1863 SCC Claim No. 289: In the matter of Ernst Dietrich deceased

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).

Dietrich reciept

“Two thousand two hundred & Sixty-two Dollars being the balance of the award of the Commissioners upon the Claim of Ernst Dietrich numbered 289” Receipt [1864] signed by a representative of Bigelow and Dalrymple, the legal firm representing Pauline Dietrich’s case.

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. On the morning of August 18, 1862, accompanied by some brass players from the orchestra, Ernst rode off on a recruiting mission: to sign up enough volunteer soldiers to forestall the impending draft.

The recruiting party, with the United States flag flying from their horse-drawn wagon and brass horns glinting in the sun, unwittingly headed into the epicenter of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. The Dakota warriors who shot the recruiters may have mistaken them for U.S. cavalry. (2) 

Ernst Dietrich died without a will. Pauline’s claim shows Henry Sublius, administrator for the 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 off the charity of friends and strangers until her settlement check arrived from the Treasury in 1864.

Dietrich list

At hearings held in Minnesota in 1863, Commissioners recorded the testimony of claimants and witnesses in ink that remains remarkably legible 150 years later. Lists of material goods lost, however, like this list presented by Pauline Dietrich, were written in (and on) the material at hand and presented at the hearing. Pauline’s list is written in pencil. The paper was exposed to moisture before it was filed. This image is historic (low-res and digitally enhanced), one of the first made from the claims collection at NARA by Candace Clifford in 2013.


(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 (MNHS), I discovered that in 1896, the MNHS, 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 in 2013, when I encountered that correspondence, I understood the significance of what I was reading. My burning question was: Had the 1863 Sioux Claims Commission files survived the intervening years to be accessioned among the Records of the Second Auditor of the Treasury when the National Archives was organized in 1935?

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.) Godfrey was said to have been ‘leading’ the Dakota warriors who killed Ernst Dietrich.

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 the MNHS.

After days of 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.




Posted in National Archives, Primary Sources | 1 Comment

Meet RG 217

Register of Indian Accounts No 1 Second Auditor

It’s easy to imagine why Record Group 217 has been obscure. The nondescript name, “Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury,” promises little more glamorous than 19th-century auditors’ records. As the target of research, RG 217 is a last-picked-child on the scholarly playground at the National Archives.

Today, RG 217 is on a fast track to becoming one of the hottest, underused records groups at NARA. Scholars love new primary sources. Since 2013, sometimes researchers wait their turn in the Reading Room to look at some boxes of RG 217 records. Given the funding and time, who wouldn’t like to go sleuthing on a story dated between 1775 and 1927 to see what history has forgotten?

Thanks to the grants of generous donors administered by the Minnesota Independent Scholars’ Forum, I have been fortunate to conduct four research forays into RG 217 to identify new primary sources about Federal interactions with Dakota people in Minnesota in the 19th century.

The shelving required to house RG 217 is so extensive that it wraps from the West to the East sides of the stacks at Archives 1 in Washington D.C.   Removed from the stacks, the collection would cover three-quarters of a football field to a depth of one foot.

Claims bundle tied with box in background

Although the documents date to 1863, the red tape and Hollinger box are artifacts of 1995, the last time this section of RG 217 was processed by National Archives. The author, NARA, May 2014.

See the Table of Contents in the RG 217 link above to overview the entire collection.

Scholars have largely overlooked RG 217, not understanding how it was created or what it contains. In the late 18th, the 19th and the early 20th centuries, the Congressionally-mandated Treasury auditing process categorically removed documents from Federal agencies like the Office of Indian Affairs.

Records that did not require auditing –the vast majority, like letters received and sent, reports, maps, treaties — remained in the Indian Office.  Today, these documents are staples of scholarly research on Federal relations with Indian Nations in America, collected as National Archives RG 75, Records of the Office of Indian Affairs. Like many Record Groups at NARA, it has earned a reputation for divulging fascinating new information scholars are not looking for while keeping mum on subjects of intense interest.

Take the subject of Hugh Tyler. Students of Minnesota history know Tyler as a political friend of Alexander Ramsey, hired on as Commissary for the Treaties at Travers des Sioux and Mendota in 1851. We know little about Tyler apart from allegations made by a political rival, Madison Sweetser. In the wake of those Treaties. Sweetser alleged Tyler and Ramsey colluded to pass money under the table to their trader-cronies, money that rightly belonged to Dakota people.

