Back to top

Missionaries of Red Wing, 1837–1852

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Portrait of the Reverend John F. Aiton and Mary Briggs Aiton, 1854.

Portrait of the Reverend John F. Aiton and Mary Briggs Aiton, 1854.

During a fifteen-year span beginning in 1837, a series of Christian missionaries moved into the Mdewakanton Dakota village of Red Wing. Their goals, in the language of the day, were the "education and civilization" of the Indians. Welcomed by some of their hosts and tolerated by others, these Euro-Americans attempted to convince the Mdewakanton to adopt the ways of the whites.

Tatanka Mani, known to whites as Red Wing, founded the village around 1815. He allied himself with the United States against the English during the War of 1812 and was a widely respected Mdewakanton leader. Tatanka Mani died in 1829, leaving two men, Wacouta I and Mahpiya Maza (Iron Cloud), as rivals for leadership of the band. Wacouta was more positive towards whites, while Mahpiyamaza's attitude ranged from skeptical to hostile.

In 1837 Samuel Dentan (the name is spelled Denton in some accounts) and Daniel Gavin became the first missionaries to arrive at Red Wing. The Evangelical Missionary Society of Lausanne, a French-speaking canton in the future Switzerland, had sent the two men to the Upper Mississippi River Valley in 1836.

The Swiss missionaries built two sturdy log houses on high ground above the Mississippi and began their work. During the winter of 1838–1839, Gavin traveled west to the Lac qui Parle mission northwest of present-day Montevideo. Upon his return to the Upper Mississippi, he married Lucy Stevens, a young teacher at Lake Harriet. The Gavins went to the Red Wing mission. In 1839, Samuel Dentan accepted the job of government farmer at that village for $600 per year. He taught the Mdewakanton farming techniques.

The Red Wing band grew dissatisfied with their guests. The Mdewakanton came to believe that some of the government money due them from the land cession Treaty of 1837 was being diverted to the missionaries. The school run by the Dentans and Gavins had a modest enrollment. In 1844, Gavin reported that Wacouta, an original supporter of the program, had turned against it.

Mdewakanton complaints about the unwanted farming education program led to Dentan's dismissal in March 1845. Lucy Gavin, meanwhile, had been weakened by illness. The Gavins decided to leave Red Wing. A discouraged Dentan complained to fellow missionary Samuel Pond that his superiors insisted on keeping the Red Wing mission open, despite its lack of success. He also left the village.

John Aiton and Joseph Hancock had been students together at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati and decided to accept the call of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and take over the Red Wing mission. John and Nancy Aiton left first in 1848. Joseph and Maria Hancock arrived later, on June 13, 1849.

The Aitons had made a good start in Red Wing, opening a school and providing religious instruction. John Bush, meanwhile, moved to the village and took over as government farmer. He lived near the Aitons with his mixed-blood wife, Charlotte. Upon the Hancocks' arrival, the Aitons lived downstairs in the former Swiss mission house and the newcomers took over the upstairs. John Aiton disliked the fact that as missionary he received $300 plus $30 a year for his child, while Hancock's teaching position paid $500.

The two men disagreed on how to manage the school. Both worried about inconsistent attendance. Aiton averaged twenty-seven students in the fall of 1848, but the number fell off when the Mdewakanton left to collect annuities or hunt. Feeling dissatisfied, the Aitons moved on to other mission assignments

The Hancocks stayed, but Maria died in 1851. She had been unwell since the birth of their son seven months before. The following year Joseph traveled to Lac qui Parle mission and married nineteen-year-old Sarah Rankin and brought her back to Red Wing. Their mission life ended shortly thereafter however as the requirements of the 1851 Treaty of Mendota forced the Red Wing Mdewakanton to move westward.

The Hancocks were asked to join the band as it moved west, but decided to stay in Red Wing, ending missionary efforts to this band of Dakota.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

John F. Aiton Papers, 1835–1898
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, diary and records of Aiton, an early Presbyterian missionary and teacher to the Dakota at Red Wing.

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. First Ten Annual Reports of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1834.

———. Historical Sketch of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Boston: Press of T. R. Marvin, 1859.

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions Correspondence, 1827–1878
Manuscript Collections, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Microfilm of typewritten copies of correspondence with missionaries at the Ojibwe and Dakota missions in Minnesota. Includes biographies, diaries and other records sent to the board.

Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, 1650–1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1997.

Angell, Madeline, and Mary C. Miller. Joseph Woods Hancock: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Pioneer. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1980.

Coleman, Michael C. "Presbyterian Missionaries and Their Attitudes Toward the American Indians, 1837–1893." PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1977.

Curtiss-Wedge, Franklyn. History of Goodhue County, Minnesota. Chicago: H. C. Cooper, Jr., 1909.

Diedrich, Mark. Famous Chiefs of the Eastern Sioux. Minneapolis: Coyote Books, 1987.

———. "Red Wing, War Chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota." Minnesota Archaeologist 40 (March 1981): 19–32.

Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota, vol. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1956 edition.

Hancock, Joseph Wood. Goodhue County, Minnesota Past and Present. Red Wing, MN: Red Wing Printing Co., 1893.

History of Goodhue County. Red Wing, MN: Wood, Alley, 1878.

Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County, Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.

Meyer, Roy W. History of the Santee Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

———. "The Red Wing Indian Village." Unpublished manuscript. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society Collections, 1963.

Northwest Missions Manuscripts and Index, 1766–1926
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Typed transcripts and negative photocopies of letters, diaries, church records, and articles pertaining to Protestant and Catholic missions to the Ojibwe and Dakota Indians in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Dakota Territory, and neighboring areas in Canada (1810-1896); and a card index to these and other items relating to northwest missions (1766-1926). Compiled by Grace Lee Nute.

Pond, Samuel W. The Dakotas or Sioux in Minnesota as they were in 1834. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, reprint, 1986.

Riggs, Stephen R. "Dakota Portraits." Minnesota History Bulletin 2 (November 1918): 481–568.

Related Images

Portrait of the Reverend John F. Aiton and Mary Briggs Aiton, 1854.
Portrait of the Reverend John F. Aiton and Mary Briggs Aiton, 1854.
Portrait of Joseph Hancock.
Portrait of Joseph Hancock.
Portrait of Joseph Hancock, 1904
Portrait of Joseph Hancock, 1904

Turning Point

In 1837, Reverend Samuel Dentan and his new wife, Persis Skinner, a schoolteacher, travel to the Red Wing Mdewakanton village to minister and teach. It is the beginning of an almost continuous missionary presence in the village until the Mdewakanton depart in 1852.



Samuel and Persis Dentan arrive in the Red Wing Mdewakanton village. Daniel and Lucy Stevens Gavin soon join them, and a mission station is built.


Gavin reports that Wacouta, leader of the Red Wing Mdewakanton, has turned against the missionaries' programs.


Dentan is dismissed in March and leaves the village. Lucy Gavin, meanwhile, has been weakened by illness, and the Gavins also decide to move from Red Wing.


John and Nancy Aiton arrive in Red Wing and take over the mission station.


Joseph and Maria Hancock reach Red Wing and, as planned, join the Aitons in teaching and ministering to the Mdewakanton.


Minnesota's Dakota reluctantly agree to sell their southern Minnesota lands to the United States in the Treaty of Mendota.


Although the Mdewakanton of the Red Wing village leave eastern Minnesota Territory, the remaining missionaries Joseph and Sarah Hancock decide to stay behind.