NEW ULM - Did Minnesota's first governor, Henry Sibley, execute his own son?
Readers with an interest in the US-Dakota War of 1862 - an event central to local history - will find a fascinatingly thorough examination of this historic mystery in a new article by Walt Bachman.
Bachman's article, entitled "The Filicide Enigma: Was Gen. Henry Sibley's Son Hanged in Mankato?," can be accessed at athrillingnarrative.com, a website that explores intriguing aspects of Minnesota history.
Bachman, familiar to many from local appearances over last summer, is a former Chief Deputy Hennepin County Attorney and member of the family behind Bachman's garden stores. He is also a historian, the author of "Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey."
"Because Joseph Godfrey [the son of a slave woman and a French Canadian fur trader who served as Sibley's aide] was such an obscure figure in Minnesota history, I did a great deal of searching through obscure and arcane sources while I was gathering materials to write his biography," Bachman, who lives in New York, explained in an e-mail message to The Journal.
"One of the stories I found particularly intriguing was never-before-published evidence that Henry Milord, one of the 38 men hanged at Mankato in 1862, was either the biological or adoptive son of Governor/General Henry Sibley.
"Since Sibley appointed the court and recommended approval of its verdicts, this evidence suggests that Sibley may have approved and recommended the hanging of his own son."
Rumors that Sibley had executed his own son circulated at the time of the trial and persevered into the 1920s, when the last contemporaries of both men died. People's opinions on the nature of the relationship differed. Some believed Sibley, and not an older associate, Joseph Milord, was Henry Milord's biological father. They claimed Milord "had Sibley's eyes." Others believed Sibley had simply raised Milord. (It is known that before marrying a white woman, Sibley had a de-facto Dakota wife, with whom he fathered a daughter, Helen Hastings.)
Regardless of the specifics of paternity, Milord's "mixed" (Dakota and white) heritage, and the possibility of a close relationship with Sibley, was a twist of tragic irony that may have sealed his fate. Because of them, Milord received a much more thorough, better-documented trial than any of the full-Dakota, perhaps making it impossible to "undo" his conviction.
Bachman's article (23-pages of text, seven pages of footnotes) is thoroughly researched and documented. The author's objective approach makes it difficult to "choose a side."
Writes Bachman: "By a narrow margin, the preponderance of historical evidence favors the conclusion that Henry Milord was the biological son of Henry Sibley. But that evidence is far from solid and does not rise to the level of 'beyond-a-reasonable-doubt' proof. Reasonable people, even after weighing all of the facts outlined here, could reach conflicting conclusions on the issue of Milord's paternity.
"In order to conclude that Sibley was Milord's biological father, it is necessary to override the fact, evidenced by many public and private documents, that his father was always identified as Joseph Milord. Ordinarily, such documentation would be accepted as conclusive evidence of paternity..."
"The only alternative position to biological fatherhood... is that Sibley had a uniquely close relationship with Milord because he 'raised' him. In either of those two scenarios, Sibley had parental ties to a man whose hanging he approved. No matter what conclusion one reaches about biological paternity, therefore, the hanging of Henry Milord was a tragic case of filicide."
Bachman, in his e-mail, pointed out that his article may have a unique appeal to readers in New Ulm.
"To the best of my knowledge, the core question addressed in this article has never before appeared in any Minnesota newspaper," said Bachman. "From my many friends in New Ulm and visits there, I know that your readers are among the best-informed in the state on all topics relating to the Dakota War. This article would probably be of interest to them. Also, I have longstanding ancestral ties with New Ulm, since my great-great-grandfather, Ernst Dietrich, killed on the first day of the Dakota War, was one of the town's original founders."
"I found the article by Walt Bachman... to be a carefully researched and fascinating look into the kinship ties of the Dakota people and the early European settlers of Minnesota," says Darla Gebhard, Research Librarian at the Brown County Historical Society Museum, herself a researcher and author.
"Bachman also brings to light the agonizing choices that people are faced with in time of war. He carefully lays out his evidence and leaves the conclusion to each individual reader.
"As a researcher, I am inspired to find out more about the wife and child Milord left behind and follow their lives in the aftermath of the Dakota War," adds Gebhard, in a reference to a potential subject for future research pointed out by Bachman.