Book explores how an Adams native urged Lincoln to show empathy for condemned Indians

Gustav Niebuhr, author of ‘Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors.’  Norm Johnston / NNY Living

Gustav Niebuhr, author of ‘Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors.’ Norm Johnston / NNY Living

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln faced a decision: Should he allow his Army to carry out the deaths of 303 individuals?

At a time when the Civil War was raging and word of mass death came to doorsteps daily, a decision to send the condemned men to their deaths may have not raised many eyebrows. Indeed, public opinion favored death for the convicted and even the “extermination” of their kind.

But the president’s decision to spare all but 38 of the men — Dakota Indians in Minnesota — may have been influenced by the pleas of an Adams native who urged Lincoln to look at the big picture and not do something that would haunt the country and go against its better nature.

The episode is explored in the new book, “Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors” by Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of newspaper and online journalism at Syracuse University. It’s published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Washington Post has called Mr. Niebuhr, a former reporter for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, “one of the country’s most experienced religious commentators.”

The idea for his latest book was sparked during a 2009 visit by Mr. Niebuhr to Watertown when he spoke at Jefferson Community College about free speech and tolerance. He was invited to the area by Robert D. Gorman, who was then managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times and who now serves as chief executive officer of the United Way of Northern New York.

Mr. Gorman gave Mr. Niebuhr a tour of Watertown and mentioned some prominent people who were raised in the area.

“He named a couple of names I recognized and one I didn’t, which was Henry Whipple,” Mr. Niebuhr said recently during an interview at the Times. “He said, ‘This was the man who went to see Lincoln during the Civil War about the Dakota Indians.’ I thought this was really interesting. I had never heard of this before.”

Mr. Niebuhr’s research on Henry Whipple uncovered a gallant tale.

“What I would hope is that people would draw something from Whipple’s courage,” Mr. Niebuhr said. “I think he was courageous to stand up as a kind of a one-man movement. There was very little support that he got.”


Henry Benjamin Whipple, born in Adams in 1822, was the son of John Hall and Elizabeth Wagner Whipple. Had it not been for another resident of Adams, Mr. Whipple might not have become an advocate of Native Americans.

In his book, Mr. Niebuhr writes that Peter Doxtater became a young Henry Whipple’s “moral tutor” on that subject. Mr. Doxtater, who’d served in the Continental Army and fought the British at the Battle of Oriskany, was taken captive as a child during an Indian raid at a Mohawk River settlement and taken to Canada.

“Doxtater forgot most of his English,” Mr. Niebuhr writes. “He became an Indian.”

He was freed in the 1760s when British soldiers came upon him and his siblings.

So after settling in Adams, old man Doxtater had many tales of adventures to share, and his home “became a magnet for Adams boys” Mr. Niebuhr writes. But Mr. Whipple would not actually meet an Indian until he was 37 years old.

After a year of study at Oberlin College in Ohio, Mr. Whipple went into business with his father, who owned a general store in Adams. He was raised Presbyterian but in 1842, he married Cornelia Wright, a “committed Episcopalian.” His early church affiliation then became Zion Church, Pierrepont Manor, and he was one of the founders of Emmanuel Church in Adams.

He was ordained a deacon in Trinity Church, Geneva, and elevated to the priesthood at Christ Church, Sackets Harbor.

After serving parishes in Rome and Chicago, he was elected the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota in 1856. Three years later, the Right Rev. Henry Benjamin Whipple built a cathedral in Fairbault, Minn. The state was heavily populated by Dakota Indians, also referred to as Sioux.

Mr. Whipple empathized with them as a people under siege from corrupt government officials, unscrupulous merchants and frontiersmen.

“He takes his identity as a Christian missionary bishop very seriously,” Mr. Niebuhr said. “He believes he’s in Minnesota not just to serve whites, who are settling there, but the Indians as well.”

dakota war

Mr. Whipple wrote many letters to politicians in Washington, D.C., about what he saw as the poor treatment of Indians on the Minnesota frontier. He wrote several letters to President James Buchanan and his successor, Lincoln.

“Even when the Dakota War breaks out in August of 1862, and so many whites, including the governor of Minnesota, are totally alienated from the Indians and blame the entire war on them, Whipple has a way of fitting what’s happening to his view of how the Indians have been treated,” Mr. Niebuhr said.

About 500 white settlers lost their lives in the war, according to the Indian Affairs Council of Minnesota. The council said that hundreds of Indians also died, but many were credited with saving the lives of settlers.

President Lincoln dispatched Gen. John Pope, relieved of his duties in the Civil War after defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, to end the war. More than 2,000 Indians were rounded up, and 303 were sentenced to death.

