Soldiers “Trysting” in the Dakota Camp

“…I did not drill to day was sick –feel better to night –nothing of importance –another bans read on dress parade that there should be  no more Trysting with the Squaws it made the boys a little mad as there was a good deal of it done in Camp.”

–Hubert N. Eggleston, November 5, 1862

After reading those words, I managed to dodge Corporal Eggleston’s diary for a whole month.

Hubert N. Eggleston (Co. F), like Louis Thiele (Co. E) was member of the Sixth Minnesota. I wanted to find out more about Thiele’s military service in the wake of the 1862 war. But Thiele did not leave personal papers. So I shadowed him. Thanks to enduring interest in the Civil War, shadowing an enlisted man is not hard. For example, Alfred J. Hill wrote a  history of Thiele’s unit, History of Company E of the Sixth Minnesota Regiment of Volunteer Infantry.

Even better, Stephen Osman, retired Senior Historian for the Minnesota Historical Society, has cataloged the Historical Society’s entire collection of Civil War personal accounts and other primary sources like diaries written by Minnesota soldiers. Osman organized the material by regiment and unit. So I simply had to look up the Sixth Minnesota and begin calling potentially relevant primary sources: the unpublished diaries and reminiscences of other men in Thiele’s regiment in 1862-63.

Historically, this approach is a little risky. Eggleston, for example, was not in Thiele’s company, but in Company F. It isn’t simply that their tents were not adjacent. Thiele’s mess-mates were first-generation German immigrants and Eggleston’s  were Yankees –a considerable cultural gap that will gain significance as this series unfolds.

So last year, when I sat down with a series of palm-sized diaries written by men like Hubert Eggleston, I was not expecting to find Louis Thiele. Rather, I hoped to absorb some of the ethos of the day: Sibley’s army in action on the frontier in October and November of 1862.

Closed and clasped, Eggleston’s diary is the size of a 3 x 5 index card. It didn’t take up much room in his knapsack, or leave much room for writing. Eggleston wasn’t deterred by lack of space. He simply wrote narration in miniature, with a pencil he probably sharpened with his pocket knife. 

I flagged the November 5 page for copying and made a note in my electronic file. But I managed to avoid going back to MHS to pick up the copies for four weeks. It’s the research equivalent of putting down Dillard’s The Living when I know that on the next page, someone’s going to die.

A month after I first held Eggleston’s diary, I climbed back down into the research trenches at the Minnesota Historical Society. The 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary told me that the usage of “tryst” in verb form hasn’t changed in 150 years.

Sibley’s campaign Order Book dryly promulgated, “non intercourse with the Indian camp.” Letters Sibley and Riggs wrote to their wives at the time were more explicit.

Sibley set the scene on October 17, 1862, writing of the families of the Dakota men imprisoned at Camp Release awaiting trial: “The poor women and children in the lodges were the very picture of distress  when they learned that they were to proceed to join their kindred at Yellow Medicine without their natural protectors. Poor wretches, they are objects of pity, notwithstanding the enormities perpetrated by their fathers, husbands, and brothers.”

Stephen Riggs, at the time was acting as Sibley’s chaplain, told his wife on October 15: “Another charge [against Captain John Kennedy] is that he and some other men were away last night at the Indian camp and did not return until midnight. He and some others are placed under arrest and await trial by court martial. It seems to be impossible to keep soldiers out of the Indian Camp. No one is permitted to go out there unless he has a pass from the commanding officer –and yet Saturday a night after we brought the Indian men away, some three or four soldiers were out troubling the women. This they told the General and myself on Sabbath when we went out to their camp. Sabbath night a guard of ten men were sent out to protect them. There was no complaint after that.”

But complaints from Dakota women continued. On October 25, 1862, Sibley informed his wife: “The big crowd of sixteen or seventeen hundred consisting of the old men, and the women and children, will reach here [the Lower Sioux Agency] tomorrow. I find the greatest difficulty in keeping the men from the Indian women when the camps are close together. I have a strong line of sentinels entirely around my camp to keep every officer and soldier from going out without my permission; but someway or other, a few of the soldiers manage to get among the gals –and the latter, I notice, take care not to give any alarm.”

On October 31, Riggs wrote: “Some men of the 3rd were caught the night before in the Indian camp, and were accordingly put into the guard house. One of them, as I passed by, spoke to me and told me… he had only been over to the teepees to buy moccasins.”

Eggleston’s diary entry was dated November 5: “…I did not drill to day was sick –feel better to night –nothing of importance –another bans read on dress parade that there should be  no more Trysting with the Squaws it made the boys a little mad as there was a good deal of it done in Camp.”

November 11, with the Dakota prisoners’ camp relocated to Camp Lincoln, Riggs wrote home from South Bend: “Saturday night the Indian women who are with us to cook for the prisoners came up and reported that the soldiers were troubling them. Gen. Sibley sent for the officer of the guard and ordered him to arrest any man they might find in the lodges. So about midnight we were awakened by the officer of the guard calling to the General. He reported that they had taken a man in the Indian teepees and wanted to know what he should do with him. The general asked who it was. The reply was that it was an officer whose name was Brown. The general was dumbfounded. He finally told the officer of the guard that Mr. Brown was his assistant adjutant general and to send him up to report himself to headquarters….[Brown] explained that he was sleeping in his father-in-law’s tent to protect the women. But nevertheless the scandal went all over the camp.”

The documentary evidence backs up the November 5 entry in Eggleston’s diary. His words placed me –as a woman, not a historian –in the camp of Dakota tipis at Camp Release, then at Yellow Medicine, then at the Lower Sioux Agency and then, Mankato.

Camps guarded by men who were hundreds of miles and months away from their wives and sweethearts.

Even church-goers like Eggleston didn’t think of me as the girl next door, but as a different species whose females (like “mares” or “ewes” or “bitches”) are “Squaws.”  Yet they feign to use the verb “trysting” with its connotations of mutuality when they are armed guards and my sisters and I are their captives.

Would I trade beads and pipes and moccasins for bread (as the soldiers also  wrote in their diaries) if there was not someone in my family more hungry than I am?

Would we women complain to General Sibley about the white soldiers who insult us at night in our own tents if it was a mutually agreed upon assignation? (Our few remaining men can do little to defend us because Sibley has disarmed those he did not arrest.)

Would Sibley write orders forbidding his men from procuring our buffalo robes, our moccasins, our ponies, our food or anything else we will need to survive the coming winter if he thought we would not suffer without those things?

Even if Sibley wants to shield us from abuse, is he capable of adequately protecting us given the circumstances? Can his soldiers respect a leader who forbids them doing the very things he had done with Dakota women when he was their age?

This entry was posted in Dakota Commemorative March, Doing Historical Research, Indian Hating, Primary Sources, truth-telling and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Soldiers “Trysting” in the Dakota Camp

  1. Pingback: A Scheme for Revenge | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

  2. Pingback: The Dakota Prisoner’s Caregivers | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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