Humanity requires it.
Morton S. Wilkinson, 1863
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to slaves in rebellious states, excluding those who lived in parts of Virginia and Louisiana as well as other slaveholding states then under federal control. Missouri, the site of unrelenting guerrilla activity by proslavery forces, was one of the slaveholding states that nonetheless stood officially under the Union banner. In other words, emancipation did not extend to slaves there. But to certain Missouri slaves the legalism was nothing more than a distinction without a difference. For them the president had freed the slaves. They were now free to go wherever and do whatever they wished, including joining the army to fight their masters, including following the North Star to freedom. Their desire, as free men and women, now superseded the president’s wartime design. Missouri-born Robert Hickman was one such slave.
He was a man of many gifts. A natural leader and talented speaker and one who had found salvation in spreading the Word of God: with the permission of his master he preached to other slaves on neighboring plantations. But when news of emancipation came, he made plans to collect his flock and leave. Because the whole region swarmed with rebel guerrillas, traveling at night on water seemed to be the better way to escape, especially considering that the Northern steamboats frequently connected St. Louis to ports upriver. Finally, on a moonless night, on or about May 3, they crowded with simple provisions onto the raft to depart. However, Hickman having failed to equip the raft with oars, sails, or any device that could propel it, the raft simply drifted on the black waters of the Mississippi.
On the following day a steamboat carrying mules and wagons for the government churned northward from St. Louis to St. Paul. Somewhere in the vicinity of Jefferson, Missouri, the Northerner, owned by the St. Paul and Galena Packet Company and commanded by Alford J. Woods, came upon the strange raft and its occupants, drifting helplessly in the center of the wide river. Hickman explained to the captain that he and his followers wanted to go North where they could live and work as free men and women. The captain, perhaps partly motivated by altruistic impulse, was also following the orders of his employer, Henry Sibley, who wanted him to bring “contraband” to Minnesota to address the severe labor shortage. Captain Woods ordered that the raft be towed in the wake of his steamer to his homeport. Neither Woods nor Hickman anticipated the reception they would receive in St. Paul.
On May 5, the Northerner, with the raft of fugitive slaves in tow, approached the levee in Lowertown. A crowd gathered and grew restless, then boisterous, as it became apparent who the new arrivals were. Men in the crowd—mostly Irish laborers—became so threatening that Captain Woods ordered the steamer to bypass St. Paul altogether and head upstream to Fort Snelling instead. The Press reported, “The police were very much alarmed at the appearance of such a thunder cloud, and thinking they were to land here, proposed to prevent it on the ground that they [Hickman and his followers] were paupers. The Irish on the levee were considerably excited, and admitted by their actions, that the negro was their rival, and that they fear he will outstrip them. On finding [the negroes] were bound for the fort, [the Irish laborers] resumed their whiskey and punches with great equanimity.” “It was impossible,” wrote an observer, “for the impartial spectator, who witnessed the scenes on the levee . . . not to assign the negro to a higher type of civilization than the white barbarians who howled around them as if, like beasts of prey, they thirsted for their blood.”
By the spring of 1863, the labor shortage in Minnesota had become acute. The war effort had drawn many of Minnesota’s men to military service in the Civil and the Dakota Wars. Thus farmers were forced to reduce the acreage under cultivation because of the difficulty of planting, harvesting, and transporting their produce without help. The St. Paul Daily Press reported, “Since the absorption of so many of the laboring class in the army, many of our farmers have found it necessary to reduce the quantity of land under tillage from sheer want of putting their usual crops, and even then, much of it has gone to waste from the deficiency of help at harvest time.”
The federal troops at Fort Snelling were also under severe pressure. In an effort to free soldiers from various forms of menial work General Sibley contracted for contraband labor to be brought from St. Louis for work under federal supervision. Contraband workers could also alleviate the labor shortage in the private sector. Although Hickman did not know about Sibley’s desire for contraband labor, he probably would have welcomed it: work meant opportunity. Regardless of the obvious shortage, state legislators and opinion makers from St. Paul condemned efforts to bring blacks to Minnesota, for, they argued, the Mississippi would become a conduit for such people to stream northward, bringing unfair competition for jobs normally filled by poor white laborers. This was their stance as early as 1854.
