Author details slavery at Ft. Ridgely

FORT RIDGELY STATE PARK – A Minnesota lawyer, former Chief Deputy Hennepin County Attorney and member of the family behind Bachman’s garden stores, will talk about his new book on Saturday, June 15, at Fort Ridgely State Historic Site.

Walt Bachman will talk at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. about his book “Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey.” The book would alter what we know as history by documenting the presence of slaves at Fort Ridgely more than a century ago.

Bachman will discuss slaves at the fort, the prominent officers who were their slave-masters, and the U.S. Army’s role in fostering the spread of slavery.

“Slavery in the North was not tied to agriculture or industry as it was in the South. [Slaves] typically worked as house servants,” Bachman said. “There is ample evidence of brutality towards slaves in Minnesota, including a slave who was whipped to death by her Army officer master.”

Born the son of a Fort Snelling black slave woman and French Canadian fur trader in Mendota in 1835, and himself a slave, Godfrey was raised in the household where his mother worked. He later served as an aide to Henry Sibley, a prominent fur trader and Minnesota’s first governor, according to Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) records.

Godfrey later married the daughter of Wahpaduta (Red Leaf) and lived with the Dakota on the Lower Sioux Reservation in 1862, according to the MHS.

In August 1862, while helping Dakota load hay onto a wagon, Godfrey was approached by another Dakota man who said all white people had been killed at the agency. Godfrey was asked what side he would take. Afraid for his life and family, he felt compelled to join the Dakota in the war, according to the MHS.

Forced to wear war paint and join Dakota warriors in the early days of the battle, Godfrey denied every killing anyone, while Sibley accused him of actively taking part in attacks.

There were conflicting reports about his role in the conflict, according to the MHS. Godfrey was captured after the Battle of Wood Lake and held to face trial.

Godfrey was among several hundred Dakota tried by a military court created by Sibley, after the six-week war ended in late September 1862.

Sibley approved death sentences for Godfrey and 302 other Dakota soldiers. Godfrey was among 264 Dakota pardoned by President Lincoln, following the 1862 war trials. Godfrey’s father-in-law was among the other 38 Dakota men executed in Mankato the day after Christmas in 1862.

Godfrey initially received a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the war. His death by hanging sentence was commuted in exchange for his testimony at the trials which the court commission stated was needed to avoid not punishing “a large number of men of the worst character.”

Lincoln agreed to the commutation, but later issued a full pardon, according to the MHS. Godfrey served three years in prison at Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, before he was freed in 1866.

Godfrey spent the rest of his life on the Santee Reservation in Nebraska, dying of natural causes in 1909, according to the MHS.

Bachman said he feels Godfrey was unfairly treated by history.

On Aug. 18, 1862, Bachman’s great-great grandfather, Ernst Dietrich, was among a group of New Ulm citizens who traveled by wagon to Milford to recruit men to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. Three men including Dietrich, John Schneider and Julius Fenske were shot and killed when they were ambushed by Dakota braves near a small ravine, according to the book “Eight Days in August, the accounts of the casualties and survivors in Brown County during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” by Darla Cordes Gebhard and John Isch, published by the Brown County Historical Society.

The incident led Bachman to spend more than six years researching Godfrey and the usually-ignored issue of slavery in Minnesota decades prior to statehood, even though it was illegal according to the 1820 Missouri Compromise.

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at

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