Officers, Gentlemen, and Dakota Women

Theodore G. Carter, an officer in the 7th Minnesota, Company K, adds his recollection to the series on relationships between Army officers and Dakota women on the Minnesota frontier. (The five-part series started here.)

In his reminiscences, published in the St. Peter Herald in the spring of 1906, Carter made this observation about J.R. Brown, who was on Sibley’s campaign staff at Mankato in December 1862. The article was published on April 20, 1906.

Major Joseph R. Brown was with us and, I think, acted as interpreter…. Major Brown was a drummer boy at Fort Snelling in 1823, and afterward held official positions in Wisconsin Territory and later had been agent for the Sioux Indians.

I admired him for one thing. Like most of the early settlers who came to the country unmarried, he took a wife from the Sioux, but unlike nearly all others, he did not repudiate her when civilization came. He educated his children and was as highly respected as those who, similarly situated, deserted their dusky wives and married white “ladies.” But it must have made the white ladies feel queer to have the Indian wife come with her children and make an annual visit. I have it on good authority that such was the custom. And these people were high up in the political and social world.

In the context of Walt Bachman’s research on Henry Milord, I wish Carter had named names. Carter’s reminiscences show he generally respected Sibley as an officer; he did not repeat the rumors about Sibley’s Dakota children that Carter likely heard on the 1862 campaign.

Carter gives Brown an equally polished nod, alluding to Brown’s marriage to Susan Frenier Brown, while omitting the story of Brown’s arrest on November 11, 1862. The previous night, after curfew and against orders, Brown was found inside a tipi in the Dakota women’s camp at Mankato. (See link below.) While Brown’s self-defense was that he was sleeping there to protect his female relatives from male intruders, Stephen R. Riggs, also present, that same day wrote a letter naming Brown’s conduct, “a scandal.”

Carter’s observation underlines another real-life consequence of this pattern of officers and other ‘gentlemen’ visitors to the frontier temporarily taking a Dakota woman as a sexual partner. These pre-war relationships occurred in a cultural context that involved Dakota men, often the woman’s father, acting as a go-between. While traditional Dakota culture was functioning, kinship would have helped protect the rights of Dakota women.

But what happened among the Dakota prisoners after the war when the dictates of military tribunal resulted in the segregation of Dakota women from Dakota men? Vulnerable women, traumatized by war and by sudden, forced dislocations from loved-ones and place,  landed in the erstwhile protection of military men who had liberal pre-existing attitudes about the rights of white men in power to Indigenous women.

This means that the sexual abuse and harassment of Dakota women in the wake of the war did not occur in a vacuum. It’s all one story. The liberties taken by officers and gentlemen before the war paved the way.

This entry was posted in Theo. G. Carter, Women's History. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Officers, Gentlemen, and Dakota Women

  1. Joseph R. Brown had a beautiful wife. George W.Featherstonhaugh remarks in his journal in 1835 of Brown’s cook, “…he told me that she was a Nohcotah woman, the widow of that brother of Renville’s whom the Chippeways had murdered and that Renville had sent her here to live and lament her widowhood. When she came into the room to remove the plates, I observed that she was tall and well made, with all the remains of a handsome woman. Like many others, she had been the favourite Indian wife of an American trader and had had a daughter by one Lockwood,[James H.] a pretty young girl, about fourteen,…Mr.Brown, had done her the honour to remove her to his cabin, but this only en attendant, until he could persuade her daughter, the young beauty of fourteen, to live with him as his wife…” …….14 years seems to have been the ideal age in those times for a bride. Nowadays, we would chase these older men away from our 14-year-olds with a baseball bat, but in the 19th Century the girls were routinely given to them.

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