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N.D. settler helped British in early U.S.

One of the early pioneers in what is now North Dakota won a battle against a national war hero who later became president of the United States. With a force of 30 soldiers, one piece of artillery and about 1,000 American Indians, Duncan Graham de...

One of the early pioneers in what is now North Dakota won a battle against a national war hero who later became president of the United States.

With a force of 30 soldiers, one piece of artillery and about 1,000 American Indians, Duncan Graham defeated the Americans under the command of Maj. Zachary Taylor at the Battle of Credit Island on Sept. 5, 1814. Soon after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812, Graham established a trading post next to Devils Lake, N.D.

James Alexander Duncan Graham was born in the Scottish Highlands in 1772. He came to America, heeding the call of Wapasha I - chief of the Mdewakanton band of Santee Sioux - who was actively seeking traders and trappers to interact with his tribe.

Wapasha sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, but when the conflict ended he encouraged relations with both England and the U.S. Graham became a close friend of the elderly chief and was given the Indian name Hohayteedah, which means "Horse Voice." Graham married the chief's granddaughter, Istagiwin. In 1805, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter.

At the time, the Mdewakanton band of Sioux occupied the northern regions of what are now Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Graham served as a trading liaison between the American Indians and British. In 1806, Wapasha I died and was replaced by his son, Wapasha II. The new chief, Istagiwin's uncle, was also a man of peace. Although he encouraged the exchange of American and British goods and culture, he recognized the danger of alcohol and excluded it from the items to be bartered.


According to his granddaughter, Marie McLaughlin, Graham went to work for the York Factory near Churchill, Manitoba. The York Factory was the major administrative, transshipment and manufacturing center within the Hudson Bay Co. McLaughlin also said Graham was instrumental in helping Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, obtain the charter (land grant) for the Selkirk Colony from the Hudson Bay Co. on June 12, 1811. The Selkirk Colony established experimental farms in present-day North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba.

The peace and tranquility of Wapasha II, his band of Sioux and Graham's family was shattered with the outbreak of the War of 1812. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain because England had harassed the U.S. merchant marine and interfered with U.S. frontier settlements. The Sioux, Pottawatomie, Sauk, Fox and other tribes allied themselves with the British in hopes of protecting their hunting lands from the Americans.

The British gave Graham a commission (reports differ as to whether he was a lieutenant or captain) and enlisted his services with the British Indian Department. On July 17, 1814, Graham helped Lt. Col. William McKay take the fort at Prairie du Chien, Wis., from the Americans. Prairie du Chien separates Wisconsin from Iowa on the Mississippi River.

In an attempt to retake the fort at Prairie du Chien, Maj. Taylor was ordered to lead a force up the Mississippi to Rock Island in northern Illinois to destroy Indian crops and villages and build a fort to control the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers. Taylor sailed up the Mississippi with eight gunboats and 350 (some sources list 430) men from the 7th U.S. Infantry Division. Graham was sent to intercept Taylor and his force. Graham had 30 volunteer fur trade employees and one artillery cannon under his command.

Graham also enlisted the aid of about 1,200 Sauk, Sioux, Winnebago and Kickapoo Indians. He launched his defense of Prairie du Chien on Credit Island, which is the site of present day Davenport, Iowa. Before daybreak on Sept. 5, 1814, Graham and his allies spotted the flotilla commanded by Taylor. The first shot from Graham's cannon blasted through the bow of Taylor's boat. At the same time, Graham's men and allies opened fire on Taylor's soldiers.

Taylor realized his objective was hopeless and ordered a retreat. Prairie du Chien remained under British control for the rest of the war. Taylor, who was under the assumption that Graham's men had six artillery canons, later wrote to his commanding officer:

"I conceive it would have been madness ... to have risked the detachment without a prospect of success. I believe I should have been fully able to have accomplished your views, if the enemy had not been supplied with artillery, and so advantageously posted as to render it impossible for me to have dislodged them without imminent danger to the loss of the whole detachment."

The Treaty of Ghent was signed Dec. 24, 1814, ending the War of 1812. The treaty outraged the Indian chiefs who had sided with the British because they were not consulted. Graham kept the trust of his Indian friends by continuing to live and work with them on land belonging to the United States.


This article will be concluded next week as we examine the later life and legacy of Duncan Graham and his family.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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