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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Sunday March 3rd 2024

From Greek Φιλανδρος (Philandros) “friend of man”; Philander Prescott

Prescott, killed in 1862 at the Dakota Conflict after warning U.S. 6 years earlier of inevitable trouble without changes, was buried on the prairie and reinterred later at Layman”'s Cemetery when Mary died in 1867.  His tombstone was encased ca. 1938 by the Hennepin History Museum in order to preserve it longer.

By Sue Hunter-Weir

For the first hundred years of the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery”'s history, Philander Prescott was the cemetery”'s most written about pioneer. In more modern times he is remembered by those with a keen interest in the Dakota Conflict of 1862, otherwise he is mostly forgotten. Prescott arrived at Fort Snelling in 1819 and lived in what later became Minnesota until his death. Over the course of the years he, like many pioneers, did many jobs in order to survive. He was a sutler (i.e., ran the store at Fort Snelling), trapper, fur trader, translator, Bureau of Indian Affairs agent and farmer. He married Spirit of the Moon (also known as Mary), the daughter of Man Who Flies, one of the elders of the Lake Calhoun band of Dakota. They were married almost 40 years and had ten children. He was one of the casualties of the Dakota Conflict of 1862.

By all accounts, Prescott was modest and unassuming. Although he was the first white man to visit Pipestone quarry and wrote about it as early as 1832, the reddish-brown stone was named not after him but was named catlinite after George Catlin, another, rather more flamboyant explorer. Frank Mayer, a New York artist who visited Minnesota in 1851, spent some time with the Prescott family and described Philander as a “pursey little man,” presumably meaning a “prissy” man. Mayer complained that Prescott was “non-communicative,” a quality that Mayer attributed to Prescott”'s long association with Native American people. What Mayer couldn”'t fathom is that after thirty years in the “Northwest,” Prescott had little in common with visitors from the East. His family, his work and his life were here.

In his own reminiscences Prescott comes across as a man with a sense of humor who was something of a practical joker. He was an adventurer, someone who was used to living under adverse circumstances. As difficult as his and Mary”'s lives were at times, there is nothing in his writing that suggested that he regretted the choices that he had made.

Prescott”'s work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and his religious conversion in the 1830s are occasionally offered as evidence that he was exploiting his relationship with the Dakota people. There is no question that Prescott was a religious man and that he supported the missionaries who worked to convert the Dakota to Christianity. He was one of the founding members and financial supporters of the First Presbyterian Church. After fifteen years of living together and raising several children together, Prescott and Mary were married in a Christian ceremony on the shore of Lake Calhoun. Gideon Pond and Steven Riggs, early missionaries to the Dakota people, performed the ceremony. 

Prescott was also employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to teach Dakota men to farm, an effort that many today view as the government”'s attempt to destroy traditional Dakota values and culture. His memoirs hint at a different, more personal, motive: he was concerned that as the herds of buffalo and deer diminished, people would not have enough to eat, something that he had experienced first hand.

One thing that is clear from various ledgers and account books is that Prescott didn”'t exploit the tribes financially. Many other traders attempted to cheat the tribes by submitting huge, and questionable, claims. Those traders received cents on the dollar, but Prescott”'s claims were treated as honest accounts of what he was owed and paid in full. 

As early as 1856, Prescott warned the Bureau of Indian Affairs about tribal members”' discontent about their treatment by the government. He warned the agency that unless their treatment of the tribes changed, there would be trouble. It is not clear from the letter he wrote whether he intended to resign or whether he was fired as a consequence of his outspokenness. In either case, it ended his career as government farmer.

Prescott”'s warning to the BIA went unheeded and six years later, his predictions came true. What he had not predicted is that he would be one of the casualties. Philander and Mary Prescott were at the Lower Sioux Agency on August 18, 1862, when the Dakota Conflict broke out. He was advised to hide and was initially spared. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he later attempted to reach Fort Ridgely. He was killed on the way. Mary was taken prisoner but escaped and made her way to Shakopee where she lived until her death in 1867. Prescott had been buried on the prairie but when Mary died, he was disinterred and brought back to Minneapolis. They are buried in Lot 4, Block A.

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