Alexander Faribault's Photo

Alexander Faribault's story: 1855
Before the story
After the story
In his tracks
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Mary Whipple's_story: 1862
Before the Story
After the Story
In her tracks


Taopi's story: 1864
Before the story
After the story
In his tracks


Bishop Henry Whipple's story: 1867
Before the story
After the story
In his tracks


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Alexander Faribault
After the Story: 1855-1882

Treaty Consequences | To the Rescue | Birch Coulee | Life After War | Opinions | More

Alexander Faribault may have found time to peacefully, if a bit uneasily, think about his life in 1855. But he would not spend much more time on his front porch during his life.

For the next few years, Alexander was busy building his town. But the uneasiness he may have felt about the Dakota treaties was a hint of things to come. In 1857, the town of Faribault experienced its first “Indian scare,” when an “outlaw” Wahpekute chief killed over 30 people near Spirit Lake (Iowa) and in Jackson County, Minnesota. In 1862, the white settlers’ terror of Indians reached a peak when outraged and starving Dakota, led by Little Crow, began attacking settlers in the Minnesota River Valley. The U.S.- Dakota War had many causes and consequences. Alexander Faribault found himself right in the middle of it all.

The Attack at New Ulm The Attack at New Ulm.
From: Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1863, page 23. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

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Just after the first attacks, a boy ran through the streets of Faribault at sunrise, loudly ringing a bell. He had been sent by Bishop Whipple, who had ridden through the night on horseback to find men willing to volunteer in the fighting and people willing to provide guns and horses. Faribault volunteered to lead some men, and on August 31, they joined about 170 others leaving Fort Ridgely, sent to recover and bury the bodies of slain settlers.

It was perhaps a duty Alexander was comfortable with. They did not expect to encounter fighting. Alexander and other mixed-blood men were asked to use their tracking skills to determine whether there were any Dakota in the area. They decided there were not. But they were not too far away.

Fort Ridgely Fort Ridgely.

Oil on canvas by James McGrew, 1890. Gift of Mrs. Mary McGrew, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

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As the troops camped in an area called Birch Coulee on September 2, they were attacked by 200 Dakota warriors. The attack began at sunrise, and continued for 31 hours, when Colonel Sibley led troops to the rescue. Alexander was likely being attacked by men he had traded with years before, perhaps even members of his extended family. Chief Big Eagle told about Alexander’s actions during the siege:

“Alex Faribault was there and ...called out to us: ‘You do very wrong to fire on us. We did not come out to fight; we only came out to bury the bodies of the white people you killed.’ I have heard that Faribault... and another half-breed dug a rifle pit for themselves with bayonets, and the Faribault worked so hard with his bayonet in digging that he wore the flesh from the inside of his hand.”

 

Battle of Birch Coulee Battle of Birch Coulee. Oil on canvas by Dorthea Paul, ca. 1975. Gift of Dorthea Paul, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

When the Battle of Birch Coulee was over, the men had experienced the most fatal battle of the war. Thirteen men died, 47 were seriously wounded, and many more also hurt. Some later died of their wounds. Over 90 horses were also dead. Some records indicate only very few Dakota were injured. For whatever reasons, Alexander Faribault survived. He also testified at the trials held afterward, defending, among others, his mixed-blood nephew, David, who was accused of killing settlers.

Identification of Indian murderers in Minnesota by a boy survivor of the massacreIdentification of Indian murderers in Minnesota by a boy survivor of the massacre
Identification of Indian murderers in Minnesota by a boy survivor of the massacre. Wood engraving on paper, 1862. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

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Although Alexander survived the battle and the war, he never really recovered. Life after 1862 was not easy for anyone with Dakota blood, including Alexander. He raised suspicion in the town by allowing Dakota such as Taopi, who had helped white settlers during the war, to live on his land at the request of Bishop Whipple. This earned the trust of the Dakota, who called him "Iron Door," or "Safe Door," (Tiypoa Maza) perhaps because he offered the Dakota a refuge. But the townspeople grew more angry. Alexander wrote a letter to the newspaper, defending himself and the Dakota, stating:

“... I trust that no person will contend that these Indians, after rendering to the country such service should be sent off to be killed by hostile tribes. I know these Indians well, and I know them to be harmless, innocent and good persons...”

