Part 4: The white government pressured tribes for land

Painting of 1851 treaty signing
An oil painting of the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, an agreement between the Wahpeton and Sisseton Dakota and the U.S. government, where the Dakota people ceded 35 million acres in exchange for $3 million in food and annuity payments. The painting now hangs at the Minnesota Capitol, in the Governor's Reception Room and Office. Created in approximately 1905.
Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

By John Biewen

To get more of the story, Gwen and I drive to a small museum. From the outside, it looks like one of those wayside rest buildings. It sits on Highway 169 about 15 miles north of Mankato, just outside St. Peter, the town where I went to college.

The Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site museum, with its big central room of maps and panels, gives the history that led to the 1862 war.

First, some background. The Dakota have lived in Minnesota for at least 1,000 years, and maybe much longer than that. They vastly outnumbered any Europeans who showed up until the mid-1800s, when white people started flooding in. And what happened next in Minnesota happened all across the country.

The country's leaders, going back to the founders, talked bluntly about prying land out of Indian hands. I'd never realized just how bluntly until talking to Ben Leonard, the director of the museum. On one wall is displayed the text from a letter I'd never seen, which was written by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

"Jefferson basically says, Look, we want Indian land. But they're not just going to give it to us. So we have to motivate them to sign treaties, and the way that we do that is going to be to get them into debt," Leonard said.

Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson, shown in an 1805 Rembrandt Peale painting.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

To promote the disposition to exchange lands, we shall push our trading houses and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what individuals can pay, they are willing to lop them off by the cession of lands.

Read the entire letter.

That's exactly what happened in the Minnesota territory. By 1851, the Dakota had come to rely on things they got from white traders -- guns, food, horses, kettles, blankets and traps. And because of some tough times and bad hunting seasons, they were deep in debt -- at least according to the traders themselves, and they were the ones keeping track.

"And the government calls them in again to say, 'We'll help you with your debt, if you sell your land,'" said Gwen.

"If you look at a map of Minnesota today, land-wise, we're talking about basically everything south of Interstate 94. So we're talking essentially about the lower half of Minnesota," said Ben Leonard. The deal also included some pieces of Iowa and South Dakota.

Ben Leonard
Ben Leonard is executive director of the Nicollet County Historical Society at Traverse des Sioux in St. Peter. The Treaty Site History Center rests near the location where the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed between the Dakota and the U.S. government.
Photo by Caroline Yang for MPR

In 1851, in two big treaties -- one of them signed very near to the spot where the museum sits -- the Dakota people traded away 35 million acres for about $3 million -- which was a better price than some other tribes received for their lands.

The treaties set aside reservation land for the Dakota along a 150-mile stretch of the Minnesota River, but it was only 10 miles wide on either side of the river. It was a skinny strip in the middle of the vast territory the Dakota were giving up.

They didn't have much choice. They could see what was coming from the east -- a tidal wave of white settlers hungry for farmland. And the Dakota leaders essentially had a gun to their heads.

The white negotiators didn't have to say it out loud, but one of them did anyway. A man named Luke Lea reminded the Dakota chiefs that the U.S. Government "could come with 100,000 men and drive you off to the Rocky Mountains."

Part 5: Henry Sibley's role >>>

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