Slavery in Minnesota

Map of U.S.-Dakota War, 1862
Map of U.S.-Dakota War, 1862
Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling, Minnesota

Black slavery existed in supposedly free Minnesota. It happened primarily when U.S. Army officers stationed at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling[1] brought slaves with them at the Army’s expense. This practice did not end until just before the start of the Civil War in 1861 as confirmed by the 1865 adoption of the XIII Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning slavery in this country.

Bachmanbook

These are some of the startling findings in Northern Slave Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey by Walt Bachman, a former Minnesota attorney, an historian and friend.[2]

The focus of the book is Joseph Godfrey, who was born to a black mother (Courtney) and a French Canadian father in the early 1830’s in Mendota, Minnesota across the Minnesota River from Fort Snelling.

At that time Joseph’s mother was a slave owned by Alexander Bailley, a prominent fur trader.  She had been born into slavery around 1812 in Virginia and was owned in that state by James Garland until 1820, when she was sold to his brother, U.S. Army Captain John Garland. The Captain then took her with him on Army postings to supposedly free Michigan and Wisconsin and then in 1826 to Fort Snelling. During this time Garland claimed and received extra compensation from the Army for Courtney until he sold her in 1831 to Bailley.

By virtue of his race and parentage, Godfrey upon birth also was a slave owned by Mr. Bailley and is one of the few African Americans known to have born into slavery in Minnesota and the only one known to have grown from birth to adulthood there. Godfrey lived with the Bailley family in Wabasha, Hastings and Shakopee (then known as Faribault Springs), Minnesota. Probably in the 1840s Godfrey was sold or transferred to Bailley’s brother-in-law, Oliver Fairbault.[3]

In or about 1847 Godfrey escaped his owner and walked about 40 miles southwest along the Minnesota River to Traverse des Sioux, a village at a shallow river crossing.[4] There he presented himself to Alexander Huggins, a militant abolitionist Presbyterian missionary whom he had previously met.

Almost immediately, however, Godfrey fled to join the Indian bands led by Chiefs Wabasha and Wakute along the Mississippi River. In 1853 Godfrey moved back along the Minnesota River in south central Minnesota after an 1851 treaty required those tribes to go to a new Dakota reservation in that location. In any event, Godfrey lived with Dakota Indians for over 12 years after his escape from his owner.

Godfrey thus was living with the Dakota when the U.S.-Dakota War broke out and he joined the Indians in that War. On August 18th he was with a Dakota war party that attacked farmers in Milford. Afterwards he said he had killed several men and children that day although the subsequent military commission apparently did not believe any such statements as he was acquitted of murdering anyone himself. Godfrey also participated in other battles of the War. Exactly what he did in these battles is unclear, but in any event on or about September 24th he along with some of the Dakota warriors surrendered to the U. S. Army.

Later he was tried and convicted by a military commission as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Godfrey was not the only slave living in Minnesota during these years as Bachman’s book explains.

One of these other slaves was Dred Scott, who lived with his owner, Dr. John Emerson, while he was posted at Fort Snelling from 1836 to 1840. Scott, of course, was the subject of the infamous U.S. Supreme Court case of 1857 holding that Scott because he was black was a non-citizen who had no right to bring a claim in a federal court and invalidating as unconstitutional  the Missouri Compromise law of 1820-1821 prohibiting slavery in the Northern territories.


[1] Today Fort Snelling is close to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and is a National Historic Landmark operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. It is named after U.S. Army Colonel Josiah Snelling, the first Commandant of the Fort while he owned slaves.

[2] The 2013 book is published by Pond Dakota Press, a division of the Pond Dakota Heritage Society of Bloomington, Minnesota ((ISBN 978-0-9850099-0-8. Gideon and Samuel Pond were 19th century Presbyterian missionaries to Minnesota. Bachman is working on another book about the Army’s more general pre-Civil War promotion of slavery in the U.S.

[3]  The current Minnesota city of Faribault is named after Oliver’s brother, Alexander Faribault.

