenge a man is but even with his enemy,” Sir Francis Bacon wrote long ago, “but in passing it over, he is superior.”

So easy to say, but, like forgiveness itself, divine to do.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The lessons for St. Stephen’s Day, today, are apropos, and the Protomartyr says, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” while centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah, being stoned in the Temple Court under the cold eyes of King Joash, says, “May the Lord see and avenge.”

  • Thank you for this, and all of your historical stories. They are very meaningful in giving historical context to today’s issues.

    Have a blessed and healthy New Year.

  • Dean Van Farowe says:

    I’m grateful, Prof. Schaap, for this. Having grown up in North Dakota and having gone to Northwestern, this regional story hits home with me. I also appreciate that you recognize the pain on both ‘sides’ of this event.

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Abraham Lincoln is often condemned for allowing those executions to take place but I’ve always admired him for personally reviewing the charges against all of the condemned individuals and commuting the sentences of all those for whom there did not seem to be clear evidence of having committed capital crimes. It would have been politically more expedient (not to mention less time consuming) to simply allow all the executions to take place. That he did not choose that path speaks volumes about his character in my opinion.

  • Dr James C Schaap says:


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