1862 Dakota Peace Coalition

Please join me and the Linden Hills History Study Group on Monday, October 14 at 7:00 PM. We will meet at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 4201 Sheridan Avenue South in Minneapolis, MN as I share, and we discuss, the controversial theme of my Historical Introduction to Mary Butler Renville’s  1863 book A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: that the Dakota counter-insurgency known as the Peace Party actively and effectively worked to bring the 1862 War to a close.


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Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 5

This post is a classic exercise in doing history. The file of leads appears to be straight-forward. But upon a close reading of the texts, we are left to wonder. 

Captain John S. Marsh of the 5th Minnesota Volunteers, Company B has always been a mystery to me. Was he “gallant” or “misguided” for marching boldly out of Fort Ridgely the morning of August 18, 1862, to put down the rumored unrest at the Lower Sioux Agency? Marsh was an officer with front-line experience at Bull Run in Virginia. But to hear the story survivors told, Marsh brushed off every caution urged by settlers fleeing the Agency and marched half his command to their deaths in a Dakota ambush at Redwood Ferry.

No one has adequately explained what Marsh was doing at the time he drowned, hours later while trying to cross the Minnesota River toward the Lower Reservation.  Other survivors headed the opposite direction, toward Fort Ridgely. Folwell explained that after the ambush, Marsh and some of his men retreated under cover of the brushy tree-line on the north bank of the river until,

“At length a point was reached where the cover was too thin. Captain Marsh decided to cross the stream, thus escaping the Indians’ fire, and make his way toward the fort along the south bank. He would not have so resolved had he known or, if knowing he had reflected that he would find himself in one of the Sioux villages.” [1]

Marsh Marker Fort Ridgley Cemetery

The monument in the Fort Ridgely Cemetery marking the graves of the soldiers killed at Redwood Ferry August 18, 1862.

I make no claim to solving the mystery of Marsh’s deadly bravado. But the story is complicated by a source suggesting that while stationed at Fort Ridgely, John S. Marsh had allied himself with a Dakota band via kinship: that he had a relationship with a Dakota woman who, it is said, was carrying Marsh’s child the day Marsh died.

Evidence is scattered and insubstantial enough to leave me wondering, not convinced. But I share the sources, thin as they are, to underline the point that the questions I have raised in this series about relationships between army officers and Dakota women are not esoteric. These were real relationships between real men and women. Some of those relationships resulted in the births of real children. All the actors played real, if unrecognized, roles in the real-life drama we call ‘history.’

We’ve already seen the context of John S. Marsh’s story. Eli Huggins agreed with Stephen Riggs’s assessment that it was “exceedingly common” for military officers stationed on the frontier to have a temporary relationship with a Native American woman. Huggins said the exceptions were, sometimes, married men and missionaries. Marsh was not married and his religious affiliation, if he had one, is unknown.

Further, now that we are beginning to understand the privileges accorded post commanders –like importing slaves to Free states and territories as servants –I better understand why temporarily taking a Native sexual partner was viewed as ordinary. Like slaveholding, it wasn’t something every officer would choose to do. But few would view it amiss if he did.

Listen to how nonchalantly Timothy J. Sheehan recorded this in his diary while his detachment was stationed at Yellow Medicine the summer of 1862:

July 13: “All quiet in camp lots inds. prowling around about 2000 bucks squaws and papooses danced in front of the traders stores called it the great buffalo dance squaws had on buffalo robes all painted one young squaw wore around her the stars and stripes wanted to marry white man Mark Greer took her to teopie [sic] stayed all day.” [2 ]


Nancy McClure

“Nancy McClure, or Winona” by Frank B. Mayer, 1851. MHS

The earliest documentation of the Marsh-baby allegation comes from Nancy McClure. Ironically, McClure (1836-1927) was the daughter of a Dakota woman, Winona, and an army officer stationed at Fort Snelling, James McClure. When she was in her eighties, McClure told Mankato historian Thomas Hughes,

“Sleepy Eyes had two grandchildren living in Canada. One was called Her Cloud, who had a son by a volunteer officer at Fort Ridgely — I think the officer’s name was Marsh. Her Cloud during the outbreak fled to Canada and her son grew up there and has a big farm near Pipestone, Canada. Her Cloud died a few years ago.” [3]

Hughes’s co-author, William C. Brown, marked Marsh’s name to be stricken from the manuscript in which the quote appears, Old Traverse des Sioux. Commenting on a galley copy Hughes sent Brown for proofing, on March 24, 1928, Brown told Hughes to strike ” ‘–I think the officer’s name was Marsh’… as Heitman’s Register does not show any regular army officer named Marsh who could possibly have ever served at Fort Ridgely.”

