The Story of Mary Napexni

Mary Napexni Letter

In the John Aiton Family Papers at the Minnesota Historical Society is an undated letter, written in cursive English script and addressed to “Dear Mrs. Aiton.”  The letter continues:

“I think the rose you sent me very pretty. You were very kind to spin that good yarn to keep my feet warm in the winter. I thank you for the knitting needles. I have commenced knitting my stockings. I read Bowyer Smith through three times and thank you for sending it to me. I have read Mother stories and some other books. I read some chapters in the Bible every day now. I read about Jephthah’s daughter today in school.

“I was very sorry when I heard little Elizabeth was dead. My little Brother is dead too. He was put in a box and buried on the bluff. Aunt Jane goes with us up to the grave sometimes – we can see it from the kitchen door. On the same hill are some red stones the Indians pray to but I know they cannot hear nor help them.

“Please do not forget,

Mary Napexni”[1]

This is the earliest introduction we have to Mary. She was ten or eleven years old when she wrote this letter to Nancy Hunter Aiton, a missionary teacher at the Mdewakanton Kaposia village. Nancy was back in Illinois when the letter was written sometime in about 1850. The “little Elizabeth” in the letter is Nancy’s firstborn daughter, Elizabeth Aiton, who had died in infancy in Illinois. “Aunt Jane” is Jane Smith Williamson; Mary was one of her pupils at the A.B.C.F.M. mission school at Kaposia in the summer of 1851 and one of John Aiton’s students at the government school at Kaposia from October 1851-March 1853. She had perfect attendance and quite obviously had learned to read and write in English.[2]

It also appears that Mary was a Christian, or at least wanted to assure Nancy Aiton that she no longer believed that the red stones to which the Dakota prayed had any power. On October 11, 1851, however, Nancy Jane Williamson, Thomas and Margaret Williamson’s second oldest daughter, wrote to Nancy Aiton and said that “Once when I went out with Mary to see her brother’s grave she said his soul had come out of a hole she showed me. But I hope she will learn better after awhile.”[3]

Mary’s little brother who died is never named but she did have a sister named Harriet who attended John Aiton’s school at Kaposia in the fall of 1851 and then off and on during 1852 and 1853.[4] Joseph Napexni was Mary’s father. He was born in 1806 and was the first Dakota man to be baptized as a Christian at Lac qui Parle on February 21, 1840. His son, And or Ande Napexni, was a student at Lac qui Parle by 1845. According to Stephen Riggs, Joseph had three wives who died before he married a Christian Dakota woman and relocated to Kaposia by 1846.[5] Their daughter Mary was born there four or five years later. Stephen Riggs said that Joseph Napexni was the son of Mary Renville’s sister and Chatka or Left Hand (1780-1847). [6]

By the time Mary was 12 years old in 1852, the 1851 treaty meant that the Kaposia band of Dakota had to move to the Lower Sioux Agency Reservation, leaving behind the river, the bluffs, their village and  the burial ground that Mary described in her letter.  Joseph remained active in the church and along with six or seven others, established independent farms on the reservation.

Eli Huggins' illustrious career is described in the story of Lydia Pettijohn Huggins. William Folwell's correspondence with Eli is a priceless personal memoir of early Minnesota history.

Eli Huggins’ illustrious career is described in the story of Lydia Pettijohn Huggins. William Folwell’s correspondence with Eli is a priceless personal memoir of early Minnesota history.

We pick up Mary’s story in a letter written by Eli Huggins to William Folwell of the Minnesota Historical Society on June 26, 1918:

“There is one two or three years before the outbreak to a man named Lynde [sic] who had been in the Minn. Senate, a man of considerable culture went to the Sioux reservation as a clerk … but really it is believed to make a study of Sioux folk lore, customs, etc. He was one of the first whites killed and left some manuscript of which perhaps you know. He took as his wife, Indian fashion, a girl who had been taught to speak and write English by Aunt Jane W. …Her father’s name was Napeshay (No Hand) and the girl was called by the missionaries Mary Napashay. The father may not have been a convert but like a number of non-converts was a friend of the missions, and learned to read and write Sioux. Aunt W. was distressed and went to plead with L. to marry Mary. L. said I like her better every day. She is pleasant and neat and a good housekeeper. I have tried to have her wear civilized dress but when she came to me she abandoned…full squaw dress and she won’t speak English. If she will dress like a white woman and speak English I will marry her. Aunt J. was delighted and spoke to Mary about it, but she stubbornly refused to change. Soon afterwards Mary became ‘as ladies wish to be who love their lords.’ Aunt went to her again and expressed to her how important a legal marriage would be for the future offspring. Her father, Napeshay, and Dr. W. also expostulated with her, but to no purpose. L. finally offered to marry her in her squaw dress, but she refused. She would give no reason, but Aunt J. thought from some words dropped, that she thought a legal marriage would give L. and perhaps some day his relatives a claim to control of the children, and was determined that this should not happen.”[7]

Eli’s letter, like many of his memoirs and correspondence, is filled with casual references and lot of gossip; it’s sometimes hard to believe what he says. On the other hand, he had no reason to lie when he was corresponding with Folwell and it is safe to assume that what he says about Mary is true. For many young Dakota women, partnering with a white man was a sure way to at least some level of financial security. What is striking about Mary’s story is that, despite what Eli says about Joseph Napexni’s faith, Mary’s parents were solid Christians, but Mary still did not want to legally marry James Lynd.

