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Thompson, Clark Wallace (1825–1885)

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Clark W. Thompson

Clark W. Thompson, ca. 1860s. Minnesota Historical Society portraits collection.

Clark W. Thompson was a businessman and politician who founded the town of Wells, Minnesota, in 1870. As superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Superintendency during the US–Dakota War of 1862, he was involved in crooked business practices and corrupt political dealings—a man of industry who used his position and power to build wealth at the expense of Native populations.

Clark Wallace Thompson was born near Jordan, Ontario, on July 23, 1825. In 1840, he and his family moved to Roscoe, Illinois. There, his father built and managed a large wool factory. He sent young Thompson to the Mount Morris Academy in Mount Morris, Illinois. According to his own account, Thompson “learned very fast there and [became] the best scholar in school.” In September 1843, he married Rebecca Sophia Wells.

In 1850,Thompson traveled west to join in the Gold Rush. He found little success as a miner, so in 1852 he began building water wheels for mills in California. He returned to Minnesota in 1853 and began working at a mill in Hokah, Houston County. He also found work as a banker and railroad speculator.

Thompson, a Republican, entered politics in 1854, when he was elected to the 6th Territorial Legislative Session. He was re-elected to the 7th and 8th Legislative Sessions. He also served as a Republican member of the Territorial Constitutional Convention in 1857.

In 1861, because of the influence of Minnesota Senator Morton S. Wilkinson, Thompson was appointed the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Superintendency. In that role, he oversaw Indian agencies in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

As superintendent, Thompson was in charge of the disbursement of funds to Native people— a duty that put him at the center of a corrupt system of political patronage. Because Thompson used his role to support his own business interests while awarding contracts to friends and business partners, he and the men around him became rich at the expense of Native populations. In the same year as his appointment, for example, Thompson partnered with Ojibwe Agent Lucius Walker to falsify annuity rolls, steal and then resell Ojibwe goods, and collude with dishonest traders.

In the summer of 1862, Thompson recognized the poor condition of the Dakota people awaiting late deliveries of food and annuity money from the US government. He worked against those who sought to delay the annuity payment. In July 1862, he wrote a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Dole. “If the payment is not made very soon,” he wrote, “there is but little hope of preventing an outbreak.” Thompson was at Fort Snelling when the payment arrived on August 16. He personally escorted the monies to Fort Ridgely on August 18, shortly after the outbreak of the US–Dakota War.

In 1863, Thompson arranged the removal of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk people to the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota. The land he selected was dry, lacked game for hunting, and was not well suited for people accustomed to a woodland terrain. For six weeks after their arrival at Crow Creek, three or four people died every day from starvation or disease.

The people working above and below Thompson often sought political and business favors. They also encouraged Thompson to commit fraud, and he often went along. In 1863, he led a disastrous campaign to send goods from Mankato to the Dakota and Ho-Chunk at Crow Creek. The plan, called the Moscow Expedition by local papers, allowed Thompson to award lucrative contracts to business partners but delayed the delivery of food. Meanwhile, he ignored the dire situation of the people living at Crow Creek.

At the time, the government largely overlooked Thompson’s corrupt conduct. In 1861, special agent George E. H. Day accused Thompson of fraud in letter to President Lincoln that went ignored. Two years later, in a letter to Senator Henry M. Rice, Bishop Henry B. Whipple noted that Thompson brought $12,000 in gold to the Ojibwe annuity payment, but only $5,500 was paid.

After retiring from Indian affairs, Thompson became the president of the Southern Minnesota Railroad. Beginning at La Crescent the railroad went across southern Minnesota to Winnebago City. In 1870, the railroad led to the founding of Wells, named for Thompson’s wife. Thompson built factories, including a flourishing mill, and the town grew quickly.

In 1870, Thompson was elected to the Thirteenth Minnesota Legislative Session representing Faribault County. From 1880 to 1885, he served as the president of the State Agricultural Society. He died in Wells, Minnesota, on October 11, 1885.

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Hyman, Colette. “Survival at Crow Creek, 1863–1866.” Minnesota History 61, no. 4 (Winter 2008–2009): 148–161.

Kiester, Jacob Armel. The History of Faribault County Minnesota: From its First Settlement to the Close of the Year 1879. Minneapolis: Harrison & Smith Printers, 1896.

Lass, William E. “The ‘Moscow Expedition.’” Minnesota History 39, no. 6 (Summer, 1965): 227–240.

Clark W. Thompson papers, 1841–1853
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Photocopied diary, letters, and autobiographical sketch of Thompson.

Clark W. Thompson papers, 1852–1866, 1875
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, financial records, journals, and time books of this Indian agent in charge of the northern superintendency in Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin (1861–1865).

"Thompson, Clark W. ‘C. W.’" Legislators Past and Present. Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.

United States Office of Indian Affairs. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1862. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1863.

Upham, Warren. and Rose Barteau Dunlap. “Clark W. Thompson.” In “Minnesota Biographies 1655–1912,” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 14. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1912.

Benjamin Whipple to Henry M. Rice, November 1863. Letterbook 3, box 40 of the Henry B. Whipple Papers, 1833–1934. Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Related Images

Clark W. Thompson
Clark W. Thompson
Snuffbox presented to Clark W. Thompson
Snuffbox presented to Clark W. Thompson
Morton S. Wilkinson, ca. 1880.
Morton S. Wilkinson, ca. 1880.

Turning Point

In 1861, Thompson is appointed the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Superintendency.



Clark Wallace Thompson is born near Jordan, Ontario, Canada.


Thompson and his family move to Roscoe, Illinois.


Thompson marries Rebecca Sophia Wells.


Thompson moves to California to take part in the Gold Rush.


Thompson returns from California and settles at Hokah, Minnesota, where he engages in milling with his brother Edward.


Thompson is elected to the 6th Territorial Legislative Session.


Thompson is appointed as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Superintendency.


Thompson oversees the removal of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk people to Crow Creek, South Dakota.


While acting as a Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thompson carries out an ill-fated plan to supply goods to the Dakota and Ho-Chunk at Crow Creek while providing lucrative business contracts to his partners and cohorts.


Thompson leads a push for the construction of a railway system in southern Minnesota.


Thompson becomes a primary shareholder in the Lanesboro Townsite Company, whose funding allows the town to incorporate.


Thompson serves in the 13th Minnesota Legislative Session as a representative of Faribault County.


Thompson begins farming in Wells.


Thompson become president of the State Agricultural Society.


Thompson passes away in Wells.