150 Years Ago: “The Prison Is One Great School”

Slate & Pencil

Slate, slate pencil, and holder, 19th century

Saint Anthony Min March 26, 1863

Rev. S. B. Treat

My Dear Brother

Your letter of the 12th inst. I have read since my reaching home last evening. I had a hard stage-trip down from Mankato, the roads being what people along the Valley call “awful.” At Mankato I spent ten days, including two Sabbaths, pretty much all the time in the prison. My visit there was made not quite so pleasant to myself by a severe attack of neuralgia which troubled me every day, being most severe in the forenoons, and it still holds its grip of me. It is something new to me — I only remember one attack like it before and that was more than twenty years ago.

But nothwithstanding this “thorn in the flesh” I was enabled to hold daily one or more religious services in the prison and to give some personal supervision to their educational operations.

The prison is one great school. Go in almost any time of day and you will see from ten to twenty groups or circles, reading. These circles average about ten persons and each one usually has its teacher. [Margin note: “The teachers were those who had been taught at our mission schools.”] All over the prison too you will see men engaged in writing, some with slate and pencil and others with pen and paper. There are a few old men, I should judge about twenty, who have not attempted to learn. Over all the rest Education now sits as monarch. In a separate building there are about eighteen Dakota women and a half dozen men and boys who cook and care for the prisoners. Education has entered their apartments and some women sixty years of age are learning to read. In fact it is a perfect mania. The edition of 400 of the little spelling book that I improvised and had printed at St. Paul, is nearly exhausted, and the demand is not satisfied either at Mankato or at Fort Snelling.

The Monday after I reached Mankato I distributed more than a hundred of these A.B.C. books. Many of those at Mankato are now on beyond that and want other books. Fortunately we have on hand more than 100 copies of Bunyan, which I took out of a cache on our way up to Camp Release last September. They had been buried for preservation by John B. Renville and others. They come now, in a good place, and John Bunyan will I trust experience another and more significant liberation among these Dakotas. [1]

During the last week I gave away 3/4 of a ream of writing paper, besides making various little purchases for such as had some money sent them by their friends at Fort Snelling. And I brought down with me over four hundred letters written to their friends. Major J. R. Brown, who has special charge of the prisoners, and who is required to read all the correspondence, remarked that the number of new writers increases every week wonderfully. Of course their are many who do not yet write their own letters. But the minape on de wakage, “I have written this with mine own hand,” occurs in a great many of the letters, and is the index of a feeling which an Indian possesses to as great a perfection as any other man.

On leaving this subject of education I may give expression to what is my firm belief that already as much progress has been made by the Indians at Mankato and Fort Snelling, during the present winter, in reading and writing, as was made during the twenty-six or more years preceding, by all the Dakotas.

Major Bradley of the 7th Minnesota, who by the way was one of the Military Commission, proposes as a theory, that “the best way to civilize Indians is to imprison them.” [2]

The question of polygamy was likely to give us trouble, and I was charged by a member of the Session at Fort Snelling to have the whole thing settled at Mankato. Before they were baptized at Mankato those who had two wives entered into an agreement to put one away. But the thing had not been done and so in one case at the camp we made both the wives promise to be willing to be put away. At our prayer meeting in the prison Monday night I stated the whole subject to them and told them I wanted them to have a meeting the next day and finish up what they had begun. So on Tuesday we had quite a lengthy meeting, during which nineteen men were called upon to select which of the two they would retain. They answered very promptly in all cases except two who were Mr. Hinman’s men –this is Episcopalians. A record was made of the whole proceedings which I am to make known in the camp. [3]

As Dr. [Thomas S.] Williamson had been desirous of visiting Fort Snelling he took advantage of my being at Mankato to do so. But before he thought of that we had talked of having the Lord’s supper [communion] administered in the prison. And although he could not be there the Doctor was desirous that the ordinance should be administered.

It was to me somewhat a trying duty. I look upon the whole work there as a wonderful reformation. I look upon it also as a most amazing work of God’s Spirit. But I don’t look upon those men as Dr. Williamson does –and as Mr. G.H. Pond evidently does from his several letters in the Evangelist, as but very few of them guilty of participation in the murders and outrages on the frontier. I wish I could so regard them. But I cannot. Having passed through those weeks of trials my point of observation is different from theirs, and my convictions are different also. I could not but feel that there were many bloody hands there, and how could I give into such hands the emblems of the body and blood of a dying Christ? But I remembered that they could not be more guilty than the crucifiers and murderers to whom Peter preached on the day of Pentacost, and Dakota sinners could be washing in Christ’s blood as well as Jerusalem sinners. [4]

On Sabbath morning Robert Hopkins with three others whom I had indicated the day before, seated the multitude in rows as well as they could for the convenience of making the distribution. During the whole time of two hours and a half the assembly was very quiet and orderly. We were disturbed once by the changing of the guards. There were two old men also, who when they came to take the bread, thought it proper to make a declaration of their faith. One of them expressed the hope that the Lord would loose that chain which was on his ankles. As a counter remark I said immediately that Satan’s chain was more galling than that.