[4] This river crossing was used by generations of Dakota and early French fur traders as a trading outpost. Traverse des Sioux was the site of treaty negotiations in 1851 between the U.S. government and the Dakota. Today the Nicollet County Historical Society operates the site as well as the adjacent Treaty Site History Center.

Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

August 17, 2012, marked the sesquicentennial of the incident that started the U.S.-Dakota War in southwestern Minnesota in 1862. This dark side of U.S. and Minnesota history has been commemorated in various ways in Minnesota this year.

Governor Mark Dayton’s Proclamation

Governor Mark Dayton

Our current Governor, Mark Dayton, proclaimed August 17th a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in the State.

The Governor said that on August 17, 1862, the “first victims of the ‘U.S.-Dakota War of 1862’ lost their lives . . . . The ensuing attacks and counter-attacks killed hundreds more U.S. soldiers, Dakota braves, conniving traders, and innocent people. Tragically, those deaths started a vicious cycle of hate crimes, which continued long after the war was ended.”[1]

Moreover, he said, the “events leading to those atrocities actually began before 1862. The United States Government, through its agents in the new State of Minnesota,  . . . persuaded, deceived, or forced the state’s long-time inhabitants from Dakota and Ojibwe Indian tribes to give up their lands for promises of money, food, and supplies. Many of the government’s promises were repeatedly broken.”

As a result, the “displaced Dakota and Chippewa tribes watched newly arrived settlers claim the lands that had been theirs. They were denied their treaty payments of money and food, which resulted in starvation for many of their children and elderly. Often, when annuity payments did finally arrive, they were immediately plundered by some dishonest officials and traders.”

The war ended, Governor Dayton said, “but the attacks against innocent Indian children, women, and elderly continued. They were even encouraged by Alexander Ramsey, then the Governor of Minnesota, who on September 9, 1862, proclaimed: “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . . They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”

Governor Dayton said he was “appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them.” [2]

Therefore, Governor Dayton asked everyone on August 17, 2012, “to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.” Everyone, he urged, should “practice not only remembrance, but also reconciliation.”

Governor Dayton also offered his “deepest condolences” to “everyone who lost family members during that time” and ordered that state flags to be flown at half-staff on that day.

Other Commemorations

This Fall the Saint Paul Interfaith Network presented Wokiksuye K’a Woyuonihan  (Remembering and Honoring), a series of conversations about the War to witness and hear the personal stories and experiences of Dakota descendants; to engage in structured and facilitated dialogue about what was heard and what is experienced today; and to deepen understanding between American Indians and non-American Indians; creating a climate of respect and possibilities for new stories, acts of justice and healing.

One of the leaders of this series of conversations was Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Mohican people, one of 564 federally recognized tribes. A Christian with degrees in Pastoral Studies and Christian Theology, Jacobs believes that Christian faith and American Indian spirituality are complementary. The latter teaches us, he says, that it is inappropriate to hear a story and not give something back; the spirit gives us courage to hear voices long silenced; and it is our responsibility to recreate our spiritual vision in community.

On October 7th Jacobs and other Native Americans helped lead the World Communion Sunday worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which will be covered in subsequent posts.

This October the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul held a Symposium on “The Law and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.” Various speakers discussed (i) Military Tribunals, Executions & Pardons; (ii) Genocide, Human Rights, and the Need for Reconciliation; (iii) Reflections on my Ancestors: Artemas Ehnamani and the U.S.-Dakota War; (iv) Rethinking the Effect of the Abrogation of the Dakota Treaties and the Removal of the Dakota People from their Homeland; (v) A Program of Extermination: Governor Ramsey, the Minnesota Adjutant General, and Dakota Bounties; and (vi) Modern Communities: Court Systems of the Minnesota Dakota. The papers at this Symposium will be published in a future issue of the William Mitchell Law Review.

