Sinte’s Story

Today Sinte stepped out of a 150 year old-letter via the voice of her great-granddaughter, Loretta, who commented on an 1863 letter written by U.S. Army Lieutenant James Gorman.

Scroll down to the comments and watch Sinte’s story unfold as J. R. Brown biographer, Nancy Goodman contributes the documentary sources on Sinte she found. Then Loretta shares Sinte’s family’s story.

Since this is a lovely example, it bears repeating: Thank you to everyone who so generously contributes stories and information, publicly in comments, and privately via email. This corner of the research world is richer because you share.

Posted in James Gorman, Sinte | Leave a comment

Officers, Gentlemen, and Dakota Women

Theodore G. Carter, an officer in the 7th Minnesota, Company K, adds his recollection to the series on relationships between Army officers and Dakota women on the Minnesota frontier. (The five-part series started here.)

In his reminiscences, published in the St. Peter Herald in the spring of 1906, Carter made this observation about J.R. Brown, who was on Sibley’s campaign staff at Mankato in December 1862. The article was published on April 20, 1906.

Major Joseph R. Brown was with us and, I think, acted as interpreter….Major Brown was a drummer boy at Fort Snelling in 1823, and afterward held official positions in Wisconsin Territory and later had been agent for the Sioux Indians.

I admired him for one thing. Like most of the early settlers who came to the country unmarried, he took a wife from the Sioux, but unlike nearly all others, he did not repudiate her when civilization came. He educated his children and was as highly respected as those who, similarly situated, deserted their dusky wives and married white “ladies.” But it must have made the white ladies feel queer to have the Indian wife come with her children and make an annual visit. I have it on good authority that such was the custom. And these people were high up in the political and social world.

In the context of Walt Bachman’s research on Henry Milord, I wish Carter had named names.

Carter’s reminiscences show he generally respected Sibley as an officer; he did not repeat the rumors about Sibley’s Dakota children that Carter likely heard on the 1862 campaign. But Carter gives Brown a similarly polished nod, alluding to Brown’s married relationship to Susan Frenier Brown, while omitting the story of Brown’s arrest on November 11, 1862, when, after curfew and against orders, Brown was found inside a tipi in the Dakota women’s camp at Mankato. (See link below.) While Brown’s self-defense was that he was sleeping there to protect his female relatives from male intruders, Stephen R. Riggs, also present, the same day wrote a letter naming it a “scandal.”

Carter’s observation points out another real-life consequence of this pattern of officers and other ‘gentlemen’ who were merely visitors to the frontier temporarily taking a Dakota woman as a sexual partner. These pre-war relationships occurred in a cultural context that involved Dakota men, often the woman’s father, acting as a go-between. While traditional Dakota culture was functioning, kinship must have helped protect the rights of Dakota women.

But what happened among the Dakota prisoners after the war when the dictates of military tribunal resulted in the segregation of Dakota women from Dakota men? Vulnerable women, traumatized by war and by sudden, forced dislocations from loved-ones and place,  landed in the erstwhile protection of military men who had liberal pre-existing attitudes about the rights of white men in power to Indigenous women.

This means that the sexual abuse and harassment of Dakota women in the wake of the war did not occur in a vacuum. It’s all one story. The liberties taken by officers and gentlemen before the war paved the way.

Posted in Theo. G. Carter, Women's History | Leave a comment

Did Henry Sibley Execute His Son?

Love a good mystery? You’re in for a treat.

Early in his research for Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfreyhistorian Walt Bachman unearthed rumors that Henry Milord, one of the 38 Dakota men executed at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, was the son of General Henry H. Sibley. Sibley convened the military tribunal that condemned 303 men to death, and signed off on the execution orders, including Milord’s.

Sibleys eyes

Among other paternity allegations, Henry Milord is said to have had Henry Sibley’s eyes.

From the time of Milord’s October 1862 trial for participation in the U.S.-Dakota War and stretching into the 1920s, when the last people died who had known both men, many believed Sibley had executed his son. But interpretations of Sibley’s paternity differed. Some said Sibley had “raised” Milord, while others swore Sibley was Milord’s biological father.

