CONCEPTION ABBEY RECORDS Historical Note Scope and Content

Selected records primarily composed of financial and administrative correspondence to and from the Abbot and Benedictine priests and religious stationed on the Standing Rock Reservation of North and South Dakota. Included is a 40-year daily diary of the activities and observations of a priest; correspondence from Benedictine sisters and brothers operating reservation schools; correspondence from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions; federal correspondence and printed circulars regarding regulations affecting missionary activities; and correspondence, monographs, and printed material regarding the culture and history of the local Hunkpapa Indians and the history of the various Benedictine mission stations and a minority to about 1940 are written in German, reflecting the Swiss origins of the Abbey.

Microfilmed in 1982 by Marquette University from originals borrowed from Conception Abbey, Conception, Missouri.

Historical Note

Conception Abbey was established in 1873 at Conception, Missouri by Abbot Frowin Conrad. As a Benedictine institution under the auspices of Engelberg Abbey, Einsiedeln, Switzerland, Conception originated as a potential relocation site for the parent institution, which was then experiencing intense persecution. In 1884, responding to the invitation of then Abbot Martin Marty of the Benedictine St. Meinrad's Abbey, St. Meinrad, Indiana, Conception priests and brothers joined the missionary effort on the Standing Rock Reservation of North and South Dakota.

Under Marty's direction, St. Peter's Church had been established in 1876 at the reservation agency, Fort Yates, North Dakota. During the following year, the first mission school was established. Succeeding it was the Martin Knel Boarding School (1879-1919), operating twenty miles south at the new St. Benedict's Mission, Kenel, South Dakota. For many years (1878-1961) Benedictine sisters staffed the boarding school (also known as the Indian Farm School) and other local schools. Following the gradual influx of Conception Abbey personnel, the St. Meinrad Benedictines withdrew in 1884.

Besides the boarding school, other changes affected Native life. Under the direction of native lay catechists, sodalities followed in 1888. After the 1890 Ghost Dance movement an annual Catholic convocation, the "Indian Congress" was initiated for the intensifying native Christian commitment to Catholicism. Simultaneously, agency substations were created throughout the reservation, allowing the establishment of a number of local rural missions. In 1915, the government made land not allotted to individual tribal members available to settlement by non-Native Americans.

See also -- Benedictines. Conception AbbeySt. Peter Church, Fort Yates, North Dakota, and St. Anthony of Padua Church, Mandaree, North Dakota, in Marquette's Guide to Catholic Records about Native Americans in the United States.

Scope and Content

These Conception Abbey records pertain to the Indian mission effort on the Standing Rock, Crow Creek, and Fort Berthold Reservations and comprise portions of two record groups--"Journals [B] " and "Parishes, Missions, and Chaplaincies [D-II]"--within the archives of Conception Abbey. The majority of the material consists of correspondence between the abbot and personnel records at the various mission stations. Prior to 1900 most documents were written in German and a diminished use of the language continued to about 1940. Consequently the topical identification of documents is essentially limited to English language documents.

Reverend Othmar Buerkler's diary spans the period 1920-1966, documenting his activities in the Hunkpapa Indian and German-American communities of Standing Rock Reservation. Celebrating mass, administering sacraments, home visiting, and the weather are frequent topics. Entries are consistently brief and frequently daily.

The major series pertain to the mission headquarters, Fort Yates, St. Peter's and the primary substation, Kenel, St. Benedict's. Prominent topics dispersed throughout both communities include financial and legal concerns pertaining to buildings, lands, and appliances; political and school administrative concerns relating to federal policies; and personmel concerns pertaining to personal affairs of priests and religious. Significant topics of limited duration include the Indian Congresses (1894-1937), the anticipated "civilizing" effects of modern technology and non-Indian settlers (1906-1910) and the suppression of native Hunkpapa dances (1909-1923).

Among the noteworthy items under Fort Yates are a letter of December 18, 1890 by Reverend Bernard Strassmaier, mission superior, to the now Bishop Marty on the death of Chief Sitting Bull, a letter of December 7, 1909 by Commissioner of Indian Affairs R.G. Valentine on the continuation of Native dances by students, and extracts of speeches dated December 6, 1913 by Chief John Grass and others on local socio-economic concerns.

Under Kenel, a letter of 15 August 1898 by principal Reverend Martin Kenel to Reverend Frowin Conrad sketches the development of the Kenel Boarding School. Other significant letters pertain to the resignation of Martin Kenel (1906) and a conference on Hunkpapa Indian socio-economic and religious concerns (1948).

Several sources are prominent for both Fort Yates and Kenel. Among them are four authors:

Reverend/Bishop Martin Marty, O.S.B., Fort Yates, 1876-1892, and Kenel, 1892;
Sister M. Mathilda, Fort Yates, 1882-1883, and Kenel, 1885, 1887;
Reverend Martin Kenel, O.S.B., Fort Yates, 1882-1883, 1897, and Kenel, 1883-1912, undated; and
Abbot Frowin Conrad, O.S.B., Fort Yates, 1887-1923, 1927?, and Kenel, 1888-1890, 1896

Correspondence by Standing Rock agents, other federal officials and lesser known priests are found throughout both series. Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions correspondence (1886-1940) and letters by sisters and brothers (1882-1907) are also included. At Fort Yates only, the correspondence of three other prominent authors is found:

Sister M. Gertrude, 1882-1891;
Reverend Francis M. Craft, a secular priest of partial Mohawk or Seneca heritage, 1887-1888; and
Reverend Bernard Strassmaier, O.S.B., 1888-1940, undated

The balance of the collection consists of correspondence, historical notes, and publications. Materials sent to Abbot Frowin Conrad comprise the Elbowoods, Cannonball, and Stephan correspondence. Drawings by Crow Creek Reservation mission school pupils are also featured under Stephan. The Wakpala correspondence is limited to materials since 1933. The Mclaughlin, Selfridge, and Solon correspondence contain materials pertaining to German-American reservation parishes. Frank Bennett Fiske's The Life and Death of Sitting Bull (1933), David J. Clement's Built on a Firm Foundation: Standing Rock Centenary, 1879-1973, historical sketches, and other commemorative booklets highlight the development of the Standing Rock Reservation.

Reformatted records: Records that have been microfilmed are so noted, most of which are available throughout the United States via interlibrary loan. These and other records are or can be made available in digital formats via email. Reformatting fees may apply. Ask an Archivist for details.

Conception Abbey Records, 1876-1878, 1881-1967, 1971-1973, undated (Series 1 and 2)