On March 26, 1928, Hughes replied to Brown,

“In regard to Captain Marsh commanding at Fort Ridgely, would say that he was not a United States Officer at all in the sense of belonging to the regular army. There was not one soldier at Fort Ridgely for over a year before the Outbreak that had enlisted in the regular Army, but they belonged to the Fifth and Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry….all the regular U.S. soldiers had been sent south. Captain Marsh belonged to the Sixth Minnesota Infantry and was the officer in command at Fort Ridgely at the time of the Outbreak and was crowned in the Minnesota River… he had been in command at Fort Ridgely for six months or more, and he is the officer I presume that Mrs. Huggins referred to, in fact she told me so, as being the father of ‘Her Cloud.'” [4]

Hughes’s claim is typical of written documentary history: a mixed bag of ‘facts.’ It is unfortunately easy to parse out the piece that supports a hypothesis –let’s say the affirmative ‘she told me so’  here– and declare, positively, that McClure said Marsh had fathered a Dakota baby. In fact, that is essentially how Hughes himself used McClure’s story: read it to confirm his belief that Marsh had a Dakota child.

But listen to how an attorney might cross-examine Hughes if, instead of publishing this vignette, he had spoken it as oral testimony in court.

“Which is it Mr. Hughes? Did Mrs. McClure actually name Marsh, or did you ‘presume’ she was referring to Marsh and you supplied his name?”

No matter how Hughes answered, the follow-up questions would have gone hard for him.

“Can be you be certain of that, Mr. Hughes? Did you say Marsh was Captain in the Sixth Regiment?”

“Yes, I did.”

“But he was in the Fifth, Mr. Hughes. Perhaps you’ve forgotten? How about “Her Cloud”? You have stated both that she was the mother of Marsh’s baby and that Marsh was Her Cloud’s father. Which is it?”

There’s also the big problem of Hughes’s claim in Old Traverse des Sioux that he obtained Nancy McClure’s story (Chapter X) when she visited St. Peter, while much of the content –although not the Marsh passage –is lifted verbatim from letters McClure wrote to historian Return I. Holcombe, three decades before she visited Hughes. [5]

Parsing history is devilish, isn’t it? Even though we might judge Hughes an unreliable transmitter of McClure’s story, the fact remains that McClure is a reliable source. Her own mother had been in Her Cloud’s position and McClure herself was a living parallel to Marsh’s baby. So we can expect the story might have had unusual staying power for McClure.

Further, in 1862, during the months Marsh was stationed at Fort Ridgely, McClure was living with her husband, David Faribault Sr., on the government road that connected Ridgely and the Lower Sioux Agency, crossing the Minnesota River at Redwood Ferry. If Marsh had a relationship with a woman on the reservation side of the river, Marsh would have passed Nancy McClure’s front door coming and going (unless he crossed the river at the Ridgely ferry).

There is also a body of evidence, larger than I will present here, supporting the idea that during the summer of 1862, Dakota men cultivated an alliance with Marsh designed to safeguard Dakota autonomy during the pending 1862 annuity payment –autonomy undermined in past years when Ridgely commanders had supported the Indian Agent’s agenda.

If Marsh had entered into a relationship with a Dakota woman, might not that have opened a door for her kin to expect Marsh would at least hear their grievances against the government, and perhaps help Dakotas balance the scales in 1862? Former Sioux Agent Joseph R. Brown complained to Ignatius Donnelly in 1865,

“I think in a former letter I shared that all intercourse with the Indians should be through the Agent and all military officers should be forbidden from counseling or in any manner interfering with the Indians except upon the application of the Agent….

At Fort Snelling the Agent suffered many indignities through the usurpation of powers by the Comdg. officer in connection with the duties of the Agent; and I am satisfied that the germ of dissatisfaction on the part of the Lower Sioux was brought forth by the interference of the Comdg. officers for a period of three or four years at Fort Ridgely. Poor Captain Marsh whose life was sacrificed at the Lower Agency went so far as to counsel the Indians in case the Agent should attempt to retain any of their annuity money on account of depredations, to take it from the Agent by force, and to refuse to payment of all debts to traders and that his troops would protect them in doing so.” [6]

The final scrap of evidence in my Marsh file was unearthed by Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz while she was transcribing primary sources for her book, The Dakota Internment at Fort Snelling 1862-64. In the Catholic Church of St. Peter [Mendota, MN] Parish Baptismal Register, Marz found an entry for baby Julius Gere, born to Wakinyaniwin and a man surnamed Gere, given name not recorded. Julius was one month old at the time of his baptism on March 22 or 29, 1863. Reasoning backward to an approximate conception date of June 1862, Marz points out that Lt. Thomas P. Gere, age 19, was stationed at Fort Ridgely at the right time to be Julius’s biological father.