In The Filicide Enigma Was Gen Henry Sibley’s Son Hanged in Mankato?, Walt Bachman weighs the evidence. More than a great mystery, the article is an excellent example of how careful historians evaluate conflicting stories –the stuff of which history is made.

The story is also painful evidence of the effect of race on the 1862 military tribunal hearings. Milord’s French heritage (if Sibley was not his biological father), or Yankee heritage (if he was), resulted in a more thorough, better documented trial than any full-Dakota man received.

Read the article, then cast your vote for Milord’s paternity. When you vote, the poll’s results will be visible to you.

Then check out Bachman’s upcoming appearances in Minnesota for a chance to meet him in person.

Posted in 1862 Dakota War trials, Doing Historical Research, Henry Milord, Walt Bachman | Leave a comment

1862 Dakota Peace Coalition

Please join me and the Linden Hills History Study Group on Monday, October 14 at 7:00 PM. We will meet at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 4201 Sheridan Avenue South in Minneapolis, MN as I share, and we discuss, the controversial theme of my Historical Introduction to Mary Butler Renville’s  1863 book A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: that the Dakota counter-insurgency known as the Peace Party actively and effectively worked to bring the 1862 War to a close.


Posted in Dakota Peace Party | Leave a comment

Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 5

This post is a classic exercise in doing history. A question that, based on a file of leads, appears to be straight-forward, actually has no clear answer. 

Captain John S. Marsh of the 5th Minnesota Volunteers, Company B has always been a mystery to me. Was he “gallant” or “misguided” for marching boldly out of Fort Ridgely the morning of August 18, 1862 to put down the rumored unrest at the Lower Sioux Agency? Marsh was an officer with front-line experience at Bull Run in Virginia. But to hear the story survivors told, Marsh brushed off every caution urged by settlers fleeing the Agency, and marched half his command to their deaths in a Dakota ambush at Redwood Ferry.

No one has adequately explained what Marsh was doing at the time he drowned –hours later while trying to cross the Minnesota River toward the Lower Reservation.  Other survivors headed the opposite direction, toward Fort Ridgely. Folwell explained that after the ambush, Marsh and some of him men retreated under cover of the brushy tree-line on the north bank of the river until,

“At length a point was reached where the cover was too thin. Captain Marsh decided to cross the stream, thus escaping the Indians’ fire, and make his way toward the fort along the south bank. He would not have so resolved had he known or, if knowing he had reflected that he would find himself in one of the Sioux villages.” [1]

Marsh Marker Fort Ridgley Cemetery

The monument in the Fort Ridgely Cemetery marking the graves of the soldiers killed at Redwood Ferry August 18, 1862.

I make no claim to solving the mystery of Marsh’s deadly bravado. But the story is complicated by a source suggesting that while stationed at Fort Ridgely, John S. Marsh had allied himself with a Dakota band via kinship — that he had a relationship with a Dakota woman who, it is said, was carrying Marsh’s child the day Marsh died.

Evidence is scattered and insubstantial enough to leave me only wondering, not convinced. But I share the sources, thin as they are, to underline the point that the questions I have raised in this series about relationships between army officers and Dakota women are not esoteric. These were real relationships between real men and women. Some of those relationships resulted in the birth of real children. All the actors played real, if unrecognized, roles in the real-life drama we call ‘history.’

We’ve already seen the context of John S. Marsh’s story. Eli Huggins agreed with Stephen Riggs’s assessment that it was “exceedingly common” for military officers stationed on the frontier to have a temporary relationship with a Native American woman. Huggins said the exceptions were, sometimes, married men and missionaries. Marsh was not married and his religious affiliation, if he had one, is unknown.

Further, now that we are beginning to understand the privileges accorded post commanders –like importing slaves to Free states and territories as servants –I better understand why temporarily taking a Native sexual partner was viewed as ordinary. Like slave holding, it wasn’t something every officer would choose to do. But few would view it amiss if he did.