In the following years, Alexander seemed to find that all of the skills he had as a fur trader, interpreter and frontiersman were not of value in the new town he had created. His flour mill was not particularly successful, and he had few sources of income. He had also lost a lot of money during an economic "panic" in 1857. In 1866, he had to ask the government to remove the Dakota from his land; he could not afford to support them anymore. He also began selling the last of his property. He had built a beautiful new home on the bluff overlooking the town, but sold it in 1874. He moved to Fergus Falls and tried to start a flour mill there. But the venture was not successful, and in 1875, his beloved wife, Mary Elizabeth died there. Alexander returned to Faribault.

One piece of telling evidence of Alexander’s changing position in life can be found in census listings. In 1870, he is listed as the head of his 7-member household, counted as a white man, employed as a miller. By 1880, he was near the bottom of the household list, living with his son, William. The census taker listed him as “Indian.”

Alexander died in 1882 at age 76. He was buried, among the now more than 80 other family members, in the Faribault plot in Calvary Cemetery. He had no money. There is little evidence that his companions from earlier days, such as Sibley, chose to have contact with him in later years. A priest at his funeral said that the end of Alexander's life was "clouded in poverty, loneliness, and disease."

Alexander Faribault's death notice Alexander Faribault's death notice. Courtesy of the Rice County Historical Society.

 

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Yet many who lived through this period of Minnesota history remembered Alexander. Missionary Gideon Pond said:

“Alexander Faribault and his father were favorites and highly respected by all who knew them."

Bishop Whipple said Alexander was the kindest man he had ever known.

Gideon Pond

Gideon Pond. Engraving by W.T. Bather. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

Both Pond and Whipple had a deep understanding of and respect for the Dakota and shared many of Alexander’s life experiences. Historian E. D. Neill, writing in 1882 just before Alexander died, took a more condescending view:

“He was a very wealthy man in those days [1860s], but his generosity has ruined him, financially, and now he is almost a pauper, not even owning a home of his own.”

A much kinder perspective, and one that holds well today, was provided in 1910 by historian Stephen Jewett. He wrote:

“Because of [Alexander Faribault’s] modest and retiring nature, much concerning his interesting life will never be known... His hand and store were ever open to the Dakota... and the white man. His word was absolute... His name was always associated with all charities. We honor him because he ennobled his race. He lost wealth, but not respect nor honor, and history calls his life a success.”

The words spoken by Reverend Thomas O'Gorman at Alexander's funeral may best capture his legacy. Gorman said:

"Mr. Alexander Faribault... had...every quality that goes to make the pioneer of civilization: love of nature...brotherly kindness for the poor wandering children of the prairies, energy to push on, physical strength to endure, fervid imagination, fiery heart, a dash of medieval chivalry, and above all, a Faith...ever and everywhere the gentleman...[T]here will be mourning in the Indian wigwams for Alexander Faribault, as well as in the civilized homes of Minnesota... The story of Alexander Fairbault will go down in the unwritten tradition of Indian legend as well as in the printed records of an American city; for he was a bond, a trusted agent between the two races and the connection was a benefit and a blessing to both."

Alexander Faribault and granddaughter in a photo taken a few days before his death. Alexander Faribault and granddaughter in a photo taken "a few days before his death." Courtesy of the Rice County Historical Society.

Treaty Consequences | To the Rescue | Birch Coulee | Life After War | Opinions | More

What did Alexander Faribault think about life in 1855? Read Alexander’s story to find out. To learn about the first part of his life, read Before the Story. Visit places in Faribault related to him by following In His Tracks.

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