From A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Inequality in Early Minnesota, by William D. Green

Jim Thompson was one of the most unlikely persons Reverend Alfred Brunson would encounter. Jim’s life, once Brunson freed him from slavery, provides the best means for examining the legal, social, economic, and even religious standing of a black man living on the Minnesota frontier in the decade before it was a territory. His story begins with Brunson’s effort to establish a mission at the Dakota village of Kaposia.

In the weeks before the U.S.–Ojibwe negotiations in May 1837, Brunson concentrated on establishing missions among the Ojibwe and Dakota. He already had authority to do so under the signature of Secretary of War Lewis Cass, who at the time headed the Office of Indian Affairs, in the U.S. War Department. Major Taliaferro supported Brunson’s project as he did all missionary work among the Indians. Three missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and two Swiss missions fell under his jurisdiction.1

Little Crow, son of Big Thunder and father of Little Crow the younger (who would lead the Dakota in the U.S.–Dakota Conflict of 1862), had left orders to invite Brunson to his village of Kaposia. As a grand gesture of welcoming, he “had a bark house prepared for them.”2

That a non-Christian chief would invite missionaries to convert his people may seem odd, yet tribal leaders did precisely this. While Little Crow may have believed his people could benefit from the beneficence of a Christian god, his reasons for doing so may have been merely pragmatic. As a quid pro quo to receiving the government annuities promised in the treaty of 1837, he may have agreed to send the children of his tribe to learn the white man’s ways at the mission school. He may also have felt that the Methodists could stem the spread of liquor consumption among his people. Whiskey was everywhere—among the traders, the soldiers at the fort, and the Red River refugees settling around Fort Snelling. The mission under these Methodists, who preached moderation in all endeavors, might at least serve as an island of sobriety.3

In any event, Little Crow lent his support for Brunson’s plan, and his offer “with great pomp and dignity” of the bark house solidified his intentions The bark house, however, as Brunson later noted, “had been inhabited too long by Indians for any white man to be able to stand the vermin.” The missionary began to build a log cabin. Then, due to his “ignorance of the Indian tongue,” he turned to finding an interpreter.4

To help him communicate with the Ojibwe, Brunson planned to enlist the services of Stephen Bonga, whom Brunson characterized as “pious,” “religious, and inclined to the missions.”5

The missionary also needed someone to translate “the truths of God to the ignorant and unlearned” for the Dakota. Men who speak Dakota and English were available, but they were not to Brunson’s liking. He described them as knowing “nothing of religion nor could they interpret spiritual things, because they did not understand the meaning of the terms we use to convey such ideas, and, further, the Indians had no words in their language corresponding with ours on that subject.” Beyond a lack of facility to translate the word of God into Dakota terms, Brunson criticized their character, for the men “demanded high wages” and “being Catholic in their religious notions, and having learned the traders’ tricks and morals” they would surely “take every advantage of the poor Indian and all others with whom they dealt.”6

Brunson was looking for a special kind of man: “To convey to the Indian mind the truths of God’s Word, from the want of words in their language, the teacher or interpreter had to use imagery, figures and comparisons. To do this to good purpose he must understand and feel the idea himself; hence the necessity of a converted man for that service.” Bronson found such a man at the fort—a mulatto who was the slave of an officer from Kentucky. His name was Jim Thompson.7

George Monroe, nephew of President James Monroe, had brought his young slave Thompson west from Virginia. Upon reaching Kentucky, Monroe gave him to sutler John Culbertson in payment for his debts. In 1827 Culbertson brought Thompson to Fort Snelling, where he sold him to Capt. George Day, in whose service Thompson remained until 1837.8

Thompson enhanced his value to his master and the fort community by learning the surrounding countryside and becoming fluent in the Dakota language. All this suggests the considerable intellect and charm of Jim Thompson, as well as the liberal nature of the master-servant relationship. Brunson wrote, “He was a slave, and the price demanded for his redemption was twelve hundred dollars, and for any other purpose two thousand dollars.”9

Finding that Thompson had “been converted, had something of the missionary spirit, and was above the average of his race in education and mental ability,” the missionary offered to Captain Day the purchase of freedom for Thompson, provided he could raise the amount from friends in the East.10

Supplying a context of the times, fellow missionary Stephen Riggs later wrote, “This was the time when the antislavery feeling ran highest in Ohio, and multitudes of people were only too glad to contribute to the fund that was started in Cincinnati, for the purpose of obtaining for James Thompson his liberty, that he might serve in the Methodist church in giving the gospel to the Sioux [Dakota] nation.” Accordingly, he was set free, and in turn, noted Brunson’s daughter years later, Thompson served as “a capable and faithful interpreter.”11

To what extent Thompson’s services as interpreter were needed is unclear. David King, a lay minister who had established the mission with Brunson and served as the mission’s teacher, had begun studying Dakota, though he did not use it. Presbyterian and Congregational missionaries had been translating the Bible for the Dakota. Brunson believed that the Indians, both children and adults, should be taught in English. “The knowledge of this language,” William Watts Folwell has explained, “would enable them to do business with the whites and would open the whole range of its literature including the Bible.”12

Thompson’s skills, then, would have had minimal educational use. Perhaps his ability was better used to help Brunson converse with Little Crow and other Dakota leaders who did not speak English. This would have permitted King to focus on his time-consuming teaching regimen. More plausible, however, is that Thompson’s value was not as an interpreter but as a diplomatic and symbolic gesture that bound the mission and the Dakota together. Thompson was married to one of the daughters of Cloud Man, the Dakota leader of the Lake Calhoun band who had transformed his encampment into an agricultural experiment Taliaferro called “Eatonville.”13

