1598: Lucas, waterboarded Guale

Add comment July 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1598, the indigenous Guale youth called Lucas was hanged by the Spaniards in St. Augustine, Florida, for his supposed part in the prior year’s massacre of five Franciscan missionary friars during a 1597 Guale revolt.

This entire tragic affair, documented poorly and with partiality in Spanish sources, remains an interpretive palimpsest to the few who are familiar with it. Historian J. Michael Francis grapples with it in Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida: Don Juan and the Guale Uprising of 1597; a recent talk by the latter at the U.S. Library of Congress delves into the “400-year-old murder mystery”:

The key primary source for this event is Luis Jerónimo de Oré’s text The Martyrs of Florida, from approximately 1619. (Here’s a public domain English translation) The titular “Florida” as claimed by Spain in the New World colonization scramble was a much larger territory than the present-day U.S. state, peninsula, and running Internet gag; hence, the Guale territory relevant to this post lies on what is today the Georgia coast.

Ore informs us that “an Indian youth, who was a Christian and heir to the caciquedom,” was incensed when the Franciscan resident at the settlement of Tolomato presumed to disallow him a second wife.

This cacique and two other Indians, like him, given to the same immoral practice, went into the interior among the pagans, without saying anything or without obtaining permission as they were wont to do on other occasions. After a few days they returned at night with many other pagan Indians, painted and smeared with red paste, and with feathers on their heads. This among them is a sign of cruelty and slaughter.

Thus fearsomely attired, they burst upon the hut of the prudish Fray Pedro de Corpa and butchered him, setting up his head on a spear. Having done this, the angry cacique — who is known only as Juanillo, which is sometimes the name given to this rebellion — ordered other Guale to treat their nosy proselytizers likewise. As a result, four other Franciscans — Fray Miguel de Aunon and a lay brother on St. Catherine’s Island, Fray Bias Rodriguez at the mission village of Santa Clara de Tupiqui, and Fray Francisco de Verascola on Asao — were all murdered within days. A couple of other missionaries had very close escapes.


Map of the relevant part of the Georgia coast.

Besides these, a Fray Francisco de Avila was kidnapped and held hostage for ten months. Although cruelly tortured, Avila would survive captivity and produce a narrative of his own, one that Ore includes wholesale in his volume as a standalone chapter.

In the course of the ensuing Spanish raids on the Guale, the Spanish captured seven boys or young men and interrogation zeroed in on one of them: the son of the cacique of Tupiqui, who appeared as a possible participant in murdering Fray Bias Rodriguez.

Lucas was reticent on the point but after being subjected to the water torture he allowed that “he arrived in time to see Fray Bias die,” and this confession of his presence sufficed to condemn him. He was the only person judicially executed in the course of the entire revolt.

In view of said declarations of these proceedings, the crime falls upon Lucas the Indian, son of the Cacique de Tupiqui, for having been present and participated in the killing of Fray Bias, who was sent to convert the people of Tupiqui. I must condemn him by this my decree, sentenced according to his declaration, with the penalty of death. The justice which I order shall be done him is: That when he leaves the jail where he now is, it shall be with a rope around his neck, his hands tied behind him, and with a loud voice it must be proclaimed to the public his crime; that he be taken to the gallows, already prepared for this purpose, and that there he shall be hung by the neck and strangled until dead. Because, thus is it well to punish with real justice those who dare to commit such crimes, and as an example to the other Indian natives of these provinces that they may not commit similar crimes. So do I pronounce sentence and command.

And if the said Lucas is not mindful of receiving baptism and should not die repenting, and in the Catholic faith, I order that he be hung and after his death his body be burned to powder.

-Gonzalo Menendez de Canco, Governor of Florida (Source)

Interpretations of the whole affair have always been driven by Ore’s narrative: either the surface reading of it, that Juanillo and company found monogamy irksome and preferred, in Ore’s words, “to give rein to their sensuality and unlawful pleasures”; or, a converse take for the era of decolonization, that the cultural interference of the Spanish empire triggered a native backlash for whom the friars were the ready-to-hand targets. In either version, the rebellion flourishes briefly but ultimately fails.

Francis in his book and the video above offers a very different reading: as a successful revolt authored by a different cacique, Don Domingo of Asao, who violently renegotiated the local balance of power** and thereby displaced the caciques of Tolomato as the paramount chiefs of the Guale. As a particularly gruesome coda, Domingo made successful obeisance to the Spanish and obtained the crown’s blessing for an expedition to destroy Juanillo, whom he blamed for the disturbance. After capturing the rebels’ last redoubt (beheading Juanillo in the process), Domingo ordered the surviving women to scalp their own men. Now that is paramount chiefdom.

