Review: Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter by Bruce A. Kohn

Guest Post by Lois Glewwe

DakotaChildcover

Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter: The Life of Helen Hastings Sibley, by Bruce A. Kohn, Friends of the Sibley House Historic Site, Mendota, MN, 2012

Helen Hastings Sibley was one of the most enigmatic characters in early Minnesota. Born on August 28, 1841, to a daughter of Dakota Chief Bad Hail, she was to spend the majority of her life as a privileged member of Saint Paul, Minnesota’s rising middle class. This transformation was only possible because of the man who was her father – Henry Hastings Sibley, Minnesota’s first State Governor.

Bruce A. Kohn devoted more than two decades of research to learning everything possible about Helen, whose name in Dakota was Wah-ki-ye, or The Bird. He tells her story in a readable, narrative style, adding imagination to his documentation: a wide variety of source documents. Perhaps most interesting to historians is Kohn’s interpretation and discussion of Henry Sibley’s relationship with his Dakota daughter as found in an impressive collection of sources.

Helen was born when Sibley was a 30-year-old, single entrepreneur who managed the trading post in the village of Mendota on the Minnesota River opposite Fort Snelling. His relationship with Helen’s mother, Red Blanket Woman (whom Kohn identifies as Tashinahohindoway in Dakota) apparently resulted in only one child and did not continue after Helen’s birth. Kohn cites several sources, however, which indicated that Sibley kept track of her and Helen even after his marriage to Sarah Steele on May 2, 1843.

By bringing together this rich collection of sources, Kohn allows the reader to come to a fuller appreciation and understanding of the lives of the children that were born to Dakota mothers and white fathers in the earliest years of Minnesota. While some of those children remained with the Dakota all of their lives, many, like Helen, were taken away from their mothers in childhood and sent to live with white families and to attend white schools. In Helen’s case, Sibley took her away from her mother when she was about six years old and paid William Reynolds Brown and his wife Martha to provide her with a white home and white education.

Kohn provides fascinating detail of what Sibley paid for her room and board and offers a list of prices of clothing, shoes and even a melodeon that he bought for Helen over the years. He also provides records of payments to Dr. Thomas Williamson for medical services he provided for Helen, including setting a broken arm.

Despite the evidence of Sibley’s involvement in Helen’s life, he never acknowledged her as his daughter in writing, omitting his name from her baptism certificate and from the scrip claims which he filed on her behalf.

Helen’s story does not have a happy ending. She married a physician, Sylvester Sawyer, on November 3, 1859, and moved to Wisconsin, where they established a modest home and medical practice.  Their first and only child, Helen Mary Sawyer, was born on September 4, 1860, but neither Helen nor the baby survived. Helen was just nineteen years old when she died of scarlet fever on September 6, 1860. Baby Helen died six days later.

Bruce Kohn has made a worthwhile contribution to the story of Minnesota in this highly enjoyable work. The only thing I wished for was some indication of what he may have learned along his journey about the rumors that Sibley had other children with Dakota women. Perhaps he’s leaving that for another volume.

Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter is available by mail order at http://www.sibley-friends.org/store/ for $14.95 plus Shipping and Handling.

Historian and author Lois Glewwe blogs at Dakotasoulsisters.com.

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