The concern was heard again in 1859, when St. Paul legislators introduced a bill to prevent the migration of free blacks and mulattoes into the state and require the registration of those already in residence. Like their predecessors, these legislators insisted that blacks would compete for jobs customarily held by poor whites, thus denying that class of citizens a livelihood. Just the year before, the St. Paul and Galena Packet Company, along with the La Crosse Company, dispatched agents to St. Louis “to engage Negroes as deckhands on the steamboats” after their white deckhands struck for higher wages. Sibley, in addition to his other accomplishments, was a founder and director of the Galena company, which enjoyed government contracts and employed black strikebreakers. This was, after all, a time of war against the Confederacy in the South and the Dakota within the state, and these hostilities compounded the need for steamboats carrying supplies for troops to operate unimpeded by aggrieved laborers. Indeed, the financial viability of Minnesota now depended on uninterrupted steamboat service.
But it was argued that whites unwilling to work with blacks would resort to violence. At worst, blacks would become paupers and wards of the state. As late as February 1863 many St. Paul residents opposed to the use of contraband labor were circulating petitions on the city streets requesting that the legislature again consider the issue. Even persons sympathetic to the black migrants wondered aloud about the efficacy of Sibley’s plan. Referring to Hickman’s group, the liberal editor of the Press conceded, “This is rather more than was bargained for, and the question arises, what will be done with them?” Despite the vast acreage in the state to be tilled, black labor—especially those who had experienced plantation work—seemed of uncertain value rather than an answer to an economic and agricultural need.
The reaction to white settlers arriving four days later was different, for, as the Press reported, “We record with much satisfaction an unmistakable increase of immigration to this state. . . . They are nearly all agricultural and are all of a solid, intelligent and well-to do class, who will make good settlers. Nearly every family has its horses, cows, etc., and have evidently ‘come to stay.’ The proportion of children is unusually great. . . . On a recent trip the McLellan left La Crosse with 98 bright-eyed little boys and girls, to become the future legislators, farmers, and merchants of Minnesota.” Three days later the Press pronounced “the arrival of a large contingent of ‘Hollanders’ as laudable as that of the earlier group of immigrants, for too are a hearty and industrious looking people,” likewise in possession of farming implements, household gear, “and plenty of money—regular ‘shiners’ too, and nothing else.” These were the kinds of settlers Minnesota leaders viewed as the right people to repopulate the southwestern region of the state after the Dakota and Winnebago had all been removed. Where the colored people would fit in was another matter altogether, something that would remain to be seen. Once they reached the landing below Fort Snelling, their first hesitant footsteps on the soggy free soil of Minnesota, especially after the hostile reception at Lowertown, they had to be struck by one more unsettling visage of humanity that had been gathered together on higher ground.
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Pike Island, in the shadow of Fort Snelling, was the site where in 1806, a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant named Zebulon Pike first negotiated with the once powerful Dakota chief, Little Crow, to purchase the cliff on which a future Fort Snelling would perch. Fifty-seven years later the people of the mighty chief were huddled in defeat, illness, and despair, and his grandson—their leader by the same name—continued to elude Pope’s and Sibley’s armies. Since November 13, 1862, when the contingent of Dakota women, children, and old men, and soldiers arrived in the evening at Fort Snelling after a grueling six-day march from the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood, life had grown even more desperate. The first night the group camped on the bluff above the river, but on the next day Colonel Marshall moved them down to the point below the fort, near the spot where supply boats landed. There they were guarded by soldiers. No one was allowed to enter without a pass from the fort commander. In a few days the Dakota anxiously watched as soldiers constructed an enclosure of wooden planks to keep them from wandering and to protect them from curious or vengeful whites.
Disease was a significant problem among the Indians. In the weeks while they were still on the frontier a measles outbreak had started and spread among both soldiers and interned Dakota. From October to November, disease spread quickly throughout the densely confined Indians, many of whom died during their November march to Fort Snelling. Measles affected the Dakota on the frontier, where up to twenty died from the disease or its side effects, which included pneumonia and dysentery. Other diseases affecting the Dakota in Fort Snelling were typhoid fever, smallpox, and scarlet fever. Soldiers were also widely affected by disease at Forts Snelling and Ridgely, as were people in St. Peter, Shakopee, and Le Sueur. Morticians reported a sharp increase in deaths.
“Amid all this sickness and these great tribulations,” remembered Gabriel Renville, a mixed-blood who was held in the stockade along with his family, “it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning.” At the fort, burying the dead became a challenge. Graves outside the fort were sometimes dug up and the bodies were desecrated. Riggs reported, “They are now keeping their dead or burying them in their tepees.” Twenty or thirty people died in one day. Good Star Woman remembered that both the children and elderly were buried together in a long trench; the older people at the bottom of the trench with the children placed on top of them. She recalled that a Roman Catholic priest brought a box for each body to be properly buried in the spring. Somewhere between 160 and 300 people died that winter in those squalid conditions.