What does a potential son of Lt. Thomas P. Gere have to do with the story of John S. Marsh? Perhaps nothing. If either attribution –that Gere fathered a baby, or that Marsh fathered a baby –is wrong, then any connection between the two is also wrong.

However, we know that commanding officers set the tone for the behavior of their subordinates. And now we also know from primary sources that relationships between officers and Dakota women on the Minnesota frontier were common. So unless Marsh was personally an exception, and unless he imposed and enforced his contrary convictions on those in his command, we can expect his soldiers would have followed his lead. Therefore we can infer from the attitudes and behavior of Marsh’s subordinates, like Sheehan, Gere, and Greer, that Marsh was probably not opposed to the practice of military men taking Dakota women.

This series is over for now because  I’ve come to the end of the written sources in my file. But I hope it is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation. Those of us alive today are working in an era where we recognize that humans are multi-dimensional, military heroes not excepted. We are open to “exploring the wrinkles” in stories, as Annette Atkins observes,  wrinkles that previous generations of historians seemed intent on “ironing out.”

Many of us are owning up to the limitations of many written historical sources, like Hughes’s claims above, and are opening up to the contributions of oral history. On this subject, Dakota oral tradition tells us that not all relationships between white officers and Dakota women were consensual. In the context of the sharp imbalance of power on the frontier favoring white males, rape and the fear of rape were so common that some Dakota women took physical precautions to thwart any attempt.

We can also expect that if they choose to share their family stories, Sleepy Eyes’s descendants might today be able to fact-check the story about John S. Marsh that Hughes attributed to Nancy McClure. She likely told the story more than once.

As we’ll see, Army officers weren’t the only ones. Coming up on October 4 is a guest post by Walt Bachman examining allegations that Henry Milord, one of the 38 Dakota men executed at Mankato in 1862, was the son of former Governor Henry H. Sibley who ordered the execution.


[1] William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Volume 2, p. 114 (Minnesota Historical Society, 1924) p. 114. Folwell characterized Marsh as “ignorant and “overconfident” in marching into an ambush at Redwood Ferry.

[2] My transcription of the original held by the Minnesota Historical Society.

[3] Thomas Hughes, Old Traverse des Sioux, p. 128 (Herald Publishing Company, 1929)

[4] William C. Brown to Thomas Hughes March 26, 1928. Thomas Hughes Papers, Southern Minnesota Research Center, Mankato State University, Mankato, MN.

[5] McClure’s letters to Holcombe are in the Return Ira Holcombe Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society.

[6] Joseph R. Brown to Ignatius Donnelly March 12, 1865. Ignatius Donnelly Papers. Microfilm. MHS.

[7] Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz The Dakota Internment at Fort Snelling 1862-64  p. 90 (Prairie Smoke Press, 2005).

Image Credits: Find A Grave and the Minnesota Historical Society. Both via Google Images.

Posted in Doing Historical Research, John S. Marsh, William P. Gere, Women's History | 1 Comment

Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 4

Rockford   Wright  County Minn July 25 1863

Samuel J. Brown, Esq.

Dear Sir

Not having anything in particular to do and thinking that it might interest you to know where the Bloody Co. “I” is stationed, I take this opportunity of now informing you. On our arrival in St. Paul we were ordered up to Mananah 12 miles west of Forest City from there I was ordered with 15 of the boys down in through the Big Woods on the Scout after Indians where we have been ever since and have had some good times and some bad here on account of the mosquitoes and flies and long marches and at times very little to eat at others we have had plenty when we make [ ] onslaught on some farmers for chickens. I tell you Sam the Boys of Co. “I” can’t be beat on robbing their roosts.

I hope you have a good time up amongst the Indians. I wish you would scalp a few of them Sam and send the scalps along this way as scalps are worth $75.00 here now to anyone who takes one. Send a few along and I will go halves with you. I expect you and [torn page; three words missing] Maj. must have a dull time of it up there.

Sam I want you to do me a favor by going and seeing Sinte for me and find out how herself and the young one is getting on up in that God-forsaken country. I expect it must be hard times with her. Sam I want you to write me all the news from your place —how you get along with the Indians and all about matters and things in general if there is anything in particular Sinte wants me to do for her you will please let me know and if convenient I shall do it. By complying with the above requests and writing at your earliest convenience you will confer lasting favor on

Yours Truly

Jas. Gorman

address: Lieut. Jas Gorman Co. “I” 10th Regt. M.V. Mananah, Meeker Co. Minn

note on jacket in Samuel J. Brown’s handwriting: “Captain James Gorman of Renville Rangers”


Sometimes even I don’t know what to say, you know?

James Gorman was the brother of Minnesota Territorial Governor, Willis A Gorman. Before August of 1862, when he signed up for a company of Minnesota volunteer infantry that would become known as the Renville Rangers, James Gorman was employed on the Upper Sioux Reservation in west-central Minnesota.

