To Be or Not To Be

guest post by Lois Glewwe

Five days before their scheduled execution, 39 imprisoned, condemned Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, were asked to make a decision  – to be baptized or not,  and whether to be baptized as a Roman Catholic or as a Presbyterian.

Unfortunately, we may never know what decision was made by the men because the historical sources which refer to the baptisms do not agree.

On Monday, December 22, the 39 condemned men were separated from the other prisoners. At 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, Dr. Thomas Williamson, Rev. Stephen Riggs, Father Sommereisen and Father Augustin Ravoux were all at the Leach Building where the 39 had been moved.

Colonel Stephen Miller, who had been with the prisoners since early November when they were marched from the Lower Sioux Agency to Mankato, had the execution order read to the men in English. Then Stephen Riggs explained what the letter from President Abraham Lincoln said in Dakota. Colonel Miller advised the prisoners to choose a spiritual advisor, either a Catholic or a Protestant, indicating that their advisors would be allowed to minister to them until the time of the execution.

Here’s one version of what happened next, from the Mankato Ledger of March 22, 1916. Major Joseph R. Brown was on hand and made two lists. Twenty-four of the men had their names ascribed on the list for the “black robes” including three mixed-blood Dakota under age twenty who were already Catholics but who had not made their first communion. About a dozen more had their names put on the Protestant list.

But on December 23, 1862, Stephen Riggs wrote to his “Dear Ones at Home”:

“They were then told by the Colonel that man could not help them, and he recommended them to seek the mercy of God through Jesus Christ, that they might select their spiritual advisor. Brown went in afterward and asked each one whom he chose. Twenty-four selected Ravoux, the Catholic Priest, and fifteen chose doctor Williamson.”

On Christmas Day, December 25, Riggs added a postscript:

“Dr. W. came back [to Mankato] last night. The Priest baptized all of his flock, and yesterday they of the Doctor’s wanted to know if I was not going to do the same. I told them the doctor would be here. The catholic religion is better for men in such circumstances than the Protestant. That is pretty much satisfied with a form, and Indians, even under the death pressure will comply with a form eagerly. Poor men—I have tried to point them to Jesus Christ. Perhaps someone will look to and live.”

According to the Ledger story, Father Ravoux rose at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning and gave communion to the three young Dakota men who were already Catholics. He left the prison until 8 a.m. and then at 2 p.m. he and Father Sommereisen returned and baptized thirty of the prisoners. Ravoux also gave conditional baptism to one other who had been baptized four or five days earlier as a Presbyterian.

This man, who apparently covered all of his bases, was Tatemina, who ended up being pardoned at the minute.

The reporter says that of the thirty-eight, thirty-three chose Catholic and one refused Baptism. Sure enough, the official roster of baptisms at Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church in Mankato, Minnesota, includes not only the names of thirty prisoners, it also adds the English or Christian name that Ravoux assigned to each man up on their baptism. Above the list of their names is written: “The following list of names are the names of the Sioux Indians that were baptized on Christmas Day before their execution at Mankato 1862.” At the end of the list is entered: Very Rev. A. Ravoux baptized and Rev. Sommereisen Assistant.”

No comparable list of any Protestant baptisms appears to exist and years later, the newspaper of the Dakota Missions, Iape Oaye, reported in its July 1873 issue that thirty of the thirty-eight were baptized; five by Williamson; 25 by Father Ravoux.

Whether it was twenty-four, twenty-five, thirty, or thirty-three Catholic baptisms, it is clear that the majority of the men decided that the “black robes” had the best offer. Even Father Ravoux himself wondered at their choice. According to Brian Ojanpa, writing in the Mankato Free Press on December 28, 2002, Ravoux wrote to the Bishop in St. Paul, Minnesota that “I was really surprised that the majority had declared themselves to us, especially after Mr. Williamson and Mr. Riggs had mastered the Sioux language and had spent 25 years among them.”

Both Riggs and Williamson had actually spent more than 25 years with the Dakota but more significantly, Riggs had been with the prisoners when they were brought to Mankato and Thomas Williamson spent weeks with them in the prison. His sister, Jane Williamson, was instrumental in receiving permission for the men to have paper and pencils so they could write to their families being held at Fort Snelling. Jane had also brought them books and hymnals which many received with thanks. Some if not all of the prisoners most likely had learned something of the Dakota alphabet or even spent time in mission schools learning to read and write their own language.

By comparison, Father Ravoux received permission from Henry Sibley to visit the prisoners and met the men for the first time on December 19, 1862.

Mary Wingerd, in her book North Country: The Making of Minnesota, (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2010, p. 325) suggests that perhaps the Dakota no longer trusted Williamson because of his affiliation with Riggs.  Riggs’ work with the military commission where the accused had to rely on him to translate their testimony correctly into English, led to 303 of them being sentenced to death.

Another explanation may be discerned from Stephen Riggs’ letter to his wife cited above. He says that Thomas Williamson felt obliged to go home, presumably on December 23. He also says that the condemned men asked Riggs to baptize them but he encouraged them to wait for Williamson to return, which he did on Christmas Eve. But presumably he hadn’t shown up to baptize the men by the time Father Ravoux and Father Sommereisen had already arrived. It could be that the men feared they might run out of time and that being baptized by Catholics was better than no baptism at all.

As for the fact that no list has been found of the men who were baptized by Dr. Williamson, the explanation could be a very simple one. Father Ravoux was baptizing the men into the roles of the Catholic Church where their names were immortalized in eternity by that act. Dr. Williamson was not a pastor of a church, the Dakota mission was in shambles and the men were not, after all, going to live to be members of the Presbyterian Church. So the Protestant act of baptism was significant only to their own sense of spiritual well-being.

Whatever choice the prisoners made in those last fateful hours of their lives, Williamson, Riggs and Ravoux were with the men on the morning of December 26 when their iron shackles were removed, their arms tied behind their backs and white muslin hoods placed on their heads ready to be pulled down over the faces as the nooses were placed around their necks.

Ravoux’s letter to the Bishop reported: “While the executioner put a rope around each neck, I remained on my knees and hoped with all my heart for God’s mercy.”

Historian Lois Glewwe blogs at Dakota Soul Sisters.

This entry was posted in 1862 Dakota War trials. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to To Be or Not To Be

  1. Pingback: 30 + 12 = 42, not 39 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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