The Indians sold personal possessions in order to purchase food to supplement the military rations they were given. Some of the mixed-blood families owned land vouchers that had been granted them in treaties with the U.S. government. These vouchers granted the head of each household up to 640 acres of any unsurveyed, nonfederal land in exchange for giving up claim to land in Minnesota. Many sold these vouchers to local businessmen at deflated prices in order to have cash in hand to provide for their families while in the stockade. Businessmen like Sibley ally Franklin Steele profited by purchasing these vouchers and later selling them to land developers for large profits.
As months passed while officials deliberated what to do with the interned Dakota, the Dakota prisoners at Mankato and internees at Fort Snelling developed an interest in learning to read and write so that they could communicate with each other, especially for the families that had been separated. By February, as Riggs reported, writing paper and spelling books were in demand, and missionaries would carry written messages back and forth. During this same period religious conversions began to increase at both Mankato and Fort Snelling. “Many were convicted; confessions and professions were made; idols treasured for many generations with the highest reverence were thrown away by the score. They had faith no longer in their idols. They laid hold on Christ as their only hope. On this ground they were baptized, over a hundred adults, with their children.”
While there was some suspicion that the conversions may have been calculated or a convenient way to gain favor with the officials, it is just as likely that the missionaries exploited the dire situation and despair for the uncertainty of their circumstance to win more souls. In any event, the number of baptisms markedly increased.
On May 4 the first group of Dakota interned at Fort Snelling, numbering 771, was put on the steamer Davenport. About half an hour on its way, the steamboat stopped at the St. Paul levee to take on freight, and there a crowd gathered. Some of the crowd, urged on by a soldier wounded at Birch Coulee, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Dakota War, hooted and threw stones at the Indians, easily hitting their tightly packed targets on the boiler deck. The Daily Press reported, “Some of the squaws were hit upon the head and quite severely injured.” To restore order, Captain D. C. Sanders of Company G, Tenth Regiment, commanding the guard consisting of forty men, ordered the crowd to desist or “he would order his men to charge bayonets among them.”
The next day, the steamer Northerner, which had come to Fort Snelling to transport the remaining Dakota, encountered a mob at the St. Paul levee, this time inflamed by the appearance of more blacks who had been brought up from Missouri. The Weekly Pioneer and Democrat snidely commented, “The Northerner brought up a cargo of 125 niggers and 150 mules on Government account. It takes back some eight or nine hundred Indians. We doubt very much whether we benefit by the exchange. If we had our choice we would send both niggers and Indians to Massachusetts, and keep the mules here.”
Later that day, May 5, upstream, the Northerner arrived near the flooded landing to transport the remaining 547 Dakota waiting to be herded onboard. It was one of those rare moments in history that best summed up how the United States in the nineteenth century looked upon its two principal peoples of color. The strange sight of bedraggled black men and women crowded on the raft being towed forward must have given the wary Indians a sense of curious diversion. And Hickman and his followers, for their part, had to be similarly struck by the sight of these strange and defeated people huddled together on dry ground just above their flooded, fenced-in encampment—the strange and horrible smell moved farther as they witnessed the Indians file mournfully past the very site of their sorrow to board the same steamer that had brought Hickman and his group from Missouri to this wretched spot and now would take the Dakota dependents to whatever fate awaited them. “One of them leads in prayer, after which another hymn is sung,” observed J. P. Williamson, who accompanied them, “and so they continue till all are composed; and drawing their blankets over them, each falls asleep.” Theirs now would be a time bygone. Williamson reported:
Many died at Fort Snelling. The steamboat trip of over one month, under some circumstances, might have been a benefit to their health, but when 1300 Indians were crowded like slaves on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed on musty hard tack and briny pork, which they had not half a chance to cook, diseases were bred which made fearful havoc during the hot months, and the 1,300 souls that landed at Crow Creek June 1, 1863, decreased to one thousand.
