“As white settlers were coming into western territories, they fell into conflict with native communities,” said CUNY historian Pfeifer. “Access to land was an issue, but also alleged criminality with regard to livestock and resources on the land. That’s something we didn’t see with lynchings of African Americans in the South.”
Sometimes settlers moved west faster than police and legal systems could be put in place.
In April, 1890, an angry group of Banning, California, ranchers pulled a Native American man named Tacho from a boxcar at the local railroad depot, dragged him about a mile down the track and hanged him from a telegraph pole.
Described by Sacramento’s Daily Record-Union as “a desperado of the worst type,” Tacho was alleged to have stolen a horse and cattle.
In June 1848, a St. Croix Valley, Wisconsin, group of local businessmen conducted a “thorough, dispassionate and impartial” murder trial, according to the Wisconsin Tribune newspaper, of a 22-year-old Anishinaabe man known as Paunais or Little Saux, accused of murdering a white man. They hanged him in front of as many as 300 spectators, including his mother, brother, wife and several tribal leaders.
“The citizens are without a state or even a territorial government, with no courts or judges to hold them, and so frequent has been the case that Indian murderers of white men have gone unpunished that …citizens were determined to …show to the Chippeways [Anishinaabe] that their barbarous acts can no longer be committed with impunity,” read the paper's report.
“There were also questions of complex legal jurisdiction between territorial law, federal law and sovereign indigenous law,” explained Pfeifer, that could lead to legal delays which frustrated angry citizens.
In November 1897, for example, masked men stormed a Williamsport, North Dakota, jail, dragged three Native American prisoners from their cells and hanged them from a nearby beef windlass — a device used to hoist cattle carcasses. Paul Holy Track, Alex Cadotte and Phillip Ireland had been implicated in the murder of a white family; after Cadotte was granted a retrial, citizens worried all three would go free.
Pfeifer suspects that the 137 Native Americans identified in the MonroeWorksToday map project are only the tip of the iceberg. He said he has unearthed dozens more cases of lynched Native Americans and has “only just begun to scratch the surface.”
Some date back to the earliest colonial times: In July 1677, a group of women settlers in Marblehead, Massachusetts, beat to death and decapitated two Wampanoag Indian captives.
Sometimes, said Pfeifer, the line between lynchings and massacres can be fine.