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Down the Research Rabbit Hole

part three in a series about writing family stories

Part 1: Turning Family Stories Into Novels

Part 2: Uncovering the Aloha Spirit

For my third historical novel, I turned, as usual, to the story of an ancestor. This one was born in 1836 at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. At the time, it was Michigan Territory. Fort Snelling was the last civilized outpost before the wild frontier. What would it be like to live there? to give birth there? raise a family? With the help of Minnesota Historical Society’s publications and web page, I dug into the history of the fort.

Fort Snelling, c.1835. Oil on canvas painting by David Geister, 2006.

As usual, I began with my family. My ancestor, Emily Miree, was the daughter of Alexander Miree, the temporary sutler at the fort. Her mother was Samantha Miree, born Samantha Lockwood. Samantha had previously been married to Mr. Brown for a few short months before he died. Samantha’s brother was James Henry Lockwood, an important figure in the history of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. I searched for all the facts I could find about these people. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, the facts do not make a novel. I needed to learn more about the events in the area and time surrounding my characters. That’s when I fell into a hole.Any researcher knows how easy it is to be distracted by details you uncover while learning about something. I was thrilled by the number of famous people who were in and around Fort Snelling in 1835. Will Clark, of Lewis and Clark, was Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the territory. Zachary Taylor, future president, commanded the fort. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, served under Taylor. In fact, Taylor’s daughter eloped with Davis from the fort that year. Abraham Lincoln was in the area a bit earlier, 1832, as a volunteer during the Black Hawk War. Eliza Hamilton visited her son in Galena in 1837 and made her way upriver to Fort Snelling then the St. Anthony Falls. In 1836, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson at Fort Snelling. Seth Eastman, cousin of the founder of Eastman Kodak, served at the fort and painted the Dakota. George Catlin, also a famous painter, spent time at the fort. One of the most interesting characters I discovered was Lawrence Taliaferro, Indian Agent. Cloud Man, a Dakota chief, worked with Taliaferro to create an experimental village where the Dakota lived and farmed like the white man. I spent hours following each of these people as their lives crisscrossed.

As enticing as these people were, I had to find a story to tell. I decided to focus on three women. Day Sets, daughter of Cloud Man, had a daughter with Taliaferro. Harriet Robinson arrived at the fort as a teenaged slave of Taliaferro. Samantha Miree lived at the fort with her sutler husband. So my work in progress explores the theme of legacy from the point of view of a Dakota chief’s daughter, a slave, and a white settler. Stay tuned for more about this book on its way to publication!

Zachary Taylor, Dred Scott, William Clark, Lawrence Taliaferro, Jefferson Davis

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