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The Trial of Joseph Godfrey


May 30, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

Last week, this, and next, I am posting about the Dakota Trials. My posts will be only a thin overview of a complicated topic that can fill entire books. On Friday, I’ll list some sources for reading more in depth.

The first trial occurred on September 28, 1862. The trials were recorded by number rather than listed by the name of the accused. This was largely due to the difficulty in recording names. Many of the Dakota were known by several different Dakota names, nicknames, White translations and mis-translations of those names, and mis-spellings of all of the above.

Trial number one was that of Joseph Godfrey (Otakle). Godfrey’s father was a French-Canadian and his mother was African-American. He was charged with “killing seven white women and children, more or less, peaceable citizens of the United States.” What happened during the case would influence numerous other trials.

Godfrey was a “farmer-Indian” who lived on the reservation and had converted to farming and other White customs. Like all the other trials, the procedure began with a reading of charges and an opportunity for Godfrey to respond. Unlike normal trial procedure, Godfrey (and all the others) would have no opportunity to respond to prosecution witnesses’ testimony. In normal trial procedure, the prosecution would open, followed by the defense.

The recorder noted that Godfrey spoke in a sweet voice as he described being approached by a Dakota warrior on horseback while he was mowing hay. The warrior was armed and told Godfrey the Dakota were killing whites. The warrior cocked his gun, pointed it at Godfrey, and asked him what he would do. Godfrey indicated he went with the warrior to spare his own family, changing from pants to a breechcloth and painting himself. He said he then participated in various battles and attacks and provided details which linked him to them. During his testimony, he implicated others by name, admitted to driving wagons, stealing horses, and firing shots during the attack on New Ulm. He did not admit to murder and claimed he participated reluctantly.

Six witnesses testified against Godfrey. A White woman held captive said she’d seen Godfrey “whooping around” and content with the other Indians and that Dakota warrior had told her Godfrey led a raid and clubbed a settler. Another said he appeared to be in agreement with her captors. One of the witnesses, the father of one of Godrey’s friends, said Godfrey had bragged about killing seven men but hadn’t said a word about being forced to do so.

For the commission, the question became whether or not Godfrey had been a willing participant in his actions or whether he did so fearing his own life. They voted to sentence him to death regardless (this would be common as the trials proceeded). However, Godfrey’s implication of others had impressed the commission and, in the end, they recommended commuting his sentence from death to a ten-year prison term in light of his valuable testimony. Godfrey was the only defendant to receive a commutation in exchange for testimony.

For the trials that followed, Godfrey’s commutation recommendation may have had unanticipated consequences. The public was pressing for death of all Dakota involved, in the press and on the streets. In some areas, the crowds were highly emotional. Having made this recommendation for the first defendant, the commission may have felt they had to tread carefully to avoid an appearance of leniency that would fire up the public (note I am stating this as a factor in their actions not an excuse for them). Many other defendants indicated they’d agreed to participate at gunpoint and had feared for their families, saying they’d tried to avoid direct participation in attacks of families and had only participated in battles. Most were convicted anyway seeming to indicate that it was indeed Godfrey’s willingness to implicate others that influenced the court. He would go on to testify as a witness against 55 other defendants.

Godfrey had significant influence on some outcomes. In some cases, upon hearing a man state he was innocent, Godfrey would laugh out loud, signaling the commission to dig deeper. At times, Godfrey was asked to participate in questioning defendants. Recorder Isaac Heard wrote that Godfrey would “force the Indian, by a series of questions in his own language, into an admission of the truth.” Once such case was trial 366, that of Haypee. Haypee claimed he had a lame arm and could not have participated as well as having a gun that wouldn’t fire. When Godfrey became involved, he pointed accused Haypee of lying and reminded him that Godfrey had seen him use someone else’s gun to fire and that he had used Godfrey’s gun to fire, even asking Godfrey to reload it so he could us it again. Haypee finally admitted Godfrey told the truth. He was sentenced to hang.

In a few cases, Godrey’s testimony helped defendants. One of these was Thomas Robertson whom Godfrey claimed was not a bad man and one Godfrey believed was forced to participate. He also testified that defendant Chankahda has saved a white woman he’d been ordered to kill.

For more detailed reading, I recommend The Dakota Trials: The 1862-1864 Military Commission Trials: Including the Trial Transcripts and Commentary by John Isch. Carol Chomsky of the University of Minnesota Law School also wrote an excellent article which examines the trials, “The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice.” (

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As I count down to my January 2021 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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