Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Lynn Sacco

Committee Members

Robert Morrissey, Robert J. Norrell


The life and narrative of Sarah Wakefield, an Anglo migrant who spent six weeks as a captive of the Santee Dakotas during the US-Dakota Conflict, show one woman's experience navigating the changing racial dynamics of the nineteenth-century Minnesota frontier. Using recent conceptualizations of “the frontier” as either a middle ground or woods, this thesis reconsiders Wakefield as a prisoner, not of Indians or her own conscience but of her region‟s ossifying racial divisions. Wakefield's initial attempts at intercultural communication, which included feeding starving Dakotas who knocked on her door, were consistent with Anglo notions about womanhood and Indian-white relations. But when war forced Wakefield into captivity and heightened racial tensions in Minnesota, Wakefield‟s decision to seek protection as the “wife” of an Indian male jumped the boundaries of what the white community would tolerate. Wakefield wrote her captivity narrative after she had returned to her Anglo community, her Indian protector had died by public execution, and the United States government had removed most other Dakotas from the state. While on the surface Wakefield‟s work appears to be courageously pro-Indian, it was in fact an attempt to reconcile herself with other white Minnesotans by proving her adherence to popular notions of racial difference and female propriety. Rather than the defender of cultural pluralism that previous scholars have made her out to be, Wakefield was a pragmatist whose quest for community ultimately overshadowed her willingness to bridge the cultural divide. Her story suggests the limits of intercultural exchange on the frontier and the process by which ideas about race both created and intensified these barriers.

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