Joseph Godfrey

ca. 1830 – July 1, 1909
In Prairie des Français ca. 1844-1848
by David R. Schleper

Joseph Godfrey was born to an African American mother, Courtney, and a French Canadian father in the early 1830s in Mendota, across the Rivière Saint-Pierre (St. Peter’s River) from Fort Snelling.

Joseph’s mother, Courtney, was enslaved. She was born into slavery around 1812 in Virginia, and was owned by James Garland until 1820, when he sold her to his brother, U.S. Army Captain John Garland. The captain took Courtney to supposedly free Michigan and Wisconsin, and then in 1826 he moved to Fort Snelling, bringing Courtney, his slave, to the area later called Minnesota. In fact, James Garland actually claimed and received extra compensation from the Army for Courtney. “When soldiers brought their slaves from the South to the Upper Mississippi Valley, the federal government knew it and allowed it. More importantly, the government budgeted for it, using taxpayer dollars to defray the cost involved in keeping slaves at the forts.”[1]

So Joseph Godfrey, by birth and race, was enslaved. He was one of maybe a few African Americans who was born into slavery in Minnesota, and he was the only one who had grown from birth to adulthood in Minnesota as an enslaved person. “In Minnesota, there were never large gangs of farm workers, or auction blocks. There weren’t those trappings of the worst forms of slavery,” Walt Bachman said in 2013. “But there is ample evidence of brutality towards slaves in Minnesota, including a slave who was whipped to death by her Army officer master. Slavery, wherever it was practiced, was a pernicious institution, and Minnesota was no exception.”[2]

James Garland sold Courtney to Alexander and Lucy Faribault Bailly in 1831. Alexander was a prominent fur trader, and was ¼ Ottawa, and Lucy was the sister of Oliver Faribault, and was ¼ Dakota. According to Philander Prescott and his wife, Nahanamenah (Spirit of the Moon), Lucy mistreated other people’s children, including Joseph and a Dakota girl, Angelique Skaya, who were enslaved at their house. “And whilst I am speaking about the whipping business—Mrs. Bailly had a little black child raised in the family and a young Sioux girl. Those two children, I actually believe, would get from 25 to 50 lashes a day and sometimes more, every day almost. I frequently would leave the house to get away from the miserable crying of those children when she was cowhiding them.”[3] Joseph and Angelique were between 3 or 4 years old when this happened.

In the early 1840s, Alexander and Lucy either sold or gave Joseph to Oliver Faribault and Wakan Yanke. “At the trading post countless tasks might have been assigned to a slave: supplies and trade goods that Faribault exchanged for furs would have to be toted and warehoused; when furs arrived they would need to be counted, sorted, bundled, and loaded for transport downriver; and sundry nineteenth-century household chores such as water drawing and fire tending” would have kept Joseph Godfrey very busy.[4]

In about 1848 Joseph escaped, walked about 40 miles southwest along the Rivière Saint-Pierre to Traverse des Sioux, a village at a shallow river crossing.[5] There he presented himself to Alexander Huggins, a militant abolitionist Presbyterian missionary whom he had previously met, probably at the Pond Mission House in Prairieville, the name Rev. Samuel W. Pond called Tiŋta-otoŋwe. [6] Joseph was enslaved at Prairie des Français (French Prairie) at the Faribault Trading Post, which was across the springs from the Pond Mission House.

According to Alexander Huggins’s son, Joseph said he “had been beaten and abused and could stand it no longer.”[7]

Almost immediately, however, Godfrey fled to join the Indian bands led by Chiefs Wabasha and Wakute along the Mississippi River. Joseph was afraid that he would be taken back into slavery if he stayed at the missionary’s home. He felt more comfortable as a refugee 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 1853 Godfrey moved back along the Minnesota River in south central Minnesota.

Joseph lived with Dakota Indians for over 12 years after his escape from Oliver Faribault and Wakan Yanke. He married Takanheca, the daughter of Wahpaduta (Red Leaf) in 1857, and had a son on a new Dakota reservation in southwestern Minnesota.[8]

In the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Joseph, the enslaved man who escaped his owners, was approached by a Dakota man who announced that all the white people had been killed at the Agency. On the spot, Godfrey was asked what side he would take. Afraid for his life and family, Godfrey felt compelled to join the war.

Godfrey surrendered along with a group of about a thousand Dakota on Sept. 26, after the Sept. 23 Battle of Wood Lake. He was the first person tried by the military commission on Sept. 28, 1862. Because Joseph did not want to die, he agreed to testify against 11 of the 38 Dakota warriors who were hung on Dec. 26, 1862.[9] Although he did not get convicted for murder, he was convicted for participating in the fighting and sentenced to death by hanging. President Abraham Lincoln commuted his sentence to ten years imprisonment. He later got a full pardon.[10]

Joseph was sent to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa to serve his prison sentence. After three years, he was pardoned and freed in 1866.

Upon Joseph’s release, he settled on the Santee Reservation, where he was united with his son. He was a farmer, and married a Dakota woman, Icazontewin, also known as Emma, in 1866. She died in 1895. When she died, Joseph married Jennie Goodtreacher in 1898.[11]

Joseph passed away from natural causes in July 1, 1909, and was buried at the Episcopalian Cemetery on the reservation.[12]

[1] Lahman, Christopher P. (2011). Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., p. 67.

[2] Bachman, Walt (2013). Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press.

[3] Parker, Donald Dean (editor) (1966). The Recollections of Philander Prescott Frontiersman of the Old Northwest, 1819-1862. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, p. 152

[4] Bachman, Walt (2013). Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, p. 39.

[5] This river crossing was used by generations of Dakota and early French fur traders as a trading outpost. Traverse des Sioux was the site of treaty negotiations in 1851 between the U.S. government and the Dakota.

[6] Bachman, Walt (2013). Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press.

[7] Eli Huggins to Folwell, November 12, 1918. Folwell Papers, MHS Box 47.

[8] Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

[9] Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

[10] Francois, Sherick. “Godfrey, Joseph (c.1830–1909).” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/person/godfrey-joseph-c1830-1909 (accessed July 20, 2017).

[11] Bachman, Walt (2013). Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press.

[12] Bachman, Walt (2013). Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press.

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