This letter suggests that while living on the reservation, Gorman had a relationship with a Dakota woman named Sinte and that Sinte and her child (Gorman’s?), had been exiled from Minnesota to Crow Creek, South Dakota.

Gorman’s friend, Samuel J. Brown was stationed at Crow Creek in the summer of 1863, as Dakota interpreter for the Federal Indian Agency. On the heels of his suggestion that hunting Indians for their scalps would liven up the monotony of duty at Crow Creek, Gorman asked Brown to send news of Sinte and her child but was interested in helping them only if it was convenient.

It wasn’t a trivial reference to scalps and bounties. Little Crow (although his body had not yet been identified) had been killed and scalped about 20 miles away from where Gorman was stationed, three weeks before Gorman penned this letter.


Source: Photocopy in binder “Samuel J. Brown, Frontiersman,” compiled and loaned to me in 2003 by Alan R. Woolworth. Possibly copied from the Joseph R. and Samuel J. Brown Family Papers, the Minnesota Historical Society.

Posted in Dakota Exile, James Gorman, Samuel J. Brown, scalping, Sinte | 13 Comments

Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 3

Eli Lundy Huggins     John J Pershing

General Eli Lundy Huggins (left) and General John J. Pershing (right), whom Huggins used as an example of the practice of army officers fathering children with women native to the place where the officer was garrisoned.

In 1918, Minnesota historian William Watts Folwell was deep in conversation with General Eli Lundy Huggins. Huggins, son of Dakota missionaries Alexander and Lydia Huggins, was probably born at Lac qui Parle, Minnesota in 1842, grew up at Traverse des Sioux, about 45 miles east of Fort Ridgely, was a career officer in the army, and died in California in 1929.[1]

Folwell first wrote to Eli Huggins in 1906. If Eli’s half of the correspondence is any indication, by the time Folwell began researching the first and second volumes of the History of Minnesota –history the Huggins family had lived –Folwell valued Huggins as a source of stories from the underbelly of history, stories which never made the headlines of period newspapers: Joseph Godfrey’s flight from his Minnesota slave master; Eli’s father Alexander’s temporary insanity after inheriting money made from slavery;  rumors that John B. Renville had abandoned true love to marry his white wife, Mary Butler Renville; an explanation of the “irregular intercourse” between army officers and Native women.

On July 5, 1918, Huggins closed a letter to Folwell with this postscript:

 “P.S. You quote Mr. Riggs as saying ‘irregular intercourse between white officers and gentlemen was exceedingly common.’ And he might have made a much stronger statement. I doubt whether any white healthy bachelor has ever lived among dark skinned people without taking a querida as they call them in the P. I. [Philippine Islands]. [General John J.] Pershing has a mestizo daughter (if she is still living) about 17 years old. The presence of officers and civil employees’ families was some check, and the frequent changes of station. But when a garrison was unchanged for a year or so the querida always appeared and there are [word illegible] a good many young American mestizos in the P.I.

I doubt whether one of the early pioneer traders, officers etc. was without his querida, except a few married ones and the missionaries. Even those did not always escape. Capt. Seth Eastman is a notable exception of the married officers. Hinman was the only exception I know of among the missionaries. He was the only bachelor missionary except the Pond brothers who soon married white women. It was imprudent to place a young bachelor missionary in this position and leave him there for years.

You know who Dr. [Thomas] Foster was, a pioneer newspaper man. He accompanied Gov. Ramsey and party to Traverse des Sioux when the treaty was made there. He bought from her father, Thunder Face (He-wakiyan) a Sioux maiden of more than usual charms. But when he tried to exercise his marital right, she resisted and left the marks of her nails on his face. The incident created much amusement among both the whites and Indians. She made several objections to accepting her father’s choice, one being that Dr. F. had ‘butter eyes’ –glass is the same as butter in Sioux, and F. wore large spectacles. Thunder Face laughed about it. He had delivered the goods and that was all that could be expected from him. The Dr. being a civilized gentleman could not assert his rights as his remote ancestor the cave man would have done and has for the degeneracy of our age.”

It seems Huggins knew what he was talking about.  Besides being career Army, Huggins had a relationship with a woman to whom he was not married while stationed in Alaska. We don’t know if she was Inuit, as one story implies, or if she was Russian, as implied by the name in another. We also do not know the role she played in determining the future of their son, Zenoah Alexander Huggins. But Eli Huggins, perhaps following Riggs’s admonition, played the part of the dutiful father by having Zenoah raised and educated in the Lower 48 by Eli’s sister Jane Huggins Holtzclaw.