Listen to how nonchalantly Timothy J. Sheehan recorded this in his diary while his detachment was stationed at Yellow Medicine the summer of 1862:

July 13: “All quiet in camp lots inds. prowling around about 2000 bucks squaws and papooses danced in front of the traders stores called it the great buffalo dance squaws had on buffalo robes all painted one young squaw wore around her the stars and stripes wanted to marry white man Mark Greer took her to teopie [sic] stayed all day.” [2 ]


Nancy McClure

Nancy McClure, or Winona by Frank B. Mayer, 1851. MHS

The earliest documentation of the Marsh-baby allegation comes from Nancy McClure. Ironically, McClure (1836-1927) was the daughter of a Dakota woman, Winona, and an army officer stationed at Fort Snelling, James McClure. When she was in her eighties, McClure told Mankato historian Thomas Hughes,

“Sleepy Eyes had two grandchildren living in Canada. One was called Her Cloud, who had a son by a volunteer officer at Fort Ridgely — I think the officer’s name was Marsh. Her Cloud during the outbreak fled to Canada and her son grew up there and has a big farm near Pipestone, Canada. Her Cloud died a few years ago.” [3]

Hughes’s co-author, William C. Brown, marked Marsh’s name to be stricken from the manuscript in which the quote appears, Old Traverse des Sioux. Commenting on a galley copy Hughes sent Brown for proofing, on March 24, 1928, Brown told Hughes to strike ” ‘–I think the officer’s name was Marsh’… as Heitman’s Register does not show any regular army officer named Marsh who could possibly have ever served at Fort Ridgely.”

On March 26, 1928, Hughes replied to Brown,

“In regard to Captain Marsh commanding at Fort Ridgely, would say that he was not a United States Officer at all in the sense of belonging to the regular army. There was not one soldier at Fort Ridgely for over a year before the Outbreak that had enlisted in the regular Army, but they belonged to the Fifth and Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry….all the regular U.S. soldiers had been sent south. Captain Marsh belonged to the Sixth Minnesota Infantry and was the officer in command at Fort Ridgely at the time of the Outbreak and was crowned in the Minnesota River… he had been in command at Fort Ridgely for six months or more, and he is the officer I presume that Mrs. Huggins referred to, in fact she told me so, as being the father of ‘Her Cloud.'” [4]

Hughes’s claim is typical of written documentary history: a mixed bag of ‘facts.’ It is unfortunately easy to parse out the piece that supports a hypothesis –let’s say the affirmative ‘she told me so’  here– and declare, positively, that McClure said Marsh had fathered a Dakota baby. In fact, that is essentially how Hughes himself used McClure’s story: read it to confirm his belief that Marsh had a Dakota child.

But listen to how an attorney might cross-examine Hughes if, instead of publishing this vignette, he had spoken it as oral testimony in court.

“Which is it Mr. Hughes? Did Mrs. McClure actually name Marsh, or did you ‘presume’ she was referring to Marsh and you supplied his name?”

No matter how Hughes answered, the follow-up questions would have gone hard on him. “Can be you be certain of that, Mr. Hughes? Did you say Marsh was Captain in the Sixth Regiment?”

“Yes, I did.”

“But he was in the Fifth, Mr. Hughes. Perhaps you’ve forgotten? How about “Her Cloud”? You have stated both that she was the mother of Marsh’s baby and that Marsh was Her Cloud’s father. Which is it?”

There’s also the big problem of Hughes’s claim in Old Traverse des Sioux that he obtained Nancy McClure’s story (Chapter X) when she visited St. Peter, while much of the content –although not the Marsh passage –is lifted verbatim from letters McClure wrote to historian Return I. Holcombe, three decades before she visited Hughes. [5]

Parsing history is devilish, isn’t it? Even though we might judge Hughes an unreliable transmitter of McClure’s story, the fact remains that McClure is a reliable source. Her own mother had been in Her Cloud’s position and McClure herself was a living parallel to Marsh’s baby. So we can expect the story might have had unusual staying power for McClure.

Further, in 1862, during the months Marsh was stationed at Fort Ridgely, McClure was living with her husband, David Faribault Sr., on the government road that connected Ridgely and the Lower Sioux Agency, crossing the Minnesota at Redwood Ferry. If Marsh had a relationship with a woman on the reservation side of the river, Marsh would have passed Nancy McClure’s front door coming and going (unless he crossed the Minnesota at the Ridgely ferry).