* * * * *
As Hickman and his followers climbed the steep path to the fort, their unintended destination, they must have felt great trepidation with each labored step that brought them closer to the huge walls looming over them. Little about this “Promised Land” made much sense. With President Lincoln’s armed soldiers escorting them up the path to northern soil, some may have wondered whether this was what freedom looked like. What were they to make of those strange unfortunates who were huddled below on the boat now making its way to St. Paul? Would those Indians get the same reception when they arrived? What was behind those wary Indian eyes? What had created all that human wretchedness? Were the soldiers here their saviors or their tormenters? Was this a place for them? Down south the blue uniform meant protection. But everything they had experienced in the short time they had been in the North Star State may have caused some to feel ambivalent. Now on the grounds in front of the gates to the fort they took in all the riders galloping by and wagons racing about. This was the first time they had stood amid this kind of busyness, so many soldiers, guns, and cannons. And then there was the fort itself, with its high thick walls that commanded the entire valley and all the waterways. It was one thing to see the fort from the raft on the river; another, altogether, when standing under its immense shadow.
Construction of the fort was completed in 1825 on the bluff above the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. For almost thirty years, Fort Snelling was the hub of the Upper Mississippi and meeting place of diverse cultures. Dakota and Ojibwe gathered at the agency and fort to trade, debate government policy, and perform their dances and sports. Traders stopped at the fort while their goods were inspected. The American and Columbia Fur Companies built headquarters nearby and the mixed-blood families and employees settled at nearby Mendota. The fort was racially and ethnically kaleidoscopic, and for much of the antebellum period, a very busy place; twenty-three years earlier, it had been the home of Dred and Harriet Scott.
As later treaties opened much of the new territory of Minnesota to settlement and pushed the frontier farther west, Forts Ridgely, Ripley, and Abercrombie took over the frontier duties; Fort Snelling became a mere supply depot, and eventually the private property of Minnesota entrepreneur Franklin Steele. The outbreak of the Civil War brought renewed activities to the fort, however. Between 1861 and 1865 Minnesota expanded the fort as a training center for thousands of volunteers who joined the Union army.
What Hickman would have seen as he approached what Thoreau called the “tawny and butterish” walls of the fort, was a stone wall about nine feet high that enclosed the fort, and rested, on the east side, nearly on the edge of the bluff. If viewed from the air, the fort would appear to have an irregular diamond shape that fit the terrain of the bluff while the towers overlooked the two rivers and the plains behind. The quarters of the officers and men are built of stone. The hospital was a stone row house. The stable, workshop, icehouse, and other necessary buildings were outside the wall on the bank of the Mississippi. Hickman would have also seen a number of wooden barracks, storehouses, and stables erected a short distance above the post.
If they were led into the fort, Hickman and his flock would have seen immediately along the right the gate wall, shops, and the hexagonal tower in the far corner; to their immediate left were the guardhouse, the blacksmith shop, and, in the far corner, the distinctive round tower with its conical roof installed the year before. Proceeding forward they would have passed between a long row house on their right that served as the hospital, and on the left, a smaller structure that served as the school with the well in front and powder magazine (with its six-foot-thick walls) just beyond; moving forward, they would come out onto an expanse that served as the parade ground. Along the far walls were two more row houses that served as barracks, and in the far right corner stood the house of Colonel Robert M. McLaren, fort commandant, “a stern, soldierly man.” A great, round, wooden bastion, a famous lookout, projected from the back of his house over the precipitous cliff and the narrow stream where the Minnesota and the Mississippi Rivers joined. From this guns were mounted that had been trained on the “representatives of the Sioux . . . tribes encamped upon Pike island, or, as we called it, Grape Island, below, compelling by this measure a treaty of peace.”
Were they encamped within the walls they would have daily witnessed dress parade, as blue columns marched and countermarched to the strains of the wartime music. In the evening, the lowering of the flag at the sunset gun gave, to one civilian witness, an especial thrill. But they also would likely see the odd juxtaposition of frolicking children one moment, pausing only to watch a punished soldier being forced, as Mary Newson witnessed, to “[march] under guard up and down . . . in a barrel bearing in huge letters the words, ‘I Was Drunk Last Night.’ ”
Newson, who lived at the fort during this period, described other trials of fort life during this period: “Some mornings we watched the soldiers open barrels of flour—a most exciting pastime—for frequently I saw ferocious rats as large as half-grown kittens jump into the faces of the soldiers, who muttered unpleasant things about the government even as they released their rat terriers upon their prey.” Newson recalled that “heartache everywhere [was] present in the fort.” Between 1861 and 1863, one out of every four families was down with typhoid, and there were few families who did not lose at least one or more members to the dread disease. They never forgot that this was wartime. “Everywhere, we partly understood the anxiety on the faces of those who daily surrounded the bulletins of the latest disasters, and we wondered curiously why some, women especially, broke down and ran sobbing to their quarters.” With the new Conscription Act about to go into effect, the gravity of war set in as once-vital young men increasingly listed as “disappeared,” “wounded,” or “dead” would be replaced by men with no choice but to serve as draftees in a war to free the slave, the very type who now appeared at the fort, the very type at whom the curious young Minnesota recruits could not help but stare.
