A Fable Agreed Upon, part 3

Timothy J. Sheehan (1835-1913) as profiled in the Albert Lea Tribune in 2011. Sheehan immigrated to the United States in 1850 at the age of 15, an orphaned survivor of the potato famine in Ireland. By 1857, he had settled in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where he was elected town clerk.

Sheehan enlisted in the 4th Minnesota Regiment of Volunteer Infantry in October, 1861. On February 15, 1862, he was commissioned 1st Lieutenant in the 5th Minnesota Infantry, company C, sent from Fort Ripley in June, 1862, to garrison the Sioux Agency town at Yellow Medicine during the expected annuity payment.

At the Upper Agency that summer, Sheehan butted heads with Galbraith over Sheehan’s councils, against Galbraith’s orders, with the young men of the Upper Soldiers’ Lodge. Tensions  culminated on August 4, 1862, when the warriors who had been cultivating Sheehan’s favor surprised his command and broke into the upper warehouse.

Galbraith alleged Sheehan was duped; Sheehan alleged Galbraith was drunk. Their opposing self-interests reengaged over the defense of Fort Ridgely two weeks later.

Galbraith literally moved on from Minnesota (in 1868) and his identity as Sioux Agent (he returned to law and retired a district court judge). However Sheehan’s military service, starring his defense of Fort Ridgely during the Dakota siege of 1862, became central to Sheehan’s identity, shaping the stories he told for the rest of his life.  

After Sheehan’s death, his neighbor and friend, historian Return Ira Holcomb, led a campaign to erect a monument to Sheehan on the State Capitol lawn to commemorate Sheehan’s heroism in 1862.


Sheehan’s allegations

In an interview on January 6, 1906, Timothy J. Sheehan told William Watts Folwell that during the siege of Fort Ridgely in 1862, Sheehan, “Had to arrest Galbraith, who was drunk, disorderly and demoralizing to men, released him after battle.”[i]

Because Sheehan had known Galbraith personally and had made specific charges, Folwell entertained the possibility that the allegation could be true; the story might be verified by someone else who had been there.

Folwell’s interview notebooks show that after Sheehan reported this, Folwell asked old-timers about Galbraith without encountering anyone who had known him well. To the contrary, Folwell recorded positive recollections like David Stanchfield’s, “Galbraith was an honest man.”

In 1908, journalist and historian Return I. Holcombe cast the first stone Galbraith’s way in Minnesota in Three Centuries, alleging Galbraith was drunk during the warehouse break-in crisis at Yellow Medicine on August 4, 1862. Holcombe’s source for this story was Timothy J. Sheehan.[ii]

Holcombe had also tipped off Follwell to interview Sheehan in 1906.

Still, the 1908 allegation in Minnesota in Three Centuries was the only source in print. Yet, for a decade no one came forward to substantiate or to refute the Sheehan/Holcombe charge that Galbraith abused alcohol.

In the mean time, Galbraith died in February, 1909 of a heart infection (not cirrhosis of the liver) probably without knowing what Sheehan had said about him.

Fast forward to the fall of 1917. Folwell was drafting the second volume of A History of Minnesota and had concluded that Joseph R. Brown was the most able of the Sioux Agents. (For the record: Folwell’s papers show he took Samuel J. Brown’s word on it. A critical inquiry was in order.)

But Folwell had not made up his mind about how he would characterize Galbraith. On October 2, 1917, Folwell queried Samuel J. Brown, “Do you remember anything about Galbraith’s habits? Col. Sheehan told me that at Fort Ridgely he was drunk and disorderly and had to be put in arrest. I think I have seen a suggestion that he was intoxicated on the 4th of August 1862, when the flour was taken out of the warehouse.”

Samuel J. Brown replied, “I am well-acquainted with Major Galbraith. So far as I know and believe his personal habits were good — much better than some of those who would accuse him of drunkenness and cowardice. He was neither a drunk nor a coward; was a much abused man.”[iii]

If history was a matter of simple math, Brown’s statement might have zeroed out Sheehan’s allegation. But in 1918, when the Minnesota History Bulletin mis-attributed John Wakefield’s reputation to Galbraith (part 1 in this series), the error lent credibility to Sheehan’s story. Five years later, Buck’s annotation in Folwell’s History added a third source (see part 2).

Behind two of these sources stood the authority of the Superintendent of the Minnesota Historical Society. MHS’s unsupported assertions gave critical weight to the idea that Galbraith’s moral character contributed to the disastrous end of the Sioux Agency in Minnesota.

The cumulative effect

Take a look at just about anything written or produced about the Sioux Agency in Minnesota since 1968 –including ideas being publicly circulated today. 1968 was the year Roy Meyer’s seminal History of the Santee Sioux: United States Indian Policy on Trial first appeared. (See Meyer’s assessment of Galbraith in Chapter 6, p. 110 in the 1993 edition (text and note 1).

Meyer, in good faith, consulted MHS publications and unwittingly amplified the errors he found. To his credit, Meyer was a logical, analytic thinker and did a great job citing his sources. That’s one reason his book has endured –with MHS errors entombed in his conclusions like ancient bugs preserved in amber.

Galbraith’s reputation has plummeted so far that modern historians can assert, like David A. Nichols did in an August 14, 2012 interview on Minnesota Public Radio, that Galbraith told starving Dakota people they could eat grass in 1862.

Nichols is far from the first to mis-attribute trader Andrew Myrick’s insult (which I discuss here) to Agent Thomas J. Galbraith. It goes to show how muddied the historical record is with myth: 150 years later we can’t see any difference between an Ambassador with Federal trust obligations to a foreign Nation (an Indian Agent) and a disgruntled expat living on the embassy grounds in that country (an Indian trader).

Think of it this way: If as a private citizen, the next time I’m in Korea and visit the DMZ, I stand at the fence and shout, “Give up your nuclear weapons program or I will stop supporting North Korean orphans!” we’d judge it my right to express my opinion.

But if Hillary Clinton stood there and shouted the same thing, it would mean something entirely different. Wouldn’t it?


[i] William W. Folwell interview with Timothy J. Sheehan  January 6, 1906. William W. Folwell Papers, MHS.

[ii] See Holcombe’s manuscript hagiography of Sheehan composed after Sheehan’s death in the Holcombe Papers, and Holcombe’s subsequent campaign to have a monument to Sheehan erected on the State Capitol mall, in both the Holcombe and Sheehan Papers, MHS.

[iii] William W. Folwell to Samuel J. Brown October 2, 1917. William W. Folwell Papers. MHS. Brown’s reply is written on the back of the letter.

[iv] Roy W. Meyer. History of the Santee Sioux: United States Indian Policy on Trial. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press) 1968. 1993 edition, p. 110.

Image credit: Albert Lea Tribune.com.

This entry was posted in Minnesota Historical Society, Return Ira Holcombe, Thomas J. Galbraith, Timothy J. Sheehan, William Watts Folwell. Bookmark the permalink.

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