There is also a body of evidence, larger than I will present here, supporting the idea that during the summer of 1862, Dakota men cultivated an alliance with Marsh designed to safeguard Dakota autonomy during the pending 1862 annuity payment –autonomy undermined in past years when Ridgely commanders had supported the Indian Agent’s agenda.

If Marsh had entered into a relationship with a Dakota woman, might not that have opened a door for her kin to expect Marsh would at least hear their grievances against the government, and perhaps help Dakotas balance the scales? Former Sioux Agent Joseph R. Brown complained to Ignatius Donnelly in 1865,

“I think in a former letter I shared that all intercourse with the Indians should be through the Agent and all military officers should be forbidden from counseling or in any manner interfering with the Indians except upon the application of the Agent….

At Fort Snelling the Agent suffered many indignities through the usurpation of powers by the Comdg. officer in connection with the duties of the Agent; and I am satisfied that the germ of dissatisfaction on the part of the Lower Sioux was brought forth by the interference of the Comdg. officers for a period of three or four years at Fort Ridgely. Poor Captain Marsh whose life was sacrificed at the Lower Agency went so far as to counsel the Indians in case the Agent should attempt to retain any of their annuity money on account of depredations, to take it from the Agent by force, and to refuse to payment of all debts to traders and that his troops would protect them in doing so.” [6]

The final scrap of evidence in my Marsh file was unearthed by Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz while she was transcribing primary sources for her book, The Dakota Internment at Fort Snelling 1862-64. In the Catholic Church of St. Peter [Mendota, MN] Parish Baptismal Register, Marz found an entry for baby Julius Gere, born to Wakinyaniwin and  man named Gere, given name not recorded. Julius was one month old at the time of his baptism on March 22 or 29, 1863. Reasoning backward to an approximate conception date of June, 1862, Marz points out that Lt. Thomas P. Gere, age 19, was stationed at Fort Ridgely at the right time to be Julius’s biological father.

What does a potential son of Lt. Thomas P. Gere have to do with the story of John S. Marsh? Perhaps nothing. If either attribution –that Gere fathered a baby, or that Marsh fathered a baby –is wrong, then any connection between the two is also wrong.

However we know that commanding officers set the tone for the behavior of their subordinates. And now we also know from primary sources that relationships between officers and Dakota women on the Minnesota frontier were common. So unless Marsh was personally an exception, and unless he imposed and enforced his contrary convictions on those in his command, we can expect his soldiers would have followed his lead. Therefore we can infer from the attitudes and behavior of Marsh’s subordinates, like Sheehan, Gere, and Greer, that Marsh was probably not opposed to the practice of military men taking Dakota women.

This series is over for now because  I’ve come to the end of the written sources in my file. But I hope it is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation. Those of us alive today are working in an era where we recognize that humans are multi-dimensional, military heroes not excepted. We are open to “exploring the wrinkles” in stories, as Annette Atkins observes,  that previous generations of historians seemed intent on “ironing out.”

Many of us are owning up to the limitations of many written historical sources, like Hughes’s claims above, and are opening up to the contributions of oral history. On this subject, Dakota oral tradition tells us that not all relationships between white officers and Dakota women were consensual. In the context of the sharp imbalance of power on the frontier favoring white males, rape and the fear of rape were so common that some Dakota women took physical precautions to thwart any attempt.

We can also expect that if they choose to share their family stories, Sleepy Eyes’s descendants would be the best-possible fact-checkers of the story about John S. Marsh that Hughes attributed to Nancy McClure.

As we’ll see, Army officers weren’t the only ones. Coming up on October 4 is a guest post by Walt Bachman examining allegations that Henry Milord, one of the 38 Dakota men executed at Mankato in 1862, was the son of former Governor Henry H. Sibley who ordered the execution.


[1] William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Volume 2, p. 114 (Minnesota Historical Society, 1924) p. 114. Folwell characterized Marsh as “ignorant and “overconfident” in marching into ambush at Redwood Ferry.

[2] My transcription of the original held by the Minnesota Historical Society.

