Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey

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9780985009908: Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey

Separated from his mother when their master sold her, Joseph Godfrey grew up in bondage serving Minnesota's fur-trade elite. Escaping his masters' beatings, Godfrey sought refuge among the Dakota Indians who had befriended him as a child slave.

Conscripted to join Dakota warriors in the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, Godfrey became the first of hundreds of men tried by a military court when the six-week war ended. Commander Henry Sibley, who created the court, was one of Godfrey's former masters. Sibley approved the death sentences of Godfrey and 302 Dakota soldiers.

In this riveting biography, historian and retired trial lawyer Walt Bachman untangles the thorny questions that tangle Godfrey's story: How was he enslaved in free territory? Did his testimony send 38 Dakota men, including his father in law, to the gallows? Bachman argues that the 1862 Dakota War trials that ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history, were both more just, and more unfair, than we've ever guessed.

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About the Author:

Walt Bachman, a Minnesotan transplanted to New York, is a historian and retired lawyer. Northern Slave, Black Dakota is his second book. His first, Law v. Life, recounts the realities of life as an American trial lawyer. His forthcoming book will document the U.S. army's role in fostering the spread of slavery via a pay system that rewarded federal officers for using slaves as servants in free states and territories.

Review:

''Walt Bachman's book, Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey, is one of those biographies that tells not only of an individual life, but of the times and the events that shaped it and with which the subject interacted. More than the story of Godfrey himself, it tells us about the cauldron of racial prejudices and cultural conflicts that simmered in the upper Mississippi country during the pre-Civil War years of American dominance there and boiled over in 1862. The picture that the author paints is based on years of dedicated research in documentary sources, many of which have been misinterpreted or never before used. An attorney with years of courtroom experience, he sifts evidence with meticulous care, not here trying to build a case, but to arrive at the closest possible approximation of historical fact.

In the first three chapters Bachman assembles a scene that furnishes the background for what little is known of Joseph Godfrey's early life and lets the reader guess at the fears and attitudes that may have motivated him later. That scene demolishes the longstanding myth that slavery never existed in Minnesota -- or at least not beyond the isolated case of Dred Scott and his family. . . .

The tortured tale of Godfrey's role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath is told by Bachman with equal care. Claiming to have been forced by a marauding band of young warriors to join them in the murder of settlers near New Ulm, Godfrey threw his lot with the Dakota and boasted loudly of the many whites he had slain. Yet he was among those who surrendered at Camp Release, and at his trial, which was one of the first conducted by the military commission, no one could be found who had actually witnessed him killing anyone. Although condemned by the court, he furnished evidence against the Dakota in many cases during the trials that followed, thus saving his own life while becoming the lonely object of hatred by the Dakota and contempt by racist whites.

To this reviewer's knowledge, no one has ever studied the original record of the Dakota trials and the circumstances surrounding them with the care that Bachman has used, nor has any historian brought to the task his familiarity with courtroom procedures and 19th-century legal customs. His conclusions about how the trials were conducted are even-handed enough to displease partisans of both sides, and they yield a vivid picture of human feeling, fear, and frailty.''
--Rhoda Gilman, author of Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart and Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota's Protest Tradition --Rhoda Gilman, author of Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart and Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota's Protest Tradition

''I cannot overstate the important contribution that Northern Slave, Black Dakota makes to our understanding of race and class in the key formative period of Minnesota history.

Through meticulous and wide-ranging research, Mr. Bachman has reconstructed the life of Joseph Godfrey, a little known slave-turned-Dakota Indian who fought with the Dakota in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The result is a fascinating biography, but it is also much more than one man's story. Godfrey's unfixed racial identity in his youth and the extreme vitriolic animus he faced after 1862 vividly illustrate the changing definition and perception of race in Minnesota in the years between 1849 (when Minnesota became a territory) and the Civil War. Minnesota is unique in that a shift from a primarily Creole society to one rigidly defined by race occurred in the space of less than a single generation. Northern Slave, Black Dakota, more than any other single source I have found, illuminates that process in vivid and persuasive detail.

The archival research that undergirds this work is of the highest caliber and, indeed, Mr. --Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of North Country: The Making of Minnesota

''I cannot overstate the important contribution that Northern Slave, Black Dakota makes to our understanding of race and class in the key formative period of Minnesota history.

Through meticulous and wide-ranging research, Mr. Bachman has reconstructed the life of Joseph Godfrey, a little known slave-turned-Dakota Indian who fought with the Dakota in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The result is a fascinating biography, but it is also much more than one man's story. Godfrey's unfixed racial identity in his youth and the extreme vitriolic animus he faced after 1862 vividly illustrate the changing definition and perception of race in Minnesota in the years between 1849 (when Minnesota became a territory) and the Civil War. Minnesota is unique in that a shift from a primarily Creole society to one rigidly defined by race occurred in the space of less than a single generation. Northern Slave, Black Dakota, more than any other single source I have found, illuminates that process in vivid and persuasive detail.

The archival research that undergirds this work is of the highest caliber and, indeed, Mr. Bachman has tapped sources unexplored by other scholars of Minnesota history that will be of great benefit to future scholars.''
--Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of North Country: The Making of Minnesota --Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of North Country: The Making of Minnesota

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