And what did Hickman and his followers see? Some of the soldiers were immigrant laborers from St. Paul, where antiblack activities had occurred frequently since 1854. As early as February, petitions circulated to oppose the use of contraband labor. In March, with the enactment of the Civil War Military Draft Act, Congress essentially forced the immigrant laborers, who most feared black labor set free by the Emancipation Proclamation, into the blue uniform, igniting riots in New York City and other cities with a large white underclass. In St. Paul, a provost guard would soon be posted in response to the threat of mob violence. When the time came for them to march off to the South to fight and die to free the slaves, more Negroes like Hickman would come here to take their jobs. Though the uniforms said that they were President Lincoln’s men, their stares conveyed something else altogether. After what they had gone through, some of the newcomers from Missouri had to wonder whether Minnesota was for them.
At least one set of eyes watched them both with curiosity and with benevolence, especially when they gathered to give thanks for their deliverance. Some of the missionaries, who had come to work among the Dakota captives while they were held in the compound, had not yet left. Now that the Indians had been sent away, their mission had ended. Some would go back home; the Reverend Stephen Riggs returned to his family living in St. Anthony. Thomas Williamson would leave with the last of the Indians, one week later. The Reverend William Norris, who was still at the fort when Hickman and his followers arrived and settled in, was attracted to these people, who so desperately embraced the grace of God. It would be Norris who provided a pivotal connection to their future in Minnesota.
To accommodate the large numbers of new recruits, several large wooden barracks were constructed outside the fort’s stone walls. On the grounds, recruits learned the basics of soldiering and spent the majority of their time marching, drilling with their weapons, and standing guard duty. Once a military unit’s term of service was done, Fort Snelling also served as the mustering-out point before the men returned to civilian life. Between 1861 and 1865 nearly twenty-five thousand soldiers passed through Fort Snelling on their way to Southern battlefields. Throughout the summer and fall months, Hickman and his people would have witnessed all the activity. It must have strained the patience of junior officers scurrying about trying to find a place on the crowded Fort Snelling reservation for the unexpected blacks to stay.
They were not the first blacks to be at the fort. Since the beginning, commandants, many of whom were Southerners accustomed to holding slaves as part of their retinue, brought their bondsmen with them when posted at Fort Snelling. Even the second commandant, Josiah Snelling, who completed the construction of the fort and after whom the fort was named, had slaves. The fact that he was Massachusetts-born illustrated how deeply entrenched this practice was in the officers corps. The practice ended, however, at the outbreak of the Civil War.
The people from Missouri and some of the men who came with the second arrival of contraband found paid work at the fort. Under the catchall listing “Citizens employed at the Fort,” Colonel McLaren’s monthly records seemed to reflect that those who had been categorized as “contraband” were listed as “laborers” by September, and paid the same as other laborers who presumably were white. Some evidently went on to the frontier to serve as army teamsters. Corporal Montgomery referred to them in a letter to his parents, “There are now between 200 and 300 wagons in camp and we expect 100 more shortly. Also [there is] a heavy squad of niggers for teamsters. Mules here are numerous now.”
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A few days after the Dakota left Pike Island on May 4, Saint Andre Durand Balcombe, the Winnebago agent, was ordered by Commissioner Dole to assemble the tribe, inform them that they would soon be removed from their land, and above all disarm them. Balcombe, a fellow New Yorker and supporter of Wilkinson, had served in the territorial legislature and as presiding officer in the Republican caucus of the state constitutional convention; but in this capacity as Indian agent, he benefited greatly from the patronage he enjoyed from his leader, Senator Morton Wilkinson. Now with the order to begin the removal process, he stood to profit even more. But it was to be a delicate matter, for he understood, as Commissioner Dole clearly did, that violence between the whites and the Winnebago could erupt at any time. The settlers were eager to begin spring planting on the patches of ground cleared for cultivation by the Winnebago; yet, even as they wanted the land, the settlers and long-term white residents in the area were anxious to have the Indians strictly confined to the reservation until they were permanently removed. Balcombe waited two weeks before he held a council with the Winnebago to officially inform them that the government intended to remove them to a reservation on the Missouri. Their reaction, which Balcombe anticipated, was not good. The chiefs, who had already seen much relocation of the tribe to this point, objected to the order. But it was only after Balcombe had closed the traders’ houses, and had packed and freighted supplies into Mankato, that Chief Baptiste and Chief Little Priest relented. The presence of troops at both the reservation and in town no doubt influenced their decision.
