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Taliaferro, Lawrence (1794‒1871)

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Lawrence Taliaferro

Oil-on-canvas portrait of Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro, ca. 1830. Artist unknown.

Lawrence Taliaferro, the wealthy scion of a politically connected, slave-owning Virginia family, was the US government’s main agent to the Native people of the upper Mississippi in the 1820s and 1830s. He earned the trust of Dakota, Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Menominee, Sauk (Sac), and Meskwaki (Fox) leaders through lavish gifts, intermarriage, and his zeal for battling predatory fur traders. In a series of treaties, he persuaded these leaders to cede tracts of land in exchange for promises that the government would later break.

Lawrence Taliaferro was born in 1794 on a plantation in King George County, Virginia. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, he enlisted as a volunteer militiaman. Before turning twenty, he had earned an Army commission. He served on the Niagara frontier, rising to the rank of first lieutenant and helping prepare for the American invasion of Canada.

In 1819, at the request of his “patron friend” President James Monroe, Taliaferro agreed to quit the Army and start a new career heading the St. Peters Indian Agency in the future state of Minnesota. For the next two decades, he would be the US government’s principal diplomat to the region’s Native American nations. Dakota and Ojibwe people would travel hundreds of miles to visit him in his log council house just west of Fort Snelling.

Taliaferro relied heavily on the labor of enslaved people. Over his lifetime, he owned twenty-one African American men and women. In 1836 he officiated the marriage of Harriet Robinson, who had worked in his house, to Dred Scott. Slavery was illegal in the Upper Mississippi Valley, and the Scotts later used their Fort Snelling residency as a legal basis for their freedom in the US Supreme Court case Scott v. Sandford. Taliaferro would free all his remaining slaves before his death.

A proud, methodical bureaucrat, Taliaferro became admired among Native Americans for his dependability and his candor. The Dakota leader Ta Oyate Duta (His Red Nation, also known as Little Crow) once told him there’s “no sugar in your mouth.” Taliaferro handed out gifts of guns, vermilion, tobacco and blankets to Native leaders. He launched a vaccination campaign and spent thousands of dollars of his own money on flour and meat for the poor. He turned down bribes from fur traders and risked his life enforcing trade laws and exposing fraud and extortion.

Taliaferro also extended his influence through kinship ties by hiring Native and métis staff at the Indian Agency and by marrying the daughter of the Dakota leader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man). Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1828, and Taliaferro paid for her education.

At Taliaferro’s urging, Mahpiya Wicasta established a farming village on the eastern shore of Bde Maka Ska in August 1829. Taliaferro dispensed seeds, ploughs, and other tools, and by 1835, the hundred-member community grew squash, potatoes, cabbage and corn. Taliaferro was vexed when some Dakota villagers, following their cultural norms, gave their surplus harvest to relatives.

Despite his intimate admission into the life of Native communities, Taliaferro retained the worldview of the colonizer. He never became fluent in the Dakota language, and he speculated in his autobiography about the inscrutable “savage heart.” A believer in European superiority, he thought Native people needed to abandon their traditional way of life, convert to Christianity, and assimilate into Western society to survive.

Taliaferro used the trust he built to cajole Native leaders into abandoning their ancestral land rights. In three 1837 treaties, he helped pressure Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk leaders into ceding all their land east of the Mississippi River.

The treaties proved disastrous for the Native signers. Much of the settlement money was earmarked toward farming tools, missionary schools and fur traders’ pockets. Annuity payments were late and incomplete, and, to Taliaferro’s dismay, the US government did little to defend Natives’ hunting and fishing rights or to protect them from the white man’s “stupendous frauds” and “thirst for gold.”

The treaties’ shaky rollout cost him his influence among Native leaders, and he resigned his post in 1839. He moved to Bedford, Pennsylvania, rejoined the army as a quartermaster, and served as county treasurer. He died in 1871 at age seventy-seven.

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Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota‒White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650‒1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984.
Babcock Jr., Willoughby M. “Major Lawrence Taliaferro, Indian Agent.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11, no. 3 (December 1924): 358–375.

Gilman, Rhoda. The Story of Minnesota’s Past. St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

Historic Fort Snelling. The US Indian Agency (1820‒1853).

Incarceration in the Archive. Black Slavery and Indentured Labor: Fort Snelling.

