David Schleper wants more people to know about Shakopee’s slave.
He has spent the past five years as senior research chair with the Shakopee Heritage Society trying to spread the word about the lesser-known parts of the city’s history, including Joseph Godfrey, a slave who lived in Shakopee from 1844-1848. Godfrey will be featured on one of a dozen signs the Heritage Society plans to install at Memorial Park this fall and next spring. Other signs will highlight the stories of Native Americans and women before and after the city was founded.
Schleper, who grew up in Shakopee, said the only bit of local history he remembers learning in school was that founder Thomas Holmes established a trading post there in 1851.
“We have to think a little broader,” Schleper said. “Shakopee is not just these white people who kind of took over.”
The Heritage Society plans to place permanent, 3- by 2-foot kiosks in Memorial Park and along a trail under Hwy. 101, where Schleper said three villages existed before Shakopee was established. The villages include Tinta-otonwe, a Dakota summer planting village that existed from the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries; the Prairie des Français, a French Canadian village that existed from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries; and Prairieville, a village from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, during which the Pond family conducted missionary work with the Dakota people.
In 1847, Rev. Samuel Pond and his wife, Cordelia, established a mission and school at the invitation of Chief Sakpe II during the “Great Awakening” spiritual revival that swept the country. Samuel Pond preached, documented the culture and language of the Dakota and advocated for the fair treatment of American Indians, according to the Heritage Society’s website.
Since the 1600s, what is now Shakopee was known by eight different names, Schleper said. Joseph Godfrey worked on the construction of the Faribault cabin in the mid-1800s before escaping in 1848 and walking 40 miles along the river to freedom.
Schleper wants these signs to be the “first step” in implementing more historic placards around downtown. This first batch has so far been funded through several grants, including a $10,000 donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Schleper said.
City Councilman Jay Whiting, one of the founders of the Shakopee Heritage Society who has been involved with the project since it began, said the project has received about $30,000 so far. The initial idea was to raise $60,000 for the signs, but he said he expects the cost will end up being closer to $100,000. The Heritage Society will host a fundraiser and silent auction on Aug. 17 at Turtle’s 1890 Social Centre to raise more money for the project.
Whiting said the project will contribute to “historic tourism” in Shakopee, where visitors intrigued by the information on the signs stick around the city to learn more about its history. He said in his two decades with the Heritage Society and other groups involved with historic preservation, he’s never seen a project like this.
“It’s always the rich white men that get the history written about them,” Whiting said. “We’re trying to look at a different side and more of a diverse angle.”
Jeff Williamson is president of the Pond Dakota Heritage Society and a descendant of the missionaries who taught the Dakota. Williamson said the average person knows little about the stories that will be detailed on the placards, and he wishes they'd been installed sooner. The drafts of the placards, at least three of which will be about the Dakota, have been accurate so far, he said.
Schleper visits Shakopee schools to teach students about some of these stories. Some children have recognized their ancestors in the pictures he shows, which makes them excited and more engaged with the history, Schleper said. He said that while some parts of Shakopee’s history are uncomfortable and painful, especially the presence of a slave, it’s important for people to know the truth.
“I believe history is important and especially when you have such a good history as Shakopee does,” Williamson said. “It should be upfront so other people are aware of it.”