Marriage to a daughter of a village leader must have been significant. Cloud Man’s daughter Lucy (Stands Sacred) had a daughter by Capt. Seth Eastman, who was stationed at Fort Snelling, and Cloud Man’s daughter Hannah (The Day Sets) had a daughter, Mary, by Major Taliaferro. Thompson, then, through the alliances made by his wife’s sisters, was connected with some of the region’s most influential men. He was an important addition to Brunson’s fledgling mission community.14

The Indian village of Kaposia where Brunson established his mission sat on the west bank of the Mississippi, about ten miles below Fort Snelling, four miles below present-day St. Paul, in what now is South St. Paul. With the erection of several log buildings that Thompson helped to construct—a mission house, schoolhouse, and store—the community was ready to begin its work. The future of the mission seemed bright; its efforts were “being prosecuted with commendable vigor.”15

Brunson later reported that Kaposia, a sign of progress and of the extent to which the Indians were being converted to civilization, had one hundred acres planted and that the school was in operation. Thompson, as interpreter, could indeed assume some of the credit, and he proved himself useful in yet another way. In June 1838 Brunson, with a party of three white men and Thompson, undertook a journey up the Mississippi when the Dakota and Ojibwe were on the verge of war. Thompson, knowing the river well, served as the party’s pilot, and his hunting kept the party fed. But it was his wholehearted connection with the religious group that cemented the bond. Brunson “preached to my four companions, and we had a prayer-meeting, in which all participated.”16

Such harmony belied troubles at the mission. In the fall of 1839, two years after he had established it, Brunson left his post. His account suggests complicated circumstances. As early as the fall of 1838, the school was floundering due to “the irregularity of attendance” of Dakota students. Taliaferro “informed Brunson that the chief [Little Crow] had decided not to send the children to school until he had received his annuities under the treaty of the previous year.”17

Without a significant number of Dakota students, critics in the Illinois Conference, which sponsored the mission, complained that Kaposia was too expensive. Brunson was so ill that he had to spend the winter of 1838–39 away from Kaposia, and he fell under the attack of those same critics, who accused him of profiteering in land acquisition in Prairie du Chien, where his family still lived. When he responded forcefully to the charges, the matter was allowed to rest, but the stress proved too much. That fall Brunson resigned from the mission and active ministerial work.18

By then, however, the Kaposia missionaries were dispirited, and the demise of their work was inevitable. Thompson left the mission about this same time.19

When Brunson’s successor, Reverend B. T. Kavanaugh, arrived, he found the mission “depleted by resignations, the Indians unfriendly and even insolent.” Along with Brunson and Thompson, teacher David King left the mission, soon to be replaced by farmer and teacher Thomas Pope. He also noted the Indians’ “dissatisfaction” with Brunson’s manner of doing business.20

Little Crow had begun calling for the close of the school for another reason—he disagreed with Methodist teachings against violence and war, and he did not want the boys of his band to be “spoiled as soldiers.” Such teaching, he felt, ran contrary to a basic concept of Dakota culture—that boys were not considered full-grown men until they had personally taken part in combat with the enemy. Absent the warrior’s training, his young men might become like the soldiers at the fort, their indolence leading them to boredom, mischief, and drunkenness. Perhaps some of his young men were getting liquor at the mission.21

Thompson was later vilified for selling whiskey to the Dakota, which explains Folwell’s characterization of his departure as “early dismissal.” “The happy freeman’s piety,” Folwell noted, “did not long survive his emancipation [from Captain Day], his morals were or became depraved.” Reverend Stephen Riggs, a Presbyterian missionary to the Dakota and a contemporary of Brunson, wrote, “Thompson was a very indifferent interpreter and not a reliable man.” Prof. Earl Spangler wrote, “Thompson became intemperate in the use of liquor, and corrupted instead of converted the Indians.”22

Intemperately, Return Holcombe wrote, “Really Thompson was a sort of fraud. His pretensions as a Christian were hypocritical. He was very immoral and liked whiskey and Indian women, without regard to the quality or character of either. He spoke poor Dakota and worse English and was unintelligent and ineffective.”23

If that was true, Thompson’s act may well have been not only one of betrayal of the Kaposia mission and movement and a supreme act of ingratitude but also one of harm to the Indians. On the drinking habits of Indians, missionary Gideon Pond wrote, “They bade fair soon to die, all together, in one drunken jumble.”24

Holcombe wrote more colorfully: “The red man soon acquired the drinking habit and were slaves to it. . . . They could hardly live if they were not drunk. At some of the villages they were drunk for months together. They would give guns, blankets, flour, corn, coffee, horses, furs, traps—anything for whisky. They mutilated and murdered one another; they fell into the fire and water and were burned to death or drowned; they froze to death, they died of delirium tremens, they committed suicide even, and these tragedies happened so frequently that for some time the death of an Indian in one of the ways mentioned attracted but little comment or notice.”25

But neither Brunson nor the Kaposia Methodists who lived and worked with Thompson ever said a word about him providing liquor to Dakota students. Not one insinuation, not one accusation appears in the records. The reasons for the absence of recrimination may be many. Thompson, while at the mission, may, in fact, have been innocent. Or the Methodists were generous, perhaps not wanting to tarnish the integrity of their having freed a slave. Or they avoided speaking ill of one of their brethren, especially someone they liked.26

