Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,053

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,053


This is the grave of Alexander Ramsey.

Born in 1815 in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, Ramsey didn’t grow up under the greatest of circumstances. HIs father killed himself when Ramsey was a boy after he was held liable to pay a note he had signed for a friend who then defaulted on it. Unable to pay, he shot himself in the head. Such was the 19th century financial system. Ramsey and his siblings ended up being split up among different family numbers. But the family was OK financially and Ramsey attended Lafayette College for awhile. He dropped out and instead read for the law, passing the bar in 1839. Like so many young people, Ramsey realized that the road to power lay through the law and then politics. So he was elected to Congress as a Whig in 1843. He served two terms. He wasn’t a hugely important figure in Congress but he was good at making connections.

In 1849, the U.S. created the new territory of Minnesota. Ramsey got the position as territorial governor. How was one to succeed in this role? The answer was clear–get rid of Indians. He worked with other leading early white Minnesotans such as Henry Sibley and Henry Mower Rice in this project. He was also corrupt. He and his friends negotiated treaties with the Dakota in 1851 that forced the tribe to give up much of its land. He then took most of the money involved in it, leading to a congressional investigation. But really, who cared if you stole from Indians? Not enough people to impact his career at least. He served in that role during the Whig administrations of Taylor and Fillmore and then was forced out in 1853, normal at the time. So he became the mayor of St. Paul that year. In 1860, he was elected governor of Minnesota and stayed in that role for three years. A major Republican leader in the West, Ramsey rushed to Washington as soon as he heard about the South committing treason in defense of slavery to volunteer his services and that of his state. This was something of a stunt. He could have just telegraphed this to Lincoln. But Ramsey wanted to do it personally and no doubt remind Lincoln of how awesome he was.

Now, being a member of the Minnesota elite in the early 1860s had a principle higher than fighting slavery or for the Union. That was committing genocide. For fifteen years by then, an endless flow of whites had moved into Minnesota, stolen land from the Dakota, and forced them into poverty. There were treaties and then the U.S. didn’t live up to their side of the treaties. The Dakota were starving and desperate and finally they did what any reasonable person would consider doing in such a situation. They chose to fight back and try to drive the whites out of their homeland. The Dakota War was marked by great brutality. For both sides, it was a war of extermination, one side to save themselves and their culture and the other for the right to steal and pillage everything from the Indians. Ramsey could not have survived politically by opposing this. But he didn’t have to make a hard choice. That’s because he was openly pro-genocide. Moreover, Ramsey had gone far to cause the war. He and his friends were profiting off the government contracts to pay off and feed the Dakota by just stealing the money and letting them starve. So when they fought back, he authorized money for any white to kill a Dakota, scalp the heathen, and present it to St. Paul. Classy guy.

When the Dakota struck back, Ramsey named Sibley head of the force designated to suppress them, with the governor telling him, “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” Just in case you weren’t clear how central genocide was to Ramsey’s political vision by this point in the post. Ramsey and Sibley and the rest of the Minnesota white elite decided on wholesale killing as the form of revenge on the Dakota. Through “trials” that weren’t anything more than processing them through the system, they decided to kill any Dakota male they thought might have committed some sort of depredation against whites. So they issued over 300 execution orders. Now, that was something that got attention. Including from Abraham Lincoln, who was like, wait a minute are you actually going to force me to take time out of directing a war against treason in defense of slavery to make me deal with this? And that’s what Lincoln did. He reviewed the cases himself. He wanted to make sure that the people killed were actually proven of doing something like murder or raping a white woman (whites raping Native women most certainly was not something anyone was concerned with). So he commuted most of the sentences and had only 38 of the men executed. Now, Lincoln still absolutely had innocent people killed. Historians have been able to track down enough information on all this to discover that there were most certainly cases of mistaken identity, people with the same name as someone else, etc. But people weren’t paying that much attention to the details.

Lincoln ordering those 38 Dakota killed was still the largest mass execution in American history. And it pissed off Minnesota voters. They wanted way more killings. In fact, this nearly cost Lincoln Minnesota in the 1864 election. Lincoln was at first confused as to why he had done so poorly in Minnesota compared to what he expected. After all, there was almost no support for Confederates or slavery in that far northern state. Ramsey flat out told him that he didn’t kill enough Dakota for the people’s needs. As for the rest of the Dakota, they were held in concentration camps for a year and then sent west. No one cared about them.

All of this just made Ramsey even more popular among the genocide loving Minnesota population. So the state sent him to the Senate in 1863. He was a strong supporter of Lincoln there and then for a vigorous Reconstruction. He served two terms, not only supporting Reconstruction and voting to convict Andrew Johnson, but also engaging in the typical pro-business, pro-development agenda of the Republican Party. He was a huge railroad supporter and probably got paid by James J. Hill for his support of the Northern Pacific. It was the Gilded Age after all and Ramsey’s personal ethics were…a little shaky.

Ramsey’s genocide certainly didn’t hurt him in the Republican Party. He remained a major player for the rest of his life. In 1879, Ramsey joined the Hayes administration as Secretary of War. One of the things he did here was to reform West Point’s anti-Black policies after the unjust court martial of a Black cadet after he was assaulted by his white classmates. One point that needs to be made repeatedly is that the idea that abolitionists were these great people on other issues is simply not supported by historical evidence. There were lots of people such as Ramsey who were quite good on Black rights and who thought Indians were not even people who needed to live. This all was absolutely not about some modern liberal notion of “human rights” or “dignity,” which are useless frameworks for analyzing the nineteenth century.

Ramsey then was named one of the commissioners over Utah to bring that renegade place with its weirdo Mormons into the nation. Central to this was the outlawing of polygamy, which Ramsey helped bring about. The Mormons sued Ramsey and the other commissioners for denying polygamists the right to vote, but the Supreme Court was definitely on Ramsey’s side on this one and upheld the commissioners in Murphy v. Ramsey in 1885. He also got rich off of his real estate dealings. Since honesty was never something Ramsey was too interested in, he did just fine for himself.

Ramsey spent his later years, as many pioneers of genocide did, being involved in developing his state’s historical society to set narratives of heroic conquest. He died in 1903, at the age of 87.

Alexander Ramsey is buried in Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul, Minnesota. My favorite thing about this cemetery is that it is where much of the original class of genocidal leaders of the state are buried. But the cemetery also isn’t very full. It’s also very near the city’s largest Hmong community today. So they have pretty much taken it over in recent years. I love the idea of men like Ramsey being surrounded by Asians. Hopefully he is rolling over in his grave.

If you would like this series to visit other agents of American genocide, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Kit Carson is in Taos, New Mexico and Davy Crockett is (maybe) buried in San Antonio, though the actual grave site is disputed. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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