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...]

Vive la France!

Napoleon leads the 44th Annual French Festival Parade down Broadway in Cape Vincent in July 2012. The French left a legacy of culture and language that is celebrated in Cape Vincent with the annual French Festival every July. Amanda Morrison / NNY Living

Napoleon leads the 44th Annual French Festival Parade down Broadway in Cape Vincent in July 2012. The French left a legacy of culture and language that is celebrated in Cape Vincent with the annual French Festival every July. Amanda Morrison / NNY Living

French left legacy of culture, food in Northern New York [Read more...]

History lurks below the surface: New York is home to six of nation’s 36 meromictic lakes


Deadman’s Point at Green Lake in Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, is home to one of New York’s six meromictic lakes, of which there are only 36 nationwide. Chalky shoreline formations created by bacteria are visible in the foreground. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Deadman’s Point at Green Lake in Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, is home to one of New York’s six meromictic lakes, of which there are only 36 nationwide. Chalky shoreline formations created by bacteria are visible in the foreground. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

From the rugged majesty of the Adirondacks to the labyrinthine depths of the subterranean cave system, the serenity of Lake Ontario’s shores to the quiet whispering of the St. Lawrence River, chances are good that no matter where you stand in Northern New York, breathtaking views or interesting natural formations are just a stone’s throw away. While much of the beauty here is obvious, there are some formations that are not exactly what they seem.

Surface and bottom waters mix seasonally in traditional lakes, delivering oxygen to the bottom, which in turn allows fish and plant life to survive. A meromictic lake is one whose waters do not mix. They are rare, especially in temperate climates like that of New York state. There are only 36 known meromictic lakes in the world. New York state is home to six of them, and three of the six are located just outside of Syracuse in the towns of Fayetteville and DeWitt: Green Lake, Round Lake and Glacier Lake.

Meromictic lakes are Mother Nature’s time capsules. Because their waters do not mix, the sediment along the lake bottom is not disturbed. This undisturbed sediment forms a natural record of environmental and aquatic conditions that often predates recorded history. Not surprisingly, this sediment is of particular interest to geologists and environmental scientists. [Read more...]

A shrine with healing power: North country priest built famed shrine at LaFargeville church

St. John the Evangelist Church in the Village of LaFargeville has an open air Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. North country priest Arthur J. Viau, once a pastor at the church, is said to have been cured of tuberculosis of the bone in 1912 by praying to Our Lady of Lourdes for 18 days; the Shrine once drew thousands hoping for similar cures. Mass is still held inside the church weekly. Photo courtesy Watertown Daily Times Archives

In 1858 a young peasant girl in Lourdes, France named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have received visions of the Virgin Mary. Near the bank of the Gave de Pau River stood a naturally occurring shallow cave, or grotto, in which the apparitions took place. As word of the apparitions spread, the grotto, which was transformed into a shrine that would eventually be called Our Lady of Lourdes, began to receive pilgrims from surrounding villages.

The number of visitors grew steadily over the years to become what is now one of the most important pilgrimage sites for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Millions of people visit the site every year in search of physical healing and spiritual renewal that is said to be imparted by drinking or bathing in the water of the Lourdes Spring.

An interesting piece of religious history to be sure but what does a pilgrimage site in France have to do with the north country? [Read more...]

Celebrating a hometown hero (with four legs)

Varick Chittenden

It was 10 years ago this summer when the world heard about Funny Cide, the previously unknown and undistinguished three-year-old colt who rushed from behind to win the Kentucky Derby in May 2003. Two weeks later, he pulled out all the stops and won the Preakness Stakes. Then he was 2/3 of the way to the pinnacle of racing, the Triple Crown. This was world-class stuff in “the sport of kings,” something I knew little about.

I usually don’t pay much attention to horse racing, especially the thoroughbreds at the flat tracks. It’s a bias I have from my boyhood, when my favorite uncle, Lyndon Miller of Hopkinton, raised, trained and drove harness horses at local county fairs for a hobby. These trotters and pacers and their drivers—not jockeys—would ride two-wheeled “bikes,” or sulkies, behind them for Sunday entertainment. Harness races were small town sport; the thoroughbreds were for millionaires and swells.