“The public, from the government on down, very quickly called for the extermination of the Dakotas,” Mr. Niebuhr said. “Whipple said, ‘No. You can’t do that. It’s not what we do in a Christian country. People who have committed crimes should be brought to justice, but you can’t bring the hammer down on the entire tribe, particularly when you mistreated them for so long.’”

The author said Mr. Whipple believed that the uprising was brought on by years of poor treatment of Indians.

“He doesn’t make any excuses for them, but he sees a bigger picture, and that’s what he takes to Lincoln,” Mr. Niebuhr said.

He met Lincoln in the early fall of 1862 in Washington when the president had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation on his desk.

“What better time, with a revolutionary act at hand, than to argue for another change — not one so grand, but one that could curtail the duplicity and suffering to which another large segment of the population was subject?” Mr. Niebuhr wrote in “Lincoln’s Bishop.”

Later, Lincoln said he wanted to study the verdicts of the Indians who were sentenced to death. Mr. Whipple thought Mr. Lincoln would show empathy, even though Lincoln’s grandfather and namesake was killed by Indians before he was born.

“But he was never a man to think in terms of revenge,” Mr. Niebuhr said.

On Dec. 6, 1862, Lincoln ruled that 39 cases of the 303 Dakotas warranted capital punishment. He later commuted the death sentence of another person.

The 38 who were hanged in Mankato, Minn., on Dec. 26, 1862, comprised the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Bills were then introduced to exile Dakota Indians out of the state to reservations farther west. Mr. Whipple fought the bills but couldn’t prevent their passage.

Mr. Whipple died in 1901 and is buried in a crypt in his cathedral.

He left an important legacy, Mr. Niebuhr said. “When people become afraid and they want to point their finger at a particular group, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to enforce the laws that we have and also to give people a fair hearing and trial.”

He added, “When we get scared, we may take it out on an entire people, and it’s something that comes to be regretted later on.”

The details

“Lincoln’s Bishop: A President, a Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors” by Gustav Niebuhr, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins (hardcover, 210 pages, $26.99, illustrated with 16 photos)

By Chris Brock, Times Staff Writer


Two-day walk to Sackets Harbor re-enacts War of 1812 cable carry

Mark Wiggins holds onto the rope while the cable carriers set the rope down for a ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Amanda Morrison / NNY Living

Mark Wiggins holds onto the rope while the cable carriers set the rope down for a ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Amanda Morrison / NNY Living

It was the final push for the approximately 100 people carrying a 600-foot rope down County Route 75 toward the village’s battlefield site.

Sweating the final 3.5 miles Sunday, their footsteps mirrored those of the brave troops whose grueling cable carry 200 years earlier allowed for the creation of the massive USS Superior, ensuring America’s stand against the British during the War of 1812. [Read more...]

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I’m open to the bounty of the woods. I still get excited when I find a hollow log or a dead lilac root deep in the ground and imagine what it might be. To me, it’s a gift of nature. I always say the find makes the fashion. I may not know how or when I’ll use it, but I like to store it, keep it in sight and, someday, make it into something functional for somebody. Even if it’s just for amusement, that’s useful, too.

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English muffin bread with Earl Grey tea jelly. Amanda Morrison / NNY Living

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NNY Folklore: Back when winter was really winter in the north country

Photo courtesy Town and Village of Canton Historian's Office. A man walks on a Main Street sidewalk, Canton, beside banks of snow so high that he might well not be able to see the traffic alongside. Scenes like this one were typical not so long ago.

Photo courtesy Town and Village of Canton Historian’s Office. A man walks on a Main Street sidewalk, Canton, beside banks of snow so high that he might well not be able to see the traffic alongside. Scenes like this one were typical not so long ago.

Sometime recently I realized that I am from the last generation of rural north country residents who may have attended school — at least their first few years of school — in a one-room schoolhouse. Actually, my little St. Lawrence County hamlet of Hopkinton was pretty advanced. We went to a two-room schoolhouse, with the first three grades downstairs and grades four through six upstairs. It wasn’t until my sixth grade year that the new elementary school was finished and we had a classroom of our own. In the 1940s and 50s, multiple small schools in rural towns combined forces, built large buildings for grades kindergarten through 12 with all kinds of extra features, and nearly everyone rode The Yellow Peril — the school bus — each day. That fact inevitably inspired a predictable observation from our elders: “You young ones have it really lucky these days. When I was your age, we had to walk to school, rain or shine. A mile and a half. Each way!” Isn’t nostalgia great? Things from the past always look better (or bigger or stronger or harder or worse, even) than the present and, certainly, the future. [Read more...]