In February 1855, the Ho-Chunk people (the Winnebago) ceded 697,000 acres of land near Long Prairie, Wisconsin, in exchange for 200,000 acres along the Blue Earth River. The new area was better suited to their needs as farmers than the dense forests of the Long Prairie region, and was considered the finest cropland in the territory: a prize for white farmers and speculators. White settlers already living on the land had been forced to leave in order to accommodate the incoming Ho-Chunk. By June the tribe began to settle on the new land, irritating groups of white residents who gathered in Mankato to protest their arrival. The Ho-Chunk attempted to live in peaceful coexistence with the whites. Many adopted the customs of white men, cutting their hair, building houses and schools, and wearing “white” clothing. In 1859 Charles Mix reported to his superiors that the Ho-Chunk had acclimated to their new life and had a bright future in front of them. According to Mix, farming activity, educational progress, and the general health of the Indians were at their highest point since their arrival at Blue Earth.
In 1859, however, their old annuities expired, and they needed money to pay their debts, improve their farms, and purchase equipment and stock. Knowing that the value of their land had been enhanced because of increased settlement in the area, they signed a new treaty with the government relinquishing the western portion of the reservation. The people of Mankato and surrounding areas were jubilant over the treaty and welcomed the opportunity to settle on the ceded land, no doubt seeing their new United States senator as the patron of this bounty. Yet, two years passed and still the new treaty had not yet been ratified. Whites began demanding the government completely remove the Ho-Chunk from Minnesota, and began occupying the land. Many business leaders in Mankato believed the growth of the city depended on the opening of the reservation to white settlement. Capitalizing on economic and emotional pressures, therefore, some prominent men in Mankato organized the semisecret “Knights of the Forest,” a group whose single aim was to get rid of the Winnebago. In the same year, the Civil War began, and sixteen months later, the Dakota attacked the Lower Sioux Agency. When the Winnebago bill passed the House on February 21, the Mankato Independent announced, “GLORIOUS NEWS, THE WINNEBAGOS WILL BE REMOVED.” Wilkinson proclaimed, “Humanity requires it. The welfare of the Indians as well as the peace of the whites demand [Indian removal].” The Dakota and the Winnebago would be transported to barren ground at the mouth of the Crow River, in the south-central Dakota Territory.
On the day Hickman and his group and the Dakota internees at Fort Snelling crossed paths near the flooded land of Pike Island, the Winnebago began arriving at Mankato at a place that had been called Camp Porter, after John J. Porter, a Mankato tanner and politician who had actively fomented local demands for the Winnebago deportation. Justus C. Ramsey, the governor’s brother, supervised their arrival as special agent. A few days before, warriors of Little Priest’s band had killed two Dakota—one believed to be married to a Winnebago woman—who were seeking refuge on the Winnebago Reservation; evidently the two men were slain because some of the Winnebago blamed their expulsion from Minnesota on the Dakota War and thought they could win favor with President Lincoln by killing his enemies. When they arrived in Mankato, the Winnebago paraded the scalped and dismembered bodies before the whites, whose anxiety deepened as the number of Winnebago coming to town increased. Soon they could not all be held at Camp Porter. Spilling out into the town they milled up and down Front Street, visited stores, and examined the scaffold on which the thirty-eight condemned Dakota had been hanged. Some of the warriors, in paint and mud, held scalp dances accompanied by drums and chants.
Finally, on May 9 and 10, three Minnesota River packets awaited to take the Indians downriver to Fort Snelling. The all-night scalp dance that began on the eve of debarkation continued during the actual departure. As one of the boats, the Pomeroy, left the dock, “the war party of about twenty young bucks, half-naked, their bodies daubed with mud and paint, and with wreaths of green weeds and grass on their heads . . . next to them [squatting] a number of other warriors, all chanted in time with two or three tom-toms a monotonous ‘He-ah, he-ah’ as they journeyed down the river, a scene quite in contrast with that presented by their Sioux brethren on their departure two weeks before.” Though the Winnebago and Dakota could hardly be called “brethren,” as reflected in the trophy Dakota scalps that Little Priest’s warriors band proudly displayed, the manner in which the Winnebago were removed from the state, in brutal contrast to the Dakota’s trail of tears during a week of November, touched on the burlesque.