That remark of the old man’s will probably give a clue to the answer of one of your questions.[5] I have no doubt that it is a mixed multitude and that they have been influenced by mixed motives. But I think that no religious man can go there and spend a week in the prison, attend their meetings morning and evening (and noon sometimes) and hear them sing and talk and pray and come away feeling that there is not a great deal of reality there. Doubtless there is much that is specious or that will not be enduring. It would be strange if it were all genuine. If those men live to get out and are again with their friends some of them will not be true to their profession of religion. But they will none of them go back to where they were before. Their own superstition is dashed to pieces like a potter’s vessel.

A paper was handed to me signed by thirty men saying that they wished their medicine bags and war spears to be handed to me if they had not been already disposed of.

But I shall weary you with this subject. I must tell you however that out of the little money sent up to them by their friends they gave me in the prison $16.40 for the New Hymn Book.

For this I have now raised about $75. A part of it I have sent on. The Tract Society (N.Y.) make us a donation of $50. The books (500) are now ready to be sent out. The cost of the edition is $173.85. A balance will remain against us of $48.85. I wish you would ask the Committee to wipe that out for us. The whole edition will be needed immediately. If Indians were not so much below par in Minnesota I could easily raise that among white people. But as it is I don’t wish to try it.

….In looking over my letter I see that I have not said one thing which I meant to have said and which perhaps you know –that Robert Hopkins is now the ruling spirit in that prison — he is the spiritual bishop there.

I don’t of course displace Dr. Williamson who has labored indefatigably this winter in season, and out of season I was going to say, but it has been in season all the time. But Hopkins has been there all the time and he stands spiritually, as he does physically, head and shoulders taller than the rest of the people.

The Sabbath I was there with Dr. Williamson, Hopkins handed us a paper which expressed their united determination to pray for three things –viz a country, a sanctuary, and religious teachers in that land. And in almost every prayer that I listened to afterwards these three things were asked for. And I don’t know that it is wrong for them to so pray.

Yours very truly

S. R. Riggs

[1] John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison for 12 years, convicted of convening a church service outside the state-sponsored Church of England. Pilgrim’s Progress was published in English in 1678 and in a Dakota language translation by Stephen Riggs, Cante Techa: Mahpiya Ekta Oicimani Ya, published by the American Tract Society in in 1858.

[2] Bradley served on the Military Commission that tried Dakota men for participation in the Dakota War of 1862. The Commission rendered death sentences in the majority of the cases, but Abraham Lincoln authorized the execution of only 38. On March 26,1863, the day Riggs wrote this letter, the remainder of the Dakota men Bradley and his fellow commissioners had condemned to death, along with those given prison sentences and those who had been acquitted, were all in prison in Mankato awaiting news of whether Lincoln would authorize more executions.

[3] A holograph list of men and the name of the wife they “put away” dated March 17, 1863 is in box 3 of the Oahe Mission Collection at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD.

[4] Riggs alludes to a story in the Bible, the books of Acts, chapter 2, verses 14-41 in which the apostle Peter, influenced by the Holy Spirit, preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins to men who had supported Jesus’ crucifixion.

[5] In March 12, 1863 letter to Riggs, Treat observed, “The reports from Mankato, & now Fort Snelling, are certainly surprising & most gratifying. I read Mr. G.H. Pond’s letter in the Evangelist with wonder. I do not suppose that all who rec’d baptism are true converts; but that so many, with such antecedents  should be willing to make public profession of their faith in Christ, is a strange thing. Can there be any sinister design in all this? Do some hope, in this way, to escape hanging?” Northwest Missions Manuscripts, MHS.

Image Credit: historicconnections.webs.com

This entry was posted in Literacy in the Dakota language, Mankato Prison. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 150 Years Ago: “The Prison Is One Great School”

  1. Thanks Carrie, This is so classic Riggs. He is always the self-sacrificing leader, skeptical of the opinions of his professional colleagues, condescendingly putting himself above their naive notions and making sure that his criticisms are so passive aggressive they appear to be completely innocent. I try not to judge him in an effort to recognize the limitations placed on him by his background and culture but he can be so frustrating.

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