Alright, readers. Right now I have my fingers in about twenty different pies, although most of you can see none of that. There’s some stuff going on in my life that is deeply distracting. Not bad stuff, more like being hit with a fire hose of new information. Stuff you never knew.
Well, this is all pretty crazy. So I’ve finished the rough draft of an alternate history series, some 250,000 words. Now I’ve embarked on another trilogy meant exclusively for a Patreon page that I need to create. Pretty much to the midpoint of Book 1, if I wanted to I could launch my website tomorrow.
But I’m not going to do that. For a change I would like to exercise real tactical patience and go slow and smooth into my ventures, as opposed to plunging headlong into something, like usual.
What the hell is this guy talking about, perhaps you ask.
Alright, I have a bit of a dilemma. I really want to write about two different things. One of them is the aforementioned trilogy, straight-up sci-fi, for my future Patreon site. Another is something I’ve been made aware of these past few months.
It’s a true story. A very rough story.
The tale spans the period of the early days of the American Republic to present. It is violent. Parts are shameful. Most of it will make you shake your head with the sheer injustice of it all.
I’ll give you a hint. The story has similarities to two films, maybe more. If you liked “The Revenant” or “Hostiles,” maybe “Unforgiven,” then this story is for you.
It is fascinating, but I don’t know if I want to write it. For one thing, I’m a science fiction writer, not historical non-fiction. And there’s a problem- if I wrote this tale, it would have to be dead accurate. The past demands that I would have my facts entirely straight, that I would tell the story correctly. That I would be fair when I don’t want to be, that I would reveal some harsh and ugly truths.
This story is America, the good and the bad.
I’ll give it to you in a nutshell. I’m curious what you, my readers, think.
In 1799, a party of French fur trappers out of Canada moved south along a great river, the locals called it M’ni Sota, or cloudy waters. These days we call this area the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. There was a long-standing camp there of the Dakota tribe, to be specific the Mdewakanton. The camp was called M’dote, a Dakota word that roughly means “an area where the rivers come together.”
The French, being French, ingratiated themselves to the Dakota, and while they were catching beavers for the voracious European markets, they took local wives. A man named Michel took a Dakota lady, the daughter of the Chief Wabasha, as his wife. They had a number of kids, one of whom was known as Francois. Francois became quite a trader in his own right, he roved the west looking for deals, and at one point he even went to Washington to help represent his relatives in making a treaty with the whites.
Speaking of whites, this territory, the ancient homeland of the Dakota people, started to fill with settlers. Washington wanted a deal with the Dakota, they had claimed this “new” land and they named it Minnesota. It was a form of the old Dakota word for the great and sacred river, whose legendary center was known to the whites as Pike Island. This area, with the old village of M’dote, now called Mendota, was supposedly reserved for the Dakota. In exchange for their land, the Dakota had been promised an annual annuity and a reservation.
Francois probably knew there was going to be trouble. He ran a trading shop in the Lower Sioux Agency, in what today is Morton, Minnesota. The situation went south in August of 1862, when a US Government official idiot suggested that the starving natives could “eat grass and dung” when he was informed of the critical situation involving the Dakota.
You see, the Federal Government was late paying the promised annuity, and the Natives were no longer allowed to rove outside their reservation for food. No money, no food. It was an entirely preventable situation that was directly caused by Washington.
Some young men, many of them relatives of Francois and his family, called for war to their chief, a man known as Little Crow. At first Little Crow told them they were crazy, but the pissed off young men called him a coward. Little Crow, although he had real reservations, couldn’t let that insult slide.
The Dakota attacked. The Dakota War of 1862, also known as the “Sioux Uprising” started. You can click on the link for plenty of detail, I’m not going to give you all a blow-by-blow.
Suffice to say the Francois was one of the first to fall; he was probably related to the man who killed him.
Francois, who had a number of children with his wife Judith, a Fox woman, had a son named George. George was pretty pissed off that his father was killed. He signed on with a militia outfit known as Renville’s Rangers. The Rangers, under the command of a mixed Mdewakanton named Gabriel Renville, played an important role in protecting civilians and native non-combatants during the vicious fighting that took place that terrible late summer.
Predictably, after some early successes, the Dakota were crushed by the Union Army forces arrayed against them.
In an atmosphere of poisonous racial hatred, hundreds of Dakota warriors were sentenced to death by hanging. This was the first time that Native combatants were tried as civilian criminals rather than enemy combatants, as had previously been the case. The trials were substandard, usually lasting no longer than five minutes per person. By bitter coincidence, they were held in Francois’s office, one of the few buildings that survived when the Lower Sioux Agency was torched.
Hundreds of people were killed, both the innocent and the guilty. President Lincoln himself, in the midst of the slaughter of the Civil War, took the time to review each “trial” of the “guilty,” and he personally nullified or commuted hundreds of sentences of the captured warriors.