Minnesota History Center

A special exhibit about the War is being presented through September 8, 2013, at the Minnesota History Center, 345 West Kellogg Street St. Paul, Minnesota. The exhibit includes many, often conflicting, interpretations of events relating to the War. Visitors are encouraged to make up their own minds about what happened and why, to discuss what they are seeing and learning, and to leave comments. The History Center also has created a very useful website about the War.

James J. Hill House

There is an exhibit of works by 20 Native American artists created in response to the War–“Ded Unk’unpi—We Are Here.” The exhibit is open through January 13, 2013, at the James J. Hill House Gallery, 240 Summit Avenue in St. Paul.[3]

Fort Snelling

From November 7 through 13, a commemorative march from the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site on Highway 2 near Morton, Minnesota to Fort Snelling (near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport) will take place to honor the 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders who were forced to march 150 miles to a stockade at that Fort soon after the end of the U.S.-Dakota War. Along the way, they were assaulted by angry townspeople and soldiers, and an unknown number of Dakota were killed. Those who managed to complete the march were then held under brutal conditions at a concentration camp below Fort Snelling, where approximately 300 died during the winter of 1862-1863. In the spring of 1863, the survivors were exiled from the state. On the commemorative march this November the walkers at  approximately each mile will stop and place in the ground a prayer flag with the names of two of the families from the forced march. The names will be read aloud, and participants will offer prayers and tobacco.

Finally Dakota spiritual leader Jim Miller several years ago had a dream that ended up at a river bank where he saw his 38 ancestors hanged in Mankato on December 26, 1862. Afterwards Miller organized a ride on horseback tracing the journey of his dream, all in the interest of bringing healing among Native Americans and within the broader community. This ride is the subject of a documentary film, Dakota 38, that can be seen on YouTube.


[1] Prior posts gave a short summary of the U.S.-Dakota War and the contemporaneous account of the War by a white settler in nearby Iowa.

[2] Today Governor Ramsey’s statement would be a crime under international law. Under Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention of 1948, it is a crime to make “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide,” which is defined, in part, in Article II (a) of that treaty as “killing members of [an ethnical or racial] group” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [the group].”

[3] James J. Hill, 1838-1916, who was known as “The Empire Builder,” was the chief executive officer of a group of railroad lines headed by the Great Northern Railway that served the Upper Midwest, the northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. His mansion in St. Paul today is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

In August 1862 war broke out between the United States and the Dakota Indians along the Minnesota River Valley in the southwestern part of the new State of Minnesota.[1]

The war was sparked by years of broken promises to the Indians, insults by the traders and starving Indian children and by an encounter on August 17th near the village of Acton. Four young Indian hunters, returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip, stopped at the village to see if they could get food from the settlers. An argument erupted, and the Indians killed five settlers.

Chief Little Crow

Early the next day the Dakota Indians at their nearby village deliberated and concluded that they had to go to war under the leadership of Chief Little Crow. That day they attacked and killed 20 traders and white settlers at the Lower Sioux Agency as well as 24 soldiers from nearby Fort Ridgely (20 miles west of the town of New Ulm).

Battle of New Ulm, Minnesota
Map of U.S.-Dakota War, 1862

This war lasted for the next six weeks with six key battles at New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee and Wood Lake, Minnesota. In all 100 Indians and over 600 settlers and soldiers were killed.[2]

An estimated 20,000 settlers in this area fled to Mankato and St. Paul, Minnesota to escape the fighting. In addition, some went south to the adjoining State of Iowa.

Governor Alexander Ramsey

About half way through the War, on September 9, 1862, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey called a special session of the Minnesota Legislature to address the State’s dire situation. Over 1,000 people had been killed or wounded. Destruction spread out over the western frontier, which had been depopulated with people fleeing for safety. Agricultural losses were unknown. Transportation of supplies to all points west and north was almost impossible.[3

Governor Ramsey’s lengthy address that day to the Legislature contained twelve sections describing the situation and making a demand for action. The description of the situation before the outbreak of war included the following:[4]