Although the land on Pike Island had flooded annually for the previous several years, the water level of the Minnesota was quite low that year, exposing more than an ordinary number of snags and sandbars. Over the next three days, the Eolian struck a snag between Henderson and Belle Plaine, ripping a thirty-foot hole in the hull and sinking the boat in three feet of water. It was bailed out and the hole was repaired, but continuous use of pumps was necessary during the remainder of the trip. The Favorite, loaded with 350 Indians as well as wheat, ran aground just out of Mankato and broke a shaft, rendering one of the wheels inoperative. After it was repaired in St. Peter, the boat hit an exposed reef at Little Rapids just above Chaska. In order to pass through the rapids, it was necessary to unload the Winnebago and three hundred sacks of wheat.
Upon arriving at the landing at Fort Snelling the Winnebago disembarking the Pomeroy enraged the beleaguered Dakota internees by waving the two bloody scalps and shouting insults at them. Since none of the Indians were armed, troops were able to avert a clash between the two tribes by keeping them apart. Nonetheless, during their brief stay at the fort the Winnebago held two scalp dances and sold trinkets to sightseers. Late in the afternoon of May 12, the Davenport arrived at the Fort Snelling landing to unload supplies; but what must have caught the attention of the Winnebago and soldiers, and everyone else working at the fort, including Robert Hickman and his people, who had arrived the previous week, was the latest and larger contingent of black contraband brought up from Missouri, who encountered, just as the earlier group had faced, a hostile reception at St. Paul’s Lowertown. The same battered boat that had transported the Dakota passed the same rock-throwing mob hours later. Now, one week later, the Davenport was being prepared to transport the Winnebago southward.
Like the Dakota, the Winnebago would be transported to barren ground at the mouth of the Crow River, in Dakota Territory. Even General Alfred Sully—not a friend of the Indians—complained to the secretary of the interior that the vanquished Indians—Winnebago and Dakota alike—were forced to give up good land for inferior soil. “The land is poor, a low sandy soil. I don’t think you can depend on a crop of corn even one in five years, as it seldom rains here in the summer. There is no hunting in the immediate vicinity, and the bands of Sioux near here are hostile to them.” The general would later add, in protest to his superiors, “I feel it to be my duty as a Christian and a human being to make known the sufferings of these poor human beings, though they are only Indians.” Sully was outraged at the secretary of the interior, who instructed him to furnish troops to protect the Winnebago when they hunted buffalo. The trouble was the Winnebago had no horses. “Afoot it is impossible to hunt buffalo,” the general stormed. Removing them from Minnesota was far more important than ensuring their survival.
Nonetheless, on May 15, 1863, the Winnebago climbed aboard the Davenport and were accompanied by forty soldiers of the Tenth Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Michael R. Merrill. Observers in St. Paul were treated to an unexpected spectacle. Unlike before, when boats carrying the blacks and Dakota attempted to dock at Lowertown, this time no mob assembled to attack the passengers. Instead, during the three hours the boat was at the dock, large numbers of citizens came to look at the Native Americans and buy their trinkets. These Indians, along with the last contingent scheduled for exile, were called “Red Christians.” The message of this portrait was clear: this enterprising band of Indians would do well wherever they went.
For most white Minnesotans the removal of the Dakota and Winnebago had represented the end of an unfortunate era in state history. At last, they had hoped, this mark in time would always mean the end of all contact with the troublesome Indians. It therefore came as a surprise when they learned in October that a wagon train was being organized to provide relief to the relocated tribes. Few knew or cared about the desperate conditions under which the Indians lived, and virtually no white man or woman felt that Minnesota—against which the Indians had risen up in a murderous frenzy—owed them anything. Many felt the Indians should have been grateful, having been allowed to leave the state with their lives and in relative peace. They had sealed their fate by being born red.
Few knew what a handful of white men knew. In addition to General Sully’s comments to the secretary of the interior, S. D. Hinman, a missionary with the Dakota, told Bishop Whipple that the land was “parched with drought” and that the Indians “had neither guns nor horses” to hunt game: “Bishop, if I were an Indian, I would never lay down the war-club while I lived. They are right, to be savages is the only hope of the Indian.” Missionary John Williamson saw the same thing at Crow Creek, the new home of the Winnebago, and adjacent to the Dakota: “I think the land is too barren.”
