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Mighty Upheaval on the Minnesota Frontier: Violence, War, and Death in Dakota and Missionary Christianity

  • Jennifer Graber


Stephen Riggs, Presbyterian missionary to the Dakota Indians, anxiously awaited a letter from the American Tract Society. He expected a reply about his proposed account of the recent war between the Dakotas and Euro-American settlers in Minnesota. After more than two centuries of contact between Dakotas and Europeans, and later Americans, relations had broken down entirely. Confined to reservations with some of their people starving, disgruntled Dakota warriors attacked villages and outlying cabins across southern Minnesota. Over several weeks in August and September 1862, they killed at least five hundred settlers and depopulated as many as twenty-three counties. The Reverend Riggs and his family barely escaped. Like so many Minnesota settlers, their home and possessions were destroyed. Military reinforcements eventually stopped the Dakotas' progress, compelling some to surrender and others to escape west to the plains. When hostilities ended, Riggs served as an interpreter in the negotiations over captives and at military tribunals organized to deal with detained Dakota fighters. He later visited Dakotas incarcerated in prison camps, paying special attention to the more than three hundred men sentenced to death for their part in the uprising. In light of his dramatic experience, Riggs proposed an account of his family's escape, along with details of the Dakota warriors' capture and confinement, in order to share how God had worked through this “mighty upheaval.”



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1 The Dakota are the eastern bands of the Seven Council Fires, the native peoples often called the Sioux. They are sometimes referred to as the Santees or Eastern Sioux. The Dakotas are composed of four bands: the Mdewakantons, Wahpekute, Wahpetons, and Sissetons. The conflict between American settlers and Dakotas has been given several names, including the Great Sioux Uprising, the Dakota Uprising, the Dakota War, and the U.S.–Dakota War. There are several histories of the war. For a particularly good one, see Schultz, Duane, Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992). The phrase “mighty upheaval” comes from a missionary biography. Such dramatic descriptions can be found throughout the primary documents written by Americans. See Barton, Winifred W., John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1919), 67.

2 Israel Warren to Stephen Riggs, 24 February 1863, Stephen R. Riggs Papers, Minnesota Historical Society (hereafter MHS).

3 Richard Pointer has written about several episodes in which missionaries experienced significant change as a result of their contact with native peoples. See Encounters of the Spirit: Native Americans and European Colonial Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

4 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 29 January 1863, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (hereafter ABCFM) Papers, MHS. I will say more about my sources for Dakota conversion statements later in the paper. Wherever possible, I provide names in the Dakota language followed by an English translation.

5 Berkhofer, Robert F. Jr., Salvation and the Savage: An Analysis of Protestant Missions and American Indian Response, 1787–1862 (Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1965), 151; Lewis, Bonnie Sue, Creating Christian Indians: Native Clergy in the Presbyterian Church (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 34, 102; Silverman, David J., “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation: Creating Wampanoag Christianity in Seventeenth-Century Martha's Vineyard,” in American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500–1850, ed. Mancall, Peter C. and Merrell, James H. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 153. Kidwell contrasts scholars who emphasize Indian acculturation with those who speak, instead, of adaptation. Acculturation, she writes, “presupposes that cultures are characterized by discrete sets of traits and values, and in the historical experience of contact between cultures, those of the dominant society are accepted by and replace those of the subordinate society.” Kidwell, Clara Sue, “Native American Systems of Knowledge,” in A Companion to American Indian History, ed. Deloria, Philip J. and Salisbury, Neal (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002), 94. Other recent studies of missionary–native contact that focus on adaptation rather than acculturation include Anderson, Emma, The Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Convert (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), and Wheeler, Rachel, To Live Upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-Century Northeast (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007). Gary Clayton Anderson's work details decades of interaction between Dakotas and Euro-Americans. See Kinsmen of another Kind: Dakota–White Relations in the Upper-Mississippi Valley, 1650–1862 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984; repr., St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1997). Linda Clemmons's work looks particularly at missionary–Dakota interactions. See “Satisfied to Walk in the Ways of Their Fathers: Dakotas and Protestant Missionaries, 1835–1862” (Ph.D. diss. University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 1998).

6 Stout, Harry S., “Review Essay: Religion, War, and the Meaning of America,” Religion and American Culture 19, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 275–89.

7 Mark Noll makes a case for exploring religious change during moments of violent conflict. See The Civil War as Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 14. Three very different books serve as models for how I investigate specifically native worlds under siege, Anderson's historical work on the effects of colonization and epidemics on the Canadian Innu, Lear's philosophical reflections on the Crow chief Plenty Coups and his people's move to a reservation, and Blackhawk's work on the effect of colonizing violence in the American Southwest. See Anderson, The Betrayal of Faith; Lear, Jonathan, A Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Blackhawk, Ned, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006). For an excellent example of work that explores the way Protestant missionaries shaped the rhetoric of westward expansion, see Addis, Cameron, “The Whitman Massacre: Religion and Manifest Destiny on the Columbia Plateau, 1809–1858,” Journal of the Early Republic 25, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 221–58.