  • Our “frontier settlements [have been] suddenly attacked and desolated by a treacherous foe, living unsuspected in our midst, whose first warning of hostility [came in the] indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children.” Further, the “circumstances of this outburst give it an aspect of wanton malignity and perfidy scarcely paralleled, if at all, in the tragic annals of Indian crime.”
  • Previously “the Sioux, or Dakota Indians of Minnesota had, as a tribe, lived in terms of unbroken amity and confidence with the citizens of this State, a friendship running back for more than a generation of traders and trappers. The depredations often committed by [Indian] individuals, even the murderous raids of [a band of Indians] . . . at Spirit Lake, in 1857 . . . did not disturb this general feeling of confidence in our Indian neighbors.”
  • “In return for their lands, . . . which they had voluntarily relinquished to the [U.S.] . . . by treaty, a home had been given them in the western part of the State, and munificent provisions made for their comfort, education, and reclamation to civilized pursuits.”

The Governor’s speech then set forth a detailed account of the war up to September 9th before he made the following chilling Demand or call for action:

  • “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.”
  • “The public safety imperiously requires it. Justice calls for it. Humanity itself, outraged by their unutterable atrocities, demands it. The blood of the murdered cries to heaven for vengeance on these assassins of women and children. They have themselves made their annihilation an imperative social necessity. Faithless to solemn treaty obligations, to old friendships, to the ties of blood, regardless even of self-interest when it conflicts with their savage passions, incapable of honor, or of truth or gratitude; amenable to no law; bound by no moral or social restraint;–they have already destroyed in one monstrous act of perfidy, every pledge on which it was possible to found a hope of ultimate reconciliation.”
  • They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”
After the end of the war, the U.S. speedily tried 392 Dakota Indians before a military commission in Minnesota. Of these, 319 were convicted, and all but 16 were sentenced to be hanged.[5]
Bishop Henry Whipple
President    Abraham Lincoln

Minnesota Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple was offended by what he thought were injustices in the trials and sentences. He, therefore, went to Washington, D.C. to plead for mercy from President Abraham Lincoln. The President was moved by this plea and after reviewing all the cases reduced the number of death sentences from 303 to 38 with the remaining 265 to be imprisoned.

Hanging the 38               Dakota Indians

On December 26, 1862 (the day after Christmas), the 38 were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This is still the largest mass execution on U.S. soil in U.S. history.[6]

Early the next year (1863) the U.S. Congress revoked all of the treaties with the Dakota Indians and passed a law banning all Dakota Indians from Minnesota.

Dakota Camp @                    Fort Snelling

In the meantime, in the Fall of 1862 the U.S. Army detained hundreds of Indian women and children and placed them in a stockade or concentration camp near the confluence of the Mississippi and  Minnesota Rivers and under the guard of Fort Snelling high on the adjacent bluff. An outbreak of measles killed 160 to 300 of those in the camp during the winter of 1862-1863.


[1] This post is based upon a six-part series in the StarTribune by Curt Brown, August 12-18, 2012. The series is available for only $2.99 as a downloadable e-book, In the Footsteps of Little Crow: 150 Years After the U.S.-Dakota War. There also is a Minnesota History Center website devoted to the War. Subsequent posts will discuss a contemporary settler’s comments on the War, this year’s sesquicentennial commemoration of the War and Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s October 7th worship service devoted to remembering the War and its consequences.

[2]  After the second battle of New Ulm, the wounded settlers and soldiers were treated by Dr. William Mayo, the subsequent co-founder of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

[3] Monjeau-Marz, Alexander Ramsey’s Words of War, 1 Minnesota’s Heritage 63 (Jan. 2010).

[4] Transcript of Governor Ramsey’s Address, 1 Minnesota’s Heritage 82 (Jan. 2010).

[5] There was little due process of law in the proceedings of this military commission, (Chomsky, The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice, 43 Stanford L. Rev. 13 (1990).)

[6] The 38 bodies were buried in a common grave near Mankato, but many of the cadavers were exhumed to be used for medical education. Dr. William Mayo had at least one such cadaver that he kept in his home for anatomy lessons for his sons.