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Rice, Henry Mower (1816‒1894)

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Henry M. Rice

Oil-on-canvas portrait of Henry M. Rice painted by George Healy in 1857.

As a trader, businessman, treaty negotiator, and legislator, Henry Mower Rice played a crucial role in Minnesota’s statehood and the development of St. Paul. At the same time, Rice was responsible for policies that benefited himself and his business partners at the expense of Minnesota’s Indigenous populations.

Henry Mower Rice was born in Waitsfield, Vermont, in 1816. After briefly studying law in Virginia, he moved to Michigan in 1834 and worked as a surveyor for the Sault Ste. Marie canal project.

In 1839, Rice began working for the American Fur Company (AFC) at Fort Snelling, assisting sutler Franklin Steele in supplying goods to the fort’s soldiers, as well as with French and Métis traders and Indigenous trappers. In 1842, AFC’s regional agents, Henry Sibley and Hercules Dousman, worked with Rice after he was assigned to Fort Atkinson in Iowa Territory, where the Ho-Chunk had been removed from Wisconsin Territory.

Rice quickly grew wealthy through the fur trade and land speculation. By the time he was thirty, he had built connections with the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe through fluency in multiple languages and a canny understanding of the gift system. In 1846, these connections paid off for Rice when the Ho-Chunk asked him to represent them in Washington for the Treaty of Fond Du Lac. As white settler-colonists encroached on their Iowa holdings, they elected Rice to choose suitable land for hunting and farming. He selected land at Long Prairie, where he had just acquired rights to control the trade.

Rice negotiated treaties with the Ojibwe in 1847 at Fond Du Lac, in 1854 at La Pointe, and finally in 1887. In exchange for a lucrative federal contract to return hundreds of Ho-Chunk who had abandoned Long Prairie for $70 per head, Rice, a Democrat, supported a delegate for Whig Zachary Taylor in 1849. This was likely cheaper and certainly more diplomatic than Sibley and Alexander Ramsey’s alternative of deploying soldiers, but Rice caused resentment by keeping these elected officials in the dark until the deal was done.

Ramsey and Sibley ultimately settled their differences with Rice. In 1852, his diplomatic experience and lack of direct involvement in Ramsey’s disastrous Sandy Lake annuity scheme made him invaluable for convincing Dakota representatives to amend their 1851 treaty to allow white settlement to the west of the Mississippi. The fallout of this treaty contributed to the US-Dakota War, and the white population growth it facilitated was crucial for Minnesota statehood. In 1853, Rice easily defeated Whig opponents to become Minnesota’s second territorial delegate.

As delegate, Rice focused on facilitating population growth and economic development for Minnesota Territory. He authorized new land offices and expanded pre-emption rights for settler-colonists, making it easier for individuals to acquire formerly Dakota-held land. Rice was re-elected in 1855, but questions over family and business connections to a railroad deal contributed to a close race. In 1857, he authored legislation enabling Minnesota to begin the process of drafting its own constitution and becoming a state. When this occurred in 1858, Rice and James Shields became Minnesota’s first senators.

In 1854, Rice passed a bill allotting certificates, or “scrip,” exchangeable for 160 acres of unclaimed federal land, to Metís people dislocated by new Dakota treaties. While scrip was hypothetically non-transferable, a loophole allowed a land holding company owned by Rice’s associates to buy thousands of acres of so-called “half-breed" scrip for pennies on the dollar.

A Democrat with Southern in-laws and friendships with prominent pro-slavery senators, Rice supported allowing states to secede peacefully to avoid the Civil War well into the summer of 1861. He became an effective “War Democrat” following heavy losses by Minnesota’s First Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Bull Run. On the Senate Committee of Military Affairs, Rice used his business acumen and personal experience with relocating the Ho-Chunk to coordinate the mobilization and supply of Union soldiers.

Rice lost a re-election campaign to Ramsey and effectively retired from politics. He served on the Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota during the 1850s and was a founding member of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Rice remained active in St. Paul business and civic development and continued to act as a government consultant on Indian policy well into his seventies. He died while traveling in Texas in 1894 and was buried in St. Paul.

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Alfton, John. “Henry Mower Rice.” Unpublished thesis, University of Minnesota, 1932.

Folwell, William W. A History of Minnesota. Vols. 1 and 2. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1921.

Gilman, Rhoda R. Henry Hastings Sibley : Divided Heart. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.

Graber, Lois. Henry M. Rice: Fur Trader and Indian Agent, 1824‒49. St. Paul: Unpublished thesis, Hamline University, 1949.