8 Anderson, Gary Clayton, Little Crow: Spokesmen for the Sioux (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986), 103.

9 For background on European–Dakota contact, including the argument about strong fictive kin relationships, see Anderson, Kinsmen of another Kind, chapter 4.

10 Morrison, Kenneth M., The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Algonkian–French Religious Encounter (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 145; Rice, Julian, Before the Great Spirit: The Many Faces of Sioux Spirituality (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 15, 30; Kidwell, “Native American Systems of Knowledge,” 88. For more on the notion of wakan, see Walker, James R., Lakota Belief and Ritual (Lincoln, Neb.: Bison, 1991).

11 For more on this attitude toward Europeans, see Bruce M. White, “Encounters with Spirits: Ojibwe and Dakota Theories about the French and Their Merchandise,” in American Encounters, ed. Mancall and Merrell, 216–45. For more on relationships between the Dakota and the French, see Anderson, Kinsmen of another Kind. On Dakota weeping, see volume introduction and speech by Tiyoskate in Diedrich, Mark, Dakota Oratory: Great Moments in the Recorded Speech of the Eastern Sioux, 1695–1874 (Rochester, Minn.: Coyote, 1989), 7, 10. For Dakota approaches to spiritual power, see Deloria, Ella, Speaking of Indians (New York: Friendship, 1944; repr., Lincoln, Neb.: Bison, 1998), 51.

12 Anderson, Kinsmen of another Kind, chapters 7 and 8; Clemmons, “Satisfied to Walk,” 40, 88–89.

13 Pond, Samuel W. Jr., Two Volunteer Missionaries Among the Dakotas or the Story of the Labors of Samuel W. and Gideon H. Pond (Boston: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1893), 1213, 17; Berkhofer, Salvation and the Savage, 1, 4, 10, 13. The Pond brothers arrived in Minnesota as independent missionaries. They became official ABCFM missionaries a year later. For Riggs's and Williamson's decisions to become missionaries, see Riggs, Stephen, Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux (Chicago: W. G. Holmes, 1880), 56.

14 See McLoughlin, William G., Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), especially chapters 1 and 2.

15 Berkhofer, Salvation and the Savage, 101–3.

16 Berkhofer, Salvation and the Savage, 13–15, 122.

17 Berkhofer, Salvation and the Savage, 144; Clemmons, “Satisfied to Walk,” 285–88.

18 Riggs, Stephen R., Tah-koo Wah-kan; or, The Gospel among the Dakotas (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1869; repr., New York: Arno, 1972), 198–99. Factionalism—or divisions within native communities over the question of incorporating or embracing some aspects of Christian thought or practice—has been called one of the most destructive effects of missionary efforts among American Indians. The Dakotas, like many other missionized people, experienced significant conflict between factions often labeled “Christian” and “traditionalist.” See Willard Hughes Rollings, “Indians and Christianity,” in A Companion to American Indian History, ed. Deloria and Salisbury, 123–24.

19 Clemmons, “Satisfied to Walk,” 133–35.

20 Anderson, Kinsmen of another Kind, chapters 10 and 11.

21 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 2 July 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS. Taoyateduta attended the Reverend Samuel Hinman's Sunday morning service at an Episcopal mission church. See Anderson, Little Crow, 133.

22 Anderson, Little Crow, 132.

23 Schultz, Over the Earth I Come, 7–16, 25–29.

24 Schultz, Over the Earth I Come, 30–33, 39–45; Anderson, Little Crow, 130–34. Some scholars see episodes such as the U.S.–Dakota War as evidence of dramatic shifts in the norms and practices of Indian warfare after European colonization. See Tom Holm, “American Indian Warfare: The Cycles of Conflict and the Militarization of Native North America,” in A Companion to American Indian History, ed. Deloria and Salisbury, 155–56, 170.

25 The war between the United States and Dakota followed the pattern of many Indian conflicts in the nineteenth century. See Limerick, Patricia Nelson, “Haunted America,” epilogue in Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 119–63.

26 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 24 August 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; H.D. Cunningham to Selah Treat, 29 August 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 8 September 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

27 J. Mattocks to Selah Treat, 23 August 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 8 September 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Noble Conduct of a Christian Indian,” Missionary Herald 58, no. 10 (October 1862), 299.

28 Schultz, Over the Earth I Come, chapters 12 and 13.

29 Carol Chomsky details Riggs's role in the trials. See Chomsky, , “The United States–Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 1 (November 1990): 1398. Thomas Williamson, “Causes of the War,” unidentified newspaper clipping, Thomas Williamson Papers, MHS.