Curiously (or perhaps not) there is no evidence Huggins ever told his own story to Folwell. As we’ll see next in the cases of two Army officers who fathered children with Dakota women in Minnesota, these relationships are not the type of stories historians preserved in the official record.


[1] The question of Eli Huggins’ birthplace is not settled. The author of a biography published in Chronicles of Oklahoma consulted Huggins’ military records in the National Archives, which may indicate he was born in Schuyler County, Illinois. This is possible as that county was the home of Eli’s maternal grandparents and a secondary source states that Lydia was visiting home at the time Eli was born. However, none of the Huggins family memoirs or journals note this trip home to Illinois. Baptism records for the Presbyterian Church at Lac qui Parle show Eli Huggins was baptized there October 30, 1842. Eli later referred to himself as “the oldest person still living who was born in Minnesota.” My thanks to Lois Glewwe for fact-checking Eli’s birth.

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Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 2

In Part I of this series, I used a new translation of an 1861 German-language article in the New Ulm Pionier to introduce the subject of relationships between Army officers at Fort Ridgely and Dakota women on the Dakota Reservations in Minnesota. In this post, I’ll supply the text of Stephen Riggs’ April 1861 editorial, “The Duties of Fathers To Their Children.”

officers quarters FtR

The foundations of officers’ quarters at Fort Ridgely. Photo by Gary Alan Nelson for the Minnesota DNR.

Army officers at Fort Ridgely have recently fallen on hard times as historical subjects. Walt Bachman has uncovered the story of Ridgely officers’ previously invisible enslaved servants –one of the subjects of a new interpretive display in the works for Historic Fort Ridgely. Now we’re revisiting long-known allegations that Fort officers routinely abandoned the children they fathered with Dakota women. Did every officer posted at Ridgely bring slaves to the free frontier? No. Neither did every officer enter into a sexual relationship with a Dakota woman who bore his child. But the latter was so common that it was controversial in the 19th century. Period evidence of that controversy forms the core of this series.

Today, our questions are different from those posed in the New Ulm Pionier in 1861. We recognize that traditional Dakota culture is rich and that children raised in that culture are not inherently disadvantaged –except, perhaps, as measured by some Americans. In fact, some Dakota today would argue that traditional culture is far preferred.

Instead, I wonder: What did Dakota women and their families think of these relationships? We’re the liaisons voluntary, or as Dakota oral tradition remembers, were Dakota women raped by English-speaking men in positions of power? If the relationship was voluntary, what did the woman and her family understand about the longevity of her association with an officer whose posting was routinely changed? Did those attitudes change as the Civil War approached and the length of postings at Fort Ridgely grew shorter than the gestational length of pregnancy?

One of those Dakota women has a voice in the “sermon” by missionary Stephen Riggs mentioned in the New Ulm Pionier  –although, unfortunately, only a bit part. In the lines bolded below, her words roughly translate, “My baby’s father was a doctor at the Fort. But now he is gone to the Missouri [River].”

On May 22, 1861, the St. Peter Tribune published an editorial letter by Riggs titled, “The Duty of Fathers to Their Children.”

It occurs to me that the idea of paternity is longer, and broader, and deeper, and higher, than most men suppose. Many men, both young and old, seem to think lightly of the relationship of father. And yet, in the nature of things, there can be no earthly relationship which involves more grave and weighty responsibilities than the paternal. The maternal relation may be regarded as, in some respects, taking rank of the paternal; but not in responsibilities. Indeed, in the human family, the father is bound to take care of the mother with the children.

It is not however my purpose to write a homily on the duties of fathers in general; but to urge upon those whom it may concern the performance of duties of fathers towards the children which they have scattered among the Dakotas.

In and out of the Dakota country, it is known that the process of mixing races has been going on quite rapidly. The Canadian trappers and voyagers seem to take to it quite naturally. From the commencement of this intercourse with the Indians they have appeared to be perfectly content with the position of being the father of a family of half-breed children. Not that they have always been faithful, or that they have not sometimes left one Indian woman and taken another; but in these respects they have been more loyal than the Anglo-Americans. This latter class, whether officers in the Army, Traders, Indian Agents, or government employees, have gone in to the arrangement not less naturally and readily than the Canadians, but the mischief with them is only pro tem pore. They have not intended that it should be a permanent arrangement. And the few cases wherein it has become permanent have been decided afterwards by considerations which were not contemplated in the beginning.

In this respect, some Americans act very honorably among the Dakotas. Coming into the country as young men, and engaging in business they have of course fallen into the common custom of taking Indian women. In this intention the arrangement was probably very temporary, but when they have found, in the natural course of things, a family of children growing up, they have not had it in their heart to repudiate the mother with the children. So, notwithstanding a great disparity of taste and education, they have legalized the relation and henceforth lived in the discharge of conjugal and paternal duties. I have always honored such men. It may have worked to their disadvantage, but they have done their duty. And their self-denial enured [sic] to the benefit of their children.

