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Capt. J.B. Irvine was stationed at Fort Sully from 1867 to 1874.
Capt. J.B. Irvine was stationed at Fort Sully from 1867 to 1874.
Letcher collector Ken Stach bought a series of envelopes that contained correspondence from Irvine written in the 1860s and 1870s.
Letcher collector Ken Stach bought a series of envelopes that contained correspondence from Irvine written in the 1860s and 1870s.

Rediscovering J.B. Irvine

Aug 31, 2011

We were visiting my wife’s parents in Letcher last Christmas when my mother-in-law asked if I’d ever heard of J.B. Irvine. I know a few characters from state history, but Irvine didn’t ring any bells. Then she showed me a number of photocopied letters written from Fort Sully in the 1860s and 1870s.

The copies came from Ken Stach, a postal history collector who lives on a farm near Letcher. He’s interested in old postmarks, and tries to ascertain the routes pieces of mail took to reach their destination. He’s also the editor of two postal history journals: Western Express and the Dakota Collector.

In 1987 he bought a collection of cancelled envelopes that belonged to James Finley, a South Dakota native living in California. Included were a series of envelopes postmarked from Fort Sully in the 1860s and sent by J.B. Irvine, mostly to his wife and children living in St. Paul. Stach didn’t know it, but the letters once contained in the envelopes are in the state archives in Pierre, presumably donated by Finley. When Stach discovered their location, he made an agreement with archives staff: they would photocopy the Irvine letters in exchange for copies of Stach’s postal history collection. Stach received the copied letters in the early 1990s, and they’ve lain largely unused in his collection until last winter.

“After 20 years I decided to get the letters transcribed so they’re a bit more usable,” Stach says. He turned to my mother-in-law, a recently retired schoolteacher at Sanborn Central, who has been typing away all winter. Stach plans to provide the archives with electronic versions of the letters. Researchers frequently access the Irvine collection because it’s one of the best sources of information available about that time and place in Dakota history.

Javan B. Irvine was born in New York in 1831 and moved to Minnesota in 1852 to work as a builder with his brother, John. He joined the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment when the Civil War broke out and fought at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. He saw action throughout the war, then was stationed at various military outposts, including Fort Sully in Dakota Territory from 1867 to 1874.

Many of Irvine’s missives are routine accounts of fort life, but in a December 1872 letter to his wife he describes a near fatal encounter with an Indian. Irvine had gone hunting on horseback when he met the Indian, whom he had seen before and considered friendly. But as Irvine rode away, the Indian drew a pistol and shot four times. One of the bullets lodged in Irvine’s scalp. After a brief pursuit, he returned to Fort Sully and eventually persuaded the skeptical doctor to extract the bullet.

“Dr. Wright dressed the wound, and from the fact that a hole was found in the top of my cap, supposed the ball had glanced after striking the skull, and passed out of the top of the cap,” Irvine explained. “I called his attention to a lump on top of my head, but with his usual super abounding theories, he explained the cause of that to his apparent satisfaction, but not to mine! I went to bed and commenced feeling the top of my cranium, and becoming convinced that the bullet was there, sent for the Dr to come down and cut it out. This he succeeded in doing after some difficulty, and spattering blood all over your nice bedclothes. The ball had remained in the wound about eight hours and didn’t want to come out very bad.”

Irvine retired from 30 years of military service in 1891 and moved to California, where he died in 1904. Though he spent just seven years of his distinguished military career in South Dakota, his correspondence gives us a remarkable look at Dakota’s early history.

Comments

12:10 pm - Wed, August 31 2011
Laura said:
I'd like to know what Mrs. Irvine wrote back after receiving that letter!
01:03 pm - Wed, August 31 2011
Dan Brosz said:
Excellent story South Dakota Magazine! But then again, everything you publish is great! I just wanted to share with your readers that we have the bullet from Capt. Irvine's skull on display here at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. It, along with Irvine's ditty bag, can be found in the "Proving Up" Gallery.

Thanks again for the excellent article, and keep up the top-notch work!

Sincerely,

Dan Brosz, Curator of Collections
South Dakota State Historical Society
02:07 pm - Wed, August 31 2011
John Andrews said:
They thought to keep the bullet? That's some historical foresight. How did it make its way into the collection?
06:52 pm - Wed, August 31 2011
I stopped in Pierre at the Cultural Heritage Center to see the original letters. The workers were very helpful, located the box, and placed it on the table for me. I found tucked neatly inside a multitude of letters, including the pages from Irvine that I am transcribing, but there is so much more. I can see why South Dakota history enthusiasts would read this file. His descriptions are detailed and serious. Some of the correspondence isn't from him, but relates to his story. I didn't take time to peruse the entire box, but that letter Laura mentioned may be there too. Irvine is a serious man, but sometimes shows a sense of humor. His mastery of the English language is impeccable. With each letter I type, I am anxious to read on. It is such a good story! I thank Ken Stach for allowing me to type them.
06:59 am - Thu, September 1 2011
Rebecca Johnson said:
Transcribing these letters sounds like a fun job. What an interesting character.
05:58 pm - Thu, September 1 2011
Dianne Selchert said:
I just finished one where he tells a bit of gossip about a lady that is at their camp. He usually steers clear of gossip, but he spends about 3 pages on "her" story.
He goes on to tell how he quickly bounced back from his shooting incident, but others would have tried to get 6 months leave out of an incident like that.
He mentions in several letters his disrespect for "guzzling beer, whiskey, or champagne, or sucking a stinking pipe or cigar, or shuffling dirty cards amid the fumes of smoke and brandy."
02:14 pm - Fri, September 2 2011
Dan Brosz said:
Thanks for asking John! Capt. Irvine's grandson, Lawrence Riggs donated the bullet to the South Dakota State Historical Society in 1983. Lawrence Riggs was a member or the Riggs family that is so prominent in South Dakota's history.

I am posting a photo of the bullet on our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/SDMuseum

or go to Facebook and search South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center. Please "like" us while you are there.
12:24 pm - Mon, September 5 2011
anonymous said:
Speaking of historical foresight in bad situations, I swear that years ago I was at the Wagner museum and they had a little bunch of square nails that were labeled "Nails from Jack Sully's Coffin."

I looked again a few years later and couldn't find them, so maybe my memory was bad. Or maybe it was a joke for fools like me?

Or maybe some pioneer who built the original coffin saved a few nails? I'd like to think that was the story, rather than that someone from the museum went out to the grave site and dug up the coffin for the momentoes. But anything is possible in Charles Mix County.
10:08 am - Tue, September 6 2011
John Andrews said:
I've heard the story about the coffin nails too. Maybe someone from the Wagner museum is reading and can weigh in?
03:31 pm - Wed, December 7 2011
Check out a sampling of Irvine's letters here:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.117266228318262.7070.100001046573101&type=1&l=3e788bcb60
06:00 am - Thu, December 8 2011
Laura said:
Wow. Thanks, Diane! I admire Irvine's frugality for writing in multiple directions on the paper, but feel bad for the recipient and those who choose to read them now. At least he had good handwriting.

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