Review – MHS TDS Trail Signs

Minnesota Historical Society
Traverse des Sioux Trail Signs, St. Peter, MN
Reviewed on January 16, 2013

 Items of Interest

 For centuries, Indians crossed the Minnesota River at this place. The actual Traverse des Sioux crossing is marked with a sign. A trail leads to the crossing. At the crossing, there is a cottonwood tree estimated to be about 400 years old.

 By 1851, there was a small community here including fur traders, missionaries and an Indian village nearby. The 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with the Sisseton and Wahpeton Indians was signed just across the highway. A large boulder and interpretive sign are near the actual signing site. Just south of the boulder is a stone marking the site of the “Old French Cemetery.”

 The adjacent Nicollet County Historical Society has more information about Traverse des Sioux and snowshoes available in season.

 General Comments

  • MHS criticizes the fur traders and the U.S. This is a common theme in their products about the Dakota Indians and the Dakota War of 1862.
  • There are general statements about “the Dakota” that did not apply to all Dakota.
  • While there is discussion about the hangings in Mankato, no explanation is given as to why these Dakota men were hanged.


Most Objectionable Statements

Traverse des Sioux (erected in 1966)

“Here, on June 30, 1851, Governor Alexander Ramsey…Luke Lea…Henry H. Sibley, and other government officials established a camp…overlooking the small trading post and mission on the riverbank…to negotiate an important treaty with…the Sisseton and Wahpeton Sioux for almost twenty-four million acres…”
—Incorrect – There were several trading posts here in 1851.
—Incorrect – Two 1851 treaties combined sold this acreage.

WELCOME to Traverse des Sioux

“On July 23, 1851, a treaty was signed here that…resulted in the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota bands’ movement to reservation lands along the Minnesota River.”
—Incorrect – Many of these villages were already on the reservation. Some villages moved onto the reservation. Some villages never did move onto the reservation. 

Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

Why a Treaty?

“…white emigrants could not legally settle in this vast area or use its resources until the land was bought from…the Dakota Indians…the Dakota were suffering from…disappearing game, encroachment by Americans onto native lands, and the disruption of traditional subsistence patterns that created widespread hunger and even starvation…”
—Where were Americans encroaching on Sisseton and Wahpeton land?
—How were their traditional subsistence patterns disrupted?
—Game was disappearing due to over-hunting by the Dakota Indians. 

Who Was Here?

“During the last week of June 1851, 35 Dakota leaders assembled at Traverse des Sioux…On June 30, the steamboat Excelsior arrived.  On board were…Alexander Ramsey; and Henry H. Sibley, who had made a fortune in the fur trade; and Luke Lea…”
—Incorrect – The 35 Sisseton and Wahpeton leaders were not all here in June.
—Incorrect – Rhoda Gilman, Sibley’s biographer, states that Sibley broke even in the fur trade. 

Signing the Treaty

The Traders’ Paper

“Among the scandalous features of the Treaty…was a side agreement known as the Traders’ Paper.  This document authorized the payment of $210,000 to fur traders in order to settle Dakota debts.  Such side agreements…were illegal.  Also, it is not clear whether the Dakota knew what they were agreeing to by signing this paper.”
—Incorrect – Show proof this was a scandalous and illegal document.
—Disrespectful – After a lengthy trial, Ramsey was found innocent.
—Incorrect – Some did know what they were signing and some did not know.

Give us something for the children

“Facing a mounting wave of white settlement and intense pressure from the U. S. government, the Dakota were forced to sell all their land in Minnesota in a desperate bid to ensure their own survival and that of future generations.”
—The Sisseton and Wahpeton signed this treaty because they were starving. They had over-hunted their fur-bearing animals. They wanted this treaty or they would not have sat to discuss it.

“Give us something for the children…I can almost hear the discussion going on with the men as they talked about the treaty signing.  What are we going to do now?  How do we prepare for the future?”
—This is drama designed to seek sympathy from the visitor.