There is another class of men who have become fathers among the Dakotas, and have not felt their duty to continue the connection with the mothers; but who have endeavored to do their duty by their offspring. They might not perhaps bring these children of Hagar home to live with the mother of Isaac — but they have furnished the means to educate them, and thus shown that they had the feelings of a father.

A third class, and I regret to say that it is the most numerous, who have scattered children somewhat in the fashion of sewing mullien, [sic] and with no more care about their growth. Only a couple of years since, a woman died in a state of want on this Reservation. She was the wife of an Indian, the mother of several children and the daughter of an officer of rank in the army of the United States. Her father permitted her to grow up like an Indian, and to die like an Indian. How could he do it?

And even now are cases like that occurring continually. At the beginning of this past winter, a young girl, living under the hill below our mission dwellings, came every few days with a fine looking boy who had a white father. She said, “Pazhehoota wechashta at Fort — ha attayya, but he is now gone to the Missouri.” And I am informed that this was only one of quite a number of half-breed children left among the Dakotas, by the officers of those companies. Do these men ever think of a father’s obligations? Do they ever have any yearning of a father’s heart toward their own offspring? How can they bear the thought of their children growing up to be Indians, and learning to dance the scalp dance?

Let me say, “Gentlemen, you have duties to perform to these children. — Hunt them up and have them educated. Don’t be ashamed to own them. The disgraceful part of your proceed[ing] in regard to them is past — remains for you to do is honor. Don’t make your calculations that some missionary or some boarding school will hunt up your children and educate them without care or cost to you.” I should be ashamed if I were an officer in the army, with a salary of from seven hundred to as many thousand a year to have my children either grown up wild, or to be trained at the expenses of some benevolent persons. Not so should I be willing to throw off or discharge the obligation of a father.

Gentlemen, I am not your enemy. I don’t come to upbraid you for what you have done. I am sorry for you. But what I want to have you do is to act the man now. Let us see that you have a father’s heart. And I, for one, will honor you for that. And in all your efforts, truly and honestly made, to discharge your duties toward your children, my heart shall beat in sympathy with yours.

One more word I have to say to unmarried men in this country. It is a bad place for you. You know as well as I do. But what I want to say is, “Don’t keep Mistresses. If you prefer a Dakota woman, take her for good and be faithful to her. Marriage is a matter of taste. I don’t advise you to seek wives among Indians. But if that is your taste, nobody has any right to object. Only don’t be mean about it. Don’t dishonor the community; even if it is an Indian one. Don’t treasure up for yourselves wrath against the day. Of all sins, licentiousness is the most terribly ruinous of moral character and even manhood itself. — Be wise. And may God help you to shun the path of the destroyer.”

S.R. Riggs

Oomahoo [Hazelwood], Minn., April 1861

Context is everything and we cannot miss the St. Peter Tribune’s timing. It was a Republican newspaper and the Democrats’ reign in Minnesota’s Indian regime was lurching to a close. The last week of May 1861, was the last week of J.R. Brown’s tenure as Sioux Agent, and the end of the line for most of his employees. Dozens of men were faced with the decision to stay on in Indian Country in some other capacity, or to return east, leaving behind any children they may have fathered.

The nation was also one month into the Civil War, which was siphoning Regular Army regiments and their officers away from frontier forts where they had previously been stationed for 10-20 months at a time. They were replaced with a revolving door of volunteer officers and soldiers who, within months of arriving, would be cycled out to the Southern front. No doubt Riggs and the Tribune were also firing a warning shot across the bow of the incoming Republican administration: expectations were high for anyone who fathered a child with a Dakota woman.

Did Riggs’ admonitions work? Your guess is probably right. In the next three posts, I supply one officer’s defense of the practice and the stories of two more who fathered children with Dakota women.

Posted in Fort Ridgely, newspapers, Stephen R. Riggs | Leave a comment

Army Officers and Dakota Women on the Minnesota Frontier, Part 1

This post begins with a short review of the book that sparked this conversation, then introduces other period sources commenting on relationships between Army officers and Dakota women.

I made progress on my to-read pile this summer, including several books that I purchased from the Brown County Historical Society last summer when they were new releases for the 150th commemoration of the Dakota War of 1862. I found John LaBatte and Elwin Roger’s The New Ulm Pioneer and the Indians 1858-1862 (2012) engrossing and timely.