James Lynd was about 25 years old when he and Mary Napexni had their first child. He abandoned her after the birth of another daughter in about 1858.

James Lynd was about 25 years old when he and Mary Napexni had their first child. He abandoned her after the birth of another daughter in about 1858.

Lynd himself was the son of a Baptist minister from Baltimore but grew up in Kentucky. He came to Minnesota in about 1853 and settled at Traverse des Sioux where he pursued his study of the Dakota culture, language and religion. When the Dakota were removed from the area, Lynd worked as a trader and was based at the Lower Agency by 1862. He became the editor of the Henderson Democrat, a weekly paper owned by Joseph R. Brown. He left the paper when he switched political parties, became a Republican and was elected to the Minnesota State Senate for two years in 1861.

Lynd’s relationship with Mary was well known to the community. Stephen Riggs wrote that:

“Mr. Lynd, soon after he came into the country took Mary Napayshue, a very respectable and educated Indian girl. She had been raised in one of the mission families, and could read and speak English quite well. By this connection, she has two beautiful, light-haired, fair-skinned girls, the eldest of which must be now eight or nine years old. Mr. Lynd was frequently encouraged to marry this woman, and at times he expressed his wish and determination to do so, but he did not do it….Sometime before the outbreak, he abandoned Mary and attached himself to another woman, by whom also he had a child…While the Indian camp was at Fort Snelling, during the winter after the outbreak, this boy was baptized James Lynd.”[8]

It is impossible to determine if the reason that Mary and James Lynd didn’t get married was because of her fear that he would seize her children or his reluctance to enter into a legal relationship with a Dakota woman. After he abandoned her, Mary probably returned to her father’s home. Her two daughters were Leonora Hunter Lynd, born September 21, 1856, and Nancy Anna Lynd, born about 1858.  James’ son with his second Dakota wife, James Lynd, Jr., was born in 1860, so it is clear that James and Mary were no longer together at that time.

On the morning of August 18, 1862, James Lynd was the first white man killed at the Lower Sioux Agency when the Dakota attacked. He was 31 years old and was shot while he stood in the doorway of Andrew Myrick’s store. Andrew’s brother Nathan buried the body where he fell but Lynd was later interred in the cemetery at the Lower Agency.

A story that has been repeated several times in secondary sources suggests that Mary’s father Joseph was the one who shot James Lynd on that fateful August morning and that he did it to avenge Lynd’s abandonment of Mary and the girls. This man, identified as Napesni, Napayshne or Napashue, was tried as Case #178 after the war and boasted in public that he had killed 19 whites. At his trial, he said he was innocent and that he had a sore knee on that day and didn’t fight. He was executed at Mankato on December 26, 1862, for those crimes. It seems clear that this Napesni was not Mary’s father. It also is  unlikely that this Napesni killed James Lynd, whose death is attributed to a Dakota man named Many Hails who escaped after the war and was never tried.[9]

Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to Mary after the 1862 war. Her father was not among those arrested or tried. John Williamson, who was in the process of building a new mission house at the Lower Agency when the war broke out in 1862, held worship services in Joseph’s tent after the military trials of the Dakota.  John Williamson’s daughter later wrote in his biography that “At Redwood he [John] was thirty miles from the home of his parents at Yellow Medicine and …..the wise old Indian [Napesni] devoted himself to instructing the young white man in all the cunning and woodcraft, the customs and etiquette of the old Indian life before it was touched by association with the whites.[10]

Joseph was made an Elder in the Presbyterian Church on March 9, 1861, and ordained the next day.[11] Like all other Dakota who were not caught up in the trials or imprisoned after the war ended, he was sent to Fort Snelling in St. Paul. Camp records indicate that he had five people in his family, one horse, two oxen, a wagon and one chain.[12] He was one of four Elders at the internment camp there and became one of the first Elders of the Scouts Church in 1863. He settled at Lac qui Parle after leaving the Scouts. Knute Stevenson, who settled at Lac qui Parle, Minnesota, in 1870, described Joseph’s death.

