Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have mused, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”
In July, 1918 the Minnesota historical community was buzzing: the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) Bulletin had just published a recently discovered letter written by John P. Williamson to his father, Thomas S. Williamson, from Crow Creek, South Dakota in May, 1863. The letter read in part:
“…Whether Agent Galbraith is going to come around here [to Crow Creek] & be our Agent I doubt some, though some who saw him said he expected to come around in a week or so afterwards. And Dr. Wakefield told me he was coming around with him, though I hope to never see him out here & all the Indians wish the same thing most heartily.”[i]
The buzz was about not about the letter, but about the annotation written by MHS Superintendent Solon J. Buck. It read:
“The reference is probably to Galbraith rather than to Wakefield. Galbraith was a political appointee without any special qualifications for the position of Indian Agent. His incompetence may have been a factor in bringing about the outbreak in 1862.”
William Watts Folwell, at the time researching volume two of A History of Minnesota, sniffed the whiff of a story, sat down at his trusty typewriter and pounded out a query to one of his favorite sources on the Sioux Agency, Samuel J. Brown. Brown had been Galbraith’s interpreter at Crow Creek in 1863.
Brown replied to Folwell on July 25, 1918:
“I was very much interested in Rev. John P. Williamson’s letter to his mother w. published in the last number of the Bulletin. I arrived at St. Joseph’s (Mo.) about a week after he left, and with Major Galbraith, Dr. Wakefield and others, went up from there with the Winnebagos [sic] arriving at Crow Creek early in June — 7th I think. I was sorry, however to see a certain footnote to John’s letter. This not only did injustice to Mr. Williamson, but also to Major Galbraith. The Doctor’s immoral conduct was too well known not to believe that John meant him and not Galbraith. Besides, Major Galbraith was a prominent and well-known citizen of Minnesota and a leading lawyer of Shakopee in the Territorial days — was a member of the Board of canvassers at the time of the adoption of the state constitution &c. — along with my father.”[ii]
This was not simply Samuel J. Brown’s late-in-life opinion of Galbraith. In an undated letter dating to late May or early June, 1863, he had written from Crow Creek:
“Maj. Balcombe is acting as Agent for the two tribes; 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.”[iii]
Two other letters from John P. Williamson back up Brown’s reading of Williamson’s intent. Williamson wrote to his father from Crow Creek on June 9, 1863, “I’m glad Mr. Galbraith has come around here. I still have more confidence in him than any man we are likely to get.” On June 18, 1863 he repeated, “I do not know what course Galbraith will pursue, but I am afraid he will not remain agent and 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 which is more than half.”[iv]
Further, in another long-lost letter from Crow Creek, John P. Williamson discussed his low opinion of Wakefield. On June 9, 1863 Williamson informed Stephen R. Riggs:
“These Indians have been dying very fast since we started [for Crow Creek] of bowel diseases principally. There have 28 died. All the weakly ones are falling off; We have no doctor with us and almost no medicine. I am sorry to say Dr. Wakefield has come out with the Agent.”[v]
Unfortunately, published sources are more accessible, and therefore more influential, than those in manuscript form. From 1918 onward, the Minnesota Historical Society’s interpretation of the Williamson letter as dunning Galbraith became the accepted thought on that subject –even though the holograph lay in a file with two of the three letters refuting that interpretation.
Despite the fact that the MHS Bulletin received reader letters disputing the annotation. When Marion P. Satterlee challenged Solon J. Buck to defend his interpretation, Buck admitted, “The remark in the letter could certainly be interpreted as applying to [Wakefield] and in view of what you say about him, I presume it was so intended.”[vi]
The Minnesota Historical Society did not publicly correct Buck’s mistake. As we will see, that mistake snowballed as the twentieth century rolled along.
To be continued.
Image credit: arttechies.blogspot.com October 23, 2007 via Google Images
[i] Minnesota Historical Society Bulletin Vol. 2, No. 8, p. 422-425.
[ii] Samuel J. Brown to William W. Folwell July 25, 1918. William Watts Folwell Papers, MHS.
[iii] [Samuel J. Brown] letter fragment, no date. Joseph R. and Samuel J. Brown Papers, MHS.
[iv] John P. Williamson to Thomas S. Williamson June 9 & 18, 1863. Thomas S. Williamson Papers, MHS.
[v] John P. Williamson to S. R. Riggs June 9, 1863. Williamson Collection. The DakotaPrairieMuseum, Aberdeen, SD.
[vi] Satterlee to Buck July 19, 1918 and Buck to Satterlee July 25, 1918, both in the Marion P. Satterlee Papers, MHS.