The New Ulm Pionier No. 1, January 1, 1858. Copy in the Archives and Rare Books Library at the University of Cincinnati

As scholarship on the Dakota war continues to progress, we’re increasingly aware that the experiences and opinions people brought to the Dakota War influenced how they perceived and remembered events. The field sorely needs the Dakota War equivalent of Milton J. Bates’ The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling (University of California, 1996). Until someone writes it, primary sources like the New Ulm Pionier articles LaBatte harvested will prod us to reconsider the stories we’ve inherited.

The collection of newspaper stories is arranged in chronological order from January 1, 1858 (the first issue) through August 16, 1862 (the last issue printed before the war). LaBatte culled articles containing German keywords for Indians. Rogers, Professor Emeritus of German at Concordia College, Moorehead, MN, translated the articles into English. The 40-page book reproduces the English translations with spare, but adequate, annotations by the editors, and a short introduction and conclusion by LaBatte.

Despite the Pionier’s early motto, “Independent in Everything, Neutral in Nothing,” in these translations, the 19th century editors’ voices emerge as moderate compared to many of the declared-partisan editors of Republican and Democratic newspapers in this period (the Pionier editors were Republicans), and less racially biased than New Ulm citizens were stereotyped to be in the wake of the war. Readers expecting church-bashing from these dedicated Turners will be surprised to find the editors praising the work of the Presbyterian missionaries among the Dakotas.

Anyone expecting to find pointed animus against New Ulm’s Dakota neighbors –the Lower Sioux Reservation began ten miles west of New Ulm –may be disappointed. While the editors’ racial views were no more enlightened than average (meaning they use language and express views that are offensive today), these articles show that regular Federal annuity payment cycles on the Dakota reservations, and on the Winnebago reserve southeast of New Ulm, made Native Americans welcome in the neighborhood economy. Further, New Ulmers leveraged the economic potential of their proximity to all three Indian reservations, and to the military reserve at Fort Ridgely, actively seeking Federal contracts for local farmers and businesses.

But I enjoyed most the new perspective on the goings-on in Renville and Brown Counties, which surrounded the Dakota reservations. As with all newspapers, sometimes the neighborhood gossip turned out to be true, and sometimes it did not. But whether or not historians judge the news accurate, the reportage itself offers fresh insight into the prevailing beliefs that would take on added significance with the onset of the Dakota War in 1862.

Like how close to New Ulm was the treaty-surveyed eastern boundary of the Lower Sioux Reservation? (Reports conflicted.) How many settlers squatted on land on the 10-mile strip of reservation land north of the Minnesota River between the treaty negotiation date of 1858 and its ratification in 1861? Did they have any right to be there? Perhaps, even more telling, who had settled there before the treaty was even proposed, and how, legally speaking, did they do it?

To give you a taste of these articles and the layers they add to previously known sources, I’ll quote a section of a July 13, 1861 article titled, “The City and Its Surroundings,” and in the next post, supply complimentary primary sources on the subject of relationships between military officers and Dakota women before the war.

As in the South the black population is becoming paler and paler, here on the border the French Canadian and the Angloamerican are trying to bring the Caucasian blood into the majority of the native American [sic]. Instead of the dark brown tendency of the full blood Dakota, one frequently encounters the sallow color of the half caste and many a son or daughter of a rich, respected father live unknown in the Dakota villages and turn into a wild creature when the father could give his offspring the best and most excellent education. Few old sinners who served as US military officers or other officials who entered into a temporary marriage with one or more Indian women remember that they have the duties of a father. They are ashamed to introduce the light-colored children of a brown mother into the fashionable, well mannered and pious circle of their relatives and friends.

The French-Canadians are better. Of course, they do not bring their brown companions nor their light-colored children up to their level, rather they are much more inclined to come down to theirs and let half-blood children become complete children of nature; but at least they do not desert or deny them.

A short time ago, the missionary Riggs loosed a thundering letter [or sermon] against the white fathers of half-Indians who forget their duties toward them and noted that in the Dakota villages many children run around whose fathers served in the army or who had high posts under earlier administrations and who would have entree into the most fashionable society.

These children are the product of marriages that, in Indian eyes, are completely justified and are therefore not bastards but legitimate children. Through a gift to the family of the woman, the father acquired the consent of her family members to take the woman he desired to himself. Perhaps they lived together for years in complete harmony until the white groom either grew tired of his companion or “forced by circumstances?”* gave her and her children permission to return to her  friends.

Continued in Part 2.

* Editor Elwin Rogers notes that the question mark is in the original German text.

Photo credit: The University of Cincinnati

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38 Nooses by Scott W. Berg: a review

38 Nooses Mankato cover

38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End by Scott W. Berg. Pantheon Books, New York, 2012. 364 pages. $27.95

reviewed by Margaret J. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Twin Cities native Scott W. Berg is currently on the faculty of George Mason University where he teaches nonfiction writing and literature. In 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, Berg draws on primary sources and, with liberal quotations from salient documents, draws together in captivating and vividly detailed prose the background and contextual realities of those fateful six weeks now known as the U.S. -Dakota War of 1862, including their tragic aftermath on our nation’s history.