Henry M. Rice and family papers, 1824‒1966
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, newspaper clippings, legal papers, genealogical materials, diaries, recipe books, and other papers pertaining to Rice; his wife, Matilda; and members of their extended family. See especially the folder titled “1848‒1858 letters” in box 1 for a letter written by Rice to General Fletcher and William W. Warren on July 18, 1848. In the same folder and box, see also a letter written by Rice to C. H. C. Beaulieu or J. W. Lynde and copied to George Bonga, October 3, 1849.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/01262.xml

Jorstad, Erling. “The Life of Henry Hastings Sibley.” PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1957.

——— . “Personal Politics in the Origin of Minnesota’s Democratic Party.” Minnesota History 36, no. 7 (September 1959) 259‒271.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/36/v36i07p259-271.pdf

Millikan, William. “The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp.” Minnesota History 62, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 4‒17.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/62/v62i01p004-017.pdf

“The Pioneer on “Rice’s Treachery to Douglas and the Minnesota Democracy.” St. Paul Press, October 28, 1865.
https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/viewer.jsp?doc_id=mnhi0007%2F1DFIPY56%2F65102801&query1=&recoffset=0&collection_filter=All&collection_name=44875456-2e3f-4130-b1eb-b4d146c32f65&sort_col=relevance&cnt=0&CurSearchNum=5&recOffset=0

Related Images

Henry M. Rice
Henry M. Rice
Henry M. Rice as a young man
Henry M. Rice as a young man
Matilda Whitall Rice
Matilda Whitall Rice
Land Ceded by the 1847 Treaty of Fond Du Lac(green)
Land Ceded by the 1847 Treaty of Fond Du Lac(green)
Henry M. Rice, 1860
Henry M. Rice, 1860
US Senate collage, 1860
US Senate collage, 1860
Henry M. Rice, 1863.
Henry M. Rice, 1863.
Henry Rice, ca. 1888
Henry Rice, ca. 1888
Statue of Henry M. Rice, U.S. Capitol
Statue of Henry M. Rice, U.S. Capitol

Turning Point

On October 11, 1849, 200 of Rice’s political supporters organize a dinner St. Paul’s American House, signaling his intention to run against Henry Sibley for the office of territorial delegate.

Chronology

1816

Henry Rice is born in Waitsfield, Vermont, on November 29.

1834/35

Rice moves to Detroit, where he will survey land for the Sault Ste Marie canal and make connections with fur traders.

1837

After working as a merchant in Kalamazoo, Rice travels to St. Louis, Missouri. Kenneth MacKenzie, a prominent fur trader with the American Fur Company (AFC), sends Rice to Fort Snelling to serve as assistant to Franklin Steele, the fort’s sutler.

1842

As agents of AFC’s regional successor, the Choteau Company, Henry Sibley and Hercules Dousman put Rice in charge of trade with the Ho-Chunk surrounding Fort Atkinson. Rice builds connections and prestige with the recently displaced tribe.

1846

Rice represents the Ho-Chunk at the First Treaty of Fond Du Lac, hypothetically improving their land holdings while isolating the Dakota from the Ojibwe. While neither goal is fulfilled, Rice gains status with involved tribes and Washington political circ

1848

Sibley unsuccessfully sues Rice after discovering he had been cooking Choteau company books to cover his land speculation. Rice switches companies; his soured relationship with Sibley significantly shapes the next five years of Minnesota politics.

1849

Rice marries Matilda Whithall. While in Richmond for the wedding, he suggests that Ramsey move the location of annuity payments for the Lake Superior Ojibwe to Sandy Lake.

1853

Rice becomes Minnesota’s territorial delegate after multiple campaigns. His relationship with Sibley improved after convincing the Dakota to accept new terms on their 1851 treaty the year prior.

1856

Rice establishes the town of Bayfield in Wisconsin, hoping that it will become a prosperous rail and shipping town.

1858

Following statehood, Rice becomes one of Minnesota’s first senators. While living in Washington, DC, Henry and the well-connected Matilda will throw dinner parties with guests like Thomas Breckenridge, Charles Sumner, Robert Toombs, and even Lincoln

1861

Following the First Battle of Bull Run, Rice reluctantly concedes the necessity of war in a speech on the Senate floor. A “war Democrat,” Rice proved instrumental in the logistics of organizing Union Troops.

1870s

Rice remains an active member of St. Paul’s Chamber of Commerce, playing a key role in the civic and commercial development of the city.

1887

Rice negotiates land rights and cessions with the Ojibwe following the passage of the Dawes Act. While he writes frequently of the mistreatment and displacement of Minnesota’s Indigenous nations, he rarely acknowledges his own responsibility.

1891

Rice organizes the relocation of the Mille Lacs Ojibwe to the White Earth reservation, urging irate local settler-colonists to remember the band’s ancestral ties to the area and their aid in the US Dakota Wars.

1894

While on a vacation in San Antonio for his health, Rice passes away on January 15, aged seventy-seven. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul.