Cover (facsimile) of Beadle and Adams Boys Books of Romance and Adventure, No. 10 containing “The Minnesota Captive,” 1864, as reproduced in the Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, vol. 86, 1978.
“When the reader takes up these volumes, it is with the expectation of perusing incidents that occurred at least half a century ago –incidents of which, perhaps, he entertains a shadowy remembrance of hearing his grandparent speak, long years since, when he was but a boy at his knee. But we are now about to record an occurrence that took place within the memory of most the boys whose eyes may chance to fall upon these pages.
In the burning month of August, 1862, a whirlwind of fire and death swept over the mountains and plains of Minnesota. The great rebellion, then as now, absorbed the principal attention of the people, so that this attracted much less notice abroad than it would have done in ordinary times. But the thrill of horror that ran along the border when they realized what a fearful massacre had burst upon them, will never be forgotten by survivors. At such times there always occur scenes of terrible moment, acts of daring, hair-breadth escapes, and innumerable conflicts, which never become known except to the participators. There are a few, however, that are chronicled by the pen of the historian, and among these we present the narrative of Mrs. Sophia Josephine Huggins, wife of the beloved missionary who was slain at his station, near Lake Iyedan, or Lac qui Parle.”
Ellis’s 1864 paraphrase of Sophia Josephine Huggins’s story follows. It seems to be a straight-forward retelling of her story which had appeared in the St. Paul Press in February 1863, sixteen months previously. But Ellis’s introduction contains clues that he actually cribbed from Isaac Heard’s A History of the Sioux War and Massacre, published just months before. He refers to stories, “chronicled by the pen of the historian, and among these…the story of Mrs. Sophia Josephine Huggins” and repeats Heard’s mistake of characterizing Josephine’s husband, Amos Huggins, as a missionary.
Remarkably, Ellis took few liberties with Heard’s gloss on Josephine’s story. He had good reasons for keeping Josephine’s story on the moral high-ground and I will explore those in the next post.
But upon my first reading, imagining myself as a teen-aged boy of the 1860s who had just surrendered a hard-earned dime for this book, I mentally challenging Ellis: “This woman’s story is so tame! What about those thrilling horrors, awful massacres, scenes of terrible moment, acts of daring, and hair-breadth escapes you promised?”
In the end (literally), Ellis didn’t disappoint his legion of fans. Concluding Josephine’s story, he abruptly changed gears to supply a fictionalized context for her captivity: sensational stories that unfolded outside the realm of Josephine’s sheltered experience. Ellis wrote:
“Mrs. Huggins remained at Camp Release for about two weeks. She is quite a young woman, and her vigorous constitution by that time made her herself again, and shortly after she and her children took their departure, and joined their friends below.
An officer who served in the expedition sent out to quell the Indians, in an article published in Harper’s Monthly, gives some incidents of the massacre which fill the mind of the reader with horror not soon to be forgotten. He says:
‘But who can tell the story of that hour? Of the massacres of helpless women and children, imploring mercy from those their own hands had fed, but whose blood-dripping hatchets the next moment crashed pitilessly through their flesh and bone –of the abominations too hellish to rehearse—of the cruelties, the tortures, the shrieks of agony, the death groans of that single hour?’”
Perhaps eager to make up for what lacked in the first nine pages of the story (Josephine’s experience), without breaking the quotes attributing it to the Harper’s correspondent, Ellis offered up three additional pages of straight-up atrocity stories like these:
“The ferryman himself, tomahawked before his own door, was disemboweled, his head, hands, and feet chopped off, and inserted in the cavity. They overtook a boy trying to escape. Tearing off every thread of clothing, they pricked and pierced him with their blunt-headed javelins, laughing at and mimicking his agony until death came to his relief….Passing a stick through the ankles of a woman, they dragged her over the prairie, till, from that alone, torn and mangled, she died.”
A page later, Ellis concludes a lengthy scene starring Cut Nose with this gristly description:
“Taking an infant from its mother’s arms, before her eyes, with a bolt from one of the wagons, they riveted it, through its body, to the fence, and left it there to die, writhing in agony. After holding for a while the mother before this agonizing spectacle, they chopped off her arms and legs, and left her to bleed to death.”
These examples are gruesome and hard to read today. In fact, in tone and detail they are the antithesis of Josephine Huggins’s real-life experience. But in the 19th century, stories like these served to advance a leading ‘moral’ agenda: colonialism. To Edward Sylvester Ellis and his readers, these choices made perfect sense.
More about why next time.
I can’t let vicious stereotypes of Native American people like Ellis made go without comment. It is critical that historians recognize and call out the standard barbarity tropes of Indian Captivity Narratives and dime novels when we find them imprinted on our collective memory as history.
Until quite recently, historians of the Dakota War have not been interested in the influences of popular culture on recorded history. So they have indiscriminately accepted eye-witness accounts of atrocities said to have been committed by Dakota warriors in 1862.
Modern historians must take excruciating care to investigate 1862 atrocity stories before repeating them. If there is no precedent for an alleged act (the crucifixion of infants, infliction of torture, gang rape, etc.) in the ethnography of Dakota warfare, these alleged atrocities are not solid evidence of anything beyond the prevailing 19th century stereotypes about Native Americans.
With thanks to the University of St. Louis Library for the loan of Garland vol. 86 containing the selection made by Wilcombe E. Washburn of “The Minnesota Captive” from Boy’s Book of Romance and Adventure No. 10 in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.