Henry Hastings Sibley occupied the stage of Minnesota history for fifty-six active years. He was the territory's first representative in Congress (1849–1853) and the state's first governor (1858–1860). In 1862 he led a volunteer army against the Dakota under Taoyateduta (Little Crow IV). After his victory at Wood Lake and his rescue of more than two hundred white prisoners, he was made a brigadier general in the Union Army.
Sibley was born in Detroit in 1811. His father later served as chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. At eighteen, Sibley joined the American Fur Company. He spent five years as manager of its store on Mackinac Island. In 1834 he became a partner in the company's Western Outfit, with responsibility for trade with the Dakota.
Living at Mendota, he had personal and business connections with Fort Snelling. He ran the sutler's store (1836–1839) and contracted for mail delivery (1837–1839). He also maintained close ties with the Protestant missionaries who arrived in 1835.
An ardent outdoorsman and hunter, Sibley established ties with the Dakota who lived nearby. He had a relationship with a young Dakota woman who bore him a daughter, Helen, in August 1841. Sibley acknowledged the child and provided for her support and education. In 1843, however, he married Sarah Jane Steele. She was the sister of Franklin Steele, the new Fort Snelling sutler.
Sibley was deeply critical of United States Indian policy. In 1842 he lobbied hard for a treaty that would have created an Indian territory and state in what is now southern Minnesota. Later, while in Congress, he argued for the preservation of Indian land from "the grasping hand of the white man."
The American Fur Company failed in 1842. Its demise and the rejection of a northwestern Indian territory convinced Sibley that his own and the region's only future lay with white settlement. He began to invest in steamboats, timber, and land.
After the admission of both Iowa (1846) and Wisconsin (1848) as states, Sibley helped persuade Congress to create Minnesota Territory (1849). Treaties signed in 1851 effectively dispossessed the Dakota. Their terms opened the new territory to white settlement.
Sibley played an unofficial but key role in the agreements. He helped shape the terms so that he and other former fur traders received payment of less than half of the debts they claimed. These terms and amounts were disputed by some Dakota. As territorial representative he achieved the treaties' ratification after a bruising battle in Congress, where Southern interests opposed them.
As a politician and framer of the state's constitution Sibley sought to stay above partisan feuds. Although loyal to the Democratic Party, he drew away from its proslavery wing in the 1850s.
Sibley's role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 remains the most controversial aspect of his career. While working for the release of hostages, he made promises to the Dakota that he failed to keep. He had been told by Major General Pope to treat the Indians "like wild beasts" and bowed to public demands for a mass execution.
Sibley set up a military commission that conducted brief trials of Dakota prisoners. He approved death sentences for more than three hundred men. Tension in the state mounted when President Lincoln limited executions to only thirty-eight prisoners shown to be guilty of murder or rape. Despite threats of mob action, Sibley's forces preserved order. The mass hanging was carried out according to law.
In 1863 Sibley led an expedition against the Dakota to the west, marching to the Missouri River and back. Meanwhile he used his army position to try to protect other Dakota from the anti-Indian hysteria of white citizens. His restraint earned him abuse in Minnesota newspapers for being "soft" on Indians.
In his final twenty-five years Sibley remained active as an elder statesman and civic leader. A lifelong lover of books, a scholar, and a published writer, Sibley had long contributed to the state's cultural life. He worked with the Smithsonian Institution to publish a dictionary of the Dakota language in 1852. He was a founder of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society around the same time. Sibley died in St. Paul in 1891.
Blegen, Theodore, ed. The Unfinished Autobiography of Henry Hastings Sibley Together with a Selection of Hitherto Unpublished Letters from the Thirties. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 1932.
——— . "Henry H. Sibley, Pioneer of Culture and Frontier Author." Minnesota History 15, no. 4 (December 1934): 382–394.
Davis, Jane Spector. Guide to a Microfilm Edition of the Henry Hastings Sibley Papers. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1968.
Gilman, Rhoda R. Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.
Editor's note: The biography cited above contains an exhaustive bibliography of sources by and about Sibley. Selections from that bibliography are listed here.
Henry H. Sibley papers, 1815–1932
Manuscript Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society
Description: Correspondence, financial records, legal papers, speeches, and miscellany. More than a third of the papers concern the fur trade with the Dakota Indians of the Upper Mississippi Valley from 1815 to 1855 as well as Sibley's interest in the treaties, wars, and welfare of the Dakota.
Records of Governor Henry H. Sibley, 1858–1859
State Archives Collection, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society
Description: Includes accounting records; appointment records; records concerning charges against public officials; letters received; attorney general's opinions; and records relating to pardons and reprieves, among other materials.
Solomon Sibley papers, 1750–1918
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Description: Includes correspondence between Solomon Sibley and his son, Henry H. Sibley, as well as from Henry H. Sibley to other family members and acquaintances.
West, Nathaniel D. D. The Ancestry, Life, and Times of Hon. Henry Hastings Sibley, LL.D. St. Paul: Pioneer Press, 1889.
White, Helen M. Henry Sibley's First Years at St. Peters or Mendota. St. Paul: Turnstone Historical Research, 2002.
On December 22, 1848, Sibley's eloquent speech before a U.S. House committee gains him a seat in the House and the opportunity to maneuver successfully for the creation of Minnesota Territory.
Henry Hastings Sibley is born in Detroit, Michigan Territory, to Solomon Sibley and Sarah Sproat Sibley, who had moved there from New England.
Seventeen-year-old Henry goes to Sault Ste. Marie for a position as clerk in the army sutler's store at Fort Brady.
Sibley obtains employment with the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island.
Sibley becomes a partner with Hercules Dousman and Joseph Rolette Sr. in the Western Outfit of American Fur and moves to the upper Mississippi.
Treaties signed with the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk cede all Indian land east of the Mississippi to the U.S., thus opening it to white settlement.
After a winter spent hunting with a band of Dakota in northern Iowa, Sibley becomes the father of a Dakota daughter. He names the child Helen Hastings.
A treaty for creation of a northwestern Indian territory is defeated in the U.S. Senate. The American Fur Company closes its doors, forcing the partners of the Western Outfit to turn to the Chouteau Company of St. Louis as their supplier.
Norman W. Kittson, under contract to Sibley, opens a post at Pembina on the U.S.-British border. Trade with northern Indian groups and the Métis community over the Red River trails builds the river port of St. Paul.
Sibley turns to politics and scores a notable victory in achieving the creation of Minnesota Territory with himself as its representative in Congress.
Working in close cooperation with the territory's Whig governor, Alexander Ramsey, Sibley engineers the signing of treaties to purchase all of the Dakota lands except for a narrow reservation.
Polarized by party politics, Minnesota Democrats and Republicans meet separately to frame a state constitution. Sibley chairs the Democratic convention and is elected governor.
After a long delay, Minnesota becomes a state on May 11. Sibley takes office as governor for a single term.
Sibley takes command of a volunteer force assembled to defend white residents in the western part of the state against attack by Dakota under Taoyateduta (Little Crow IV).
Sibley defeats Taoyateduta at the battle of Wood Lake. In October he receives a commission as brigadier general in the Union Army.
Working in cooperation with Bishop Henry B. Whipple, Sibley helps secure partial restoration and some food relief for the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota-an effort that continues until 1868.
Sibley is buried in St. Paul's Oakland Cemetery.