Though early asylum superintendents in the U.S. had to both establish their profession and learn how to run asylums, they generally had at least some experience working in large institutions. Superintendents were medical men who usually acted as the asylum’s chief physician, and supervised assistant physicians and attendants. The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was unusual in that its first superintendent had no medical background whatsoever, and had never managed anything more complex than his own small business.
Gifford was born in New York, and spent part of his childhood in Wisconsin, and later, Illinois. He served in an Elgin, Illinois unit during the Civil War, then studied law. He became a merchant and surveyor, and eventually a lawyer and a territorial delegate (from Dakota Territory). After a distinguished career, during which he helped guide South Dakota to statehood, Gifford was elected South Dakota’s representative to Congress. After he had moved back to Canton, South Dakota (where he had once been mayor), Gifford became superintendent of Canton Asylum.