Just as likely, Thompson did indeed give whiskey to the Dakota, but in a manner that his brethren may have deemed to be in moderation. The Methodists of this era, preaching moderation in all things, were certainly not proliquor, but they also were not entirely antiliquor to the extent the Presbyterians were. The Book of Discipline told preachers to “use only that kind, and that degree of drink, which is best both for your body and soul.”27

For laymen one of the conditions required of those who desired admission into the Methodist society was to avoid “drunkenness: or drinking spirituous liquors, unless in cases of necessity.” Indeed, Methodists opposed drunkenness, but they may have varied in approach to the use of intoxicating beverages in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The strong push for prohibition did not start until after the Civil War, more specifically until after the mid-1870s. In this context lay Methodists on the frontier in the late 1830s and 1840s likely took liberties.28

Whether or not Thompson exploited the situation, liquor clearly remained the major problem for the survival of the mission. In a letter to Brunson, Kavanaugh blamed the troubles on the groggeries in St. Paul “for all order, peace and safety were destroyed by drunk Indians.” On October 25, 1842, King wrote to Samuel Pond, a missionary who with his brother Gideon worked with Cloud Man, “Our missions and school have been all abandoned. The property is all for sale.”29

Traders commonly sold intoxicating liquors to their Indian customers. Even though the American Fur Company officially obeyed the act of 1834, which prohibited the importation of whiskey into Indian country, “individual traders in its employ . . . did not resist the temptation to attract business by surreptitiously offering spirits to the Indians.”30

Alexis Bailly, Henry Sibley’s predecessor as director of the company, took part in this trade. Traders at the northern posts felt it necessary to use liquor to secure a deal with Indians knowing that if they did not, their customers would simply go farther north where Canadian traders would gladly supply them. Reports of these activities found their way back to Congress, acknowledging the fact that no military presence, no Indian agent (even a man of Taliaferro’s stature), not the American Fur Company itself could embargo the importation of whiskey to Minnesota country.31

For traders there was no law “human or divine that could check their greed,” for so long as they did not actually bring liquor onto Indian land, they were not violating any law. When subsequently the territorial legislature enacted legislation providing for prosecution of anyone selling liquor to Indians, especially in the border regions, the law was virtually unenforceable. According to Folwell, “Composed chiefly of traders and their satellites, no grand juries could be assembled which would indict, no unbiased trial juries could be impaneled, and no witnesses could be discovered who would reveal the illicit transactions.”32

Boredom and tedium led soldiers to drink. By 1839 whiskey shops cropped up on the east side of the Mississippi and quickly became a source of trouble for the commandant at the fort. On June 3 soldiers went to a shop owned by Joseph R. Brown. Once there they consumed so much liquor that forty-seven of them were thrown into the guardhouse that night. In another instance, drunken soldiers threatened to kill officers.33

Despite this problem even the army recognized the occasional usefulness of liquor. During the summer of 1838, Lt. Peter V. Hagner brought a detachment of 145 recruits on a harrowing journey from New York to Fort Snelling. While in transit, he purchased whiskey that “enabled [the soldiers] to bear up physically & morally under the disheartening & tiresome duty” and then applied for reimbursement from the government. The surgeon general recommended reimbursement for the purchase and use of whiskey but that it should come from the funds of the Commissary General of Subsistence rather than the quartermaster’s department. In the spring of 1839, Hagner was reimbursed.34

Business was good, and no doubt for this reason Thompson, after leaving the mission in 1839, moved to the east bank across from the fort to set up his own grog shop. Holcombe wrote: “After his dismissal Thompson took his Indian wife and children up to the east bank of the Mississippi, opposite Fort Snelling, where he opened a shop, for the covert and illegal sale of whisky to the soldiers, the Indians, or whoever would buy.”35

If, to the army, liquor was an evil, for a time it was a necessary evil, much to the consternation of some. Even though the army apparently raided Thompson’s shop several times, the reprisal was not severe enough for at least one noted chronicler. Holcombe wrote: “The situation was bad enough, but it seems that it might have easily been improved. The commandant at the Fort had but to send a file of soldiers to the shack of the liquor seller, destroy his stock and his establishment, arrest him and send him out of the country, threatening him with death if he returned, and then the offending evil would have been removed, and his superiors would never have called him to account for such a procedure. But Major Plympton did not take this course. He arrested and imprisoned the settlers because their cows trespassed upon the drill ground, but in only two instances did he attempt to punish the liquor sellers.”36

Holcombe listed men simply known as Menk, Pierre Parrant, Donald McDonald, and Jim Thompson “the negro” as the east-bank liquor dealers. But he did not include Joseph Brown, soon to be justice of the peace of St. Croix County, Wisconsin Territory, which then included the east bank of the Mississippi as well as the entire delta region between the St. Croix and Mississippi.37

Brown was one of the largest dealers in the area. In a letter to the surgeon general of the army, the fort surgeon wrote, “At this moment there is a citizen named Brown, once a soldier in the 5th infantry . . . [who is] actually building on the land . . . a very extensive whisky shop.”38

By summer 1839 Major Plympton saw clearly that liquor threatened the security of the fort. For the remainder of the year, he lobbied the War Department for authorization to extend the borders around the Fort Snelling reservation so that he could not only clear “settlers on the ground that several persons had established whisky shops . . . [but also] to afford further protection to the garrison.”39