Kappler, Charles J. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Vol. II (Treaties). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904.

M35; M35-A; P1203
Lawrence Taliaferro papers, 1813–1868
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers relating to Taliaferro’s tenure as Indian Agent at St. Peters near Fort Snelling from 1820 to 1839. Also includes a copy of his autobiography, written in 1864.

Prucha, Frances Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Treuer, Anton. The People of Minnesota: Ojibwe in Minnesota. St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

VanderVelde, Lea. Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce White. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

White, Helen McCann. Guide to a Microfilm Edition of the Lawrence Taliaferro Papers. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1966.

Related Images

Lawrence Taliaferro
Lawrence Taliaferro
St. Peters Indian Agency seal used by Lawrence Taliaferro
St. Peters Indian Agency seal used by Lawrence Taliaferro
Letter from Lawrence Taliaferro to Alexis Bailly, March 2, 1829
Letter from Lawrence Taliaferro to Alexis Bailly, March 2, 1829
Letter from Lawrence Taliaferro to William Clark, August 12, 1834
Letter from Lawrence Taliaferro to William Clark, August 12, 1834
English-French-Dakota Dictionary, 1835
English-French-Dakota Dictionary, 1835
Hand-drawn map of Fort Snelling area
Hand-drawn map of Fort Snelling area
Elizabeth Dillon Taliaferro
Elizabeth Dillon Taliaferro
Historical marker recognizing Lawrence Taliaferro
Historical marker recognizing Lawrence Taliaferro

Turning Point

Taliaferro resigns from the army in 1819 and accepts an assignment to form the St. Peters Indian Agency at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.



Lawrence Taliaferro is born on February 28 on a slave-owning plantation in King George County, Virginia, to James Garnett Taliaferro and Wilhelmina Wishart Taliaferro.


When the War of 1812 breaks out, Taliaferro’s mother enlists him in a volunteer company of light infantry. He is eighteen years old.


Taliaferro earns a commission as ensign in the First Infantry Regiment and soon rises to the rank of first lieutenant.


Tasked with heading the St. Peters Indian Agency among the Dakota and the Ojibwe, Taliaferro arrives in the Upper Mississippi Valley at the site where the US military is working on construction of the future Fort Snelling.


Taliaferro takes a delegation of Dakota, Ojibwe, and Menominee leaders to Washington City (Washington, DC). His goal is to impress on them the strength of the federal government and persuade them to sign treaties with it.


The Treaty of Prairie du Chien establishes official boundaries between the Dakota, Sauk (Sac), Meskwaki (Fox), Menominee, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), and Bahkhoje (Ioway) peoples, codifying land ownership for the first time and paving the way for future cession


The American Fur Company monopolizes trade with the Dakota, leading to price gouging and lowered pelt prices. Tensions over depleted resources arise as trappers are forced to hunt outside their traditional hunting grounds.


Taliaferro’s Dakota wife Anpetu Inazin Win (the Day Sets) gives birth to a girl, Mary. Taliaferro misses the birth of his only child because he’s on leave in Bedford, Pennsylvania, where he marries Eliza Dillon, an innkeeper’s daughter.


After Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, the Dakota and the Sauk and Meskwaki agree to exchange land for annuity payments in order to create a neutral hunting ground along the 1825 line. The US government later moves the Ho-Chunk there.


Taliaferro prohibits the use of all alcoholic spirits at the St. Peters Indian Agency. In spite of the ban, he continues to serve whiskey at the meetings he hosts there.


As justice of the peace, Taliaferro officiates the wedding of Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson near Fort Snelling.


In three treaties, Taliaferro pressures the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk into ceding all their land east of the Mississippi River. The US government breaks promises related to annuities and hunting rights as settler-colonists stream into the region.


Unpopular among both the white and Native populations, Taliaferro resigns his post. Shortly afterward, an irate whiskey seller threatens him at gunpoint in his bed.


The Supreme Court's landmark decision on the Scott v. Sandford case effectively legalizes slavery in all US territories, sharpening the antebellum divide between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Congress.


Taliaferro writes an autobiography in which he defends his actions as an Indian agent and portrays himself as a protector of defenseless Native “savages” against the whites who sought to defraud them.


Taliaferro dies on January 22 in Bedford, Pennsylvania, at age seventy-seven.