“The Indian families, 50-60, lived in teepees on Joe LeBlanc’s land about 80 rods away. Old Chief Napesni died in the late summer. He was a good Indian, over 90 years of age. I was at the funeral. He was placed in a rough box of boards and I helped load it into the wagon and hauled him to the top of the hill, where a grave was dug and the coffin placed in a grave. His pipe, hatchet and other things that belonged to him were thrown into the grave. No tears were shed. Thus ended the career of Napesni.”[13]

As for Mary’s daughters, Leonora, known as Nora, married a Dakota man named Horace Greeley and had two daughters, Esther and Mabel Greeley, who were educated at the Good Will Mission in South Dakota. Mary’s younger daughter Nancy Anna, married Moses Blue Cloud and settled at Brown Earth, where they had two or three daughters by 1899.[14]

I think of little Mary writing that letter at Kaposia as a young girl and reflect on her life. I can just see her visiting the burial place atop the bluffs at Kaposia with Jane Williamson. I imagine they would sit and talk about her brother, while Jane would comfort her with words of scripture or poetry; perhaps they sang a hymn or two in Dakota. Raised in the mission and educated to read and write in both Dakota and English, Mary was ultimately torn between two worlds. She refused to put on “civilized” clothes as James Lynd requested and also turned down his proposals of marriage in order to prevent his family from taking her daughters. Mary’s story is just one story out of hundreds of stories of Dakota women and the complex world in which they lived.


[1] Nancy Hunter Aiton (1828-1854) married Rev. John Aiton on July 5, 1848. They were stationed at the Dakota Mission at Red Wing from 1848-1850, and at Kaposia from 1851-1853. Nancy died in Illinois in the spring of 1854. The Bowyer-Smith book that Mary referred to in the letter is The Child’s Remembrancer-a Memoir of Bowyer Smith a Pious Child who died Jan. 30, 1811, aged 7 years and 2 months, by the Rev. Basil Woodd. The book was published in 1825. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is from The Book of Judges, 11:30-11:39. It is a particularly sad passage which describes how Jephthah promised God that he would offer up a burnt offering of the first person he saw come through the door if God would bring him safely home. The first person was his only child, a daughter whom he loved. Mary clearly wrote her last name in English as Napexni. In Dakota that “x” represents a sound that doesn’t really exist in English but is sometimes written as “sh.” Documented spellings of the name include Napahshue, Napayshne, Napesni, Napashue, and Napexna.

[2] Annual Report of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Minnesota Superintendency, August 29, 1851, and Aiton Papers, School Attendance book, Aiton Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society,

[3] Aiton Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society

[4] On January 23, 1863, Stephen Riggs wrote to Thomas Williamson and reported that Harriet had died. Riggs Family Papers, Minnesota Historical Society. Alexander Huggins “List of children at Lac qui Parle in 1845 includes a son of Joseph Napexni named Ande Napexni, Huggins digitized collection, Minnesota Historical Society

[5] Stephen Riggs to Selah B. Treat, April 1839, ABCFM Papers, Minnesota Historical Society.

[6] Ibid. The various clues about Joseph Napexni’s family background are confusing but it is clear that he was a Christian and was related to Mary Little Crow Renville.

[7] Eli Huggins Letters, Folwell Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, Box 47. Dr. W. is Dr. Thomas Williamson and Aunt Jane W. is Jane Smith Williamson.

[8] Stephen Return Riggs “Memoir of Hon. Jas. W. Lynd,” Minnesota Historical Collections, vol. 3, p. 111, Minnesota Historical Society.

[9] Many Hails has many names including Plenty Hail, Wakinyantawa and Tawasuota.

[10] Barton, Winifred, John P. Williamson: A Brother to the Sioux, Fleming H. Revell Company, © 1919, p. 234

[11] John Poage Williamson personal notebook, Williamson papers, Dakotah Prairie Museum, Aberdeen, SD

[12] Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz, The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-1864, Prairie Smoke Press, St. Paul, MN, p. 135. The five family members could have included Mary and her two daughters.

[13] Email from Dave Craigmile to author, December 1, 2013. If Joseph Napexni died in 1870, as Stevenson says, he would have been 64 years old, not over 90.

[14] Ann Lynd to Warren Upham, May 23, 1899, and James W. Lynd to Warren Upham, August 18, 1899, Upham Papers, Minnesota Historical Society Institutional Archives. Noah, Peter and Moses Blue Cloud all owned land at Brown Earth in the 1880s. Their wives’ names are not listed but when Moses Blue Cloud’s daughter Eliza died on February 19, 1884, her mother’s name was given as Nancy Blue Cloud. See Elwin E. Rogers, For God & Land: Brown Earth A Dakota Indian Community 1876-1892, Pine Hill Press © 2002, p. 87

This entry was posted in Dakota Mission, Jane Smith Williamson, Lac Qui Parle Mission, Mary Napexni, Minnesota, Minnesota History, Nancy Hunter Aiton, Women in Minnesota. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Story of Mary Napexni

  1. Dinesen, Terri (DNR) says:

    Is it possible that the one who buried James Lynd was not Andrew Myrick but his brother? (Nathan?) Andrew was killed that day.

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