By May 6, 1840, following an order from the secretary of war, the U.S. marshal of Wisconsin Territory, supported by a detachment from the garrison, removed the settlers and their goods from the Fort Snelling Reservation and destroyed their log cabins.40

Once again the disgruntled settlers moved, this time to a point downriver. There they settled in “scattered shanties” in a “nameless settlement on a site selected almost by accident,” on land that was good for cornfields and potato patches, near a shanty occupied by a whiskey seller named Pierre Parrant. Noted for his one eye that had “a singularly distorted and unnatural caste, so that it resembled that of a pig,” Parrant was nicknamed “Pig’s Eye,” and “the locality of his shack bore the same designation.” Jim Thompson was the community’s first resident of African descent. His neighbors included such well-known men as Abraham Perry, Benjamin and Pierre Gervais, Joseph Rondo, and Pierre Bottineau.41

By this time Thompson apparently had long since stopped selling whiskey. One year earlier, on May 21, 1839, the first steamboat to dock at St. Paul Landing was the Glaucus, commanded by Capt. John Atchison. Six barrels of whiskey were unloaded for Donald McDonald, resulting in a transaction that ultimately put Thompson out of business. He appears, therefore, to have been out of the whiskey-selling business even before he and the Red River squatters were removed from the Fort Snelling Reservation. Still, to some chroniclers of the times, he was a difficult man to forgive. To critics of Thompson, in 1846, Auguste Larpenteur, “the first aristocrat of St. Paul,” reportedly noted that five stores in town were peddling liquor. There was neither law nor custom against it, “so why pick on Jim?”42

Indeed, the Methodists, who had delivered Thompson from slavery and perhaps had the strongest reason to see him as undermining their mission, instead embraced him as one of their brethren. His name appears in the record books of church membership, and by 1840 his wife, Mary, and her sister; Hannah Taliaferro, the major’s “Indian wife,” and her daughter; and the Swede Jacob Falstrom and his wife, Marguerite Bonga Falstrom, sister of Stephen Bonga, had likewise been formally received into the Methodist fellowship. So committed was the Thompson family to the Methodist church that, when Kavanaugh closed the mission and moved downriver to Red Rock, where Newport is today, the Thompsons apparently made trips to prayer meetings there, faithfully keeping their membership active.43

On the evening of January 25, 1841, Jean Baptiste Deniger, in the company of the ten-year-old mixed-blood girl Ursula Labissoniere, stopped at the Thompson cabin, presumably to warm herself against the winter’s chill. Noticing that Deniger was drunk, knowing what he was capable of doing in that state, and fearing for the girl’s safety, Jim engaged their visitor long enough for Mary to sneak Ursula away, intending to take her to the Methodist mission. After a time realizing that Ursula was missing, Deniger hurried to his sleigh parked outside and whipped the horse into a gallop, heading down to the frozen river where he could overtake Mary before she reached the mission. He succeeded in cutting Mary off the track-lined snowy path and stopping her sleigh. Though Mary fought him, he pushed her off, pulled the girl into his sleigh, and raced away.44

Shortly after Deniger left the Thompson cabin, Jim labored through snowdrifts to his neighbor’s to borrow a horse and sleigh and give chase. On the path he met Deniger, but he did not see that the girl was with him. Deniger kept her hidden, threatening to cut her with his knife. Jim proceeded toward the mission for a short distance. Apparently, he looked back over the path on the frozen river to see that Deniger’s horse and sleigh were standing on the edge of the ice. At some point Jim looked back again and noticed that the horse and sleigh had not left the spot. Thinking Deniger might have had an accident and knowing that he was intoxicated, Jim returned to the spot. What he found was Deniger with his pantaloons unbuttoned, lying on Ursula, the girl’s “lower parts” uncovered and drenched with blood. Deniger held a knife in his hand.45

Thompson pulled Deniger off the hysterical girl, saying he should be ashamed of himself. Deniger replied that all girls liked such things and that Ursula was his wife, at which point Ursula cried out, “No! No!” Deniger then threw a buffalo skin over Ursula’s head, yanked her to her feet, and pulled her into his sleigh. Thompson reached for her, insisting that he take the girl back. Deniger pushed him, and Thompson lost his grip on the girl in the scuffle. Deniger jumped on the sleigh and whipped his horse into a gallop to escape. Thompson gave chase, overtook Deniger, rescued Ursula, and took her back to his cabin.46

Another neighbor of Thompson’s, Jacques Lefevre, having heard Deniger say at the cabin of Joseph Monjeau that he planned to rape Ursula, apparently had not believed Deniger would do such a thing. He was shocked when he later heard from Thompson that she had been “ravaged” by Deniger. Lefevre felt compelled to go to Thompson’s cabin to see for himself. He checked Ursula’s clothes and heard from her mouth that Deniger had “ravished” her.47

On February 13 Henry Hastings Sibley, newly appointed justice of the peace to Clayton County, Iowa Territory, issued a warrant for Deniger’s arrest, basing probable cause on the affidavits of James Thompson and Jacques Lefevre. By then Deniger was a fugitive from justice. Constable Edward Brissette was dispatched to track him down and succeeded in capturing him below Lake Pepin. He brought him back in irons.48

At the hearing Francois Chevalier, another neighbor of Thompson’s, testified that he had heard Deniger say he intended to “do something.” As pretext for giving her a ride, he said he would take Ursula to the home of Joseph Brown, where Ursula had once lived. His testimony, along with those of Thompson, Lefevre, and Monjeau, all but assured a conviction. Nevertheless, Sibley reported, “Friends of the culprit begged hard that he should not be severely punished, and after keeping him in durance vile for several days, I agreed to release him if he would leave the country, threatening him with dire vengeance if he should ever return. He left in great haste and I never saw him afterwards.”49

From this case many questions arise. What was Thompson’s status in the community? Why did Thompson attempt to spirit Ursula to the Methodist mission at Red Rock instead of to legal authorities such as the justice of the peace or the Indian agent at Fort Snelling? The rape occurred somewhere along the east shore of the river, which places the crime in what then was St. Croix County, Wisconsin Territory. Why, then, was the case tried in Clayton County, Iowa Territory? Indeed, what was the nature of American law on the Minnesota frontier? And as a black man did Thompson’s race hinder his ability to testify against a white man? Indeed, what did being black mean to Thompson? What did being an American mean?

