Finally: I’m ready to cross the line between researching my historical novel and writing it. I’m not completely done with my research, but I know enough now to put pen to paper. Getting to this point has been a long, winding road compared to other writing projects I’ve done. And, to tell you the truth, most of it has been a road I never expected to be walking on.
Last summer, when I started reading intensively about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, hoping to do some sort of related fictional project, I soon met up with Sarah Brown Wakefield, a survivor of the War. In Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees, she had told the story of her wartime captivity among the Dakota Indians, or “Sioux,” as she (and most whites of the time) called them. Sarah’s narrative filled me with questions that piqued my curiosity. I couldn’t help but investigate. Question by question, I’ve been led further into Sarah’s life story. She hasn’t been an easy person to learn about. Despite the popularity of her book, which became a classic, she was in many ways obscure, and she died more than a century ago. Information about her has been hard to come by. In addition, many of her choices were unorthodox, even scandalous, for a woman of her day, and are tough to explain from such historical distance. But I’ve kept at it, and the better acquainted I’ve gotten with the details of her life, the more fascinating she’s become.
(At left is a photo of Sarah. It must have been taken before the War, because during captivity her hair turned completely white. As you can see, she was pretty stout. The Dakota called her “Tonka-Winohiuca waste,” or “large woman.” During the six-week War she lost 40 pounds.)
Sarah Brown was born to working-class parents in Rhode Island in 1829. But according to public records, she didn’t stay there. In 1854 she turns up living in Minnesota, which wouldn’t become a state for two more years. Soon she was married to a fellow New England transplant, Dr. John Wakefield. Their relationship seems to have been rocky from the start, and it wasn’t helped when the doctor chose in 1861 to move with Sarah and their two very young children to the remote Dakota Indian reservation in southwestern Minnesota. There he would serve as the Upper Agency physician. It was a fateful decision.
Though initially unnerved by their relocation, Sarah eventually relished her deepening familiarity with both the Minnesota landscape and the Dakota people. Unlike her husband, who was distrusted by many Dakota and regarded as “immoral” by at least a couple of the white missionaries living among them, Sarah got on well. Though she didn’t view the Dakota as quite her equals, she nevertheless respected them to a significant degree and valued their friendship, seemingly preferring their company to that of the Agency whites. She hired Dakota women and girls to help in her home; she rode out to Dakota camps to sit fireside with the women, smoking pipe with them as they cooked, learning their language and their stories; she gave food to the Dakota when they were hungry–
And very hungry they were, by the time the War erupted on August 17, 1862. Traditionally the Dakota people had sustained themselves by hunting and trapping, gathering and foraging, raising some crops, preserving and storing up caches of meat, fruits and vegetables, moving their camps with the seasons, rotating to where they knew food would be most abundant. But now, having been confined to the reservation, they were largely dependent for food on unscrupulous local traders and on the U.S. government, which, we must say, was rarely honorable in its dealings with Indians. Late annuity payments to the Dakota, a shortage of wild game, crop failures the previous summer and fall, extreme hunger and disease, pent-up rage over broken promises and treaty violations, resentment of government policies intended to destroy the Dakota way of life, a flood of white settlers into the traditional Dakota homeland–all of these factors and more created a tinderbox that concerned Indians and settlers alike.
When that tinderbox exploded into violence in mid-August, 1862, the Wakefields were caught up in the fire.
(More to come. In the meantime, you might want to watch this three-minute video describing the War’s outbreak and aftermath. If for some reason you can’t see the viewer below, click here to watch the video.)