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

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

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