In 2011, Walt Bachman approached the Pond Dakota Heritage Society about the gift of the manuscript that became Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey.
Publishing has been part of the Pond Dakota charter since the Society’s inception and several of us on the board had watched the manuscript develop over a decade. So for objectivity, we sought external reviews from two well-known historians: Rhoda Gilman, author of Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart and Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition
and Mary Lethert Wingerd, author Claiming the City: Politics, Faith and the Power of Place in St. Paul, co-author of American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis, and most recently, author of the award-winning North Country: The Making of Minnesota.
With enthusiastic recommendations from both Gilman and Wingerd, the Pond Dakota board moved ahead.
Two Legacy Grants later, Northern Slave, Black Dakota will be officially released March 1, 2013. Thanks to Legacy funding and Bachman’s outright gift of the manuscript, the Pond Dakota Heritage Society will retain all the profits to further its public history mission.
After three years on the Pond Dakota Heritage Society board I am stepping down at the end of 2012 to help manage Pond Dakota Press for the Society. So with my publishing cap on, I am pleased to introduce you to Walt Bachman, the author of Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey.
Zeman: Walt, how did you, a retired lawyer living in New York City, become interested in the Dakota War?
Bachman: I was born in Minnesota and practiced law there for 22 years. I trace my obsession with researching and writing history to two events: a family story my grandfather told to me when I was a teenager, and a visit to the Brown County Historical Society 16 years ago. Grandpa told the tale of the killing of his grandfather during the Dakota War, and he suggested that I go to New Ulm to learn more about him. I didn’t get around to heeding his suggestion for almost 30 years, and then my plan was simply to write a booklet for my family about the circumstances of our ancestor’s death in 1862.
Zeman: What did you find in New Ulm?
Bachman: On my initial visit, I learned that my great-great-grandfather, Ernst Dietrich, was one of the first settlers of New Ulm, and that he had been killed under unique circumstances. On August 18, 1862, Dietrich was a leader of a civilian recruiting party that was trying to enlist local farm boys to join the Union army. His flag-waving group, traveling in wagons, happened to be visiting Milford, a hamlet six miles west of New Ulm, on the very day the war started. The recruiters were all men, and their brass instruments glinting in the sun and their flag led Dakota warriors to believe they were white soldiers. In fact, they were unarmed. The warriors ambushed them on the outskirts of Milford. Dietrich and three other men were killed. Today, a roadside monument marks the site.
But it was an emergency dispatch I found in the files of the Brown County Historical Society that really captivated me. It was written to Governor Ramsey the night of August 18 and told of the killings at Milford, claiming that the Dakota attackers who killed Dietrich were led by “a Negro man.” Neither my Grandpa nor anyone else in my family had ever told me that part of the story, and I immediately wondered how this black man came to be daubed in war paint and fighting with the Dakotas.
Zeman: So you’ve written the biography of a man who was alleged to have killed your great-great grandfather? Isn’t that a bit unusual?
Bachman: Yes, it is unusual, but any bias would have shown itself as hostility towards Godfrey, and any reader of my book will see that is not my interpretation of his life. I soon concluded that Godfrey neither led the Dakotas who killed Dietrich nor pulled the trigger that led to his death. I don’t know of any other sympathetic biography –which this is –written by a descendant of the subject’s alleged victim.
Zeman: I remember when Alan Woolworth first told you to call me. I said something like, “Good luck. But Godfrey is so obscure I doubt you’ll find enough material to write a book.” Obviously my prediction was wrong! How did you uncover this story?
Bachman: I did a lot of painstaking research using original records at The National Archives, the Minnesota Historical Society, and other libraries in the U.S. and Canada. The research phase for the book took me about 10 years. But I also benefited from the help of many other Dakota War scholars, including you. I spread the word that I was interested in anything related to Godfrey and early African-American history in the region, and quite a few scholars passed along invaluable tips and sources that contributed enormously to the book.
Zeman: The feeling is mutual. You’ve made yourself part of local research community despite living in New York by sharing sources. You have easier access to the National Archives than we do and you’ve come up with some great stuff that I, for one, hadn’t found yet.
Tell me more about the Joseph Godfrey you discovered. I don’t think anyone is inclined to view him with sympathy.
Bachman: You know, that’s interesting because Godfrey was the only participant in the war who has come to be reviled by both whites and Dakotas. The fact that he was, and to some extent still is, everybody’s favorite scapegoat tells us a lot about racial prejudice and the less-than-candid ways the war has been represented. By both sides. I hope that his story intrigues people to go back to the Dakota War histories and ask what those authors were trying to conceal by turning Godfrey into a scapegoat. His biography also helps debunk some of the more misleading claims still being made the war, for example, about the nature of the military tribunal trials of Dakotas after the war.
Zeman: None of the Dakota War histories says that Godfrey was a slave. Was that part of the story difficult to research?
Bachman: Yes, it was especially hard to reconstruct Godfrey’s life before 1862. But, using a wide variety of sources, I discovered that he was born into slavery in Minnesota after his mother was brought there as the slave of an army officer. Late in adolescence, Godfrey fled from an abusive Minnesota master and sought sanctuary among the Dakotas. The presence of a home-grown fugitive slave in Minnesota is something no other history even hints at. Godfrey’s full story reveals a lot we’ve never known about African-American and slavery history in Free states.
Zeman: I have the answers to this question sitting on my shelf. But people reading might not know this is not your first book.
Bachman: My first book, Law v. Life, came out in 1995. It was a series of personal essays about the realities of life as an American trial lawyer. It was well-reviewed and went through a second edition. I’ve also published a couple of book chapters and a few articles relating to the Dakota War, but the Godfrey biography will be my first history book.
Zeman: What’s next on your research and writing schedule?
Bachman: I’m working on a book about the story behind Godfrey’s story: how the U.S. army’s policies and practices spread slavery across America. I’ve gathered tens of thousands of records documenting the use of enslaved servants by army officers, and they reveal the army’s crucial role in bringing slavery to places like Minnesota. Slavery was illegal there under federal law, but that did not stop many officers from importing slaves to Fort Snelling and elsewhere in Minnesota. Officers did the same thing in Free states and territories across the U.S. And a surprising number of northern officers, many of whom became Union generals during the Civil War, were once slaveholders.
Zeman: What do you do when you’re not working on history?
Bachman: My wife and I love to travel both in the U.S. and abroad. And we lead a full cultural life in New York, attending many plays, concerts, and lectures. I also love spending time with our five children and six grandchildren, who are scattered around the country in New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Mexico.
Zeman: Tell us when Northern Slave, Black Dakota will be available?
Bachman: The official release date is March 1, 2013. The book will be available in e-book form, hardcover, and alternate print formats like large print and Braille.
Zeman: One last thing. Your publisher told me you’re coming to Minnesota for Black History Month in February 2013? (laughs)
Bachman: You would know! Yes. The Bloomington Human Rights Commission is co-sponsoring a presentation on Sunday, February 24, 2013 from 2-4 PM at the Creekside Community Center in Bloomington. My subject is, “Northern Slaves: How the U.S. Army Brought Slavery to Minnesota.” I know you’re optimistic we’ll have advance copies for sale and signing.
Zeman: We’re working on it!