Sarah Wakefield never forgot the blanket.
The 32-year-old wife of a doctor assigned to the Upper Sioux Agency on Minnesota's frontier, Wakefield was nursing her 20-month-old daughter, Lucy, and raising her 4-year-old son, James, when the U.S.-Dakota War erupted along the Minnesota River in August 1862.
Wakefield and her children spent the war's six weeks in Dakota captivity. But unlike other outraged white settlers, the devoutly Christian mother struck a pro-Dakota chord. She insisted her captors had treated her well — saving her from sexual assault and death, while displaying simple acts of kindness like sharing a blanket with her when she was cold.
Wakefield wound up the only one of 100 captive men and women to testify for the Dakota after the war ended. She said a recently widowed Dakota farmer named Chaska had protected and shuttled her and her kids into hiding during the war's most dangerous moments.
She believed that her testimony had saved him — only to learn that Chaska was hanged with 37 other Dakota on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato. Apparently he was mistaken for another man also called Chaska.
Only three months before, the chill of autumn had arrived on the war-torn western plains, when Chaska and his mother had lent her their blankets. "Where could you find white people that would do like that? Go without to cover others," Wakefield wrote. "Was this kindness or not, let me ask you?"
Wakefield posed that question in "Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees," published the year after the war and expanded in 1864. In the preface, she said she didn't "pretend to be a book-writer" and never intended her words to be perused "by the public eye" — she wrote the book for her children.
But 160 years later, her book stands atop the pile of accounts published about the war — a rare woman's voice from a male-dominated era.
Wakefield criticized Col. Henry Sibley's delays in rescuing the captives, while at the same time arguing that inhumane government policies had prompted a militant faction of starving Dakota to wage war.
"Suppose the same number of whites were living in sight of food, purchased with their own money, and their children dying of starvation, how long think you would they remain quiet?" she wrote.
Wakefield "was not only disparaged, she was taking on most of the citizens of her state," according to June Namias, a University of Alaska history professor who died in 2021. She researched Wakefield for her 1993 book "White Captives" and edited an annotated edition of "Six Weeks" in 1997.
Those books today are largely forgotten, but Wakefield's story should not be.
"Her voice — also ignored in her time — is one that I wish to insert into the modern conversation," Corey Hickner-Johnson wrote in a 2012 op-ed piece in the Star Tribune. She argued that generations of Minnesotans were taught to celebrate Sibley and other white male leaders as heroes, with counties, parks and schools named after them. She credited Wakefield with first chronicling a different truth.
"Wakefield's legacy and the exploitation of the Dakota at the hands of these men lives on through Wakefield's narrative," Hickner-Johnson wrote. By detailing the starvation of the Dakota and Chaska's unjust hanging — authorities admitted they hanged the wrong man — Wakefield provided a critical piece in a complex puzzle of factors that led to the bloody war of 1862.
"'Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees' might have been disenfranchised in its time," according to Hickner-Johnson, "but it contributes shocking insights to our modern understanding of the Dakota War."
After her release at war's end, Sarah was reunited with her husband, Dr. John Wakefield, and they had two more children. After John died of a drug overdose at 50 in 1874, Sarah moved to St. Paul and died in 1899 at 69. They're buried at Valley Cemetery in Shakopee.
"She had the courage to stand up for what she saw to be correct even if it was going to cost her and her family their place in the community," said Rachel Jenkin, a librarian in Bayfield, Colo., who is Wakefield's great-great-great-granddaughter.
"Victims can be heroes and in some cases refuse to be victims at all," Jenkin said. "Sarah did what she needed to do to make it through for her children, and even after that, she summoned the mettle to make sure wrongs were righted."
Let's give Sarah Wakefield the final word:
"My object was to excite sympathy for the Indians and in so doing, the soldiers lost all respect for me, and abused me shamefully," she wrote, "but I'd rather have my own conscience than that of those persons who turned against their protectors, those that were so kind to them in that great time of peril."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.