Lewis C. Paxon’s Diary
In the 1860s, the history books regarding Dakota Territory were pretty slim, with little beyond the tribes, explorations and the military presence in the region. But individual accounts helped add to that knowledge.
One of those “scribes” of early Dakota was Lewis C. Paxson, a teacher who enlisted in Company G of the Eighth Minnesota Infantry in August of 1862. Paxson kept a diary of his three years in the military, describing the schlepp across Minnesota to Fort Abercrombie in the late summer of 1862, and tasks such as cutting wood and handling mail. He described a Dakota prairie fire as “very pretty.”
Paxson’s winter at Fort Abercrombie was cold, windy and snowy with temperatures as low as thirty-two below. Music lessons, military drills and studying Roman poets helped pass the winter months. Throughout the spring and summer of 1863, Paxson noted such things as drunken Fourth of July gaiety, reports of General Henry Hastings Sibley’s running battles with the Sioux, and deaths of fellow soldiers.
On this date in 1863, Paxson wrote of hunting with other soldiers, reporting that the weather was clear and bright after rain a few days earlier. He also told of two soldiers having just been buried. He had just finished reading about Elizabeth the First’s reign in Volume Four of David Hume’s history of England. The soldier was also enjoying a new toothbrush.
Paxson would spend another winter at Fort Abercrombie, passing the time with French lessons, letter writing, military drills and chess. He left the fort in March of 1864, heading east into Minnesota where he and his fellow men built bridges before reaching Sauk Centre that May. His company then returned west, crisscrossing Dakota from one military fort to the next before reaching the Killdeer Mountains, where the largest armed conflict between the U.S. Army and Plains Indians took place in July of 1864.
After surviving that conflict, Paxon wrote of a summer riding along the Heart and Knife rivers and other Missouri River tributaries before returning east with his outfit. Paxson mustered out in August of 1865 after attaining the rank of First Lieutenant. He returned to the east where he would operate a dairy farm.
Paxon’s account of his time out west was published, and a digitized edition, 64 typed pages, is available online.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Paxson, L.C. (1908). Diary of Lewis C. Paxson, Stockton, N.J. Bismarck, ND: Columbia University Library.
Dakota conflict, military, Lewis C. Paxson, diary, Jack Dura, Dakota Datebook, Fort Abercrombie