Uncle Lyndon was great with animals; dairy farming was his living, but horses were his passion. He would keep one or two in his “stable” at a time, mostly has-beens or also-rans to the truly serious competitors, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. I was fascinated with Billy Song and Kay Ensign and how Uncle Lyndon cared for them. [Read more...]

The nation’s oldest fair: 196th annual event set for July at Coffeen Street grounds

An aerial view of the Jefferson County Fair, ca. 1950s, at the present-day Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds on Coffeen Street, Watertown. Photo from Watertown Daily Times Archives

After the long, grueling north country winters there are few Northern New Yorkers who don’t look forward to summer. Warmer months bring barbecues, days on the river and, perhaps, the most famous harbinger of summer: the Jefferson County Fair. Lauded as the longest continually operating fair in the country, the fairgrounds along Coffeen Street in Watertown is transformed each July into a teeming gathering of people, young and old, who come to enjoy food, rides, crafts, exhibits and farm animals.

Many local fairs are, or were at some point, connected with an agricultural society. Agricultural societies were initially developed in Europe during the Enlightenment, a period during the 18th century of intense scientific discovery and intellectual growth in the Western world. The expressed common goal of agricultural societies was the promotion and development of agricultural techniques. With the scientific spirit of the age, early society members conducted experiments in soil rejuvenation, crop rotation and breeding, animal husbandry and the study of weather patterns. The results of these experiments were then disseminated among local farmers in the hopes of improving farming techniques, technology and crop yields. As a forerunner to the agricultural fair, early agricultural societies offered premiums for new research on field topics, such as innovative methods for eradicating pests that threatened crops. [Read more...]

A scandalous past: Oneida flatware began as necessity for utopian community

A postcard dated June 26, 1907, shows the Oneida Community Home Building in Kenwood, N.Y., near Oneida. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

There are few people today who have not used or at least heard of Oneida cutlery. The flatware is ubiquitous in restaurants, hotels and kitchen drawers worldwide. Since its founding in the 19th century, Oneida Limited flatware has become something of an American tradition, although its roots are anything but traditional.

The flatware was originally manufactured by the Oneida Community, a religious utopian commune based in Oneida between 1848 and 1880.

A man named John Humphrey Noyes led the group. He was born in Battleboro, Vt., in 1811 to John and Polly Noyes. His father was a businessman and United States Congressman. His mother was an ardently religious woman who had hopes that her son would one day pursue a religious vocation. [Read more...]

A life-saving discovery

Sackets’ Dr. Samuel Guthrie credited with chloroform application

The Dr. Samuel Guthrie home on County Route 75, Sackets Harbor. Photo courtesy of Johnson Newspaper Archives.

Maybe it’s something in the water? That’s one possible explanation for the long list of entrepreneurs and inventors who have called Jefferson County home. Safety pins, bed springs, tile drains, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (better known as the S.P.C.A.), and the concept of the five and dime were all invented or created within Jefferson County’s borders. Tyler Coverlets are native to the county as are percussion caps and a mechanism for their ignition that made flintlock muskets obsolete. But perhaps one of the best known inventions is that of chloroform. [Read more...]

Jefferson County Historical Society model train exhibit on display through February

A vintage train set and scenery are on display at the Jefferson County Historical Society, along with other sets, through February. Photo by Justin Sorensen/Watertown Daily Times

North country residents have until the end of February to visit the Jefferson County Historical Society before the model trains on exhibit leave the station.

Executive Director William G. Wood said the agency has been getting assistance from the Watertown Model Train Club to perfect the model train exhibit in the basement of the Paddock mansion, 228 Washington St.

“They’re adding scenery; it’s a long, manual process,” he said.

The exhibit features three scenes: Public Square in winter, Black River in fall and farm life in summer.

Mr. Wood said the exhibit is a repeat from last December to February, but it has grown as final pieces come together.

[Read more...]