It had been disastrous planning all around. Superintendent Clark Thompson had selected the site of relocation and had stocked meager supplies and provisions to sustain the Indians. By the time they arrived, it was too late in the season for them to plant a crop. On June 9, Williamson reported that the daily rations were slightly less than one-quarter pound each of flour, pork, and corn. There was no extra food or medicine for those who had been ill during their winter confinement at Fort Snelling. By July 22 seventy of the thirteen hundred Dakota had died from want of proper food and medical care. It was not until September 15 that Thompson reported that no provisions had been made “for the subsistence of the Winnebago and Sioux . . . after the first day of October next.” Commissioner William P. Dole later complained that he knew nothing of the conditions at the reservation except for newspaper accounts and private letters protesting the condition of the Indians. The expedition, starting from Mankato, would alleviate their suffering.
But many felt that the humanitarian motive behind the relief effort was but a ruse to further exploit the Indian issue for personal enrichment. Thompson had either shown exceptional incompetence in administering the relocation or created a circumstance that could only be resolved by those in the best position to act. The men of Mankato were such people. James B. Hubbell and Alpheus F. Hawley, both licensed traders with the Winnebago who resided and operated from Mankato, and Hubbell and Thompson had known each other well for several years. Before 1860 they had been active in the Minnesota Republican Party and had worked particularly in support of Morton Wilkinson’s candidacy for the United States Senate. Wilkinson’s influence with President Lincoln got Thompson and Hubbell their posts; and in October, the senator cleared the way for Thompson to procure flour and corn. The Weekly Union reported, “Through the efforts of Senator Wilkinson, the Secretary of Interior has empowered Col. Thompson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to establish a depot for the purchase of Indian goods, provisions, cattle, etc., at Mankato.” In a glowing editorial the newspaper envisioned the expedition as the forerunner of a new “Minnesota System” of supplying the upper Missouri, and painted a glowing picture of a great trail from Mankato to the Missouri dotted with stages, express riders, and gold seekers and protected by an extensive line of military posts. The writer estimated that the new “system” might be worth as much as $100,000 or $150,000 annually to the people of Mankato and its vicinity.
As Lass noted, “Provisioning a Dakota Indian agency from Minnesota was unusual enough, since traditionally supplies had been carried up the river from St. Louis, but even more strange was the timing. The editor of the St. Paul Press wondered publicly if undertaking such an expedition across the northern plains in the late fall were not as foolhardy as Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. A ‘Moscow Campaign’ was under way, the Press announced on October 18, 1863, and soon other newspapers as well as many of the people involved in the enterprise were calling it the ‘Moscow Expedition.’ ” It would become a term of ridicule.
One week later, Hubbell received a contract to supply the tribes with beef. Thompson’s brother Edward helped Hubbell acquire cattle throughout southern Minnesota. The quality of the animals prompted Hubbell to remark that the “Indians will not get out of beef very soon, if toughness has anything to do with it.” In other words, the beef contractor had deliberately bought old cattle; and with the help of Wilkinson, who was in Mankato at the time, Hubbell procured wagons for the expedition. To John C. Wise, fiery editor of the Democratic Mankato Record, the entire affair seemed a final desperate attempt by Senator Wilkinson and his associates to exploit the Indians and was “a complete farce.”
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Months earlier, in late August, Montgomery’s unit, the Seventh Volunteer Infantry Regiment, had begun its long march back to Fort Snelling after the expeditionary campaign into Dakota Territory. The seventh regiment, commanded by Colonel William R. Marshall with Captain Theodore C. Carter, had covered during the fall of 1862 about 675 miles; and during the next summer, in 1863, they marched from Mankato to the Missouri River, then back to Fort Snelling, covering 1,250 miles, marching a total of 1,925 miles throughout Minnesota and Dakota Territory. On this march, reported James T. Ramer, referring again to the teamsters, “we had our tents and knapsacks hauled for us.”
In late September, Hickman watched as the regiment filed onto the fort grounds, scanning the parade of exhausted soldiers and creaking, heavily burdened wagons for his fellow pilgrims who had worked on the detail. Two weeks later, he watched the same soldiers file out, turning to descend the incline he and his people had climbed a few short months earlier, down to the heavily trampled muck at the landing on Pike Island and to the boats that would transport them south.