Hal a Dacotah

Hal, a Dacotah at the County Museum

You never know what you might find at the museum.  Through a dutiful search among volumes of worn and battered texts, or a hunt through thousands of antiquated artifacts – you may run across a gem that’s been hidden away for decades, maybe longer.  Assuredly, a trip to the museum can be a treasure hunt all its own.

Not long ago, a museum volunteer passed one of these gems across my desk.  She was transcribing letters to do with Martin McLeod and found a most interesting letter written by a man who called himself “Hal a Dacotah”.  After a bit of research, it turned out that Hal was Henry Sibley, the first Governor of Minnesota.

Born in 1811, Sibley was a bit of an adventurer who made his way through the fur trade.  In 1834 he found himself in Mendota (St. Peter), Minnesota.  In 1838 he married Red Blanket Woman, the daughter of Mdewakanton leader, Bad Hail.  The couple had one child, a girl.  Details of the marriage are scarce, yet sources suggest that Red Blanket Woman remarried in 1842 and died later in 1843, the same year Sibley married Sarah Jane Steele.

Later in life, Sibley would write of his adventures on the frontier and submit articles to the “Spirit of the Times”, a weekly newspaper published in New York.  He would not use the name Henry Sibley, however, and instead penned his writings under the pseudonym, Hal a Dacotah.  The following story comes from one of his articles, one that very well might have taken place (at least partially), right here in McLeod County where the prairie joined the Big Woods.

It was early in the winter and the brutal cold had already set in. The camp had uprooted from the Yellow Medicine River and moved north to hunt, choosing a place along the edge of the Big Woods where a river ran near.  With a temporary camp in order, the hunters ventured out in the sub-zero weather to secure some meat.  They were given an order not to hunt north of the river, as it was the boundary for the day.  Anyone caught hunting over the line would be severely punished.

Hal set out on horseback in search of deer but found no sign.  He pushed on and eventually came to a stream that emptied into the river.  Both were completely iced over except for a small pool where the two flowing bodies of water joined.  Here sat about a dozen plump mallards, resting themselves on their long migration south.  Hal slid off his horse and began stalking up to the ducks, pleased at the prospect of a nice “pot shot”, and some plump, late season mallards for dinner.  Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder.  Seemingly out of nowhere was another hunter, angered that Hal was about to cross the line.  As punishment, Hal’s fur hat was taken from his head and confiscated.  He protested that he had not crossed the line, but the other hunter took his hat anyway.  He was forced to finish the hunt bareheaded in below zero temperature.

When the hunt resumed a few days later, Hal again found himself near the stream that marked the boundary.  This time, however, he spied upon the man who stole his hat a few days prior.  The hunter was on the other side of the stream, dragging a buck to the south side of the line, and then trying to cover his tracks.  That night, when Hal’s “friend” was questioned as to where he shot the deer, he proclaimed that he did so near the border, on the south side.

It was now time for Hal’s revenge.  Without a word, he motioned the other hunters to follow him to the stream where the deer was shot.  Here, the hunter was forced to confess, gave his deer and hide to Hal, and the two made their way back to camp together.

The hunting trip wasn’t without danger.  One instance came when the hunters left the camp for several days, leaving only Hal and some old men to stand guard against a force of Ojibwa looking to attack the camp.  Hal and the others were greatly outnumbered but came up with a good plan.  They built a makeshift picket around the camp, and while the enemy was still far off, they gathered all available firearms and had every able person fire a volley into the air toward the enemy.  It created an illusion that the camp was well defended and effectively frightened the enemy away.

It wouldn’t be Hal’s only trip along the edge of the Big Woods to hunt, as he would later write about many excursions taken across the prairies to the woods in what is now McLeod County.  As time progressed, Sibley would befriend another young fur trader and adventurer named Martin McLeod.  Over the years the two would correspond with one another, mostly about the fur trade and the state of the Indians living in Minnesota.

The museum holds many copies of these letters which were buried deep in another museum’s vaults.  Much like the MCHS, however, a hunt through those vaults produced a gem of a find – a hunt that ended with yet another treasure found.

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