Joseph “Jack” Frazer was caught in the crossfire — literally and figuratively — when the U.S.-Dakota War erupted in 1862 on the Minnesota frontier.
Frazer was in his 50s, living by the Lower Sioux Agency near modern-day Morton, working for a white trader, when a French Canadian named Antoine Young was fatally shot on the war’s first morning. When Dakota warrior Cut Nose tried to shoot Frazer, too, the men struggled and the powder failed to ignite. Two Dakota fighters then came to Frazer’s defense because he grew up among the Dakota — one of countless early Minnesotans of mixed blood.
Born around 1806 to a Scottish trader and a Dakota mother, Frazer was friends and hunting partners with both Little Crow and Henry Sibley — opposing leaders of Dakota warriors and U.S. government forces during the bloody six-week clash.
Frazer spent his first 30 years known as Ite Maza, meaning “Iron Face” in Dakota. He lived with the community of his mother, Ha-zo-do-win, a daughter of the chief of the Red Wing village. He married a daughter of Black Dog village’s leader. But in his 30s, Frazer adopted the white ways of his father — speaking English, working for traders, advocating farming and dressing like a settler.
He was Minnesota’s territorial-era version of Paul Revere, witnessing pivotal moments in state history and serving as the settlers’ messenger when the 1862 war broke out. He volunteered to carry an Army note by horseback, riding through an August storm from Fort Ridgely to alert Sibley in St. Peter, and then galloping on with the dispatch to Gov. Alexander Ramsey in St. Paul. He returned to serve as Sibley’s scout, enduring the standoff at Birch Coulee and living after the war in the Dakota internment camp at Fort Snelling.
Frazer embodies the mixed-race history of Minnesota’s early years, according to St. Cloud State historian Mary Wingerd. Her award-winning, 2010 book, “North County: The Making of Minnesota,” looks at the state’s multicultural roots from the 1600s deep into the 1800s.
“Ideas about race are incredibly fluid and unfixed,” Wingerd said in an interview for the St. Cloud State website. “Remember, you have all these people of mixed ancestry and it didn’t matter if you were European or African-American or Indian or mixed ancestry — the way people sorted you out was by how you dressed, by what kind of customs you observed.”
Some accounts paint Frazer in a questionable light, while Dakota traditionalists might consider him a sellout. It’s safe to say he was among the more complex characters on the Minnesota frontier.
English writer Frederick Marryat, visiting Sibley in 1838, described Frazer as a “fine intellectual-looking man,” noting he had taken nearly 30 scalps in battles with other tribes.
Frazer was a “rather disreputable fellow who failed to enhance” Little Crow’s reputation, according to University of Oklahoma history Prof. Gary Clayton Anderson, author of a 1986 biography titled “Little Crow.” He says Frazer was “sacrilegious, constantly poking fun at Dakota customs, and even mimicking Dakota spirits.”
Sibley biographer Rhonda Gilman said Little Crow and Frazer shared a “roving eye, prowess at hunting, and a disregard for the authority of tribal elders.”
But Roseville researcher Curtis Dahlin, whose books document many details from 1862, thinks Frazer should be remembered as “a decent person … who had a foot in two worlds, and that was not an easy or comfortable position to be in, especially at that time.” He was courageous enough to take on the perilous messenger mission, Dahlin said, adding that “Jack must have been a formidable fighter as he was able to hold Cut Nose, a large person, at bay for a time.”
Thanks to the internet, we don’t need to rely solely on experts. We can hear from Frazer himself. Woodbury historian Carrie Reber Zeman runs a web page for people intrigued by the 1862 war. She unearthed an 1839 speech, delivered by Frazer and jotted down in the Dakota language by missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond. Zeman posted translated excerpts on her blog — (tinyurl.com/IteMaza).
In it, Frazer explains his conversion from Dakota ways to the white man’s ways. He recalled how, “in the long ago,” Dakota used arrowheads of bone and stone to kill animals for food.
“But in those times, the beasts that walked the earth were very plentiful,” Frazer said. “In those times beavers in hordes filled all the bodies of water wherever water lay; consequently, life was possible; they kept alive.”
By 1839, Frazer said, “even if someone tried to live in that way, he would fail, he could not live, and he would meet with hardship … Man can live now only from working the soil, planting; aside from that there is nothing possible to live by … He who honors the soil, thereby makes a man of himself to a far greater degree … ”
He challenged the Dakota for ridiculing people like him who “plant gardens and labor like women … you yourselves are the greater fools!”
In a precursor to climate change concerns, Frazer said: “The earth is very possibly undergoing change. It is alarming. Now in turn, all the grass is withering away; and so, though it once seemed that the beasts of the field had great gardens all over … they suffer.
“Now, therefore, men living on earth can only practice labor … because labor is the only means of subsistence, that all wise men place planting at the highest value.”
Frazer died in Faribault on Feb. 23, 1869, and was buried at the French-Catholic St. Louis Cemetery in Rice County. Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, paid for his tombstone.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.