Plains Folk

The Inheritance of Alfred Sully


In June of 1880 the veterans of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment gathered at White Bear Lake for a reunion. There they passed a resolution honoring the man who had commanded them through the arduous actions at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, a man who had passed away on Vancouver Island the previous year.


This commander, they said, “realized our ideal of the highest type of a gallant officer. As a commander he was prompt and brave in action, and kind and considerate in camp and on the march. No officer ever possessed more fully the esteem and confidence of his men. Our reverence and love for him was like that of children for a parent.”


The man of whom the veterans spoke was Alfred Sully, who, following his service in the Eastern Theater, was reassigned west to command troops fighting the Dakota War in Dakota Territory. That would have been considered something of a demotion.


More to the point, I just returned from a historical discussion program at Standing Rock, and I can tell you, in those parts Alfred Sully is not considered “kind and considerate,” nor does he command “esteem and confidence.”


People at Standing Rock remember Sully as the commander whose troops engaged in the indiscriminate shooting of noncombatants at Whitestone Hill in 1863, and who turned the howitzers on the women and children on Killdeer Mountain in 1864.


Despite which indiscretions, Sully was eulogized by the St. Paul Daily Globe specifically for his campaigns in Dakota, “in which service he was particularly successful,” that paper writes, and praises him particularly “for his gallantry at the battle of White Stone Hill.”


White-guy historians today might recognize the logistical abilities of Sully, and note the confidence he instilled in his men—but I don’t think you will find a historian who will credit Brigadier General Sully with “gallantry” at Whitestone Hill.


Now here is another fact that attracted the attention of the eulogists of Alfred Sully. Press reports note that Sully died intestate, thus leaving a substantial inheritance to a woman the headlines called “a dusky heiress.”


This daughter of Sully was a Yankton woman known to whites as Mary but to Yankton people as “Akicita Win,” which means, and I am not making this up, “Soldier Woman.”


The Yankton name of the woman who married Sully in Dakota Territory is not well known; I am sure there are native people who know her name, but I have not yet learned it. She was the daughter of Saswe, a legendary leader of the Yankton who made a vision quest to Bear Butte but also converted to Christianity.


Reporters in 1879 said the paternity of Akicita Win “is susceptible to proof,” and as for her Sully family inheritance, “it will be difficult to invalidate the claim.” Partly because as observers on the scene noted, Akicita Win strongly resembled her soldier father.


Akicita Win married Tipi Sapa, Black Lodge, in English the Reverend Philip Deloria, whose statue stands in the National Cathedral in Washington. She became the matriarch of an exceedingly distinguished family, including the scholars Ella Deloria and Vine Deloria Junior. Vine Jr.’s son Phil, named for his distinguished ancestor, is a well-known historian who recently lectured in Grand Forks.


All of which complicates how we remember the old soldier who died in 1879.


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