Domingo appears to have maintained his preeminence among the Guale for the balance of his years — backed by and partnering with the Spanish, to the happiness of evangelizing clerics who were never more disturbed. A few years later, the Spanish even plopped down a new mission in his very own native soil … Santo Domingo de Asao.

* The Guale people are thought to have been subsumed into the Yamasee.

** View the Spanish arrivistes, who had a handful of small settlements rather than the dominating presence that their globe-straddling empire might suggest, as just “another powerful Mississippi chiefdom” to local eyes. (Source of this characterization)

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1821: Tommy Jemmy executes Kauquatau

Add comment May 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1821, a chief of the Seneca Native American nation slit the throat of a woman named Kauquatau, who had been condemned as a witch.

As Matthew Dennis explains in his book on the Seneca of the early American Republic, Seneca Possessed, the rapid march of European settlement and the Seneca’s recent and ambiguous incorporation into the newborn United States had strained the indigenous society in complex ways.

One of those reactions was a period of gendered witch-hunting in the early 19th century, especially growing out of the religious movement of the prophet Handsome Lake.

“Handsome Lake pinpointed the dangers the Seneca faced, the threats that they faced, the source of those threats, and a way … of purging his society of those who were most likely to resist his changes,” Dennis explained in this New Books Network podcast interview.

The “threat” for the instance at hand was a tribal healer who had become suspected of bewitching a man to his death — and her guilt in the same voted on by the Seneca elders. One of their number, Chief Soonongise — known as Tommy Jemmy to whites — went to her cabin on May 2, 1821, and killed her. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kauquatau realized what was happening — whether she took it as a social call or recognized her angel of death from the outset. But to New Yorkers, it was murder plain as day — and Tommy Jemmy was soon confined to a gaol to stand trial for his life.


Another reaction occasioned by the upheaval of those years, a reaction destined to emerge dramatically in this instance, was a feeling-out of the Seneca people’s position within the Anglo Republic that had engulfed it. “If the Senecas were a conquered people, as some tried to allege, the terms of their conquest were ill defined, their sovereignty, though diminished, still recognizable,” Harris writes. In these very pages we have met this ill-defined sovereignty several times: a few years on from the events of this post, the state of Georgia would defy a Supreme Court stay and execute a Cherokee man in a case turning on disputed sovereignty.*

Here in New York, Tommy Jemmy’s trial would open a different contest over the same underlying question.

Rather than attempting to deny or minimize his “crime,” Tommy Jemmy defended it as a legal execution conducted by the proper jurisdiction of Seneca laws — no matter for the interference of New York. It’s a position that appeared to have ample sympathy among Anglo New Yorkers,** who gingerly kicked the argument to a Circuit Court and thence to the New York Supreme Court which found itself thereby obliged to “a very thorough examination of all the laws, treaties, documents and public history relating to the Indians” going all the way back to the Dutch. (Cherry-Valley Gazette, Aug. 21, 1821)

What musty old scrolls could supply by precedence, the luminous Seneca orator Red Jacket brought to life in his forceful defense. Red Jacket had an expert feel for the pangs in the Anglo conscience, as one can appreciate by his retort against one obvious line of condescension.

What! Do you denounce us fools and bigots because we still believe what you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black-coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formality of law; and would you now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours? Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that thousands have been executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn upon her the arm of vengeance. What have our brothers done more than the rulers of your people? And what crime has this man committed, by executing in a summary way the laws of his country and the command of the Great Spirit?

It was by no means certain that Tommy Jemmy’s argument would prevail here; a literally simultaneous case in Michigan saw a native defendant make a similar jursidictional argument and still wind up on the gallows. The question in the end stood outside any existing grant of law — and it was resolved in a legally questionable way, too.

Accepting the merits of Tommy Jemmy’s position but also unwilling to render Indian power over life and death into the statutes, Tommy Jemmy was set free without any judgment and subsequently pardoned by the legislature — the pardon reversing no conviction. He was an executioner, after all.