A Congressional investigation exonerated Ramsey in 1854. William Watts Folwell, Minnesota’s first historian to assess the scandal, was dubious about the Senate findings.(1)  As Rhoda R. Gilman summarized Folwell’s argument, “No record was kept of Tyler’s activities. But his expenses [reimbursed by Ramsey from Indian Affairs funds] were considerable.”(2)

It turns out that Hugh Tyler’s records were retained. Modern scholars can examine Tyler’s activities during the negotiations of the 1851 Treaties –as well as Madison Sweetser’s and Alexander Ramsey’s settled accounts. (3) The records Folwell lamented as missing had been transferred from the Office of Indian Affairs to the Treasury for auditing. They are now located in RG 217.

Hugh Tyler Box Settled Account for T51

Hugh Tyler’s account covering Treaties made in Minnesota in 1851, settled in 1853. RG 217 NARA.


Hugh Tyler Box List of people he paid at T51 (2)

Documents like this list in Hugh Tyler’s Account No. 694 were created as an employee of the Office of Indian Affairs and transmitted to it for reporting. The OIA forwarded these documents to the Second Auditor of the Treasury for settlement. This detail from a ledger sheet shows the names of people Tyler hired (including a Steam Boat, a missionary,  a number of French-Dakota men and others associated with the fur trade), the date and amounts they were paid, and Auditor’s marks indicating the file contains a Voucher (receipt) signed by each person.

Settled accounts were permanently collected at the Treasury, where the records backed up the work of the last people to handle them: auditors. The documents were not returned to the Federal offices that generated them. When NARA opened in 1935, it followed the archival practice of preserving the provenance of the collections it accessioned. That meant that records that came into the National Archives from the Treasury retained the order and identifiers assigned to them there, further obscuring the origin of these records outside the Treasury Department.

For example, Tyler’s account from the Treaty of 1851 is not filed by that year, where a scholar would expect to find it in RG 75. Rather, it is filed in RG 217 among other accounts settled in 1853, the year the auditor closed Tyler’s case.

In this way, the historically invisible auditing process removed data-rich primary sources out of the NARA records collections scholars routinely consult. At the Treasury, some accounts were further removed by the time that passed before settlement. In the cases I have surveyed, an account may have been settled, and therefore was filed, from one to thirty-two years after the events captured in the file.

Institutional collections policies follow scholarly demand. We can’t be interested in records we don’t know exist.

But now we do. It is no coincidence that RG 217, among other newly discovered collections at NARA, is coming to light now. Digitization and the application of big data to history mean we have the tools at hand to mine these records for new stories and to update ones we think we know –tools that Folwell never dreamed of when he tried and failed to locate these records a century ago.


(1) William Watts Folwell A History of Minnesota Vol. 1, The Minnesota Historical Society. Press, 1921. p. 290-293.

(2) Rhoda R. Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart, The Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004, p. 131 and Mary Lethert Wingerd, quoting Gilman quoting Follwell in North Country: The Making of Minnesota, The University of Minnesota Press 2010, p. 383 n 31.

(3) Ramsey’s accounts from the Treaty are curiously misfiled in RG 217. If this anomaly is an artifact of the period settlement process, some accounts available to scholars today may not have been available during the Ramsey investigation.

Posted in National Archives, William Watts Folwell | Leave a comment

Whatever 3

Whatever 3

Monday, March 25, 2019, I had the pleasure of preaching to a choir –follow historians and history advocates at the Minnesota History Whatever 3.

Stephen Osman, now-retired from his position as Senior Historian at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), and Megan Kellom, Archival Collections Cataloger specializing in government documents at the MNHS, joined me.

Our collective pitch: To tell new, inclusive stories, we need to include new sources.

Kellom told us about the wealth of underused government records and reference aids available to researchers in the Gale Library at the MNHS. Osman took us on a virtual research trip to the National Archives, whetting our appetites with new documents turning up in the ongoing search for Federal Military records generated in 1862-63 by the concentration camp at Fort Snelling where Dakota civilians were interned, and for the same records from Dakota Prison at Mankato.

I gave an unabashed pitch for the acquisition, digitization, and use of previously unknown and uninterpreted primary sources in the National Archives. I showed images from two of the four collections at NARA I have discovered and roughly cataloged via the grants of generous donors administered through the Minnesota Independent Scholars’ Forum.

As promised, I will devote several posts to images and transcriptions as samples of the content of these collections. It is a small way I can thank the visionary people who have funded the discovery work in the conviction that these sources and others in the National Archives are a legacy we can make accessible in real-time.