Interweaving individual biographies, an analysis of personal relationships and professional conflicts, the place of Minnesota as a newly minted State in a Union being torn apart by Civil War, tribal differences, and the ever-changing relational dynamics among Indians, traders, missionaries, settlers, and governments agents, Berg deftly describes the complex and connected interactions that drove a pivotal period in American history.

On top of this is an overlay of government policies opening the west to settlement where each successive treaty and policy had the effect of disadvantaging Native tribes in relationship to their historic homelands, as well as their ability to maintain cultural and religious identities in territories rapidly being overrun by immigrant settlers from the eastern states and Europe. Readers will gain a deep understanding of the insuppressible conflict between a government that saw a “frontier” where the Native peoples saw “home.”

38 Nooses is a comprehensive book that can profitably be read by those who want to know what happened on the Minnesota frontier, how it happened, and why it happened. Civil War scholars will find 38 Nooses an important source for forming a more expansive view of the Northland. The Notes, Bibliography, and Index provide a rich resource for those who want to delve deeper. Photos are inserted in the text at the points where they provide helpful information, although the Table of Contents is useless.  This book should be read by anyone who is open to knowing more about what they think they already know.

Berg’s book is filled with the kind of detail that makes good historical narrative flow. In page after page, I found new insights and answers to questions that had lingered after reading other sources. For example:

  • How did other Dakota communities react to the war? How about the other tribes in the upper mid-west and across the nation?
  • Who were the settlers? What happened to those people who fled their homesteads and fledgling communities? How long was it before the Homestead Act’s westward march continued appropriating tribal lands?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln know so much about what was happening as it happened?
  • Was there really a Confederate effort to co-opt native peoples against the Federal government?

Berg seems to be constantly weighing the question of “How do we know what we know?” For example, during this period the news from Saint Paul to the rest of the nation was instantaneous – the telegraph lines ran east and many Federal officials were in Saint Paul at the time including Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Nicolay. The news Saint Paul received from Minnesota’s rural areas, however, relied on the reports of those fleeing from the west or returning after a military action, and those “facts” were fragmentary, conflicting, and in too many cases pure fiction –all of which was passed along to the eastern press as news.

Berg has sifted through numerous primary sources, weighing their veracity and presenting a rich contextual foundation upon which to build this story.  He interweaves the personal stories of Little Crow, Sarah Wakefield, Bishop Henry Whipple, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Sibley, and Alexander Ramsey. Other significant persons receive similar attention. We come to understand these people, caught in their human complexity and frailty as history swirled around them.

  • Little Crow – an aging leader who had been to Washington, participated in all of the treaty negotiations, tried to understand western ways and remained Dakota to his core.
  • Sarah Wakefield – an unhappy woman captured by the Indians and vilified as an “Indian Lover” when she defended her protector, Chaska.
  • Henry Whipple – a leading and influential Episcopal bishop passionate in missionary work, present on Civil War and Dakota battlefields, well connected to national leaders, who had the ability to comprehend the reasons for the conditions around him. He became a powerful advocate for reform and justice but continued to believe in the need to “Christianize” the indigenous populations.
  • Abraham Lincoln – a man who transcended his family history and read every telegram sent to the War Department and sought the best way forward within the provisions of civil and military law in the midst of two significant wars.

While Berg makes no pretense to connect this history with current events, the connections are there. The inability of so many frontier immigrants to speak English resonates with “English Only” movements today. “Failures of law, failures of policy, failures of justice and lasting personal grievances” overwhelmed the ability of the government to honor sovereign peoples within the expanding United States. This reality is still reflected in jurisdictional disagreements on reservations and anger toward Mexicans crossing a border into lands that were once theirs. Is our administration of foreign aid another manifestation of how we dealt with our treaty obligations? How should we treat enemy combatants held in Guantanamo? Does Lincoln’s distinction between those who participated in massacres and those who participated in battles apply to terrorist embedded in the world’s current uprisings?

Reading good history helps us develop a willingness to delve deeper into common wisdom to discover deeper nuance. 38 Nooses helps us do that and just may be the beginning of helping us understand the lingering effects of these momentous events still rippling through American history.

Margaret J. Thomas is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) having served as the executive director of the Presbyterian Synod of Lakes and Prairies (1995-2000), which includes Dakota Presbytery, and the as the chief operating officer of the denomination (1977-1985). She served as the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches from 1985-1995.


Scott W. Berg will be speaking at the historic Gideon and Agnes Pond House in Bloomington, MN at 2:00 PM on Sunday, August 18, 2013.  Open to the public.

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