* U.S. President Andrew Jackson vigorously supported the state in this separation-of-powers dispute: it’s the case of which he alleged to have remarked, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

** In an essay appearing in New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas, Dennis notes the precedent here of an 1802 trial involving a Seneca man named Stiff-Armed George. Although Stiff-Armed George murdered a white victim and not on Seneca land, Red Jacket also urged a defense, successfully: “Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New-York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent from that state of New-York … we appeal to the government of the United States.” (The Seneca did have treaties with the federal government.)

They finessed the issue in the end: Stiff-Armed George was convicted, but immediately pardoned.

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1884: Not Crow Dog, saved by an ex parte

Add comment January 14th, 2017 Headsman

January 14 was supposed to be the hanging day in 1884 for the Sioux Crow Dog — but instead of being executed he was busy making caselaw.

A sub-chief of the Brule Lakota, Crow Dog on August 5, 1881, met — intentionally? — the tribal chief Spotted Tail on a road in the Rosebud Reservation and shot him dead with a rifle.

The killing was adjudicated the very next day within the Brule community, at a council where the killer and the survivors of his victim agreed together on the appropriate compensation, and paid up.* But the U.S. Indian agent on the scene also arrested Crow Dog a few days later, and had him tried for murder in a non-Indian court in the the frontier town of Deadwood.

Sidney Harring, who would expand this review to book length with Crow Dog’s Murder: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century, argued in a 1988/1989 paper** that the needless white court’s trial was staged from the outset as a test case by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, angling for new legal tools to break the doctrine of tribal sovereignty which dated back to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although that anti-sovereignty cause would suffer a tactical setback in this case, it would very soon carry the day.

Condemned to death early in 1882, Crow Dog had various appeals, respites, and delaying actions that stretched the case out for nearly two years until the U.S. Supreme Court at last stepped in ahead of a scheduled January 14, 1884 execution to adjudicate the question of whether a murder within a tribe, on that tribe’s own reservation, was within the proper jurisdiction of non-Indian courts like the one that tried Crow Dog. Its Ex parte Crow Dog resoundingly answered in the negative, a milestone in the legal framework around Indian sovereignty in the U.S. To execute Crow Dog under the white court’s verdict, the justices ruled, would require Anglo law to be

extended over aliens and strangers; over the members of a community, separated by race, by tradition, by the instincts of a free though savage life, from the authority and power which seeks to impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code, and to subject them to the responsibilities of civil conduct, according to rules and penalties of which they could have no previous warning; which judges them by a standard made by others, and not for them, which takes no account of the conditions which should except them from its exactions, and makes no allowance for their inability to understand it. It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race, according to the law of a social state of which they have an imperfect conception and which is opposed to the traditions of their history, to the habits of their lives, to the strongest prejudices of their savage nature; one which measures the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.

The legal doctrine at work here holds that although conquered, native tribes still possess internal sovereignty. And with Ex parte Crow Dog it became clear and settled American jurisprudence that one attribute of that remaining sovereignty was plenary — that is, absolute — power over purely internal affairs.

At least, for a year.

White America was discomfited by the abrogation of its morality-maxims over the revengeful red man, and the situation invited moral panic around any malfeasance in Indian country. The Washington D.C. Evening Star would complain months later (June 5, 1884) that Ex parte Crow Dog “has had the effect of creating the idea among the Indians that there is no law to punish an Indian for a crime committed on a reservation.” And the Supreme Court itself had slyly noted that it was obliged to make such rulings absent “a clear expression of the intention of Congress” to take a bite out of Indian sovereignty — an intent “that we have not been able to find.”

So in 1885, the U.S. Congress decided to express that intent and voted the Major Crimes Act placing Indians under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction for seven major types of crimes — including, of course, murder. “We all feel that an Indian, when he commits a crime, should be recognized as a criminal,” Michigan Congressman Byron Cutcheon urged on the legislation’s behalf. “It is an infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder, there being no tribunal before which they can be brought for punishment.”

This briefest interim between Ex parte Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act was in a sense the high water mark for tribal sovereignty. Following the Major Crimes bill, white politicians began almost systematically reaching onto the reservations to legislate, picking away at tribal sovereignty until another much more infamous case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, disastrously declared that plenary power now resided in Congress.

Crow Dog went on to become a major figure in the ghost dance movement. Present-day American Indian Movement activist Leonard Crow Dog is a descendant; he’s written a book connecting back to his famous ancestor called Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University is named for Spotted Tail.

* The price was $600, eight horses, and a blanket.

** Sidney Harring in “Crow Dog’s Case: A Chapter in the Legal History of Tribal Sovereignty,” American Indian Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1988/1989) — also the source of the preceding footnote.

