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 Minnesota slave masters; 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 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 story historians preserved in the official record.


[1] The question of Eli Huggins’ birth place 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.

Posted in Eli Lundy Huggins, Uncategorized, Women's History | Leave a comment

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 Ridgely bring slaves to the free frontier? No. And all did not enter into sexual relationships with Dakota women that resulted in the birth of children. 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 the Pionier posed 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 of 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

Posted in Fort Ridgely, German Turners, New Ulm, newspapers | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Stuff of Legend


The columnist who dubbed himself “The LeSueur Lyre” liked puns. Why anyone believed him is Gleek to me. 


In late June 1919, Samuel J. Brown of Brown’s Valley, Minnesota mailed a newspaper clipping to Warren Upham, the Secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society. Brown scrawled at the top of the page, “We ought to get the diary.”

By “we,” Brown meant the Minnesota Historical Society. During the preceding two decades, when historian William Watts Folwell was researching and writing the first two volumes of The History of Minnesota, Samuel J. Brown, son of Sioux Agent Joseph R. Brown, an 1862 captive, and a Life Member of MHS, had risen to being the Society’s go-to fact-checker on the Dakota War.


The clipping Brown enclosed, identified only “Springfield, Minnesota,” dated June 19, 1919, contained this story:

The LeSueur news tells about a startling discovery made last week on the farm of Mr. Edward Gleek of Ottawa township in the woods along the river. In clearing a piece of land it became necessary to cut down a gigantic white oak tree which broke in falling, disclosing the fact that it was hollow for a distance of about fifteen feet beginning several  feet above the ground and the cavity ending in a large opening concealed among the branches of the lower side of the tree, which leaned considerably. Withing this hollow was found the the horrified choppers the mummified body of a man, not at all decayed, but dried and shriveled by the lapse of time to something rivaling the best Egyptian art. Mr. Gleek, upon being summoned by the frightened laborers, recognized at once in the mummy the body of Jean LaRue, a former servant of Mr. Gleek, who had mysteriously disappeared from the farm the 30th day of August, 1862.

On the day, which was during the Sioux Uprising, a boat load of soldiers on their way up the Minnesota River from St. Paul to New Ulm, foolishly discharged their muskets many times as they steamed up the river above Henderson, carrying terror to the hearts of people along the river who were already about to flee from the dreaded Indians. At Le Sueur one of the bullets thus discharged wounded a small boy, Cyrus McEwell, in the leg.

Mr. Gleek says that when Jean LaRue heard the firing he seemed to nearly lose his reason from fear, rushed into the house, seized his rifle and some other belongings, including about $700 in money, and fled into the woods. he must have known of this hollow tree, sought to hide there, slipped down too far, and being unable to extricate himself, must have perished there where his body preserved in living oak, failed to decay. His rifle, bullet pouch and powder horn were found by him and the money, $783.50, was found in his pocket.

Also there was found the diary which Mr. Gleek says LaRue always faithfully kept, and in it undated, but on the page following the one dated August 29, 1862, was written in trembling words the following:

“Can not get out; surely must die. If ever found, send me and all my money to my mother, Madame Suzanne LaRue, in the province of Du Phone, France.” Thru the consul at Marseilles Mr. Gleek will endeavor to learn something of the dead man’s relatives but there is not much hope of doing so at this late date.

Brown’s clipping is stapled to MHS’s letter of reply, filed in the MHS correspondence series for 1919. Labeled “S.J. B. 7/30/19,” Upham’s reply reads:

With regard to the clipping you enclosed (the one you sent me). There was something in the papers here about it which I noticed, and I think I cut it out. On July 23 we received a letter from Dr. Quaife [Superintendent of the Wisconsin Historical Society] enclosing a similar clipping from a Wisconsin paper, and asking if we could verify it in any way. Miss Heineman and I got the LeSueur papers out and looked over both the Herald and the News and found the following editorial in the LeSueur Herald of July 2, which I copied in answering Dr. Quaife’s question.

“This office has had several calls the past week to know the truth about the remains of a man which were supposed to have been found in the hollow of an old oak tree at Ottawa. There’s nothing to it.

The trouble started in this way. For years the ‘LeSueur Lyre’ has been writing various fairy tales which have been appearing in the LeSueur paper under the proper heading. Last week he wrote an imaginary story about a man who tried to hide in a tree there during the Indian outbreak in 1863 [sic], got stuck and could not get out, his remains, a note, and some money being found when the tree was cut down. The the Mankato Free Press came along and republished the story as a real fact under a regular news heading without credit to the ‘LeSueur Lyre,’ whom everybody knows as a clever writer of ancient and modern fiction, and whose articles appear in the Herald. The Free Press ‘put one over’ on the readers.”

Does it matter? We might look at this as a case of history done right. The Lyre’s “fairy tale” about the body in the tree was, ultimately: 1.) corrected as an invention by the it’s source (the LeSueur Herald) and, 2.) recognized as fiction by historians who thought to fact-check the story.

