Joseph Godfrey was born into slavery around 1830 in Mendota. He was the son of a French Canadian voyageur named Joseph Godefroi and Courtney (sometimes known as Polly), an enslaved woman brought to Fort Snelling by an American army officer and later sold to Alexis Bailly.
Godfrey was raised in the Bailly home, however, very little is known about his childhood. He received very little to no education. As Godfrey grew older, he was hired out to serve as an aide for Henry H. Sibley, a prominent trader, who later became governor of Minnesota.
Often mistreated by his owners, Godfrey ran away and sought refuge among the Dakota. When they moved to the Lower Sioux Agency, Godfrey was included. He met and married the daughter of Wahpaduta (Red Leaf) in 1857. In August 1862, while helping local Dakota load hay onto a wagon, Godfrey was approached by a Dakota man who announced that all the white people had been killed at the Agency. On the spot, Godfrey was asked what side he would take. Afraid for his life and family, Godfrey felt compelled to join the war.
One fall day, Godfrey was accused by Sibley of joining the Dakota between August 18 and September 26, 1862, and actively participating in attacks. Dakota warriors awarded him the name “Atokte,” which means “slayer of many” in Dakota. Godfrey always denied participating and definitely didn’t kill anyone. But, there were conflicting reports about his role in the conflict and how active he really was.
Godfrey along with a group of about a thousand Dakota surrendered on September 26, after the September 23 Battle of Wood Lake. He was the first person tried by the military commission on September 28, 1862. In an effort to escape execution, Godfrey agreed to testify against eleven of the thirty-eight Dakota warriors who were eventually hung on December 26, 1862. Although he was not convicted of murder, he was convicted of participating in the fighting and sentenced to death by hanging.
In exchange for Godfrey’s testimony, the commission recommended that President Lincoln commute his sentence to ten years imprisonment. In a recommendation to Lincoln, the court commission stated that “a large number of men of the very worst character would have gone unpunished” without Godfrey’s testimony. Lincoln agreed to the commutation and later issued a full pardon.
After serving three years, he was pardoned and freed in 1866. Upon his release, he settled on the Santee Reservation in Nebraska, where he died.