Clark W. Thompson – a brief essay

In the spring of 1861 the Republican Party came into national power.  With this came the power of appointment which included a multitude of positions.  Among them was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Superintendency.  The former Superintendent, a democrat named William J. Cullen, was removed and in his stead was placed Clark Wallace Thompson.  Thompson was appointed by Republican Minnesota Senator Morton S. Wilkinson.

Clark W. Thompson was a Canadian who came to Minnesota in 1853.  Primarily, Thompson engaged in milling in Houston County, but also became a banker and land speculator.  He began his political career in 1854 when he was elected to the fourth territorial district representing Ramsey, Wabasha and Washington Counties.  By 1861 he earned his appointment as Superintendent of Indian Affairs.

Though Thompson became the supervisor of the Winnebago, Dakota and Ojibwe agencies in Minnesota, he had little or no knowledge of the Indian situation.  His appointment in 1861 was merely that, a political appointment.  Throughout his term Thompson demonstrated only minimal concern for the Indians he supervised.  His main preoccupations were with business transactions and the disbursements of Indian funds.  In that capacity Thompson was suspected of fraud and of acting on political motives.  When accused of fraud by Special Agent George E.H. Day, Thompson denied the charges and attempted to discredit Day by arguing that he lacked proper forms and vouchers.  Upon payment to the Chippewa in 1863, Bishop Henry Whipple accused Thompson of fraud and said that he brought 12,000 in gold but that only 5,500 was paid.  As far as motives, it is interesting to point out that among the firms authorized to finance the Winnebago land sales after removal in 1863, was Thompson Brothers of St. Paul, Clark W. Thompson’s old firm.

But despite allegations, Thompson was not solely into wrong dealing.  In the summer of 1862, Thompson seemed to recognize the growing discord with the Dakota and the potential for danger.  For this reason he did not seek to delay payment though many of his political friends urged him to do so in order to increase the indebtedness of the Indians.  For instance, C.B. Hensley wrote to Thompson in May of 1862 that, “there need be no hurry about the payment,” and that, “by doing so, you will confer a favor upon your friends here which they will strive to reciprocate.”  This clear attempt at bribery was ignored by Thompson.  Rather, the authorities at Washington, not Thompson, were to blame for late payment.  For some weeks they dallied with the question of whether or not a part of the payment should be made in greenbacks.  It was not until August 8, 1862, that the order to send the money was made.  Upon receiving the funds on August 16, Thompson wrote in his annual report, “knowing their unsettled condition, [I] took immediate steps toward forwarding the money to the agent, and succeeded in starting it by safe hands on the 17th.”  Another potential exoneration of the Superintendent can be seen in the August 14 petition made by the residents of New Ulm shortly before the outbreak of war in 1862.  In this petition, the residents of New Ulm asked whether or not Thompson received the annuity payments and that if he had not, then they must know in order that “the fair reputation of . . . Clark Thompson may be restored.”  Finally, it should be noted that Superintendent Thompson argued in favor of a detachment to be placed at the Yellow Medicine Agency.  In his reports he recommended and strongly urged that a company of soldiers be located there and available for any emergency.  Furthermore, he sent a detachment of soldiers to Yellow Medicine on more than occasion during the summer of 1862.

As far as Clark W. Thompson’s attitude toward the Dakota Indians themselves, his view was not much unlike any other men of his time.  He viewed the Indian as inhuman and sought to eliminate their culture and to assimilate them into white culture.  He believed that they were capable of labor and learning, but sought, as he stated, “to entirely revolutionize their tribal character, and convert them into good citizens.”  It is with this prejudice that he acted as their Superintendent, believing that his actions were well and good and in accordance with the theories of the time.  Upon selecting new land for the Indians after their removal in 1863, Thompson stated that, “it has good soil, good timber, and plenty of water.  The only drawback I fear is the dry weather.”  This simple statement, the first part being clearly untrue, shows not that he lacked concern, but that he had other priorities.

I cannot draw a clear conclusion on Clark W. Thompson.  It is likely that he was involved in certain level of corruption and fraud.  If nothing else, he was active in speculation and sought to promote his business dealings and the dealing of his friends over any concern for the well-being of the Dakota Indians.  But I do not believe he neglected his position.  He did what was called upon him in order to supervise the Northern Superintendency.  He recognized the situation as it was and he took measures within his means to mitigate potential conflict.  Moreover, as shown through his reports, he analyzed the circumstance of the Indians, and he made recommendations, for better or worse, toward what he considered the best solution.  Clark W. Thompson was a politician and businessman.  He was not a champion to the Dakota Indians, but he was not their villain either.

Sources:  Nichols, David A.  Lincoln and the Indians:  Civil War Policy and Politics.  Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1978.

United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:  Accompanying the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, for the year 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864.

Hubbard, Lucius F. and Return I. Holcombe.  Minnesota in Three Centuries.  Vols. 1-4.  Mankato, MN:  The Publishing Society of Minnesota, 1908.