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From slave to prominent citizen of St. Paul: the remarkable life of James Thompson

After winning his freedom in the 1830s James Thompson became a respected citizen of the city of St. Paul known for his accomplishments more than his skin color.

Graphite drawing by Adlof Hoeffler of St. Paul, 1849.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

James Thompson was born into a life of slavery in Virginia around 1799. He overcame the hardships of that life to work as a capable English-Dakota interpreter for Methodist missionary Alfred Brunson. After winning his freedom in the 1830s he became a respected citizen of the city of St. Paul known for his accomplishments more than his skin color.

James Thompson’s first trip into Minnesota country came in 1827 under the supervision of his owner, sutler John Culbertson. Culbertson sold merchandise to the First Infantry stationed at Fort Snelling and brought Thompson along on the trip. Culbertson had received Thompson from his first owner, George Monroe (the nephew of President James Monroe), as payment for a gambling debt.

While staying at Fort Snelling Culbertson sold Thompson to officer William Day. In 1833 Thompson, still living at the fort with Day, married Marpiyawecasta (later anglicized to Mary), a daughter of the Dakotaleader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man) and began to learn the Dakota language. When Day was reassigned to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien in 1836 he took Thompson along, separating him from his wife.

In 1837 the Methodist missionary Alfred Brunson searched for an interpreter to help him teach the Methodist faith to the American Indian people near Fort Snelling. He looked for a man who not only shared his faith but could clearly communicate its tenets to the Dakota. Believing Thompson to be a committed Methodist and recognizing his unique relationship with the Dakota, Brunson chose him to be his mission’s interpreter.

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With financial help from his friends in the East, Brunson was able to buy Thompson’s freedom. By May 19, 1837 Thompson was a free man. Elated to be reunited with his wife, he returned to Fort Snelling with Brunson and his team.

Shortly after arriving at the fort in 1837 the group began the area’s first Methodist mission in the Dakota village of Kaposia, located ten miles down the river from Fort Snelling. The mission’s land was given to them by the Dakota leader Wakinyatanka “Big Thunder” (Little Crow III), who through either a budding Methodist faith or a pragmatic understanding of his people’s relationship with the growing immigrant community welcomed the new mission.

All of that changed in 1839. Wakinyatanka no longer allowed his children to take part in the mission and attendance waned. Brunson left the church and his successor moved it to present-day Newport soon after. Thompson left Kaposia and began selling liquor near Fort Snelling.

In May of 1840, Thompson and other whiskey-selling squatters were forced to move. The group settled in a small community that would soon be known as Pig’s Eye and later renamed St. Paul.

During this time Thompson worked as a carpenter. He helped construct the house of Edward Phelan and John Hays, considered to be the first home built in St. Paul. He also built and operated the first ferry boat between modern-day downtown and West St. Paul. By 1841 the Thompsons had settled in the area and had two children, a daughter named Sarah and a son, George. The couple named their son after George Monroe, James Thompson’s first master.

Thompson was the first resident of African descent in the city, but this seemed to matter little to the people around him. Because survival in the small community relied so heavily on kinship, Thompson was judged less by the color of his skin than by his ability to play an active part in its growth. By many accounts, Thompson and his wife were welcomed as residents of St. Paul.

In 1849 Thompson, still a faithful Methodist, helped build a new church in the city’s downtown. He donated money, land, and materials, including 1,500 shingles and two thousand feet of lumber.

At the onset of the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862 Thompson and his family were living near the Lower Sioux Agency. Thompson left his family for the safety of Fort Ridgely, realizing (correctly) that his Dakota wife and half-Dakota children would remain safe. After the war, Thompson was reunited with his family and eventually returned to St. Paul.

Years later, Thompson left Minnesota, following his son to Nebraska to live on the Santee Sioux Reservation. He died there on October 15, 1884.

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For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.