Five Things Friday – December 6

5thingsfriday logoRED1) Holiday festivities will light up Watertown’s Public Square tonight, starting at 5:30 p.m. with a performance by the Jefferson Singers from JCC on the north side of the square. The annual holiday parade starts at 5:45 p.m. and has more than 40 entries this year. The route starts in the J.B. Wise Parking Lot, enters Public Square at Mill Street and ends in the Court Street parking lot. An official countdown to turn on the holiday music and light display starts at 6:30 p.m. and Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus will greet children in the Public Square gazebo until 7:30 p.m.

2) Another event to get you into the holiday spirit is “Santa Central” at the Clayton Opera House on Saturday from 3 p.m. until the start of the Clayton Holiday Parade at 6 p.m. The event includes a bouncy house, a holiday craft station, a write-a-letter-to-Santa table and several holiday film shorts. There will also be hot cocoa, coffee, tea or water, and baked goods. Admission is free. Other Christmas-themed activities Saturday in Clayton include a craft show and basket raffle at the Knights of Columbus Hall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., a holiday food fair at St. Mary’s Parish Center (515 James St.) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the annual Dickens Christmas Festival at Hawn Memorial Library from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and a holiday social and trunk show at the TI Arts Center. The TI Winery will also host Kris Kringle Market, a German-style indoor Christmas market featuring local crafters, food, wine tastings, winery tours and Santa’s workshop, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A full schedule of Christmas activities in Clayton can be found here.

3) Isaac James, a classical pianist who grew up in the Watertown area and now lives in Vermont, will make his debut solo piano recital in his hometown area tonight at 7 p.m. at Jefferson Community College’s Sturtz Theater. Mr. James, who made his Carnegie Hall debut a year ago, will perform works by Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Schumann, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and others on a Yamaha 9-foot concert grand piano. The concert will also feature a special guest artist. Mr. James, who competed in the prestigious annual 1000 Islands International Piano Competition in Cape Vincent, has studied with instructors from the Julliard School of Music and Mannes College of Music in NYC and performed widely on the East Coast. The concert is free.

4) Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, 53 Main St., Canton, is hosting a Holiday Open House on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event includes the opening of the Sugar & Spice Gingerbread exhibit of gingerbread houses, a Holiday Showcase featuring artist and folk store wares, and a performance by Vocal Skies Sacred Harp singing group at 11:30 a.m. The group will also perform its slate of 18th and 19th century Christmas hymns at 3:30 p.m. at Pickens Hall in Huevelton. Vocal Skies is a Canton-based ensemble that sings in the sacred harp tradition. A variety of other holiday-themed events are also happening in Canton on Saturday: A book, bake and craft sale at the Canton Free Library from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; the Holly Berry Bazaar at the St. Mary’s School gymnasium sponsored by the E. J. Noble Guild, which raises money for the hospital by selling lunch, Christmas gifts and decorations; a visit by Santa at the Brewer Bookstore, 92 Park St. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; and a holiday open house from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Silas Wright House, 3 E. Main St.

5) This weekend is the annual Festival of Trees and Sugarplum Ball at the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown. The Gala Dinner takes place tonight, followed by the Sugarplum Ball on Saturday. Public viewings of decorated large and small trees will be today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets to the gala are $70 each, and tickets to the Sugarplum Ball are $70 per parent-child couple, and $35 for each additional child. To reserve tickets to either event, call 785-5745 or visit

Also going on: The fifth annual charity Christmas masquerade ball at Bonnie Castle Resort in Alexandria Bay is tonight from 8 p.m. to midnight. The event benefits local families in need during the Christmas season and includes hors d’oeuvres, a silent auction, a cash bar and music by Nik Lite of Nik and the Nice Guys. Tickets are $40 and masks will be available starting at $5. Visit for more information.

Ten Things Black Friday – November 29

FTF BF REALHappy Thanksgiving! Whether you plan to brave the crowds on Black Friday or stay inside the comfort of your home in a post-turkey coma, there are several great events this weekend to take advantage of if you have some time off and need to get out of the house.

1) If you’re feeling particularly brave, consider taking a “dip” into the St. Lawrence River during Saturday’s Pluck & Plunge festival in Cape Vincent to benefit a community Christmas party for the needy and the Cape Vincent Volunteer Fire Department. You can pick up sponsor sheets at Breakers Restaurant, 194 E. Broadway, or call the restaurant at 501-5050. Participants who raise the most money will have their choice of a pair of diamond earrings or a new television as a prize. There will also be a prize for the best-dressed “plunger.” The event starts at noon at the restaurant and onlookers will walk down to the river at 1 p.m. Following the “plunge,” the restaurant will host a variety of festivities, including karaoke and a horseshoe tournament. Actor Frank Shattuck, who appeared on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” will join the day’s events and be available for autographs and photo opportunities. The dinner for the needy will take place Dec. 23.

