Slavery and Freedom on the Minnesota Territory Frontier: The Strange Saga of Joseph Godfrey

Minnesota counties
Minnesota counties
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New York historian Walt Bachman introduces Northern Slave, Black Dakota, his new biography of Joseph Godfrey, an African American who was born into slavery in the free territory that became Minnesota, fled from abusive masters to seek refuge among the Dakota Indians, and was a principal figure in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

My fascination with Joseph Godfrey arose from the investigation of a family story told to me by my grandfather when I was a teenager in Minneapolis in the 1950s.  One of our ancestors, Grandpa said, had been killed in the largest Indian uprising in the American West, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.  A stone monument marked the scene of his killing, he added, and an excellent museum in New Ulm, Minnesota, had original accounts documenting the story of his death.

Not until many years later, after I retired from a career as a Minnesota trial lawyer, did I make the trek to New Ulm to check out this family story.  There, a helpful librarian produced accounts relating to the killing of my ancestor in the small hamlet of Milford, six miles west of New Ulm, on August 18, 1862, the war’s first day.

The most helpful document was an emergency dispatch sent by the local sheriff to Minnesota’s Governor, Alexander Ramsey, late on the night of August 18. After describing the massacre of more than 50 men, women, and children at Milford, the sheriff ended his plea for reinforcements with these words: “It was, as I am informed, Wabasha’s band, a negro leading them, who committed the murders.”  Other accounts described a black man wearing a breechclout and daubed with war paint at the scene where my ancestor was killed.

Who, I immediately wondered, was this mysterious black man?  In a war that pitted aggrieved Dakota warriors against white settlers, why was he fighting on the Dakota side?  In a new state whose small African American population was centered in St. Paul, what was he doing on the newly settled western frontier?  Was he really the leader of the Dakota war party at Milford?  My obsession with answering these and other questions ultimately made me, after years of research, the improbable biographer of the man accused of leading my great-great-grandfather’s killers. Since he appears in virtually every history of the Dakota War, it was not hard to identify Joseph Godfrey.  He was the only man with no Indian blood to fight on the Dakota side.  He’s best known, however, for his state’s evidence testimony against Dakota warriors during the 392 military trials that followed the war.

White survivors of the war often reviled Godfrey for his involvement in the Milford massacre, while Dakota and pro-Indian writers assailed him for his turncoat testimony.  Both sides’ portrayals were often laced with racist slurs. Godfrey is now the only person still regarded as a villain by white and Dakota descendants alike.

But most histories either ignored or, I later concluded, misrepresented Godfrey’s life before and during the 1862 war.  No historian had even hinted at the fact that he was born into slavery in the free territory that became Minnesota, let alone that he ran away from abusive fur-trading masters to seek sanctuary among the Dakotas.  Godfrey’s mother, an enslaved woman named Courtney, was brought by an army officer to Minnesota’s Fort Snelling in 1826 and then sold, in 1831, to a local fur trader about the time Godfrey was born.  (Five years later, Dred Scott was brought to the same fort by another officer; his residence there in free territory served as the foundation for his famous lawsuit.)

In 1836, when Godfrey was just five years old, his master decided to keep him in bondage but to sell Courtney in St. Louis, the closest slave market. Remarkably, Courtney then made her way to one of the Missouri lawyers who later represented Dred Scott.  She managed to procure her freedom via the courts of a slave state even as her son remained in slavery for another decade in supposedly “free” Minnesota.

In the late 1840s, a conversation with an abolitionist missionary spurred Godfrey to risk a run for freedom.  Fearing that he would be taken back into slavery if he stayed in the missionary’s home, he sought refuge among a band of Dakotas whose language and customs he had learned in the fur trade.  Lacking free papers, he became Minnesota’s only home-grown fugitive slave.

In the mid-1850s, Godfrey married a Dakota woman and lived with his wife and son on a new Dakota reservation in southwestern Minnesota. Fort Ridgely was built nearby in 1853 to keep order as hordes of white settlers arrived in the vicinity.  To Godfrey’s disquiet, army officers continued to bring slaves to the new fort right up to Minnesota’s statehood.  When the 1862 war broke out, Godfrey’s options were to leave his family to seek refuge among the army whose officers had enslaved his mother, or to stay with the Dakotas who had given him refuge.  His life was imperiled no matter which way he turned; he remained on the Dakota side and reluctantly accompanied the war party to Milford.

As the six-week war ended, many of the conquering white soldiers wanted to lynch Godfrey after he surrendered, but Gen. Henry Sibley insisted that he be tried as the first defendant before his military court.  The judges, who later acknowledged that they had been predisposed to find him guilty, were flummoxed after hearing his testimony: clearly, he had been present at the Milford massacre scene, but no one saw him kill anyone.  After lengthy consideration, the court returned a mixed verdict, sentencing Godfrey to hang for “participation,” but recommending to Gen. Sibley that his penalty be commuted to a prison term.  Sibley rejected that plea and recommended that Godfrey be hanged.

When President Abraham Lincoln insisted on reviewing the transcripts of the trials of 303 men sentenced to death by Sibley’s court, Godfrey’s was the only case to arrive at the President’s desk with conflicting recommendations.  Lincoln himself had to decide Godfrey’s fate, and he sided with the judges who had recommended clemency. But Lincoln did approve the death penalty for 38 Dakotas, who were hanged on his orders on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Godfrey still had to survive nearly four years in prison among Dakota men whose relatives his testimony had convicted or sent to the gallows.  Pardoned by President Johnson in 1866, Godfrey reunited with his son on a new Dakota reservation in northeastern Nebraska. Decades after the war, embittered whites who believed he should have been hanged in 1862 came down from Minnesota to attempt to assassinate him, while local Dakotas tried to kill him in revenge for his testimony against their kin.  But he managed to marry two successive Dakota woman and prospered as a farmer until his death from natural causes in 1909.  Today he has about 125 living descendants, almost all of whom identify as Native Americans.

Unveiling Godfrey’s life story reveals new truths about slavery in Minnesota and the realities of racism on the frontier, even as it offers new perspectives on the oft-told story of the U.S.-Dakota War.