But still, 38 men were sentenced to hang. On December 26th, 1862, the United States saw its greatest mass execution when the men were hung together on a custom made scaffold.
One poor fellow, possibly more, was hung by mistake. Later on, two of the leaders of the rebellion were captured in an illegal raid in Canada. They were drugged, smuggled across the border and hung in Fort Snelling in 1865.
Fort Snelling was located by the ancient Dakota town that was now known as Mendota. After the war, the remaining Natives were rounded up. Men, women, and children. Everyone of Native blood. They were herded onto sacred Pike Island, the Dakota center of the universe, and they were held in deplorable conditions.
George’s family was among those who were incarcerated. Hundreds died of disease and starvation.
The war, as all wars do, ended. The Government passed laws forbidding any Dakota, under penalty of death, from remaining in Minnesota. There was one exception; Dakota who had remained neutral in the war or who had helped the whites were allowed to stay in a very limited space in ancient M’dote, or Mendota. Other Dakota secretly returned as well; though this was a very bold move.
Ever heard the saying “he’s off the reservation?” It means someone doing something crazy.
I learned that in the 1860’s to the 1890’s that Natives could legally be killed and scalped if caught “off the reservation.”
For a handful of gold, some poor person’s life. The thought makes me want to vomit.
This. This was the poisonous aftermath of the 1862 War, that eventually led to the massacre at Wounded Knee; a shame and blot upon the US Army’s colors.
George and his family tried to keep their heads down in an apartheid-type existence, they were marked forever as “redskins” and undesirables. Oh, they did laugh and love, but they always knew that the larger society saw them as worthless. George and his wife Josephine had about ten kids, one of the last ones was named Odelia. She was born when he was nearly fifty, a real late-comer.
Of course, I wasn’t there, but I get the idea that Odelia, who preferred the name Matilda, was a bit of a handful. At some point she was sent to a special Indian school, where they taught her that her background was shameful. That everything she knew was tainted. That her beliefs, her family’s customs, were savage and uncivilized. That her Native blood was a curse, to be obfuscated and lied about, denied, by any means necessary.
She returned to Mendota from the school, and she had a brand new plan.
Matilda was tired of being spat upon, treated like shit over an accident of birth. She caught the eye of a fresh veteran of the War with Spain, a fellow named Merton. They married, and in the meanwhile the old warrior George, son of Francois, breathed his last in 1907.
When he died, Matilda decided she needed a change. When her new son was born, she decided that there was no way she wanted him on the Indian Census. You see, there used to be a separate census for the Natives, and they were called “IN” or “MB” (Mixed Blood) or worse, “Half-Breeds” on official government documents.
If these racist terms were used on dry government forms, then what did “Matilda” hear from day to day?
I can imagine, and it wasn’t good.
The young mixed-race couple ran like hell, and for the rest of her life Odelia was ashamed of her past.
It was a hell of a note for the child of fierce warriors and leaders.
“Matilda” ended up being the mother of warriors herself; Wabasha and George would have been proud.
Her children smashed teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese; they faced Banzai charges with numb hands and a smoking Garand. One son fought the Chinese; never to return. His family, the elderly Matilda included, was riven by grief. More faced “Victor Charles,” they watched as naval gunfire pounded the hostile hills. Other sons faced the Jihadis, the nameless enemy that crept at night. The placers of bombs, the killers of kids. The sons of Matilda followed the warpath, the tradition, to this present day.
And it all started with a fur trapper and his Native bride.
This brief missive just skims the tale, and every word is true.
It is but one facet of the tale of a remarkable people called the Mendota; a community that despite everything still survives.
I wonder if I should write this. I found the story by accident; it sucked me in like quicksand.
6 thoughts on “A Rough Story”
Jason you have to write this. Maybe not now, but someday you must honour your ancestors and tell their story, and honour their truth.
Thank you for sharing this snippet with us, it’s a truly remarkable and moving story ❤️
It was quite a revelation, this, well what else to call it but a saga? You can imagine I’m hesitant to write it.
I worked for a year at the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in Washington state, specifically at Fort Spokane. At the time, it was the only us government owned museum dedicated to the history of the Native American Boarding Schools. It started as a Calvary fort during the wars, and in late 1800s they changed it to a boarding school. It was like you described, children were basically kidnapped and made to erase their history. It was fascinating having learned about all this, and sad about how so many visitors didn’t know the history of such places. Even worse when visitors would argue that schools such as this were good for the children…. It was a terribly dark period in American history, and I’m honored that we live in a country were our dark deeds can be spoken of. Gotta learn from the past, I hope.
Fascinating area, great museum. Thanks National Park Service!
Mason, indeed. There’s a personal angle to this story for me, and I was blown away to find this all out.
Not a great believer in destiny and so forth but it feels like this story has called to you from across the void of time. And it appears you have the story outline.
The outline was written long before I was born. That’s the hell of it.