Jim and Mary Thompson seem to have been very much a part of the community in which they lived, free from the stigma that white Americans assigned to blacks. In this rugged place, in these harsh times, racism was a foolish indulgence, for survival relied on kinship. The settlement—which by the end of the year became known as St. Paul, named by newly arrived priest Lucien Galtier after “the apostle of nations”—was predominately French and Catholic. French was the only language spoken by most of the residents of the community. Thompson, to conduct his daily activities, must have learned to speak in that tongue. He certainly seemed to understand the people around him.50

One logically might have considered returning the girl to her father, yet there was no indication Thompson did so. The record shows only that the Thompsons intended to get Ursula to the mission, which suggests Thompson knew that her father, Joseph Labissoniere, was probably absent, hunting or trapping, or that, like many mixed-blood fathers, he had “given” his daughter to the mission where she could learn the “white man’s ways” and thus be suitable for a white husband. In 1853 Ursula, in fact, married a young white man named James Victory. In any case, the decision to move her was immediate.51

Why then did they take the girl to the mission, instead of the nearer Fort Snelling, or to the justice of the peace? Without testimony one can only surmise the reason. If Joseph Labissoniere wanted Ursula to be raised at the mission, the Thompsons may have returned the girl to her “home.” Another theory rests in the Thompsons’ devotion to the mission. By January 1841 they were devout Methodists. They attended prayer meetings no matter the season; perhaps they viewed the mission as sanctuary. To supplicants so willing to undertake the trek to community with the Red Rock Methodists, the missionaries embodied a moral authority casting Red Rock as a refuge.

Fort Snelling may have seemed unwelcoming since Thompson, along with most of the Pig’s Eye settlers, had been forcibly removed from the reservation eight months earlier. Also Deniger said he intended to take the girl to the house of Joseph R. Brown, “where Ursula once resided.” Brown was the justice of the peace, and Deniger had been a witness for Brown for a sale of land six months before the rape. Brown may have even been one of the “friends of the culprit who begged hard [to Sibley] that [Deniger] should not be severely punished.” In any event, Brown did not hear the case after Deniger was returned for trial, a tip of the hat to the integrity of American jurisprudence.52

By 1841 the part of Minnesota between the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers—including St. Paul—was called St. Croix County, the westernmost section of Wisconsin Territory. That’s where the crime was committed, and thus it fell within Brown’s jurisdiction. The western shore of the Mississippi, including Fort Snelling and Mendota, were part of Clayton County, Iowa Territory, an area extending along a line about twenty miles south of Prairie du Chien north to Pembina, then west to the Missouri River, “an empire of itself”—Sibley’s jurisdiction. He was the only magistrate in the region, and as Prairie du Chien, the county seat, was “some three hundred miles distant,” he “had matters pretty much under my own control.” “In fact,” he wrote, “some of the simple-minded people around me firmly believed that I had the power of life and death.”53

In fact, it’s not at all certain American law had any practical meaning to the residents of Minnesota country. Legal authorities in both counties provided little sense of refuge, as indicated in the Thompsons’ intent to take Ursula to the mission. Whether residents knew or cared which territory they lived in, especially during the 1830s and 1840s when jurisdictions were shifting, is unclear. Many years later, Sibley mused, “It may seem paradoxical, but it is nevertheless true, that I was successively a citizen of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota Territories, without changing my residence at Mendota.”54

Confounded by a population largely speaking non-English languages, the administration of justice must have been bewildering. The same circumstances existed at the end of the decade, when Sibley told of the vexations of another justice at Mendota, “a very worthy, upright Frenchman, but indifferently versed in the English language.” Sibley wrote: “I was sitting in my office next door to the court room, when the justice entered hastily, and said to me in French: ‘That infernal [English-speaking] lawyer has been talking to me until I am tired, and I have not understood one word in ten that he has said,’ and he then asked me what he should do. . . . When I told the counsel afterwards that he had thrown much eloquence and erudition to the winds, he was astounded, ‘for,’ said he, ‘the justice never took his eye from me while I was speaking, and I flattered myself upon having produced a profound impression.’”55

By 1841 America had its flag firmly planted on Minnesota’s soil and a garrison to defend it, the first semblance of a jurisprudential infrastructure, the audacity to believe it could work, and a population willing to use, though not always comprehending, the legal mechanisms. But none of this necessarily made the residents feel American. Neither did other Americans deem them such. Even Sibley’s colleague, a justice in this legal system, was considered a “Frenchman.”56

If Labissoniere, Lefevre, Chevalier, Monjeau, and Deniger were labeled “French” or “Canadian,” what was Thompson, a freed black slave born on the plantation of America’s fifth president and now a resident of the nascent St. Paul? At the fort he was a “mulatto slave,” and at the mission, a “negro.” Official documents, census data, records, and chronicles kept by Americans—except the first court record following Thompson’s freedom—referred to him by his race. Sibley’s warrant for Deniger’s arrest does not refer to Thompson’s race at all. He was simply a “deponent,” one who gives a deposition. This simple designation illustrates the ambivalent racial nature of American law on the frontier.

