Joseph Renville, hymn writer, English soldier and Pike’s guide

Time Before Now, March 1846President James Polk introduced his policy of Western expansion to Congress in December, quickly dubbed “Manifest Destiny.”  Texas helped things along, joining the Union as the 28th state on the cusp of the New Year and in January the House of Representative voted to stop sharing the Oregon Territory with Great Britain.  Author Charles Dickens, three years after penning his popular “A Christmas Carol,” began and ended a brief 10-week career as a journalist for London’s Daily News and labor leader Sarah G. Bagley, of Lowell, Massachusetts (left), became the first woman telegraph operator in America.

 March 18, 1846

On this day prairie Renaissance man, Joseph Renville, died in what is now Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, leaving behind a legacy that has lasted through time. 

One of the frontier’s most remarkable pioneers, he was a trapper, trader, translator and for decades, an elder statesman to the Dakota.  Renville (left) earned a place in American history, as well, serving as  interpreter to Zebulon Pike’s  expedition in search of the headwaters of the Mississippi and again on a portion of Pike’s western trek to Colorado’s Pike’s Peak.

Born in 1779 at Kaposia. near present-day St. Paul, Minnesota, he was the son of a French fur trapper and a Dakota mother, Miniyehe, believed to be the daughter of Mdewakaton-Dakota chief, Big Thunder. (Left)  He spent his early years among the Dakota before traveling to Canada with his father. Educated by priests there, he became fluent in French and, according to contemporary accounts, absorbed “French manners,” as well.

Painting of Kaposia by John Casper Wilder 

With kinship ties to the lodges of  many of the region’s most powerful Native American leaders, Zebulon Pike (below) quickly enlisted Renville’s help when he arrived at St. Anthony’s Falls in late summer of 1805.  In addition to looking for the source of the Mississippi, the young officer’s portfolio also included the task of winning over the native people who had stubbornly continued to hunt for the British fur traders.  

Ignoring Renville’s advice, however, the over-eager Pike  struck out in September, only to be stranded by snow and sub-zero temperatures just one hundred miles up the river.  Forced into a makeshift winter camp, the party ironically had to be rescued by British trappers.  Undaunted, Pike continued north with a single companion and declared he’d found the headwaters of the Mississippi at Leach Lake  It was, however, a good 50 mile short of the actual source at Lake Itasca.

Actual headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itaska

Pike tapped Renville a second time as guide and interpreter for a portion of his 1806 expedition through the southern Great Plains. Faced with another of the nation’s social missions, Pike was assigned to return 50 hostages to the Osage Nation in present-day Kansas and Missouri. Luckily, Renville returned to Minnesota before Pike strayed into territory claimed by Spain.  He and half his men were held captive in Mexico for more than a year.  

With one foot in two worlds in 1806 Renville actually purchased a bride according to his mother’s Dakota custom, the niece of Dakota chief Little Crow, (left) reluctant leader of Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862.  In keeping with the custom of his father, however, the pair were also married in a Christian ceremony at Prairie du Chien.

Despite his long relationship with Pike, Renville, like most of the Dakotas,  sided with Great Britain during the War of 1812.   Enlisting in the British Army, he distinguished himself at the Battle of Fort Meigs in Ohio.  

After peace was declared in 1815, President James Madison sought to repair relations with native people, calling the Council at Portage des Sioux. Apparently Renville’s British service was already forgiven and he was engaged as translator.  Resigning from the British Army in favor of restoration of rights for former combatants, he accepted Madison’s offer of American citizenship.

Artist’s depiction of  Council at Portage des Sioux. 1815

Once again in Washington’s good graces, he served as guide and translator for Major Steven Long’s 1823 exploration of the Red River and the Upper Minnesota.

By 1832, he was the father of 10 children and followed in his father’s footsteps. He became a fur trader, moving further west to present-day Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, establishing Fort Renville, a prosperous fiefdom of considerable size.  The substantial stockade contained a large log home, a store house, watch towers and a tipi for a force of native guards known as Tokadantee, the “Prairie Dogs” to fend off attacks by rival Ojibwa.

Known for his hospitality, he befriended native people, lost and weary travelers and the occasional dignitary from the East.  No one, Indian or white ever left hungry,” said one contemporary account.  French geographer and explorer Joseph Nicollet (left)  was one grateful recipient, calling his host’s efforts “liberal and untiring”  in accommodating guests.

Dyspeptic English traveler, George W. Featheringstone, was the rare critic.  Described charitably by those who knew him as “irritable” and less charitably by many as a racist, he wrote a sneering account of his visit to the fort. “Renville, a half breed … shewed his unfriendly disposition  and … advanced and saluted but not cordially.”  Featheringstone further accused Renville of “sharp trading” whining that his host had placed the interest of native people ahead of the disagreeable Englishman’s when selling him horses.

Featheringstone’s poor opinion aside, Renville proved to be scrupulously honest.  When a Texas rancher vastly overshot on his way to Fort Snelling in present day Minneapolis, his cattle became scattered across the Minnesota prairie.  Renville rounded up the strays, wintered them over with his own sizeable herd, sold them at a profit in the Spring and sent all the proceeds from the sale to the unfortunate Texan.

 It was a chance meeting at Fort Snelling that brought the Rev. Thomas S. Wilkinson (left) to Renville’s Lac qui Parle settlement.  Wilkinson, a Christian missionary, was also a physician.  Renville was quick to spot an opportunity for added value and offered to aid Wilkinson in establishing a mission.

Artist’s depiction of Fort Snelling, circa 1840s

A strong believer in education and economic advancement for the Dakota, Renville had already introduced modern agricultural practices.  Wilkinson was successful with Renville’s help, convincing churchmen in the East to send additional teachers and missionaries to the western settlement.

Strained relationships between the missionaries and their patron were not uncommon but it was a partnership that yielded a remarkable legacy, as well.  Together they established a Dakota alphabet, translated large portions of the Bible into the native tongue and created a Dakota dictionary.  In addition, Renville developed the Dakota Odowan, a Protestant hymnal that is still in use.  His hymn “Many and Great Oh God Are Thy Things” is one of the oldest American Christian anthems still being sung today.

At the age of 62, Renville was ordained a Presbyterian Ruling Elder of the Dakota amid protests from several of the resident missionaries who believed he might secretly be a Catholic.

Renville died at the age of 67, Rev. Wilkinson presiding at his funeral.    Prairie Renaissance man Joseph Renville, noted Wilkinson, was buried “on a hill overlooking his stockade.”   While his final resting place remains unmarked, the entire mission site is now part of  Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle State Park and a National Historic Place.

The mission outlived Renville by a mere decade.  Growing conflicts and controversies with the native people persuaded Wilkinson to abandon the Lac qui Parle site and move to the Upper Sioux Agency near present day Granite Falls, Minnesota.

Wilkinson’s Upper Sioux Agency near Granite Falls

The mission’s legacy did not disappear, however.  Several of Renville’s sons entered the ministry, serving native congregations in western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota into the 20th Century.

Lac qui Parle State Park, some 900 acres in southwestern Minnesota, is open winter months for hiking and cross country skiing.  Canoeing, camping and picnic facilities are open during the summer and hours for the park’s visitors center vary with the season.  Fort Renville and Laq qui Parle mission (French translation of the Dakota name “lake that speaks”) were reconstructed in the 1940’s under the Works Progress Administration and are open to visitors during summer months. 

Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.  For more information go to, contact the park at 320-734-4450, by fax: 320-734-4452 or e-mail: lacquiparle.statepark

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.