Tales told of war, hangings & murder
Three separate graves were intertwined for a look back at local history during an event to promote tourism.
Historian Brad Kellogg presented the story about the graves last week at the Bloomfield Community Center. The event was hosted by the Shannon Trail Promoters.
Kellogg, a Humanities Nebraska speaker, Living History performer and member of the Nebraska Writers Guild, shared stories of the three different men from three different counties with three different headstones.
He shared stories of Joseph Godfrey (buried north of Lindy), Harris Millsap (buried near Decatur) and James Dick (buried in Ponca).
“What ties these three together is the fact that Joseph Godfrey was part of the cause of US-Dakota War of 1862, and was being sought by Stuff’s Independent Company of Indian Scouts, of which James Dick and Pharris Millsap had joined,” Kellogg said.
Godfrey was a black man who was born into slavery and later escaped to seek refuge among the Dakota Sioux as a fugitive slave. He is buried north of Lindy in Hobu Creek Cemetery on the Santee Sioux Reservation where his tombstone still stands today.
The other two men Kellogg spoke about were an Omaha Native-American, James Dick who is buried on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River and historic Blackbird Bend near Decatur. Pharris Millsap an Englishman who also served as a volunteer Indian scout, and is buried in Ponca.
Although Godfrey’s tombstone shows that he was born in 1827 and died in 1909 there are conflicting stories about the year he was born.
Kellogg said Godfrey was the son of a French Canadian man and a Black mother. Both were slaves. He was a mulato slave, who was raised in the home where his mother worked.
“He watched as his parents were sold at auction to different buyers and never saw them again,” he said.
Godfrey was sold to a French fur trader in Minnesota and was not treated well. He tried to escape several times, eventually succeeding by swimming across a river while his owner was shooting at him. He was rescued by the Sioux, adopted, and eventually married into the tribe.
Kellogg said in 1857 Godfrey moved to the Lower Sioux Agency which is the site of the first organized battle of the Dakota War. In fear for his life, and family, Godfrey joined the war and fought alongside the Sioux.
“The Dakota warriors awarded him the name ‘Otakle,’ meaning ‘slayer of many’ in Dakota language,” he said.
Godfrey denied killing anyone, and there are conflicting reports about his role in the war.
Kellogg said Godfrey was captured on September 23, 1862, during the Battle of Wood Lake. Held to face trial, Godfrey was the first to be tried of the 300 Sioux taken prisoner.
In an effort to escape execution, he testified against eleven other Sioux prisoners, including his own father-in-law. Because of his testimony he escaped conviction for murder, but was convicted of participating in the fighting and sentenced to death by hanging.
“President Lincoln personally reviewed the trial transcripts of all 300, and narrowed it to 39 who should be hung,” Kellogg said. “There were 38 hung in the largest mass hanging in United States history, and one was Godfrey's father-in-law.”
The court commission had told Lincoln that a large number of men of the very worst character would have gone unpunished without Godfrey’s testimony. Lincoln agreed to the commutation and later issued a full pardon.
To serve out his prison sentence Godfrey was sent to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, where he served three years. He was then issued a full pardon and was freed in 1866, and upon release he settled on the Santee Sioux Reservation where he spent the rest of his life in fear of both the tribe and the whites. He died of heat stroke, and was buried at the Hobu Creek Episcopalian Cemetery on the reservation.