30 Glewwe, Lois A., “The Journey of the Prisoners: Convoy to South Bend,” in Trail of Tears: Minnesota's Dakota Exile Begins, ed. Bakeman, Mary Hawker and Richardson, Antona Hawkins (Roseville, Minn.Prairie Echoes, 2008), 94; Mary Hawker Bakeman and Alan Woolworth, “The Family Caravan,” in Trail of Tears, 67.

31 Thomas Williamson to Stephen Riggs, 25 October 1862, Stephen R. Riggs Family Papers, MHS.

32 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 24 November 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; John Williamson to Selah Treat, 5 November 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 21 November 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

33 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 17 October 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

34 John Williamson to Selah Treat, 5 November 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Thomas Williamson to Stephen Riggs, 5 December 1862, Stephen R. Riggs Papers, MHS.

35 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 17 October 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 24 November 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Bakeman and Woolworth, “The Family Caravan,” 54; Glewwe, “Journey of the Prisoners,” 90.

36 John Williamson to Selah Treat, 28 November 1862, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Williamson, John, “Results of the Outbreak,” Missionary Herald 59, no. 1 (January 1863): 14.

37 Pond, Gideon, “Religious Aspect of the Indian Raid,” New York Evangelist 33, no. 11 (12 March 1863): 2; Williamson, Thomas, “Report of the Massacre and Subsequent Religious Interest,” Missionary Herald 59, no. 7 (July 1863): 201.

38 Schultz, Over the Earth I Come, 1–5. Father Ravoux recounted his time working with the condemned. See Ravoux, Augustin, Reminiscences, Memoirs, and Lectures of Monsignor A. Ravoux (St. Paul, Minn.: Brown, Treacy, 1890), 7281. Catholics emphasized that Ravoux baptized many more Dakotas than the two Protestant missionaries who had lived among the people for so long. Writers of Catholic periodicals pointed to the Dakotas' overwhelming choice of Ravoux as a way to protest governmental and Protestant mission board policies that marginalized Catholic missionaries. New York Freedman's Journal and Catholic Register, 7 February 1863.

39 Richter, Daniel K., Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 110–29; Seeman, Erik R., “Reading Indians' Deathbed Scenes: Ethnohistorical and Representational Approaches,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 1747; Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle, The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict Through Captivity Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 160.

40 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 29 January 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

41 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 29 January 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

42 Morrison, The Solidarity of Kin, 145.

43 For more on Dakota warfare practices and grieving rituals, see Wallis, Wilson D., The Canadian Dakota (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1947), 21, 31–33; and Palmer, Jessica, The Dakota Peoples: A History of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Through 1863 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008), 149–50, 213–14. For expectations about revenge, see Black Eagle and Mazomani's speeches in Diedrich, Dakota Oratory, 28, 36. Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 29 January 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Diedrich, Dakota Oratory, 82.

44 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 29 January 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Williamson recorded the Dakotas' testimonies in a December letter to the ABCFM. See Thomas Williamson, 25 December 1862, Thomas Williamson Papers, MHS.

45 Pointer, Encounters of the Spirit, 58.

46 Deloria, Speaking of Indians, 34–36.

47 For more on the importance of kinship among American Indian communities, see Jay Miller, “Kinship, Family Kindreds, and Community,” in A Companion to American Indian History, ed. Deloria and Salisbury, 140.

48 Katz, Jane, ed., Messengers of the Wind: Native American Women Tell Their Life Stories (New York: Ballantine, 1995), 70.

49 These articles were reprinted in New York Evangelist 33, no. 3 (15 January 1863): 7, and Janesville Daily Gazette (3 January 1863). In an interesting narrative choice, Schultz opens his history of the war with a different account of the Dakota executions. He quotes a biography of Minnesota governor, Henry Sibley, which states that the condemned warriors sang a Christian hymn on the way to the gallows. See Schultz, Over the Earth I Come, 1. Bonnie Lewis also makes this claim. She cites a Dakota Presbyterian minister's oral history as her source. See Lewis, Creating Christian Indians, 106. No account from 1862 that I have found includes references to the Dakotas singing a Christian hymn. The Pond brothers, who witnessed the hangings and could speak Dakota, reported that the warriors sang a traditional death song, or “tune of terror.” Pond, Samuel W., Dakota Life in the Upper Midwest [originally titled The Dakota or Sioux in Minnesota as They Were in 1834] (Minnesota Historical Collections, vol. 12, 1908; repr., St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2002), 82.