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1783: Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru, rebel heir

Add comment July 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1783, Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru — cousin and successor to the famed indigenous rebel Tupac Amaru II — was tortured to death in Cusco.

After Tupac Amaru’s execution in May 1781, the rebellion he had kindled fell south to present-day Bolivia and fought on furiously. Diego Cristobal succeeded his kinsman in authority, and with the (unrelated, but allied) Tupac Katari could briefly command vast territories that demanded bloody Spanish reconquest over hostile terrain. “Twenty years after these events,” one 19th century chronicle reports, “This writer saw the plains of Sicasica and Calamaca, for an extent of fourteen leagues, covered with heaps of unburied human human bones, lying in the places where the wretched Indians fell, to bleach in the tropical sun.”

By early 1782, Tupac Katari had followed Tupac Amaru to the Spanish scaffold and the indigenous resistance they had led was broken into so many bleaching bones. Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru availed himself of an amnesty promised by Viceroy Agustin de Jauregui to bring the rebellion to a formal close. Diego Cristobal even lived for some months thereafter in peace.

But if Spain’s viceregal authorities ever had the least intent of keeping that guarantee long term, they were set straight by the mother country once the treaty was circulated back home: “no faith is due to pledges made to traitors,” the crown directed. Surely in this perfidy there is also the implied regard of fear; had Cusco fallen to Tupac Amaru’s siege in 1781, the whole history of the New World could have changed. To leave unmolested the royal family of this martyred champion would have courted more danger than an empire ought.

So in March 1783, a Spanish sweep arrested not only Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru but around 100 other members of his family and their households, pre-emptively on allegations of a fresh conspiracy. Though it was left to Diego to suffer the most extreme bodily fate, extirpation of his line was the intent, and other Tupac Amaru kin were dispossessed of property, deported, and forbidden the use of their costumes and titles as their subjects — Spain’s subjects — were forbidden their arms.

A ghastly account of Diego Cristobal’s sentence and execution is available in Spanish here: “to be dragged through the streets to the place of execution and there his flesh torn with hot pincers and then hanged by the neck until dead; afterwards to be dismembered and his head carried to Tungasuca, his arms to Lauramarca and Carabaya, his legs to Paucartambo and Calca, and the rest of his corpse set up in a pillory on the Caja del Agua, forfeiting all his property to the confiscation of His Majesty.”

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1726: Joseph Quasson

Add comment June 29th, 2016 Headsman

Hanged on this date in 1726, Joseph Quasson enjoys a minor distinction in the annals of the gallows press: according to friend of the blog Anthony Vaver, Samuel Moody’s account of Quasson’s long* jailhouse sojourn was the first published in the colonies as a standalone conversion narrative, without cover of an attached ministerial sermon.

And here it is:

* Quasson fatally shot a fellow enlistee serving during Father Rale’s War. There was no question about his guilt, but when the murder took place the next sitting of the court was nine months away so the man just got to cool his heels.

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1557: Galvarino, Mapuche warrior

Add comment November 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1557, the handless Mapuche cacique Galvarino was executed by the Spanish during the Arauco War.

The Mapuche people, still extant today, inhabited present-day Chile and Argentina; Spanish explorers pushing south from the wreck of the Inca Empire encountered them, and naturally antagonized them.

Rebellion broke out among the Mapuche in 1553, led by Caupolican and his able commander Lautaro; they won some signal victories but the conflict was never decisively finished by either side. The Arauco War — encompassing many distinct rebellions and campaigns punctuated by relative calm — ran until the early 19th century.

Our fellow Galvarino was elevated to folk hero status by the Spanish in the very first period of rebellion when he was captured in battle at Lagunillas. Instead of cutting off his head, the Europeans chopped off his hands — then sent him (with a number of like mutilated prisoners) back to his people. The intent was to make a terrifying example, but Galvarino made the example his own: brandishing the bloodied stumps and oratorical fury to match, he incited his comrades to further resistance.

At the Battle of Millarapue on this date in 1557, hours before his execution, the Spanish beheld him urging on the Mapuche:

My Brothers, why have you stopped attacking these Christians, seeing the manifest damage that from the day which they entered our kingdom until today they have done and are doing? And they still will do to you what you see that they have done and they are doing? And still they will do to you what you see that they have done to me, cut your hands off, if you are not diligent in making the most of wreaking destruction on these so injurious people for us and or or our children and women!