[3] Thomas Hughes, Old Traverse des Sioux, p. 128 (Herald Publishing Company, 1929)

[4] William C. Brown to Thomas Hughes March 26, 1928. Thomas Hughes Papers, Southern Minnesota Research Center, Mankato State University, Mankato, MN.

[5] McClure’s letters to Holcombe are in the Return Ira Holcombe Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society.

[6] Joseph R. Brown to Ignatius Donnelly March 12, 1865. Ignatius Donnelly Papers. Microfilm. MHS.

[7] Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz The Dakota Internment at Fort Snelling 1862-64  p. 90 (Prairie Smoke Press, 2005).

Image Credits: Find A Grave and the Minnesota Historical Society. Both via Google Images.

Posted in Doing Historical Research, John S. Marsh, William P. Gere, Women's History | 1 Comment

Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 4

Rockford   Wright  County Minn July 25 1863

Samuel J. Brown, Esq.

Dear Sir

Not having anything in particular to do and thinking that it might interest you to know where the Bloody Co. “I” is stationed, I take this opportunity of now informing you. On our arrival in St. Paul we were ordered up to Mananah 12 miles west of Forest City from there I was ordered with 15 of the boys down in through the Big Woods on the Scout after Indians where we have been ever since and have had some good times and some bad here on account of the mosquitoes and flies and long marches and at times very little to eat at others we have had plenty when we make [ ] onslaught on some farmers for chickens. I tell you Sam the Boys of Co. “I” can’t be beat on robbing their roosts.

I hope you have a good time up amongst the Indians. I wish you would scalp a few of them Sam and send the scalps along this way as scalps are worth $75.00 here now to anyone who takes one. Send a few along and I will go halves with you. I expect you and [torn page; three words missing] Maj. must have a dull time of it up there.

Sam I want you to do me a favor by going and seeing Sinte for me and find out how herself and the young one is getting on up in that God-forsaken country. I expect it must be hard times with her. Sam I want you to write me all the news from your place —how you get along with the Indians and all about matters and things in general if there is anything in particular Sinte wants me to do for her you will please let me know and if convenient I shall do it. By complying with the above requests and writing at your earliest convenience you will confer lasting favor on

Yours Truly

Jas. Gorman

address: Lieut. Jas Gorman Co. “I” 10th Regt. M.V. Mananah, Meeker Co. Minn

note on jacket in Samuel J. Brown’s handwriting: “Captain James Gorman of Renville Rangers”


Sometimes even I don’t know what to say, you know?

James Gorman was the brother of Minnesota Territorial Governor, Willis A Gorman. Before August of 1862, when he signed up for a company of Minnesota volunteer infantry shortly to become known as the Renville Rangers, James Gorman was employed on the Upper Sioux Reservation in west-central Minnesota.

This letter suggests that while living on the reservation, Gorman had a relationship with a Dakota woman, Sinte, and that Sinte, along with her child (Gorman’s?), had been exiled from Minnesota to Crow Creek, South Dakota.

Gorman’s friend, Samuel J. Brown was stationed at Crow Creek in the summer of 1863, as Dakota interpreter for the Federal Indian Agency. On the heels of his suggestion that hunting Indians for their scalps would liven up the monotony of duty at Crow Creek, Gorman asked Brown to send news of Sinte and her child, but was interested in helping them only if it is convenient.

It wasn’t a trivial reference to scalps. Little Crow (although his body had not yet been identified) had been killed and scalped about 20 miles away, three weeks before Gorman penned the letter.


Source: Photocopy in binder, “Samuel J. Brown, Frontiersman,” compiled and loaned to me in 2003 by Alan R. Woolworth. Possibly copied from the Joseph R. and Samuel J. Brown Family Papers, the Minnesota Historical Society.

Posted in Dakota Exile, James Gorman, Samuel J. Brown, scalping, Sinte | 8 Comments

Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 3

Eli Lundy Huggins     John J Pershing

General Eli Lundy Huggins (left) and General John J. Pershing (right), whom Huggins used as an example of the practice of army officers fathering children with women native to the place where the officer was garrisoned.

