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Fri, 12.27.1799

Jim Thompson, Trapper, and Translator born

Market Street Methodist Church

*The birth of Jim Thompson is celebrated on this date c 1799.  He was a Black, laborer, translator, and trapper in the Minnesota territories.  

James Thompson was born a slave in Virginia.  His first trip into Minnesota country came in 1827 with his owner, sutler John Culbertson while he sold slave-produced merchandise to the First Infantry stationed at Fort Snelling.  Thompson’s first owner, George Monroe (the nephew of President James Monroe), sold him as payment for a gambling debt.  While staying at Fort Snelling Culbertson sold Thompson to officer William Day.

In 1833 Thompson, still living at the fort with Day, married a daughter of the Dakota leader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man) and began to learn the Dakota language. When Day was reassigned to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien in 1836 he took Thompson along.  In 1837 the Methodist missionary Alfred Brunson searched for an interpreter to help him teach the Methodist faith to the American Indians near Fort Snelling. He looked for a man who not only shared his faith but could clearly communicate its tenets to the Dakota. Believing Thompson to be a committed Methodist and recognizing his unique relationship with the Dakota, Brunson chose him to be his mission's interpreter.  Brunson was able to buy Thompson's freedom on May 19, 1837.

Happy to be reunited with his wife, he returned to the Fort and began the area's first Methodist mission in the Dakota village of Kaposia, located ten miles down the river from Fort Snelling. The mission's land was given to them by the Dakota leader Wakinyatanka "Big Thunder" (Little Crow III), who through either a budding Methodist faith or a pragmatic understanding of his people's relationship with the growing white-immigrant community welcomed the new mission. All of that changed in 1839. Wakinyatanka no longer allowed his children to take part in the mission and attendance stopped. Brunson left the church and moved it to present-day Newport soon after.

Thompson left Kaposia and began selling liquor near Fort Snelling.  In May of 1840, Thompson and other whiskey-selling squatters were forced to move and settled in a small community known as Pig's Eye and later renamed St. Paul.  During this time Thompson worked as a carpenter. He helped construct the house of Edward Phelan and John Hays, considered to be the first home built in St. Paul. He also built and operated the first ferry boat between the current downtown and West St. Paul. By 1841 the Thompsons had settled in the area and had two children, a daughter named Sarah and a son, George.  Thompson was the first Black resident in the city, then a small community that relied so heavily on kinship; his family were welcomed as residents of what would eventually become the state capital. 

In 1849 Thompson, helped build a new Methodist church (pictured) in the city's downtown. He donated money, land, and materials, including 1,500 shingles and two thousand feet of lumber.  After statehood, at the onset of the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862 Thompson and his family were living near the Lower Sioux Agency. Thompson left his family for the safety of Fort Ridgely, Minnesota realizing that his Dakota wife and Black Dakota children would remain safe. After the war, Thompson was reunited with his family and eventually returned to St. Paul.  Years later, Thompson left Minnesota, following his son to Nebraska to live on the Santee Sioux Reservation. He died there on October 15, 1884. 

To Become an Interpreter


Image: MNHS

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