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Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, 1851

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Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

Painting by Frank B. Mayer, a witness to the negotiations and signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Painted in 1885.

The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (1851) between the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota and the U.S. government transferred ownership of much of southeastern Minnesota Territory to the United States. Along with the Treaty of Mendota, signed that same year, it opened twenty-four million acres of land to settler-colonists. For the Dakota, these treaties marked another step in a process that increasingly marginalized them and dismissed them from the land that had been—and remained—their home.

During the early decades of the 1800s, white immigrants began moving west of the St. Croix River into the territory of the Dakota and the Ojibwe. Though their numbers were relatively small at first, they were eager to use the land for farming and industry. They wanted to move further west, deeper into Native homelands. Influential men, including Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley, convinced the U.S. government to negotiate the purchase of land from Native people. Through this transaction, Ramsey and Sibley also hoped to recoup debts that fur traders claimed various bands owed to them.

By 1850, both the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota were in a dire situation. Animals that they had hunted for food and trade were not abundant enough to support their people anymore. Some groups saw selling their land as a way to gain resources they needed to survive. A land cession treaty, with guaranteed annuity payments, could help them through these tough times and, for some Dakota, offered a way to rebuild their communities.

In July 1851, Sibley, Ramsey, and federal commissioner Luke Lea chose Traverse des Sioux as the site for treaty negotiations. It took several weeks for enough representatives of the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands to arrive. Once they had arrived, however, it did not take long to come to an agreement. The Dakota were in a very weak bargaining position because they believed that if they did not sell their land, the United States would take it. Negotiations took several days, and some Dakota leaders initially resisted the demands made by the commissioners because they asked for so much. Ultimately however, the Dakota gave in.

On July 23, the Dakota signed the treaty with the government commissioners. It had three primary results. First, it ceded much of the southern and western portion of Minnesota to the U.S. for about seven and a half cents an acre. Second, it provided for a reservation of ten miles on each side of the Minnesota River. Finally, the treaty arranged for payment to the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands for the land they had ceded. They were to receive a portion of the money immediately. Some funds were set aside for the construction of schools and other services. The rest was to be placed in an account managed by the federal government. From that account, the bands were to receive an annual interest payment in both cash and goods.

After the Dakota leaders had signed two copies of the treaty, they were directed to a third piece of paper held by Joseph R. Brown, a prominent fur trader. All but two of them also signed this agreement. The document, known as the traders' paper, directed the government to pay off various debts claimed by white and mixed-race fur traders using the money owed to the bands from the treaty. This repayment method was common at the time, and the Dakota, given the chance, would perhaps have agreed to it. However, the deceptive methods that Brown and other traders used to get the leaders to sign angered the Dakota. No one read the paper aloud or translated it for the Dakota, many of whom believed it to be another copy of the treaty. Many Dakota felt cheated by this process, and they added this incident to a growing list of reasons to distrust the federal government.

Following the treaty, Sibley, Ramsey, and Lea negotiated a similar treaty at Mendota with other Dakota bands, which was signed on August 5. In the decade after the signing of these treaties, over 100,000 white immigrants moved to Minnesota to live on the land that Indigenous peoples had ceded.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1956.

Gilman, Rhoda R. "Territorial Imperative: How Minnesota Became the 32nd State." Minnesota History 56, no. 4. (Winter 1998): 154–171.
http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/56/v56i04p154-171.pdf

Lass, William E. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. St. Peter: Nicollet County Historical Society Press, 2011.

Related Images

Treaty of Traverse des Sioux
Treaty of Traverse des Sioux
Color image of a painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, c.1905. Oil painting by Francis Davis Millet.
Color image of a painting of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, c.1905. Oil painting by Francis Davis Millet.
Camp at Traverse des Sioux
Camp at Traverse des Sioux
Traverse des Sioux treaty marker.
Traverse des Sioux treaty marker.
Color map of Indian Land Cessions and Reservations in Minnesota to 1858
Color map of Indian Land Cessions and Reservations in Minnesota to 1858

Turning Point

On July 23, 1851, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux cedes several million acres of land from the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota to the United States in exchange for a reservation and annual annuity payments.

Chronology

1805

Zebulon Pike arranges an informal land transfer agreement with a small number of Dakota. The cession includes much of present-day Minneapolis and St. Paul but is not a binding or legally recognized transaction.

1819

Construction of Fort Snelling begins.

1825

In a treaty at Prairie du Chien, the U.S. attempts to settle disputes between the Dakota and Ojibwe by setting boundaries between the two tribes, but the effort fails to bring peace.

1837

In Washington, D.C., United States representatives convince representatives of the Mdewakanton Dakota, whom they had brought east for treaty negotiations, to cede their lands east of the Mississippi River for money and annuity payments.

1851

The U.S. government and Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota representatives sign the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. The treaty cedes much of southeastern Minnesota Territory to the United States.

1852

Dakota leaders write to the U.S. government to protest the payments required by the Traders' Paper.

1857

With the new lands made available by treaties earlier in the decade, the non-Native population of Minnesota Territory grows by almost 100,000 by 1857.

1863

The U.S. government responds to the U.S.-Dakota War by waiving all of its obligations in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, even though the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota largely did not participate or assisted settler-colonists.

1867

Many Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota are moved from Minnesota to new reservations in Dakota Territory.