1851 Treaty

Please close this window to return to previous page.

[Man speaking Dakota]

Narrator:
1862. In the midst of the Civil War, newspapers north and south reported of a terrible Indian massacre in the remote state of Minnesota, of families, women and children, murdered in their homes. For years White settlers told stories of the “red savages” and their depredations on innocent people.

Dakota Man:
1862. Dakota people still hold close to them the memory of that year. In 1862 the lives of the people changed and would never be the same. For years they had gone along with the Whites, believing their promises, watching their children go hungry. The Dakota name for White people is Wasicun. It means “takes the fat.”

Narrator:
On the eighth of June, 1851, a young artist by the name of Frank Blackwell Mayer boarded the steamship Exelcior in St. Louis, Missouri bound for the city of St. Paul and the Minnesota Territory. There he would witness the signing of a great treaty between the federal government and the eastern tribes of the Dakota Nation. In six bound sketchbooks, Mayer recorded his journey, a journey that took him a world away from his native Baltimore.

Man reading from Frank Blackwell Mayer’s journal:
As we neared Lake Pepin, we first had intimation that we were emerging in a new region. On one side civilization had advanced and the log cabin and neat frame of the New England settler looked over to the river to an Indian village where council smoke is still seen.

Dakota man:
The village was called Kaposia which in Dakota means “traveling light,” for the people moved with the seasons and the food supply. Life was a struggle, and the Dakota lived for the good of the people if he was to live at all.

Man reading from Frank Blackwell Mayer’s journal:
The chief, Little Crow, is a man of some 45 years of age and of a very determined and ambitious nature but withal exceedingly gentle and dignified in his deportment. His face is full of intelligence when he is in conversation and his whole bearing is that of a gentleman.

Dakota man:
Little Crow’s Dakota name was Thaoyateduta which means “his red nation,” a name which carried great responsibility. His people were Mdewakanton Dakota and their neighbors the Wahpekute. On the edge of the plains near the big stone lake lived the Sissetowan and the Wahpetowan. The four bands would come to talk with the Whites. The Whites called them the Sioux, but it’s a word that means “snake.” The true name is Dakota, which means “the allies.”

Man reading Philander Prescott’s account:
I fixed my mind upon the old chief’s daughter. Her name is Spirit-in-the-Moon. So, I took ten blankets, one gun, five gallons of whiskey and a horse. I went to the old chief’s lodge, laid them down and told the old people my errand and went off home. On the third day I received word that my gift had been accepted. She came forward to be my wife or companion as long as I choose to live with her.

Narrator:
Philander Prescott, like many fur traders, married a Dakota woman and was accepted as one of the family. By marriage a trader could have the business of an entire Dakota village. Even Henry Hastings Sibley of the powerful American Fur Company, married the daughter of a chief and had a child by her, years before he married a White woman.

Dakota man:
In truth, “my brother the beaver does everything to perfection,” a Native hunter once said. “He makes for us kettles, axes, knives, and gives us food without the trouble of cultivating the ground.” Many Dakota felt the same, and this new way of living seemed to make life easier.

Narrator:
Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, fur traders had been encouraged by the government to generate large debts from Indians. Eventually Indian leaders would be persuaded to give up their lands to pay off the debt. And in Minnesota, if the Dakota agreed to a treaty, the traders knew they could settle their accounts at a substantial profit.

Man reading from Saint Paul Pioneer:
June 20, 1851. This morning at sunrise, we are landed at Traverse des Sioux, a beautiful spot where the treaty is to be held, being an inclined expanse of prairie nearly surrounded by a bend of the river. And here we pitch our tents and await the arrival of the red republicans.

Narrator:
Up the winding Minnesota River came an eager delegation of White officials, traders, and missionaries ready to deal. They brought with them cattle to supply great feasts and people wondered how so much champagne ever found its way to the wilderness. But the stakes were high: nearly 24 million acres of Dakota land. They knew that the Sissetowan and Wahpetowan had suffered a hard winter. And if they would sign a treaty, the other tribes would be forced to negotiate.

Dakota man:
A great host gathered for the meeting. There were contests of sport and celebration as people renewed their friendships. Owning the land was a strange idea to the Dakota people. Yet they knew the Whites were coming like locusts on the trees. The people had already sold their land east of the Mississippi. Now the Whites wanted the land to the west.

Narrator:
Leading the delegation was Alexander Ramsey, the territorial governor of Minnesota. Young and ambitious, Ramsey’s political future was riding on a successful treaty. He relied on the traders. Their kinship with the Dakota was a powerful influence. By 1850, Henry Sibley had boasted, “the Indians are prepared to make a treaty, and such a one as I may dictate.” Sibley’s boast became reality, as the Sissetowan and Wahpetowan signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux on July 23, 1851.

Dakota man:
The talks moved downstream to Mendota and for two days the leaders of the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute would not sign anything. They sat and smoked their council pipes. Finally, Thaoyateduta stood and faced the council. “These men sit still and say nothing,” he said, “but you fathers are the cause of its being so. They speak of some money that is due them. We will talk of nothing else if it is until next spring.” The treaty commissioners grew angry. “The Great Father would come with 100,000 men,” they said, “and drive you off to the Rocky Mountains.” They were met with silence. At last the price was raised. And though there was still argument, Thaoyateduta stepped forward and signed his name in big letters.

Narrator:
The Dakota agreed to give up their lands in return for a reservation, assistance for schools, farms, and trades, and yearly payments in gold and food. Their new home would be ten miles on either side of the Minnesota River, from Lake Traverse to just west of the Cottonwood River. They were also promised a large sum of money to move their villages and to settle their affairs with the traders—$500,000.

Dakota man:
The traders claimed most of that money, and they were determined to get it. At the Treaty signing they set up a second table and made the chiefs sign a paper which allowed the government to pay the traders directly. “I am not a White man. I do not know how to read and write,” said one chief. “They pulled me by the blanket and made me sign another paper. It was not explained to me at all. The money would never touch Dakota hands.”

Gary Clayton Anderson, historian:
There were laws that prohibited large payoffs to fur traders. This had happened time and time again. And the federal government finally decided, “we must put a stop to it,” so they passed a law that said, “you cannot write into an Indian treaty any kind of a major payoff to Indian traders.” So those were the directives that Ramsey worked under, and of course, he fully intended to ignore both of them.

Narrator:
As Frank Mayer left for St. Louis, his sketchbooks full, settlers started moving across the Mississippi.

[Man speaking Dakota]

Narrator:
In Washington the Senate struck out the article of the Treaty giving the Dakota a reservation in Minnesota. The Senate decided the Dakota could just move farther west. The Dakota could not believe it.

[Man speaking Dakota]

Narrator:
The Dakota would never sign any piece of paper that left them without a home, so Ramsey had to save the deal. He discovered the President could let the Dakota keep their reservation for five years, which he agreed to do, but Ramsey still needed Dakota approval in writing saying they didn’t actually own the land. Sibley and the traders marshaled all the support they could find among their Dakota relatives. No one knows what promises were made, but enough signatures were found and the Treaties approved.

A year later, the United States Senate brought Alexander Ramsey on charges of fraud, but he was cleared. And the Dakota slowly made their way to the Minnesota River Valley and their new home.

Man reading Philander Prescott’s account:
After the Treaty business was all over, I was taken sick. The Indians said it was a judgment upon me. Goodroad in particular said he wished I would die.

from Dakota Conflict, “The Great Treaty”
Courtesy of Twin Cities Public Television – TPT
and Minnesota Video Vault, 1993

  • Share/Save/Bookmark