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Emancipation Day in Dakota Territory

This date in 1862 was the eve of Emancipation Day in Dakota Territory. That’s because the following day Congress would pass “An Act to secure Freedom to all Persons within the Territories of the United States.”

The act read: “... there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States…” The Thirteenth Amendment, which would pass three and a half years later, copied that language. 

Slavery existed as part of the fur trade. Slaves worked as cooks at Fort Union, Fort Clark, and Fort Berthold in what would later become North Dakota. In 1849, Andrew Dawson credited his “old negro cook” with helping him defend Fort Berthold from a Sioux raiding party. According to Rudolph Kurz in 1851, Jim Hawkins worked as a cook at Fort Berthold after escaping from Fort Union. Hawkins was “someone's slave in St. Louis” and therefore was required “to pay a certain sum to his master every year.”


Although slavery had been illegal north of the 36th parallel before the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, fur traders themselves were apparently responsible for enforcing this ban.


For example, on April 4th, 1831, Joseph Rolette, a fur trader from Prairie du Chien in what would later become Minnesota, wrote to Pierre Chouteau, “As Respecting that Servant maid, the law prohibits Slavery, therefore I must decline purchasing...”


On the other hand, Francis Chardon, chief fur trader at Fort Clark, would write to his friend John Sarpy on June 27, 1837, “...the Negro Boy that you sent me (Black Hawk) suites me very well, he is just such a One as I wanted. All the Indian men and squaws are in love with him, he is all day absent at feasting. I am in hopes in one year he will be a first-rate interpreter.” When Black Hawk arrived at Fort Clark on June 19, 1837, it was “all hands a frolicking.”


June 19th is now observed as “Juneteenth,” to commemorate emancipation.


Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel


View a full list of references here.

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