Minnesota’s First, First Daughter: Wahkiyee, or Helen Hastings Sibley
Henry Hastings Sibley is a well-known figure in Minnesota history. He came to the region as a fur trader in 1834 and quickly established himself as a business and political leader. Among his many roles and accomplishments he helped negotiate the 1851 treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, he was a member of the Minnesota Constitutional Convention, he served as the first Governor of the State of Minnesota, and he was the leader of the military forces against the Dakota during the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Today, numerous places bear his name including Sibley County, Minnesota; Sibley, North Dakota; Sibley, Iowa; Hastings, Minnesota; and Sibley State Park.
Years before Sibley rose to political prominence in the region, he married a Franco-Dakota woman named Tahshinaohindoway, known as Red Blanket Woman. Tahshinaohindoway was the daughter of Wasuwicaxtaxni (Bad Hail), a well-known Dakota spokesman during the treaty negotiations of 1837 and 1851. The two were together on a hunt in the winter of 1839–40 when they married in a style known as a la facon du pays, or, country style. This was not unusual in this region or this time period. Such unions were thought to be socially and economically advantageous for both parties. However, despite any benefits, the Native women in these unions were brought into a patriarchal society and often lost both personal autonomy and control over their children.
Such was the case in the marriage between Sibley and Tahshinaohindoway. The couple welcomed the birth of a daughter on August 28, 1841. She was named Wahkiyee, or Bird, while her Christian birth certificate identifies her as Helene, the daughter of Tahshinahohindoway and an unnamed father. Much remains unknown or uncertain about Tahshinahohindoway in the years following Wahkiyee’s birth. She is thought to have married a Dakota man sometime after Sibley abandoned her, and she died in the years shortly thereafter. In 1843, Sibley traveled to Baltimore for the wedding of Franklin Steele and Anna Barney. There he met Steele’s sister, Sarah Steele, who returned to Minnesota with Sibley. The two were married at Fort Snelling on May 2, 1843.
As a young child, Wahkiyee grew up among her Dakota kin where she learned to speak French. But in 1847, Sibley removed Wahiyee from her Dakota family to be fostered by William Reynolds Brown and his wife, Martha Newman Brown in the little village of Red Rock just south of St. Paul. Wahkiyee became Helen, and in the years following her adoption she was acculturated into Anglo-American society. For his part, Sibley “provided for his daughter financially, monitored her welfare, and maintained a relationship with her throughout her life.” After moving to St. Paul with the Browns, Helen was active in the Methodist church and often took part in social activities. In a 1908 newspaper, “old settlers” remembered her as “tall, pretty,” and “slender,” with a “sprightly intelligence,” and a “kindly, sunny disposition.” As a teenager, she was sent east to attend boarding school, an expense paid for by Sibley.
While it was publicly known that Sibley was Helen’s father, this fact was often hidden in legal documentation. After Helen met and fell in love with a New York physician, and a boarder of the Browns, Sylvester Sawyer, the two were married on November 3, 1859. Sibley attended the wedding and signed the marriage certificate as a witness, but the place on the document that listed the bride’s father remained blank. Many believed, including Sylvester, that Sibley’s wife, Sarah, strongly disapproved of his Dakota daughter.
After their marriage, Helen and Sylvester moved to Milwaukee and were reportedly very happy together. Helen soon became pregnant and, on September 4, 1860, she gave birth to a daughter. Tragically, hours after the birth she developed scarlet fever and died on September 6. She was just nineteen years old. The baby, who was born healthy, soon became emaciated and in pain. Though Sylvester was a physician, he could not save the baby who passed away on September 14. Helen and the baby were buried together in a cemetery in Raymond, Wisconsin. In response to Helen’s death, Sylvester noted that Helen’s father “mourned her loss sincerely and truly.”
Wahkiyee, also known as Helen Hastings Sibley, lived a short and complex life in a changing, multicultural world. Like many born in that time period and in that region, she was the product of a system that saw the union of white and Native peoples as politically and economically advantageous despite whatever feelings, attraction, or other factors may have been involved. Henry Sibley may have cared for his daughter, and supported her financially, but he intentionally removed her from her mother’s culture, forcing her to acculturate into the dominant society while supporting her with money he earned by exploiting Native peoples. Helen Hasting Sibley, the first daughter of Minnesota, grew up with a cultural identity that was challenged in a society that, like her father, wouldn’t acknowledge her as whole. Despite that, she made a happy life for herself that was tragically cut short by illness, for her and for her daughter.
Jane Lamm Carroll, “Who Was Jane Lamont?: Anglo-Dakota Daughters in Early Minnesota,” in Minnesota History, Issue 59, No. 5, (Spring, 2005), pp. 184–196. https://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/59/v59i05p184-196.pdf
Lois A. Glewwe, “Three Dakota Daughters – Nancy McClure, Julia LaFramboise and Helen Sibley,” Dakota Soul Sisters, Posted October 2, 2019, Accessed June 24, 2021, https://dakotasoulsisters.com/2019/10/02/three-dakota-daughters-nancy-mcclure-julia-laframboise-and-helen-sibley/
Bruce A. Kohn, Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter: The Life of Helen Hastings Sibley, (Mendota, MN: Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, 2012).
Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and misunderstood past.