Carrie Reber Zeman

Posted in National Archives, Primary Sources | 2 Comments

A Tribute to Alan R. Woolworth

On Wednesday, August 13, 2014 we lost a dear friend, colleague, and mentor with the passing of Alan R. Woolworth, who would have been 90 years old on August 19. A public memorial service will be held Saturday, August 30 at 6:30 PM at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I am away from home and the files of biographical material from which to write the proper tribute I would love to give Alan. But I can share a little about Alan and his legacy by re-posting the remarks I made at the Gideon and Agnes Pond House on June 29, 2012. The occasion was the book launch party for A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity, which Zabelle Stodola and I dedicated to Alan. This post was originally published on July 7, 2012.

Alan Woolworth, about to celebrate his 88th birthday, arrived early to get a front-row seat, proudly wearing one of his “Nebraska” caps. Alan did the undergraduate work that led to his career in archaeology, museum collections, and research, at the University of Nebraska.

“Now I need to tell you another story. Zabelle is right. Alan did not technically contribute to this book. But I have to tell you why: it because even before I started he had already loaned me his entire private collection of Minnesota captivity narratives.

It started a decade ago with a single binder. Alan knew I had little children because they came along with me on many visits to his office at the Minnesota History Center. These visits started when there was only one child. Then there were two. Then there were three. (Before there were four!) Those were the days before Alan’s research collections were available in the Library and even though he was supposed to be retired, he’d come into the office just about any time anybody asked.

Alan loves children. But I think he took pity on me. Because one particularly crazy morning at home, my phone rang and Alan said, “I’m on my way into the office and I have something I think you could use. Can I drop it off on my way?”

A few moments later Alan was standing on my front porch in his long warm coat and woolen muffler with a very large binder in his arms. “This is from my house,” he told me. “It’s the same collection of my Dakota biographies that’s on my office shelf. Keep it as long as you need it. Photocopy what you want. Then return it sometime.”

I stammered my thanks and he was gone. Later, when my husband came home for lunch my oldest (at the time my only child) said, “Daddy! Daddy! Did you see them? Did you see them?! Those are Mr. Woolworth’s footprints in our snow!”

The binder was just the beginning of wonders loaned or gifted from his personal collection: material he’s collected at home over the years. Rolls of microfilm MHS does not own. Obscure old books. Boxes of research files like his captivity collection to peruse and copy at my leisure.

But more than simply share information, Alan trained into a generation of novice, impressionable scholars like me that what we do with history is share it. If we are blessed to find something, it may not be meant for us, but because tomorrow we will meet someone who needs that very thing we were given. Alan’s spirit of humility and generosity permeates our local research community. Outsiders like Zabelle often remark on how readily we share.  If we do, it is because Alan has taught us so well. Not by lecturing. But by modeling how it done. Alan, we are grateful!”



You must be having a marvelous time in that place where all unsolved earthly mysteries are now made perfectly clear, no trowels, photocopies, or binders necessary. I am smiling through my tears imagining all the people you are trading stories with –still wearing your favorite crusty red Nebraska cap, I think, as you wouldn’t leave home without it. You are loved and missed. My condolences to your family.



On Monday, August 18, 2014 Richard Chin wrote this biographical article, Alan Woolworth, who returned Little Crow’s remains, dies for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Alan’s obituary in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 27, 2014.

Posted in Alan Woolworth | Tagged | 2 Comments

Sinte’s Story

Today Sinte, a Dakota woman exiled from Minnesota in 1863, 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 at the bottom that post and watch Sinte’s story unfold. First, J. R. Brown biographer, Nancy Goodman contributes the documentary sources on Sinte she found. Then, Loretta steps in and 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.

Carter gives Brown an equally polished nod, alluding to Brown’s marriage to Susan Frenier Brown, while omitting the story of Brown’s arrest on November 11, 1862. The previous night, 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, that same day wrote a letter naming Brown’s conduct, “a scandal.”

Carter’s observation underlines another real-life consequence of this pattern of officers and other ‘gentlemen’ 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 would 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 | 1 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.

Posted in 1862 Dakota War trials, Henry Milord, Walt Bachman | 1 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. The file of leads appears to be straight-forward. But upon a close reading of the texts, we are left to wonder. 

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 his 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 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 births 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 slaveholding, 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 for 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 River 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 river 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 in 1862? 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 a man surnamed 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,  wrinkles 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 might today be able to fact-check the story about John S. Marsh that Hughes attributed to Nancy McClure. She likely told the story more than once.

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 an 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 that would 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 named Sinte and that Sinte and 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 was convenient.

It wasn’t a trivial reference to scalps and bounties. Little Crow (although his body had not yet been identified) had been killed and scalped about 20 miles away from where Gorman was stationed, three weeks before Gorman penned this 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 | 13 Comments