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Captivity Accounts


February 29, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

In addition to initial newspaper accounts and broad overviews of the Dakota Conflict, a number of those taken captive during the war released personal narratives of their experiences. Like the broader accounts, personal narratives were largely colored by the prejudices of the time and language used reflected the stereotypes and cultural influences. Some of these captivity narratives were short statements—a few pages—that were provided to interviewers. Others reached publication as booklets.

Captivity accounts had been published throughout American history, reflections of experiences with a number of different Native American tribes and cultures. For the researcher of the Dakota Conflict and associated captive experiences, it’s important to isolate those accounts with involved the Sioux and which occurred during the relative time period. Whether accounts beyond the war are relevant is dependent on the purpose of the research.

For my research, I reviewed the accounts of Abbie Gardner (Spirit Lake, 1857) and Fanny Kelly (Wyoming Territory, 1864) for general information about lifestyle, captive viewpoints, and general experiences. However, for information that related specifically to behaviors during the conflict itself, I reviewed shorter primary accounts in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society and the published account of Sarah Wakefield. Together, this review provided a glimpse of day-to-day life and how captives responded to and felt about their experiences—an important factor in characterization.

The attack at Spirit Lake, Iowa, occurred in 1857. Like the later Dakota Conflict, it had roots in food shortages, lack of intercultural understanding, prejudice, and difficult White/Dakota interaction in the area. Unlike the Dakota Conflict, it did not lead to full warfare, though retaliatory attacks on peaceful bands were made by Whites.

For years, there had been disagreements with local settlers. Even then, late deliveries of annuities and scarcity of game impacted the Mdewakantons and Wahpekutes bands who continued to live off-reservation in traditional villages in the area near the Minnesote/Iowa border. One of these bands was led by Inpaduta (Old Inkpaduta/Scarlet Point), who had been expelled from the main band after the murder of a chief some years before. In 1854, Henry Lott, a local settler, shot Inkpaduta’s brother (and the brother’s family), falsely believing them responsible for the death of his family (later found alive). Lott savagely mutilated the bodies. Two years later, the band was impacted by the harsh winter and delayed delivery of annuities. During the course of that winter, Inkpaduta’s grandson died of starvation, altercations occurred when a dog was shot, over a herd of elk, theft of corn, and the forcible disarming of Inkpaduta’s band (leaving them with no way to hunt).

The band traveled north, attacking several families near Spirit Lake. Accounts attributed the attacks to revenge though some may have had their roots in disagreements over cattle and food. In the end, 35-40 settlers were killed and four young women were taken captive. Abbie Gardner was one of them. Abbie and second girl were later ransomed while the two other captives were killed. Wahpeton men participated in one of the ransoms. Inkpaduta was never apprehended and was believed to have migrated to Montana. Thirty years after the events, she published her memoir, HISTORY OF THE SPIRIT LAKE MASSACRE AND CAPTIVITY OF MISS ABBIE GARDNER.

Gardner’s account of her captivity reveals a strong bias against the Dakota but she seems to regard other tribes more favorably. One can see exaggeration in her account—even when citing size of Dakota encampments) and her word choices. She offers a clear recitation of names and ages of settlers and her level of education is evident in her writing but she also reflects the predominant misconceptions of the time and makes no attempt to examine motivations beyond her interpretation. She spends much time detailing attacks she witnessed in flowery and emotionally-charge language but little on what daily life was like during captivity.

Sarah Wakefield’s captivity account is by far one of the most objective and valuable in providing insight into the Dakota Conflict. Wakefield ‘s husband was the physician at the Upper Sioux Agency at Yellow Medicine and the couple interacted with the Dakota in that area frequently. Upon hearing of the attacks, the family isolated at the agency then her husband sent her and her children to Fort Ridgely with the agency trader, Mr. Gleason. The refugee party was attacked en route and Gleason killed. Wakefield was recognized and taken captive.

Wakefield’s account contains much of the flowery language of the time and uses the common pejorative terms and stereotypes. It was written in 1863 and published as SIX WEEKS IN THE SIOUX TEPEES. However, the booklet goes far in explaining the conditions among the Dakota, the corruption of the Whites, and offering an insight into motivations and alternative outcomes. She spends little time on the attacks and concentrates on her experiences in captivity. Her focus in on daily life and interaction with one of her captives, Chaska. Her account is singular in its description of conflicting viewpoints among the Dakota and the often reactionary behaviors of some of the younger men. She describes Chaska as a protector, experienced enough to see the potential consequences for an unclaimed captive. Per her account, Chaska claims her as his wife but she is adamant that her never physically acted on that claim. She also provides a narrative of events during the Dakota Trials.

Wakefield was ostracized for her sympathetic treatment of the Dakota. The narrative was originally written for her children rather than publication. Rumors circulated during her lifetime and after that she and Chaska were involved more deeply than she chose to indicate and that her defense of him during the trials was borne of that relationship. Chaska was hung, despite her assertion that he protected her; most likely due to the fact that Chaska was a common name and he was mistaken for another individual.

NARRATIVE OF MY CAPTIVITY AMONG THE SIOUX INDIANS was written by Fanny Kelly and details her experiences as a captive. In 1864, her wagon train was attacked by a band of Oglala in Wyoming Territory. The attack may have had its roots in an event that occurred two weeks prior when a topographical engineer with General Sully’s column was killed. Troops were sent and the three Lakota responsible were killed and decapitated by the soldiers.

Kelly’s account spends little time on the attack itself with the majority of the book detailing her experience as a captive. Like Wakefield, Kelly does not escape the biased language and stereotypes of the period. Her book is remarkable for the descriptive details of place, daily life, and her emotion during captivity. She discussed camp-life, food choices, the complications of not being able to understand languages, interactions with tribal members, and her ever-changing role within the camp.

Later critical review of her account indicates there may have been exaggeration of her role in larger events but the book remains a valuable overview of lifestyle among the Lakota.

As I researched for NEVER LET GO, I reviewed captivity accounts for several purposes.

The remembrances left by Lake Shetek survivors taken captive focused more on the attack itself. However, vital information about their experiences was researched for specific details. Most of these accounts were related years after events and had to be compared. In some cases, details differed and had to be reconciled with known facts (an example is the age and gender of the youngest Duley child, which were verified by vital records and the claim filed by William Duley—as father, he would be most likely to know the age and gender of the child and the claim was made within months of the event so his memories were more fresh). Like all other primary accounts, bias and exaggeration had to be considered.

In broader Dakota Conflict accounts, I looked for details about the experiences of captives in Minnesota and any information about the Dakota lifestyle, customs, and behaviors. Wakefield, in particular, offered insight into the conflict between traditional kinship practices and the influence of warfare. She highlighted that some Dakota were caught in the middle.

I also sought information on daily life. Within the Dakota Conflict, how did bands that had taken captives avoid the Whites? What did captives experience in adapting to life when they didn’t know the language or what was expected of them? What WAS expected of them? How were they treated? 

Finally, I wanted insight on how White captives viewed their experiences and reading a variety of captivity accounts allowed me to see a broad spectrum of interpretations. To represent the women, I needed to see the biases and stereotypes held within that time period. I needed to convey their misunderstandings and their emotional reactions (as they would have been at that time).  It was not a politically correct time and my characterization would need to represent the women as they likely were, based on my research of the time and of their personalities. I chose to use one of the women as a window into Dakota perceptions, motivations, and culture but still had to anchor the story in time. The captivity accounts assisted in that characterization.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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