Sarah’s husband John, Agency physician, didn’t take the rumors seriously at first, but by mid-afternoon he was sufficiently worried to act. He told Sarah that she, four year-old James and one year-old Lucy (affectionately called Nellie) should take a trip back east to visit friends and family. He immediately arranged for a clerk, George Gleason, to convey his family by wagon to Ft. Ridgely, 40 miles distant, where they could catch a stagecoach. Sarah packed for the journey, and soon they were on their way.
This decision by John Wakefield puzzles me. In fact, it troubles me, for at least four reasons. First, to get to Ft. Ridgely his family would have to pass by the Lower Agency, scene of the outbreak. Even if John was unaware of the full extent of the violence there, he must have realized that going anywhere near the Lower Agency would be risky.
Second, Wakefield sent his family off with a man who had no gun. Like a surprising number of whites on the frontier, Gleason apparently owned no firearm, but John Wakefield possessed at least one, which he certainly could have loaned to the clerk, considering the circumstances. Did he instead keep it to protect himself?
Third, both Wakefield and Gleason kept Sarah in the dark about the reports of Indian attacks in the exact area through which she and the children would be traveling. Whether they did this to spare her anxiety, or because they themselves were underestimating the danger, it did her no favors.
Finally, in the culture of his day Wakefield was his family’s head and protector. Why didn’t he keep his family together for the sake of security, or take a more active role in conducting them to safety? At the very least, he could have escorted them to the fort.
In any case, the doctor's decision proved to be a blunder. Before nightfall, George Gleason lay dead on the road, and Sarah and her children were prisoners of the Dakota. As for John, by evening he was holed up with dozens of others in the Upper Agency warehouse, expecting an attack at any moment; ultimately they would be led across the prairie to safety by a Dakota man named John OtherDay.
How did this happen? At war’s end, with more than 600 whites slain, the U.S. put on trial by military tribunal nearly every Dakota man taken prisoner, determined to make the Indians pay dearly for their "rebellion." Never mind the Dakota suffering and grievances that had caused the war. All that mattered now was white retribution. Trials (notoriously unfair) were held by the hundreds. Of the 392 prisoners tried, 303 were sentenced to death by hanging, and 16 were given prison terms.
Sarah Wakefield testified at Chaska's trial on his behalf, the only white woman to speak in support of any Dakota. Though he was convicted, Sarah was reassured that he would only have to endure a prison sentence. Instead, on December 26, 1862, Chaska was hanged with 37 other Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The men's bodies were buried in a sandbar in the Minnesota River. By the following morning, most of the bodies were gone, having been dug up and stolen mostly by doctors wishing to use them as specimens (or keep them as souvenirs).
|The hanging of the 38 in Mankato, MN, Dec. 26, 1862.|
Chaska’s sentence was to have been commuted. He was not supposed to be hanged. But one day in late December Sarah, reunited with her husband, opened the newspaper to learn that despite her best efforts and Lincoln's, Chaska was among the dead. He had been executed in a spectacle meant to satisfy white cries for justice and vengeance after the short-lived but brutal war.
Sarah was broken-hearted with grief, and with guilt. After all, she had been the one to persuade Chaska and his family not to join so many other Dakota people in fleeing westward to the Plains, or northward to Canada, at war's end. She had reassured them that they would be treated honorably and fairly. But Chaska had died by the noose, and his mother, whom Sarah had perhaps loved more than her own mother, was now likely a prisoner in a dreadful Dakota internment camp at Ft. Snelling, near St. Paul.
|Dakota internment camp, Ft. Snelling.|
Outraged, Sarah tried to find out how this terrible thing could have happened. She wrote multiple impassioned letters to Stephen Riggs, longtime Presbyterian missionary among the Dakota, who among other things had played an active role on behalf of the government in the military tribunals, had spent long days teaching and trying to convert the prisoners, had taken the final statements of the condemned men, and had been present at the mass hanging. Riggs blamed Chaska’s death on mistaken identity—an impossibility, I believe, given the evidence. Riggs himself knew Chaska to some degree and would have realized that the man did not belong among the condemned, his sentence having been commuted by Lincoln.
No, I think Chaska was hanged on purpose—was deliberately murdered by the authorities—because of his alleged sexual or romantic involvement with Sarah, the possibility of which was offensive to white sensibilities. Riggs himself was aware of the rumors.
In addition to Riggs, Sarah also wrote a strong letter of protest to President Lincoln. But her strongest protest—not only on Chaska’s behalf, but more especially on her own—was issued in the form of her captivity narrative, Six Weeks in the Sioux Teepees, published less than a year later. By then, she was apparently an object of scorn not only in her community but throughout much of white Minnesota, the supposed lover of an Indian killer, a race traitor, a fallen woman. With her book she was trying tried to defend her reputation before it suffered a death blow of its own.
Did it work?
Well....I’m not ready to tell you just yet.
The wartime chapter of Sarah’s life, and its aftermath, are just one slice of her fascinating story. I’ve learned so much about her that (to my knowledge) hasn’t been disclosed elsewhere, some scholarly friends have urged me to write a nonfictional account of her life. But I’m no historian. I'll leave that for others to do.
No, I’m a creative writer. And some of the gaps in Sarah's biography—e.g., how does a woman from Rhode Island in the mid nineteenth-century end up living on the Minnesota frontier?—are tantalizing places for a creative writer to explore. Fiction-writing is a wonderful tool with which to do just that.
And now, speaking of fiction-writing, I’ve got a bit of work to do....