So maybe it doesn’t matter much. As far as we know, the story ran amok in newspapers in only two states for a few weeks in the summer of 1919 before being certified as legend. It’s major recurrence in history, quite appropriately, is an artistic reinvention in Thomas Matlman‘s first novel Night Birds (SoHo Press, 2007, p. 66-68).

But what happens when newspaper fiction flies under the radar and is elevated to the status of history? Ten years before the Lyre invention, O.W. Smith, editor of the Morton Enterprise “put one over” on history –and ultimately, on the Minnesota Historical Society. Twice.

One hundred and five years later, Smith’s fictions live on as “facts.” Those stories are coming up.

Posted in Doing Historical Research, Fiction, Minnesota Historical Society, newspapers, O. W. Smith, Warren Upham | Leave a comment

Good Words


Zabelle and I are grateful for the warm reception of our new edition of Mary Butler Renville’s A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity in it’s first year off the press. Three new reviews recently came to our attention, excerpted below. I hope that Mary knows that her little book, dismissed when she published it 150 years ago this month, has finally found its audience.

The Annals of  Iowa

Michael Knock, assistant professor of history at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, wrote in Annals of Iowa, Spring of 2013:

“To the casual observer, the life of Mary Butler Renville sounds like a bad dime novel. A Christian missionary and teacher, Mary Adeline Butler married John Renville, a man of French and Dakota ancestry. The couple was held captive during the 1862 Dakota uprising, and event that would become a book with a sensational title, A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity.

The similarities between Renville’s story and melodrama end there, however. Her story paints a nuanced portrait of the conflict at a time when the wounds were still fresh….

A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity, originally published in 1863, has been revived in a fascinating new edition edited by Carrie Reber Zeman and Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. The book contains not only the Renville’s original narrative, but also an appendix of letters that passed between the Dakota camps and Minnesota authorities during the war. A second appendix contains correspondence between Mary and John through 1888. These primary documents paint a far more complicated picture of the war, and of the Renville’s marriage.”

Knock concludes, “…this fascinating edition should help scholars to better understand the complexities of race, gender and compassion through the voices of those who struggled with them in their own lives.”

South Dakota History cover Winter 2012

In the Winter 2012 edition of South Dakota History Linda Clemmons, associate professor of history at Illinois State University, who has published extensively on the Dakota Mission of the ABCFM, wrote:

“The editors, however, have not simply reprinted the Renville’s story. Most edited volumes provide a short contextual introduction and explanatory footnotes. But Zeman and Derounian-Stodola have done much more. Zeman contributes a 112-page historical introduction, while Derounian-Stodola presents a 22 page literary introduction. Taken together, these pieces could stand alone as a book in and of themselves….

A Thrilling Narrative, as edited by Zeman and Derounian-Stodola, is an essential primary and secondary source for historians interested in the years leading up to, and through, the Dakota War of 1862. Literary critics specializing in captivity narratives will also find much of value in the reprint of this obscure text.”

H-Net logo_reviews

In June, 2013, H-Net published a review of A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War by Colette Hyman, professor of history at Winona State University and author of Dakota Women’s Work: Culture, Creativity, and Exile (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012). Hyman’s review opens:

A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity is an ambitious, multifaceted volume that plunges us deep into the complexities of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, and, more specifically, into the intratribal conflicts that erupted in the wake of colonization and dispossession. At the center of the book is a unique exemplar of the captivity narrative; the editors have supplemented the original text itself (which they have richly annotated) with both historical and literary introductions, and with additional primary sources. A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity confirms the view held by some that the U.S.-Dakota War was, as much as anything else, a civil war among Dakota in Minnesota, and makes a powerful case for listening to a wide range of voices in order to fully understand this conflict.” (Read Hyman’s full review on-line at

Thank you to everyone who has written a review!

Image credits: The University of Nebraska Press, the State Historical Society of Iowa, the South Dakota State Historical Society, H-Net.

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Summer Author Appearances

This morning, a general-reader friend headed out of town asked me, “Are there any Dakota War books that are good reads? Like I could lost in the story reading in hammock at the cabin?”

Last summer neither of my top picks was in print yet. This summer, both are and I hope many will have some cabin- and porch-reading moments –or maybe if the rain doesn’t abate, some feet-up-on-the-couch moments 🙂 –to get lost in two very good books. Better yet, you’ll have the chance to meet the authors in person.

NSBD book

Walt Bachman kicks the summer off with a series of engagements on Northern Slave, Black Dakota starting this Saturday June 15 at Fort Ridgely, including appearances in the Twin Cities on Sunday June 16 and Tuesday June 18. For details and his full schedule, see this post at Pond Dakota Press.

38 Nooses Mankato cover

Scott W. Berg is appearing –quite appropriately –on August 18, 2013 at 2:00 PM at the Gideon and Agnes Pond House in Bloomington, MN to talk about author of 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.

My disclaimer: I’m not an objective reviewer of either book. Both caught my attention when I was asked to read an early version of the manuscript and neither story let me go.

Pick one up, put your feet up, and see if you agree.

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