2) The New York State Zoo at Thompson Park is hosting Black (Bear) Friday, during which you can enjoy bear-themed activities and stories inside the discovery center from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; chat with the bear’s keeper, Melanie, at the bear exhibit from 12:30 to 3 p.m. to learn more about caring for the bear; and shop for discounted souvenirs in the gift shop. The program is free with zoo admission. Winter Wonderland Weekends also kick off this weekend at the zoo and run every weekend through Dec. 29. The event, which takes place Friday, Saturday and Sunday of each weekend from 5:30 to 8 p.m., lets you stroll the zoo and enjoy its holiday light decorations. Hot chocolate, coffee and other refreshments will be available at the Wildside Cafe. Tickets to that event are $3 for adults and $2 for children ages 3 to 12. Zoo members are free.

3) If you’re looking to take a day trip from the north country, the Wild Center in Tupper Lake is hosting Black & White Day Friday. The event includes a trunk show of local Adirondack artisans showcasing local photographers and painters, jewelry makers, knitters, leather goods and unique items from The Wild Supply Co., which can be gift wrapped for free. There will also be live music by Rustic Riders, crafts for children, seasonal treats and special activities surrounding the center’s pair of skunks, Night and Day. Admission is just $5 for adults and free for children ages 14 and younger. A full list of vendors at the event can be found here.

4) Another great indoor activity closer to home is a performance by hard rock and heavy metal band Halestorm on Saturday in McVean Gymnasium at Jefferson Community College at 7 p.m. Halestorm won its first Grammy Award in February in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category for its song “Love Bites (So Do I)” from its 2012 album “The Strange Case Of…” The Pennsylvania-based band also released two other albums in 2012, “Hello It’s Mz Hyde” and “ReAniMate.” The band is composed of siblings Arejay and Lzzy Hale, Joe Hottinger and Josh Smith. Local band Lake Effect Mud will open the concert. Tickets are $35 for the general public and $20 for JCC students; call 786-2431 or visit

5) The American Maple Museum on Main Street in Croghan is hosting a “Maple Friday” event on Friday and Saturday during which you can purchase maple-themed gifts and stocking stuffers, including sweatshirts and t-shirts, maple jewelry, candles, crafts and various other items on sale. The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to the museum is $10 for families with two adults and two or more children; $4 for adults; $1 for children ages 5 to 14; and free for children ages five and younger.

6) In Motion School of Dance will present the eighth annual performance of the holiday classic The Nutcracker on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown. Tickets are $12 for the general public and $6 for children. On Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the State Office Building, there will be a Holiday Craft Fair & Market to benefit the Watertown Urban Mission, featuring local vendors and crafters selling baked goods, farm goods, crafts, woodworking products, toys, home decorations and more. Admission is $2.

7) Also in Watertown, Immaculate Heart Central schools will be staging a Polar Express holiday show featuring Rhonda’s FooteWorks dancers and Stage Notes singers on Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. at the high school, 1316 Ives St. The 2 p.m. show will be signed for the hearing impaired. The event benefits Daimon and Seeley Tuttle, 3 years and 8 months old, who suffer from Persistent Fetal Vascular Syndrome, and will also include a silent auction. Tickets are $6 for the general public and $5 for military personnel. Suggested attire is holiday pajamas. For advance tickets or to donate, email

8) If you’re interested in moving right into the spirit of the next holiday, there will be a holiday of lights kickoff in Canton on Friday at 6 p.m., including Santa, a tree lighting, caroling, sleigh wagon rides, holiday lights and hot chocolate and cookies at Canton Presbyterian Church.

9) The professional fire performance company Fire Magick will perform on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Arts on the Square, 52 Public Square, to raise money for a trip to India to perform at TechFest 2014. Monetary donations will be accepted and artwork or jewelry will be auctioned as well. Arts on the Square will also be participating in Small Business Saturday through an arts sale from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, during which you can pop balloons for chances to win 5, 10 or 15 percent off art. Visit the Arts Council’s Facebook page for more information. Find a list of all businesses participating in Small Business Saturday and other deals here.

10) Another shopping venue is the “All I Want for Christmas…” holiday craft fair at the Clayton Municipal Building on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event features face painting, activities for children, raffles and gift baskets, and benefits volunteer fireman Randy Bourcy, who is in need of a kidney transplant. Contact Kim Sherman at 777-1495 for more information.