“I am pained by the severe criticisms…upon Mr. Galbraith.”

Missionary Mary Ann Longley Riggs wrote to her husband on September 18, 1862, “I am pained by the severe criticisms of the St. Paul Press upon Mr. Galbraith…. I am sure we have never had as good an agent since the Upper Sioux have received annuities.”

This is part three in a series framing Thomas J. Galbraith’s September 12, 1862 defense of allegations in the media that he was responsible for causing the Dakota War of 1862.

The first installment contains a collection of quotes written before the 1862 War on the subject of Thomas J. Galbraith as Sioux Agent. We should always consider sources and their potential biases, including these. But note that these opinions were independently authored in private communications (not public reports), before the Dakota War of 1862 cast a backward shadow over everything that preceded it.

Historians’ tendencies to tidy up loose ends means the received story skips the fact that not all Galbraith’s contemporaries left him hanging out to dry, “hoist on his own petard” as William Marshall put it, quoting Shakespeare.

(Marshall, quoted below, was the editor of the Republican paper, the St. Paul Press, which published the scathing September 12 editorial laying responsibility for the war at Galbraith’s feet. Marshall wasn’t editing the paper at the time; he was on the frontier leading citizen soldiers in the war.)

Instead, just as provocative media stories do today, “A Question of Responsibility” evoked opinions private and public:

Mary Ann Longley Riggs, September 18, 1862: “I am pained by the severe criticisms of the St. Paul Press upon Mr. Galbraith. We who know him, know he would never have left his family in the Indian Country if he had thought there was really any danger. Can you not write as much as that in his behalf. I am sure we have never had as good an agent since the Upper Sioux have received annuities.”

 (Mary Riggs to Stephen Riggs, September 18, 1862. Oahe Mission Collection, Center for Western Studies Collection, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD.)

William Marshall, editor of the St. Paul Press, front page December 3, 1862: [W]e desire to say, by way of correcting a misunderstanding occasioned by some strictures we found it necessary to make on a former occasion to the present Sioux agent, that we had no intention at that time to question the official integrity of that gentleman. Anxious always, and first of all, to avoid injustice, we take pleasure in stating that we believe his administration of Indian affairs forms an honorable exception in this particular to the general course of precedents in the same office. The charge of ‘criminal negligence’ in not providing for an anticipated outbreak, was, as we explained at the time, not made by us; and if it fell, as a necessary logical consequence of his own statements and those of his friends, upon Mr. Galbraith, they cannot justly complain if they are ‘hoist on their own petard.'”

 Henry B. Whipple, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, December 5, 1862: “As to present officials, I believe Maj Galbraith has tried to do his duty and had he fallen at Fort Ridgely I should have vindicated his reputation so far as in my power but Maj Galbraith will agree with me that on some one in the Indian Bureau there rests a fearful responsibility for the delay in the payment, the use of annuity funds for other purposes and the refusal to give him any information to satisfy these men as to what had been done with the proceeds of their lands.”

 (Henry B. Whipple to F. Driscoll December 5, 1862. Whipple Papers, MHS.)

 John P. Williamson, writing from Crow Creek , June 1863: June 9: “I’m glad Major Galbraith has come around here [Crow Creek]. I still have more confidence in him than any man we are likely to get.” June 18: “I do not know what course [Galbraith] will pursue, but I am afraid he will not remain Agent & on the whole I am sorry for it. I think he is a better man than we are likely to get & if that were not so he is now used to the Indians & that is more than half.”

 (John P. Williamson to My Dear Father June 9 & 18, 1863. Thomas S. Williamson Papers. MHS. )

Samuel J. Brown, writing from Crow Creek, 1863: “Maj. Balcombe is acting Agent for the two tribes [at Crow Creek]; he is rather severe on the Sioux but kind to the Winnebagoes. I wish Galbraith was here. The Indians wonder why he don’t come.”

 (Undated letter fragment in Samuel J. Brown’s hand, Joseph R. and Samuel J. Brown Papers, MHS. The content dates this letter to late May or early June, 1863. In 1863, most Dakota and Winnebago Indians were exiled to a barren shoulder of the Missouri River at Crow Creek in southeast Dakota Territory. Balcombe, the Winnebago Agent, temporarily assigned to also oversee both tribes. Galbraith was in St. Peter, Minnesota, ordered to assist the Sioux Commissioners hearing depredations claims arising from the Conflict.)

 Henry B. Whipple 1864:  If the agent is an honest man, whose sole desire is to elevate a degraded people, he will be powerless [p. 452]…. Their agent, Mr. Galbraith, whom we believe to be an honest man [p. 458].…”

 (Henry B. Whipple in “The Indian System” in the North American Review Volume 99, Issue 205, October 1864.)

“But wait!” I can hear some protesting. “Everyone knows Galbraith was a red-headed alcoholic, a sinister fraud! Roy Meyer said he had more to do with bring on the Dakota War than any other person! How could people like John P. Williamson and Bishop Whipple defend him?”

I submit, rather simply, that they while they knew Galbraith personally,  those allegations hadn’t been invented yet. I will be returning to that story in a couple of future posts  because the capstone in that myth is something none of us escapes (including Galbraith): the power of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Photo credit: Google Images. 

This entry was posted in Doing Historical Research, Minnesota Historical Society, Primary Sources, Thomas J. Galbraith. Bookmark the permalink.

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