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Author and historian Walt Bachman uncovers the story of Minnesota slavery

Slavery in the North wasn’t tied to agriculture or industry, as in the South. “They typically worked as house servants,” said Bachman.

In the annals of emancipation, Minnesota is recognized as one of the “free states.”

Walt Bachman
Walt Bachman

But when author and historian Walt Bachman began digging into his family history, he uncovered substantial evidence that as late as the 1850s, slaves were kept by officers at Fort Snelling and Fort Ridgely, in full knowledge of — and even subsidized by — the government.

When these slaves were sold to civilians, they continued to live in Minnesota under the bonds of slavery, and their children were born into slavery.

“Slavery in the North was not tied to agriculture or industry, as it was in the South. They typically worked as house servants,” said Bachman.

“In Minnesota, there were never large gangs of farm workers, or auction blocks. There weren’t those trappings of the worst forms of slavery,” he said. “But there is ample evidence of brutality towards slaves in Minnesota, including a slave who was whipped to death by her Army officer master. Slavery, wherever it was practiced, was a pernicious institution, and Minnesota was no exception.”

Bachman became interested in Minnesota’s slave history while researching his great-great-grandfather, Ernst Dietrich, who was killed in the War of 1862.

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“When I was a teenager, my grandfather said sometime I ought to go down to the New Ulm museum and check out some interesting accounts about how our ancestor had died. There’s a monument out in the country with his name on it. Well, it took me 30 years to do so,” he said.

“The librarian gave me an account that said the group of Dakota warriors who killed him was led by a black man, Joseph Godfrey. What was a black man doing with the Dakota? I was just captivated by his story.”

Bachman spent the next 15 years gathering information about Godfrey, who lived as a slave in Minnesota before escaping to live with the Dakota.

He has written the first detailed account of Godfrey’s life, and in doing so, uncovers the fascinating and seldom-told story of slavery in Minnesota. “Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey” (Pond Dakota Press) is his second book.

Bachman, who grew up in Minneapolis, also wrote “Law v. Life,” a popular collection of essays about practicing law, which he did in the Twin Cities for 22 years, before moving to New York. He calls himself the black sheep of his family, since he eschewed the family florist business for the law. Yes, he’s one of those Bachmans.

“Little Hattie, who survived the siege of New Ulm, was my great-grandmother, who started a farm with her husband, Henry Bachman, that became the business that morphed into Bachman’s,” he says. (At the main Bachman’s store at 60th and Lyndale, a Heritage Room serves in part as a museum of family history, so Bachman the historian is actually not such a black sheep after all.)

Bachman’s research brought him into a circle of historians who collect information related to the events of 1862. Connecting via the Internet, they shared tips and resources, often leading each other to vital findings.

After Bachman discovered the name of Godfrey’s mother, Courtney, who was purchased as a young child, another historian pointed him to a freedom suit in Missouri filed by a woman with the uncommon name. It was the same Courtney, and she won her suit and her freedom. Bachman realized that, while Godfrey’s mother procured her freedom via the courts of a slave state, ironically, Godfrey remained a slave for another 10 years in a free state.

(Another famous freedom petition suit, that of Dred Scott, also hinged on his time spent at Fort Snelling as a slave. Notoriously, the Supreme Court declined to award Scott his freedom.)
More than 100 Godfrey descendants live today, and Bachman is in warm contact with them. So, 150 years later, there are no hard feelings about his ancestor. In fact, Bachman doesn’t even believe Godfrey killed him.

“Neither [my grandfather] nor anyone else in my family has ever harbored any ill will towards anyone — Godfrey or the Dakotas — connected with the death of Ernst Dietrich. My own reaction was akin to learning that an ancestor had died while serving in the Union Army at Bull Run: I would be fascinated by the story but would not feel any hostility toward the Southern soldiers who killed him.”

Instead, Bachman just feels driven to tell their stories.

While researching Godfrey, he painstakingly reviewed 1,740 boxes of Army documents in the National Archives, and discovered, written into old payroll documents, the story of the U.S. Army’s role in spreading slavery. It’s a story much larger than Godfrey, one Bachman is determined to tell in his next book. 


Black History Month presentation, featuring Walt Bachman: “Northern Slaves: How the U.S. Army Brought Slavery to Minnesota”
Sunday, Feb. 24, 2-4 p.m.
Creekside Community Center, Bloomington