My great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell (1827-1881) married Mary Dean Redfield (1843-1918), the daughter of Alexander Hamilton Redfield, a descendant of pilgrims John Alden and Priscilla Mullins Alden and a distant cousin of President John Adams.
Redfield was born in Phelps, New York in 1805, where his father, Peleg Redfield (1762-1852), a fifer in the Rev. War, had moved from Connecticut. He later moved to Cass County, Michigan, and was a member of the Michigan legislature before the Civil War.
From 1857-1860, by order of President James Buchanan, he served as Commissioner of the Indians of the Upper Missouri Agency traveling through vast and distant regions of the head waters of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. He made annual visits to all the Indian tribes when the rivers could be navigated. The Yanktons at the time had not ceded their land in Southeastern Dakota.
In 1857 and 1858, the Sioux Nation was reaching the height of its power. As he began his journeys, Redfield discovered that the relations between the Federal Government and the Sioux were at their lowest ebb. The Sioux were beginning to see the encroachment of white civilization on their lands guaranteed by the treaty of 1851.
Redfield routinely traveled over 2,000 miles, a formidable journey for those days, holding councils with thousands of natives. On these trips he distributed various goods and articles to promote peaceful relations between both peoples.
The following are excerpts from his letters and journal:
Letter to Lewis Cass, Secretary of State, Fort Union Yellowstone River
July 5, 1857: I have just arrived here at my upper post in better health than when I started. Sent letter down by boat which was returning. Left from St. Louis. Requested to return home for the winter, but wanted to stay as late as fall would permit before ice was on river.
I find, Sir the post of an Indian agent was of greater importance than I had supposed and provided the agent is a fit man and valuable service to the Nation and the Indians but as it is the poor agent has nothing but words to use and words without physical power and discretion in the agent to use it have but little weight with the Indians. I am out of the world here and shall know nothing about it for a period of nearly 6 months from the time I left St. Louis and I left St. Louis the 30th of May.
Letter of Lewis Cass writing to the Secretary of the interior
August 5, 1857: Redfield requested leave on the grounds that he had left his family rapidly. (Granted leave for 2 months November 12,1857). Redfield reported in a letter dated July 5, 1857, that he had met 11 of the 13 nations in his districts counceled [sic] with them and delivered their annuities for the year. He found Indians peaceful and quiet although many tribes were unruly. Some murders of white men had taken place during last year. Received only one weeks notice. He wrote stating he couldn’t return in the wintertime.
Upper Missouri, Fort Union
September 9, 1857: I left St. Louis on the 31st of May; on the 13th of June we reached the mouth of the Big Sioux River, the lower limit of my agency, and on the next day we found on the right bank of the Missouri, on a beautiful green prairie sloping down to the river about one hundred lodges of the Yanktons. They were engaged in cultivating corn, and anxiously awaiting the presents from their great Father; and so they were very glad to see me as the dispenser of the desired presents.
On the 4th of July, a most unusual and exciting incident occurred. It was about midnight; I was sitting up with a sick person, when the boat ran into an immense herd of Buffalo, which were swimming across the river. Until the boat could be stopped, we could plainly feel the wheels strike against them; on going out we found the boat entirely surrounded by the poor, frightened creatures, struggling and panting in the strong current of the river. Many of them in their condition must have drowned. The moon was shining brightly; it was a scene worth a journey of two thousand miles to behold; it was, however, painful to know that many of them must have perished.
To read his letters is to visit a lost world. To be continued in With the Sioux 2