Elsewhere in Iowa Territory, south of Prairie du Chien, a black man was legally prohibited from giving testimony in a trial in which a white man was a party. Robert Lucas, a Virginian by birth, whose “erect military bearing, collar-length hair, and severe features [that lent] him an uncanny resemblance to Andrew Jackson, his political hero,” was territorial governor of Iowa. He had appointed Sibley to his post.57

In 1839 Southerners and Northerners sympathetic to slavery and antiblack sentiment dominated the Iowa territorial legislature, as reflected in its handiwork. Governor Lucas, whose Jacksonian penchant for the executive veto had brought him into fierce conflict with the legislature, signed into law a bill limiting public education to “every class of white citizen.” He also signed a bill on elections barring anyone “not a free white male citizen” from voting, a militia bill requiring enrollment only of “free white male persons,” and a bill regulating mandating that “a negro, mulatto, or Indian, shall not be a witness in any court or in any case against a white person.”58

To Iowans south of Prairie du Chien, the reason for the prohibition was simple: they wanted to give blacks no legal benefits that might attract black migration to the region, and it also banned interracial marriages in 1840. Historian Eugene Berwanger wrote, “Iowa’s proximity to [slaveholding] Missouri and the fact that many Iowans considered ‘free blacks’ the most wretched and miserable element of the population, guided the actions of the Hawkeye legislators.”59

Many Iowa delegates to the first state constitutional convention in 1844, not content with denying the ballot and membership in the state legislature and militia to blacks, also demanded, unsuccessfully, the incorporation of a black-exclusion provision in the constitution of Iowa. One delegate, a former New Yorker, said he would “never consent to open the doors of our beautiful state [to Negroes].” “If free Negroes were not prevented from settling in Iowa, the neighboring states would drive ‘the whole black population of the Union’ into it.”60

But Mendota and Pig’s Eye were far from that maddened crowd. Thompson, the mulatto, had indeed testified against Deniger, the white man. Without a doubt, Minnesota country was still wilderness, despite the civilized trappings of county designations. The American flag fluttered over the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers before the national identity and social custom of prejudice were established. Territorial and county boundaries were drawn before such demarcations were relevant to the people living there.

Sibley’s self-assessment—”I had matters pretty much under my control, there being little chance of an appeal from my decisions”—reflected the conceit of the newest world order. In the final analysis the safety of Ursula Labissoniere lay not with the magistrate of St. Peter’s–Mendota or the garrison at Fort Snelling but at the mission of Red Rock and, ultimately, in Thompson’s own cabin.

“Civilization,” legal historian Lawrence Friedman has written, “advanced in undulating waves, generally along river valleys. . . . The land was not empty before the Americans came.” Nor was it so after they arrived. For a time, in practical terms, Americans reluctantly coexisted with other social systems. The Dakota still controlled much of their territory. And “in the Mississippi Valley, a cluster of Frenchmen lived by a half-remembered form of the law of France.”61

The inhabitants of Pig’s Eye were clearly not concerned about being overrun by free blacks and fugitive slaves, let alone by Americans. Jim Thompson was the only African American living among them, and he, in effect, had become one of them.

What then did Thompson’s race mean to him? One can only speculate as to how Thompson viewed himself during the time between his residencies at Kaposia and Pig’s Eye. Judging from his early years in Minnesota as a slave, he did not fit neatly into any category. He seemed even to disregard the limits of being a slave. His personality, charm, and intellect, all reflected one who, in seeing the wilderness outside the gates of Fort Snelling, also saw the opportunity to be more than a slave.

As Thompson became more a part of that world, his “blackness” became less relevant. He probably was not thinking about it as he melded into the largely French-speaking community of Pig’s Eye. Or when he was confronting Deniger—the drunk white man brandishing a knife—on that wintry night. Or even when he was giving the deposition to Sibley. (He probably knew nothing about the racial bills that Governor Lucas had signed into law in Iowa. In the remote possibility he did know, Thompson seems not to have cared if Sibley did not.)

By 1841 Thompson, a man half black, half white, had a Dakota wife and, within two years, a three-year-old daughter, Sarah, and a newborn son, George, the name of his father’s first master. In 1856 Thompson succeeded in listing Sarah and George, both one-half Mdewankanton Dakota, as official members of the Lake Pepin Mixed Blood Reservation.62

Thompson followed his son, who had embraced his Dakota kin to live on the Santee Reservation in Nebraska, shortly before his death in 1884 and long after the day when other blacks began to reside in St. Paul. Yet he convalesced in the West St. Paul home of his daughter, the second wife of Thomas S. Odell, a former New Yorker employed in the plotting of St. Paul in 1847.63

Thompson’s remaining years reflected the fluidity with which he could, throughout his life in Minnesota, move from one culture to the another. In that sense his people were the people of his children. If anything, to Thompson race consciousness was fluid, dependent only on the receptive nature of the people around him. To the Yankees who transformed Pig’s Eye from an outpost into an American city, however, Thompson, a man for whom many claimed great admiration, was simply a “colored” man and “the African.” Their portrayal trivialized a life that they did not understand. As an American living among Americans, he became again a man whose “blackness” relegated him to a life limited by his race.64

