Slavery and Freedom on the Minnesota Territory Frontier: The Strange Saga of Joseph Godfrey

Walt Bachman in

HutMy fascination with Joseph Godfrey arose from the investigation of a family story told to me by my grandfather when I was a teenager in Minneapolis in the 1950s. One of our ancestors, Grandpa said, had been killed in the largest Indian uprising in the American West, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. A stone monument marked the scene of his killing, he added, and an excellent museum in New Ulm, Minnesota, had original accounts documenting the story of his death.

…In 1836, when Godfrey was just five years old, his master decided to keep him in bondage but to sell Courtney in St. Louis, the closest slave market. Remarkably, Courtney then made her way to one of the Missouri lawyers who later represented Dred Scott. She managed to procure her freedom via the courts of a slave state even as her son remained in slavery for another decade in supposedly “free” Minnesota. In the late 1840s, a conversation with an abolitionist missionary spurred Godfrey to risk a run for freedom. Fearing that he would be taken back into slavery if he stayed in the missionary’s home, he sought refuge 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 the mid-1850s, Godfrey married a Dakota woman and lived with his wife and son on a new Dakota reservation in southwestern Minnesota. Fort Ridgely was built nearby in 1853 to keep order as hordes of white settlers arrived in the vicinity. To Godfrey’s disquiet, army officers continued to bring slaves to the new fort right up to Minnesota’s statehood. When the 1862 war broke out, Godfrey’s options were to leave his family to seek refuge among the army whose officers had enslaved his mother, or to stay with the Dakotas who had given him refuge. His life was imperiled no matter which way he turned; he remained on the Dakota side and reluctantly accompanied the war party to Milford.

Picture: Image of Fur Trading Post Near Shakopee, Minnesota, the Last Fur Trading Post Where Josephy Godfrey was held in Slavery.

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)