In July 2013, almost 150 years after the Sioux Claims Commission convened hearings in Minnesota and recorded her testimony, Pauline Dietrich spoke again.
The story of Ernst Dietrich, told by his widow Pauline, was the first of 2,940 lost stories recovered in 2013 when we located the records Sioux Claims Commission in National Archives RG 217 among the settled accounts of the Second Auditor of the Treasury (1).Ernst and Pauline were Walt Bachman’s great-great-grandparents and I am grateful to Walt and Elizabeth for their permission to share Walt’s transcription of Claim No. 289.
Pauline was the widow of Ernst Dietrich, a New Ulm furniture maker and the leader of New Ulm’s civic orchestra. Ernst, Pauline tells us, was worried he might be drafted for three years of service in the Civil War. So the morning of August 18, 1862, accompanied by some brass players from the orchestra, Ernst rode off on a mission to recruit volunteer soldiers, hoping to stave off the impending draft.
The recruiting party, flying the United States flag on their horse-drawn wagon, their brass horns glinting in the sun, unwitting headed into the epicenter the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. In his biography of Joseph Godfrey, the African American said to have been leading the Dakota warriors who shot the recruiting party, Bachman points out they may have been mistaken for U.S. cavalry. (2)
Ernst Dietrich died without a will. Henry Sublius, the administrator for his estate, helped Pauline present Ernst’s claim on behalf of herself and their four children. Pauline lived off the $200 cash settlement she received from the Sioux Commissioners in 1863, and on the charity of friends and strangers until her settlement check arrived from the Treasury in 1864.
(1) I use the plural “we” because the discovery was the fruit of teamwork. Like many other scholars since William Watts Folwell at the turn of the 20th century, I had tried and failed to find the missing records of the 1863 Sioux Claims Commission. My mentor, Alan Woolworth, among those who had searched, in his inimitable style, had dubbed them the “Holy Grail” of “things we’re stilling going to find out there [in the National Archives] someday!”
Alan was right. I shared the discovery story with him before he passed away in 2014. “Golly!” Alan said. “We knew where they were all along?!”
Yes, in a way, we have.
In the spring of 2013, researching a different story in the Institutional Archives of the Minnesota Historical Society, I discovered that in 1896, the MNHS, which was, at that time, actively developing its collections on the subject of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, had located the Sioux Claims Commission Records on shelves in the Office of the Second Auditor of the Treasury in Washington D.C. Apparently not able to meet the Treasury’s requirements, the MNHS had not acquired copies.
117 years later, when I encountered that correspondence in 2013, I understood the significance of what I was reading. My burning question was: Had the 1863 Sioux Claims Commission files survived the years intervening 1896 and 1935 to be accessioned among the records of the Second Auditor of the Treasury when the National Archives was organized?
A donor with vision wanted to fund the answer. Walt Bachman understood better than anyone else in our research community what the Records of the Second Auditor of the Treasury might contain. Following Helen McCann White’s trail of research breadcrumbs to Second Auditor records in RG 217, Walt used Army Paymaster vouchers to prove that Joseph Godfrey’s mother, Courtney, was enslaved at the time of his birth at Fort Snelling, making Godfrey a slave born in Free territory. (See note 2 below.)
Walt connected me with Candace Clifford, a lighthouse historian who has worked in RG 217 for two decades, including compiling an Inventory of Historic Light Stations for the Department of the Interior. Candace accepted the assignment: to be my eyes and feet on the ground in Washington D.C., adding her experience in RG 217 to my knowledge of the history of the 1863 Sioux Claims Commission and the 117-year-old clues I’d found at MNHS.
After days of persisting improvising search-strategies in the face of dead-ends, on July 27, 2013, we located the missing 1863 Sioux Claims Commission case files in RG 217. Subsequently, I have had the privilege of spending nearly four weeks’ grant-funded research time at NARA exploring and cataloging new Minnesota primary source findings in RG 217, including the 1863 SCC records.
(2) Walt Bachman, Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey (Pond Dakota Press, 2013). Bachman has continued to mine RG 217 and has now documented the extent of slaveholding by army officers in Free territory throughout the United States before the Civil War. The Last White House Slaves: The Story of Jane, President Zachary Taylor’s Enslaved Concubine (2019) is the first book in a series highlighting Bachman’s findings.