In late 1841 Pig’s Eye underwent a transformation. Lucien Galtier, the Catholic priest who presided over a small congregation at Mendota, extended his stewardship to the growing settlement at the foot of the bluffs, not far downriver. Some had been his parishioners at Fort Snelling, become wayward when the army removed them from the reservation. Now, in October, Father Galtier intended to establish a place of worship at Pig’s Eye. Two farmers in the new congregation donated land on which he built “a rude log chapel, which on the first day of November he blessed and dedicated to Saint Paul, the apostle of nations,” for living nearby were people of different “nations” and faiths, principally Dakota and a few Protestants. With no other features from which a name might arise (Pig’s Eye was an increasingly unsuitable name for people settling there), the village was soon called “Saint Paul’s Landing,” then “Saint Paul’s,” then simply “Saint Paul.” By 1842 nearly thirty families lived in the settlement, and with the exception of three or four households, all spoke French.65

Although St. Paul rested officially on U.S. soil, it was decidedly not American. Jim Thompson did not seem bothered that his home, Pig’s Eye, was now St. Paul, a French-speaking, Catholic community whose affiliation with America was at most incidental and at least irrelevant. His “minority status” as a Methodist did not stigmatize him. The competitiveness inherent in the governance of American states and territories was nonexistent. He had no difficulty in choosing the wilderness of St. Paul over the civilization of St. Louis slave blocks, the Monroe plantation in Virginia where he was born, or even Fort Snelling. He could stand up without fear of reprisal by any man.

When the notorious Irishman Edward Phelen stole a pig belonging to Thompson, he went to Phelen’s cabin and retrieved his pig. When Phelen learned of what Thompson had done, he challenged Thompson to a fight, and Thompson agreed to the terms: “If you lick me the pig is yours, and if I lick you the pig is mine.” Thompson won the fight, and Phelen conceded, inviting the spectators as well as Thompson to his shanty for a drink: “Ever after that Thompson and Phelen were good friends.” St. Paul was Thompson’s home and, by the new opportunities it opened to him, anchored his commitment to the place.66

In time “law followed the axe.” By 1845 the number of residents in the settlement was growing, and the names of the residents were increasingly American. Battles between the Dakota and the Ojibwe occurred less frequently near the settlement as more whites cleared the woods to build cabins and cultivate fields. Thompson was in the thick of this activity, helping construct many of the cabins. As the 1840s progressed, Thompson’s name was mentioned as one who could make a superior roof, secure the sturdiest cabin, and provide the surest hands. He was credited with helping to erect the first St. Paul house, owned by Phelen and his partner, John Hayes.67

Thompson ran the first ferryboat across the Mississippi and acquired more property as well. And in 1849, in his most memorable contribution to the city and his religious community, he helped construct the First Methodist Church on Market Street, furnishing 2,000 feet of lumber and 1,500 shingles for the roof. He donated the proceeds of the sale of property he owned to help pay for the church.68

By the time Minnesota was ready to become a territory, St. Paul indeed had undergone a major transformation. It was no longer a foreign settlement on a “broken hillside” but a town quickly becoming an American city. As St. Paul proper was platted and survey lines were drawn, civilization arrived. By then Jim Thompson had left his legacy. He saw the coming of the new Minnesota from the comfort of his home, warmed by memories and surrounded by friends, including his next-door neighbor, a lawyer and surveyor—Benjamin Brunson, the son of his old friend from the Kaposia days.69

Notes to Chapter 2

1. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:75. When Brunson purchased and freed Jim Thompson is not clear. His autobiography is contradictory, stating that he purchased Thompson both in 1836 and fourteen years before the 1851 Methodist conference where he and a critic resolved a dispute (ibid., 2:63–65).

2. Ibid., 2:78.

3. Ibid.

4. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:78; Malcolm Cjesney Shurtleff, “The Introduction of Methodism to Minnesota” (master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, 1922), 4.

5. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:83–84; Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:205–6.

6. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:63.

7. Ibid.

8. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:64–65; Livia Appel, “Slavery in Minnesota,” Minnesota History Bulletin 5 (Feb. 1923): 41–42.

9. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:64–65; Appel, “Slavery in Minnesota,” 41–42; Spangler, Negro in Minnesota, 19–20.

10. Ella C. Brunson, “Alfred Brunson, Pioneer of Wisconsin Methodism,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 2 (Dec. 1918): 140.

11. Stephen R. Riggs, “Protestant Missions in the Northwest,” Minnesota Historical Society Collections 6 (1894): 136; Appel, “Slavery in Minnesota,” 41; Ella Brunson, “Alfred Brunson,” 140.

12. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:205. See also Chauncey Hobart, History of Methodism in Minnesota (Red Wing, MN: Red Wing Publishing, 1887), 15.

13. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:185; Charles Eastman, Minnesota Archaeologist 12, no. 1 (Jan. 1946): 7–11.

14. Eastman, Minnesota Archaeologist, 7–11.

15. Return I. Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries (St. Paul: Publishing Society of Minnesota, 1908), 2:262–63; Hobart, Methodism in Minnesota, 15, 19.

16. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:95, 97, 100–101.

17. Brunson did not retire from public life; he was elected representative of St. Croix County in the Wisconsin territorial legislature in 1840 and appointed Ojibwe agent at La Pointe, 1842–43 (Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:137, 140, 144, 206–7); Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:204n68, for leaving post. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:206; Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:95, for attendance. Taliaferro, Journal, 10 Aug. 1838; Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:206n72, for Little Crow.