50 The New York Times reprinted an article from the St. Paul Press. See “Execution of the Indians in Minnesota, New York Times, 4 January 1863, 3. Also see Ebell, Adrian J., “Indian Massacres and War of 1862,” Harper's New Monthly Magazine 27, no. 67 (June 1863): 124. Missionary Samuel Pond made the connection to the biblical Pentecost in his memoirs. See Pond, Two Volunteer Missionaries, 225.

51 Thomas Williamson to Selah Treat, 20 January 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 10 March 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; John P. Williamson to Selah Treat, 7 May 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS. The ABCFM missionaries translated and disseminated the Mankato conversion statements. They then accepted letters from and delivered letters on behalf of the surviving prisoners at Mankato and Snelling. They also continued to receive letters once the Dakotas were removed from the state. These letters remained un-translated in the Stephen R. Riggs Papers at the MHS for decades. Dakota descendants have recently begun to translate them and they have not yet been shared widely with scholars. Some of the letters from the Iowa military prison are featured in Carlson, Sarah-Eva Ellen, “They Tell Their Story: The Dakota Internment at Camp McClellan in Davenport, 1862–1866,” The Annals of Iowa 63, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 251–78.

52 Riggs, Mary and I, 185–86; Thomas Williamson to Stephen Riggs, 22 February 1863, Stephen R. Riggs Papers, MHS.

53 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 26 March 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Mankato Record (28 March 1863). William Beane, a member of the Dakota community in Flandreau, South Dakota, has pointed out that dedication to kinship ties prompted many Dakotas to take reading and writing lessons from missionaries. Never before their incarceration did the Dakotas depend on writing to communicate with one another. With families separated at the prison camps at Snelling and Mankato, however, letter writing became the primary mode for keeping track of kin. Riggs reported to Selah Treat that he carried hundreds of letters back and forth between the two camps. William Beane, interview by author, Fall 2009, phone interview.

54 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 20 February 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Mankato Record (28 March 1863).

55 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 26 March 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

56 Mahpiyakahoton (Sounding Heavens) to Stephen Riggs, 1863, Stephen R. Riggs Papers, MHS. The letter at the MHS is in Dakota. It is one of a collection that has been translated by Dakota descendants in Flandreau, South Dakota.

57 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 21 April 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS.

58 Stephen Riggs to Selah Treat, 26 March 1863, ABCFM Papers, MHS; Riggs, Tah-koo Wak-an, 367, 375–76.

59 Katz, ed., Messengers of the Wind, 70, 73. The article about the executions in the Mankato Record placed some Dakota women at the hanging scene. See Execution of the Indians in Minnesota,” New York Evangelist 33, no. 3 (15 January 1863): 7. Other Dakota survivors' accounts emphasize the sadness and shame that many descendents felt about the war. See the discussion of Big Eagle's account in Derounian-Stodola, The War in Words, 214–23; and George W. Crooks, “Reminiscence, 1937,” reel 1, frame 0243, Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscript Collections, Microfilm edition, MHS.

60 Carlson, “They Tell Their Story,” 263–77.

61 Riggs, Tah-koo Wak-an; Riggs, Mary and I; Selah Treat, introduction to Riggs, Tah-koo wak-an, xxxii–xxxiii.

62 Anderson, Betrayal of Faith, 213–14.

63 Riggs, Mary and I, 189–90; Barton, John P. Williamson, 60; Charles E. McColley “An Indian Pentecost, undated,” reel 2, frame 0377, Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscripts Collections, Microfilm edition, MHS.

64 Quaker agent at Fort Sill, Lawrie Tatum, struggled to remain a pacifist in his work with Kiowa Indians. See Tatum, Lawrie, Our Red Brothers and the Peace Policy of President Ulysses S. Grant (Philadelphia, 1899). For the stories of various groups incarcerated after wars on the plains, see Lookingbill, Brad D., War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006); Petersen, Karen Daniels, Plains Indian Art From Fort Marion (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971); and Stockel, Henrietta H., Shame and Endurance: The Untold Story of Chiricahua Apache Prisoners of War (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004).

65 Lepore, Jill, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Random House, 1998), 11, 13.

66 On commemorative marches in southern Minnesota, see Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela, ed., In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century (St. Paul, Minn.: Living Justice, 2006).

Parts of this paper were presented at the American Society of Church History annual meeting in San Diego. I thank Rick Pointer and Rachel Wheeler for offering helpful comments in that setting. Thanks also to my colleagues in the Young Scholars in American Religion Program for the suggestions they provided during the work's early stages. Thank you to Jon Ebel for his important suggestions as this article took on its final form and to the anonymous reviewers at Church History, who provided additional helpful feedback. I appreciate the assistance of people with long experience studying Dakota language and history. Laura Anderson offered suggestions about Dakota translation and naming, and William Beane shared letters that the Dakota community in Flandreau, South Dakota, has translated from Dakota into English. Philamayayapi—Thank you.

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