Q&A: Who was Joseph Godfrey?

Q&A: Who was Joseph Godfrey?

Joseph Godfrey or Otakle (Many Kills), was born at Mendota in 1835.  The son of a French Canadian Voyageur and an enslaved black woman named Courtney, Godfrey grew up in the family of Alexis Bailly, a mixed-blood fur trader.  In 1857 he married a Dakota woman and moved to the Lower Sioux Agency.

At the time the U.S. – Dakota War began, Godfrey was out mowing hay.  He was approached by an armed Dakota warrior who told him that he must change his clothes and put on a breech-cloth.  Afraid that he might be killed, Godfrey put on the traditional Dakota clothing and reluctantly joined the Dakota warriors.

Joseph Godfrey, sketch by Robert O. Sweeny, 1862

Godfrey was the first man to be tried by the military commission following the war.  His trial was extensive and included several witnesses.  None of which, however, could admit to having seen Godfrey kill anyone.  Despite this, Godfrey was sentenced to death by hanging.  But, Godfrey remained in the court room acting as a witness in 55 cases.  Godfrey’s recollection was remarkable, leading court reporter Isaac V.D. Heard to comment that Godfrey was “specifically designed as an instrument of justice.”

For his service throughout the Dakota trials, Godfrey’s sentence was commuted from execution to ten years imprisonment.  Godfrey was pardoned in 1866 and he moved to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska where he died in 1909.

Read Joseph Godfrey’s story – page 191-201

See this blog post on YouTube


Gary Clayton Anderson and Allan R. Woolworth, eds., Through Dakota Eyes:  Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988)

Isaac V.D. Heard, History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863, (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1864).

Bachman, Walt.  Northern Slave, Black Dakota:  The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey.  Bloomington, MN:  Pond Dakota Press, 2013. 


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