In 1918, Minnesota historian William Watts Folwell was deep in conversation with General Eli Lundy Huggins. Huggins, son of Dakota missionaries Alexander and Lydia Huggins, was probably born at Lac qui Parle, Minnesota in 1842, grew up at Traverse des Sioux, about 45 miles east of Fort Ridgely, was a career officer in the army, and died in California in 1929.[1]

Folwell first wrote to Eli Huggins in 1906. If Eli’s half of the correspondence is any indication, by the time Folwell began researching the first and second volumes of the History of Minnesota –history the Huggins family had lived –Folwell valued Huggins as a source of stories from the underbelly of history, stories which never made the headlines of period newspapers: Joseph Godfrey’s flight from Minnesota slave masters; Eli’s father Alexander’s temporary insanity after inheriting money made from slavery;  rumors that John B. Renville had abandoned true love to marry his white wife, Mary Butler Renville; an explanation of the “irregular intercourse” between army officers and Native women.

On July 5, 1918 Huggins closed a letter to Folwell with this postscript:

 “P.S. You quote Mr. Riggs as saying ‘irregular intercourse between white officers and gentlemen was exceedingly common.’ And he might have made a much stronger statement. I doubt whether any white healthy bachelor has ever lived among dark skinned people without taking a querida as they call them in the P. I. [Philippine Islands]. [General John J.] Pershing has a mestizo daughter (if she is still living) about 17 years old. The presence of officers and civil employees’ families was some check, and the frequent changes of station. But when a garrison was unchanged for a year or so the querida always appeared and there are [word illegible] a good many young American mestizos in the P.I.

I doubt whether one of the early pioneer traders, officers etc. was without his querida, except a few married ones and the missionaries. Even those did not always escape. Capt. Seth Eastman is a notable exception of the married officers. Hinman was the only exception I know of among the missionaries. He was the only bachelor missionary except the Pond brothers who soon married white women. It was imprudent to place a young bachelor missionary in this position and leave him there for years.

You know who Dr. [Thomas] Foster was, a pioneer newspaper man. He accompanied Gov. Ramsey and party to Traverse des Sioux when the treaty was made there. He bought from her father, Thunder Face (He-wakiyan) a Sioux maiden of more than usual charms. But when he tried to exercise his marital right, she resisted and left the marks of her nails on his face. The incident created much amusement among both the whites and Indians. She made several objections to accepting her father’s choice, one being that Dr. F. had ‘butter eyes’ –glass is the same as butter in Sioux, and F. wore large spectacles. Thunder Face laughed about it. He had delivered the goods and that was all that could be expected from him. The Dr. being a civilized gentleman could not assert his rights as his remote ancestor the cave man would have done and has for the degeneracy of our age.”

It seems Huggins knew what he was talking about.  Besides being career Army, Huggins had a relationship with a woman to whom he was not married while stationed in Alaska. We don’t know if she was Inuit, as one story implies, or if she was Russian, as implied by the name in another. We also do not role she played in determining the future of their son, Zenoah Alexander Huggins. But Eli Huggins, perhaps following Riggs’s admonition, played the part of the dutiful father by having Zenoah raised and educated in the Lower 48 by Eli’s sister Jane Huggins Holtzclaw.

Curiously (or perhaps not) there is no evidence Huggins ever told his own story to Folwell. As we’ll see next in the cases of two Army officers who fathered children with Dakota women in Minnesota, these relationships are not the type of story historians preserved in the official record.


[1] The question of Eli Huggins’ birth place is not settled. The author of a biography published in Chronicles of Oklahoma consulted Huggins’ military records in the National Archives, which may indicate he was born in Schuyler County, Illinois. This is possible as that county was the home of Eli’s maternal grandparents and a secondary source states that Lydia was visiting home at the time Eli was born. However, none of the Huggins family memoirs or journals note this trip home to Illinois. Baptism records for the Presbyterian Church at Lac qui Parle show Eli Huggins was baptized there October 30, 1842. Eli later referred to himself as “the oldest person still living who was born in Minnesota.” My thanks to Lois Glewwe for fact-checking Eli’s birth.

Posted in Eli Lundy Huggins, Uncategorized, Women's History | Leave a comment