But by evening, the Spanish carried the day — and once again had Galvarino in their custody.

“The poet Ercilla, impressed by the Indian’s valor, made every effort to keep him from being executed, arguing that he had seen Galvarino changing sides and joining the Spanish troops,” writes Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliu in Culture and Customs of Chile. “Galvarino, displaying his mutilated arms, until then covered by a shawl, refused Ercilla’s offer to commute his death sentence and said that he only wished that he could tear his enemies apart with his teeth.”

They put him to death straightaway. Accounts of the execution method range from hanging to impalement to being thrown to dogs.

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1836: Six Creek rebels, amid removal

Add comment November 25th, 2015 Headsman

We ask you how the Muscogee Nation came by this country? You came from the west and took the country from another people who were in possession. After living here a great many years, the people from over the big waters came in large vessels and took some of the country from you and set up their own government, and made laws, & made you obey them …

you must be sensible that it will be impossible for you to remain, for any length of time, in your present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or any other State. Such a community is incompatible with our system, and must yield to it. This truth is too striking and obvious not to be seen by all of you, surrounded as you are by the people of the several States. You must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits you are, or remove beyond the limits of any State …

Brothers, we now tell you, what we, in the name of your Father the President, want you to do. We want the country you now occupy. It is within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States insist upon having their lines cleared. The President will do this by giving you a better country, and will aid you in removing; protect you where you may go, against whites and all others, and give you a solemn guaranty in the title and occupancy of the new country which you may select … By deciding for yourselves, it may prevent others from deciding for you.

-U.S. federal communication to the Muscogee Creek chiefs, Dec. 9, 1824


Brothers, you have been deceived. A snake has been coiled in the shade, and you are running into his mouth … drunk with the fire of the pale-face. Brothers, the hunting grounds of our fathers have been stolen by our chief and sold to the pale-face, whose gold is in his pouch. Brothers, our grounds are gone, and the plow of the pale-face will soon upturn the bones of our fathers. Brothers, are you tame? Will you submit?

-Opothle Yoholo

On this date in 1836, six Muscogee Creek rebels were hanged in Alabama as murderers.

This age of the bellicose Andrew Jackson comprised the peak years of America’s Indian Removal — a frightful term denoting the forcible expulsion of indigenous nations from America’s east to her frontier wastelands. This was the fate ordained for the Creek people of Alabama, just as it was with their “civilized tribes” brethren, the Choctaw of Mississippi and the Cherokee of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Jackson himself had tangled with the Creek during his career-making appearance as America’s up-and-coming caudillo in the War of 1812: the eponymous Fort Jackson in Alabama was the base from which the Tennessee militia captain had defeated rebellious natives in the 1813-1814 Creek War and forced upon them the Treaty of Fort Jackson.* “Numberless aggressions,” read that document, “had been committed [by the Creeks] against the peace, the property, and the lives of citizens of the United States.”

So small wonder that as President, Old Hickory — for whom Indian Removal was a signature policy — had no time for Creek appeals to Washington to uphold their treaty rights in Alabama and Georgia. Their defeat in 1814 had left the Creek polity a powerless dependency, whose rights and even survival extended precisely so far as the American government wished. With the shrunken remnant** of their ancestral lands increasingly sought by white settlers, all the pressure within Anglo America ran towards the ethnic cleansing option.

“Voluntary” emigration under steady white pressure gnawed away at Creek numbers in the Southeast for a decade or more preceding the events of this post, but there was always going to be a militant slice of the population for whom no inducement short of violence would suffice. In 1836, land incursions finally triggered a Creek revolt, and became the Second Creek War — Jackson’s justification at last for completing the long-sought elimination of the Creek in the East.†

“The Creek Indians, below the Federal Road, are all in arms and killing every white person they have fallen in with,” ran the May 12, 1836 Macon Messenger. Everything was in “confusion and disarray” — the fleeting advantage of initiative while Anglos mustered an overwhelming response.

Attacks on stagecoaches this same month “created a greater sensation throughout the country than any previous act of Indian hostility,” per this public domain history of Columbus, Ga. (The town abuts the Alabama border.)

Two stages carrying the United States mail, going from Columbus to Tuskegee, Ala., were attacked about eighteen miles from Columbus. The Indians killed Mr. Green, one of the drivers, and two horses, and robbed the mail. The next day a party of fifteen men started to come through to Columbus with two stages. Some of these men were passengers and others volunteers who accompanied the stages to assist in their protection.

