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Missionary found his strength in working with Indians
Jan 13, 2008 – 04:05:24 CST
A man in North Dakota was an author-poet-playwright, judge, minister, college president, farmer and one of the most active missionaries among the Native Americans during the first 15 years of the 20th century.Aaron Beede was a principled man of convictions, and this trait not only enabled him to do remarkable things but also cost him positions in life.Aaron McGaffey Beede Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1859, in Sandwich, N.H., one of 12 children, to Capt. Aaron and Mary (McGaffey) Beede.Because he and a brother were rather sickly growing up, their parents decided to send them west to work on farms in the Red River Valley to build up their strength. In 1876, Aaron Jr. and his younger brother Josiah traveled to Fargo and found employment on the bonanza farms.After Josiah Beede died, Aaron Beede befriended some Indians and went to live among the Chippewa and Sioux and learned their languages and customs. Life on the open prairie restored his health and, in 1879, he returned home and enrolled at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

After getting his law license in 1887, he attended the Andover Theological Seminary and graduated with a bachelor of divinity degree in 1890.

Beede was a Congregational minister at Barrington, Maine and, the following year, became superintendent of schools at Alfred, Maine. At the same time, he was working on a doctorate degree. In 1895-96, Beede took a year off to attend the Kaiser Wilhelm University in Berlin and, when he returned to the U.S., completed his doctorate at Illinois Wesleyan University.

In 1893, Beede accepted the position of dean at Redfield College in South Dakota.

In 1899, Beede was hired as assistant president of Fargo College, a small institution affiliated with the Congregational Church. In 1900, he became president, but his health again became a problem. In 1901, Beede left Fargo for Illinois, but his illness became worse.

He remembered how his health had been restored while living with the Indians, and he returned to the state. From 1901 to 1917, Beede was engaged with missionary work among the Indians of North Dakota.

The Beede family was truly ecumenical in their Christian beliefs. Beede was originally ordained in the Congregational church but on May 25, 1902, was ordained an Episcopal priest. However, many of the Indians at the Sioux and Chippewa reservations were Catholic, and, while working with them, he continued the work of the Catholic church.

Having lived with the Indians in the past, Beede was comfortable in a humble environment. While with them, he often lived in a one-room shack even though he was married with three children. To take care of the needs of the Indians he frequently donated food, clothing, and other provisions at his own expense.

He established one parish at Cannon Ball and another near Breien on the Cannonball River. In 1908, he and his parishioners built churches at those locations. In 1911, he established another parish near Dunseith on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

Beede completely identified with his Indian parishioners. This became apparent with the books, newspaper articles and poems that he wrote. Some of his poems received international coverage when they were printed in the London Spectator.

Beede also began writing plays, and his first, “Sitting Bull-Custer,” was published in 1913.

Beede and the Episcopal Church began to grow apart on a number of issues, particularly those that involved his Indian parishioners and their traditional spiritual values.

The issue came to a head in 1916 when some touring Episcopalians criticized the way Beede was handling the distribution of clothing that had been donated. Instead of conforming to the dictates of the church, Beede resigned.

When Sioux County was established in 1914, Gov. Louis Hanna appointed Beede the first judge of that county. In January 1923, at a convention in Chicago he made national news when he told reporters that according to accounts told to him by Sioux participants at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Custer had committed suicide.

The Indians had told him that toward the end of the battle, Custer took his revolver and shot himself. He resigned as judge in 1924 to go into private practice and, from 1925 to 1927, served as state’s attorney of Sioux County.

Beede later moved to Elgin, but continued writing and working as a private practice attorney. He died on Oct. 5, 1934, but his legacy remained throughout the 20th century through his Christian converts, published works, and descendants.

(Written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens by e-mail at cjeriksmoen@;

Bismarck Tribune, January 13, 2008


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