18. Brunson, Western Pioneer, 2:127–35. See also Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:206.

19. Some historians have written that Thompson moved across the river to St. Paul in 1838, but this seems unlikely considering that there is no record of such a move and that Mary Thompson was pregnant with Sarah, born later that October. Thompson likely would not have moved from the mission where he could get care for his wife to a place that was barely a settlement.

20. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:206. See also a report by B. T. Kavanaugh to Corresponding Secretary of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 26 Aug. 1840, Methodist Episcopal Church Archives (U.M. Arch.), Minnesota Annual Conference, United Methodist Church Archives, 122 W Franklin, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55404; Pope to Taliaferro, 24 Aug. 1838, U.M. Arch.

21. Pope to Henry Sibley, 22 May 1839, U.M. Arch.

22. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:205; Riggs, “Protestant Missions,” 136; Spangler, Negro in Minnesota, 20.

23. Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:262.

24. Gideon Pond, quoted in Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:84.

25. Ibid.

26. Conversation with Thelma B. Boeder, archivist of the U.M. Archives, 19 Feb. 2003, notes in author’s possession.

27. Conversation with Thelma B. Boeder, 19 Feb. 2003; The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1840), 53.

28. Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 80; Thelma Boeder to author, 14 Feb. 2003.

29. Kavanaugh to Brunson, quoted in Shurleff, “Methodism in Minnesota,” 20; Pond Family Papers, 1833–1970, MHS. See also Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:206n72.

30. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:165.

31. Ibid., 1:166.

32. Ibid.

33. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:167; Taliaferro, Journals, 23 May 1839.

34. White and White, Fort Snelling in 1838, 53–54.

35. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:205; Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:262.

36. Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:84.

37. Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:84. Brown attended the Stillwater Convention, which drew up the first petition to Congress to establish the Territory of Minnesota. In 1849 he served on the Territorial Council and later in the U.S. House of Representatives. He owned the Minnesota Pioneer, one of the territory’s first newspapers, and the Henderson Democrat and helped to develop the towns of Hastings, Henderson, and Browns Valley.

38. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:221.

39. Ibid., 1:220.

40. Ibid., 1:223.

41. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:223; Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:85.

42. Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries, 2:85; St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press, 28 Aug. 1949, 7.

43. Hobart, Methodism in Minnesota, 19; Shurtleff, “Introduction of Methodism to Minnesota,” 10n37.

44. Depositions of Jacques Lefevre and François Chevalier taken by Henry Hastings Sibley, 26, 27 Jan. 1841, Henry H. Sibley Papers, 1815–1930, MHS.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. The warrant is in the Sibley Papers; Henry H. Sibley, “Reminiscences of the Early Days of Minnesota,” Minnesota Historical Society Collections 3 (1880): 266.

49. Sibley, “Reminiscences,” 266.

50. Conversation with Professor Annette Atkins, 15 Feb. 2003, St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN, notes in author’s possession.

51. Joan Pepin Tschida, comp., Marriages of the Churches of St. Peter (Mendota, MN) and St. Paul (St. Paul, MN), 1840–1854 (Minnesota, 2002), 2:30, copy in MHS collections; conversation with Professor Annette Atkins, 15 Feb. 2003.

52. Brown purchased 320 acres of land from François Chevalier on July 10, 1840. The land is “near the mouth of the River St. Croix, bounded on the south by the Mississippi River,” near present-day Prescott, Wisconsin. One signature of a witness reads, “J. B. Deniger (his X mark),” Book “A” of Deeds, Washington County Courthouse, Stillwater, 4; Sumner Bright to Thelma Boeder, 31 Dec. 1989, copy in author’s possession.

53. Sibley, “Reminiscences,” 265–66.

54. Ibid., 265.

55. Ibid., 266.

56. Ibid.

57. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star, 26, citing Laws of the Territory of Iowa (1839), 180–81, 188, 330, 404, and Laws (1840), 33. See also Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 93.

58. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star, 26, citing Laws of the Territory of Iowa (1839), 180–81, 188, 330, 404, and Laws (1840), 33.

59. Eugene Berwanger, The Frontier against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 32–33.

60. Berwanger, Frontier against Slavery, 32–33.

61. Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1985), 160.

62. James Thompson, Affidavits No. 68–71, Sioux Affidavits, and No. 150 Sarah Thompson, No. 151 George Thompson, Roll of Mixed-Blood Claimants, 1856, Records Relating to Mixed Blood Claimants under the Treaty of Prairie du Chien, 1855–1856 (Record Group 75, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives), microfilm copy in MHS.

63. Alan R. Woolworth (research fellow at MHS) to Sally Morehouse, 10 Oct. 1994, copy in author’s possession.

64. St. Paul Daily Press, 3 June 1871, 4; Minneapolis Daily Tribune, 2 June 1885, 8.

65. Folwell, History of Minnesota, 1:223–24.

66. Thomas M. Newson, Pen Pictures of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Biographical Sketches of Old Settler (St. Paul: privately published, 1886), 1:10.

67. Ibid., 1:11.

68. Ibid.

69. J. Fletcher Williams, History of the City of St. Paul to 1875 (St. Paul: MHS Press, 1983), 165; Patricia C. Harpole and Mary D. Cannon, eds., Minnesota Territorial Census, 1850 (St. Paul: MHS, 1972), 44.