It was for this raid that claimed Green’s life that Tuscoona Fixico and four others — never named in any source I have been able to find — were condemned to hang on Nov. 25, alongside a man named Chilancha for the unrelated killing of a man named Fannin during the uprising.

The Second Creek War went much the same way as the first, and proved those American diplomats prescient as to the inevitability of the conquered peoples’ fate. Today, the Poarch Creek — numbering barely 2,000 — are the only remaining band of Muscogee Creek in Alabama.

* It was from this engagement that Jackson proceeded to the famous Battle of New Orleans.

** In one vain bid to stanch the loss of Creek territory, the tribe — incensed by the Treaty of Indian Springs — had in 1821 enacted capital punishment for anyone who sold land to whites. It was on the strength of this statute that Creek assassins murdered/executed the collaborationist chief William McIntosh in 1825.

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1834: James Graves, Trail of Tears precursor

Add comment November 21st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1834, the Cherokee James Graves was hanged in Spring Place, Georgia, for murder. He’s the only person ever executed in Georgia’s Murray County.

But he was also a sad waymarker on the way to a much larger tragedy.

It happened that in 1834 the state of Georgia’s long-simmering conflict with the indigenous Cherokee nation was coming to a nasty head. In the infancy of the American Republic, it had made a pact placing the Cherokee under the protection of the United States.

By the 1820s, however, Cherokee land had been nibbled away and the white citizens of Georgia started clamoring for a proper ethnic cleansing: forcibly expelling the Cherokee to the western frontier.

The immediate territorial conflict became joined to a conflict over federal jurisdiction, because the Cherokee had their treaty with the United States (not with Georgia) and its terms were supposed to be guaranteed by Washington (not Milledgeville). As the Georgia legislature enacted laws stripping the Cherokee of land and self-rule, the Cherokee appealed in federal courts.

The Cherokee notched a major win in the 1832 Worcester v. Georgia, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that Indian affairs were the domain of the federal government and individual states had nothing to say in the matter.

But to give a sense of where the wind was blowing, this is the very decision about which U.S. President (and notorious Indian-killer) Andrew Jackson is supposed to have remarked, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” The quote itself is probably apocryphal but the atmosphere of lawless confrontation was very real indeed.

James Graves was convicted by a Georgia jury in September 1834 of murdering a white man several years prior on Indian land … or rather, on what Georgia said was now no longer Indian land.

The Supreme Court directed Georgia to stay the hanging and appear at a January 1835 hearing.

Governor William Lumpkin* would have none of it. Grandstanding in a communique to an all but universally supportive legislature, he vowed to ignore the court’s order.

Any attempt to infringe the evident rights of the State, to govern its entire population, of whatever complexion, and punish all offences committed against its laws within those limits … I consider a direct usurpation of power. … Such attempts demand the determined resistance of the States … I shall wholly disregard all such unconstitutional requisitions, of whatever character or origin, and, to the utmost of my power, protect and defend the rights of the State, and use the means afforded me to maintain the laws and Constitution of the same. (Nov. 7, 1834)

Two weeks later, Georgia hung James Graves, stay or no stay. There would be no hearing in Washington that January.

“What is to be done with Georgia?” lamented the Nantucket Inquirer (Dec. 13, 1834). “Will another presidential proclamation, full of big words and bombastic threats, be issued against her, for having nullified the U.S. claim of sovereignty over the Indians, and for having hanged the copper-skinned citizen Graves, in defiance of the interdict of one of Gen. Jackson’s judges?”

They already knew the answer: “O, no! — Why? Van Buren counts upon the vote of Georgia at the next presidential election!” (Van Buren did not in fact carry Georgia.)

In 1835, the U.S. foisted a dubious new treaty on the Cherokee by getting a minority faction to sign off on Indian removal, and shortly thereafter forced the Cherokee west on the Trail of Tears.

* Lumpkin County, Georgia is named for him. That’s not too shabby, but he almost hit big-time when the city of Terminus proposed to rename itself Lumpkin. Lumpkin declined and the city is today known as Atlanta.

** Georgia conducted another execution, that of George Tassels, under similarly contested circumstances a few years before Graves.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1879: Pocket, on the Hallettsville hanging tree

Add comment September 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.

The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.

Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)

That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.

On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.

At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.

Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.

Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.

Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.


(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)

Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.

The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but when the opportunity to fight back arrived he joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

-diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Massachusetts,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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