You can take your money back

“More than a year after signing, the Dakota still had not received their annuity payments…Chief Mazasha (Red Iron) said, “When we signed the treaty, the traders threw blankets over our faces and darkened our eyes, and got us to sign papers we did not understand, which were not read or explained to us.””
—The Senate did not ratify this treaty until 1852. The Indians had to approve the changes.
—Incorrect – The traders did not throw blankets over their faces or darken their eyes.
—Disrespectful – The traders are blamed for deceiving the Indians.  In Ramsey’s trial many witnesses said Indians knew about the papers.  Rev. Riggs wrote that the Indians from Lac qui Parle knew about the traders’ paper and discussed which of their traders should be paid.
—Madison Sweetzer riled the Indians by telling them that he could get them more money. His influence should be discussed here.
—Many of the fur traders were married to Dakota women. If they benefited, then so did their families. There were full-blood and mixed-blood Dakota in the fur trade. The visitor is led to believe that only white traders benefited by this money set aside. 

They expected the Indian people to adapt to all the change overnight

“Before ratifying the treaty in 1852, the U. S. Senate eliminated the clause that provided for a reservation.  This left the Dakota with no place to live.  President Fillmore arranged for them to occupy land along the Minnesota River that had been previously set aside for reservations – until it was needed for white settlement.  The Dakota were allotted food and assigned a government agent who would teach them Euro-American-style farming.”
—Incorrect – The treaties stated they could not be moved unless they approved the new location.
—Incorrect – The treaties provided for much more than food and an agent. 

“They expected the Indian people to adapt to all the change overnight.  In a very short time, they were to give up centuries of their cultural lifestyle and become farmers.  It was too sudden.”
—Incorrect – This is an exaggeration.
—Incorrect – Their leaders agreed to move to the reservations and learn to farm like the whites. The farmer Indians continued to hunt and gather.
—Disrespectful – The treaties provided for “civilizing” the Indians.  Why not credit the U.S. for being concerned about their future.  They were starving doing what they were doing. 

Aftermath: The U. S. – Dakota Conflict

“By the summer of 1862, the Dakota were furious.  Their annuity payments were late…traders refused to extend them credit to buy what they needed.”
—Incorrect – Not all of the Dakota were furious.
—Incorrect – Not all of the traders refused to give them credit. And it was the responsibility of the U.S. to feed the Indians.

“…the trader Andrew Myrick was reported to have said about the hungry Dakota, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.””
—Disrespectful – Myrick learned some planned to drive up their debts and then refuse to pay.
—Incorrect – Not all of the Dakota were starving.

“Tensions burst on August 17th, when four Dakota men killed five settlers in Meeker County.  Six weeks of often vicious fighting that left hundreds of white settlers and Dakota dead.”
—Incorrect – By not giving the losses for each side, the visitor cannot appreciate how unbalanced the losses were. About 145 Dakota and more than 650 whites lost their lives.

““The Sioux Indians of Minnesota,” wrote Governor Alexander Ramsey, “must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” More than 300 Dakota were sentenced to be hanged.  Of these, 38 men were hung in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U. S. history…The U. S. – Dakota treaties were cancelled, and the annuity money remaining from the agreements was used to reimburse white settlers for destroyed property.”
—Disrespectful – By not stating why Ramsey made this statement is misleading.
—Incorrect – 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato mainly for committing war crimes.
—Incorrect – This was the largest simultaneous mass-hanging in U.S. history.
—Unbalanced – What happened to the whites after the war?
—Incorrect – In the 1970s, the U.S. paid Dakota descendants for annuities and land taken.

They tried to assimilate us

“In 1856, the missionary Stephen Riggs formed a farming community near the reservation and called it the Hazelwood Republic.  Sixteen Dakota men joined, swearing allegiance to the U.S. and agreeing to abandon their tribal customs and dress.  But in 1858, the new state of Minnesota refused to grant citizenship rights to the Hazelwood Indians.”
—Incorrect – They chose to become Christians and farmers and dress like the whites. They continued to hunt and gather. They did not abandon their tribal customs.
—Incorrect – Lorenzo Lawrence was the only Dakota to gain citizenship. It should be explained why the others were refused citizenship.

““They tried to assimilate us… to kill off the Indian and save the man.  It’s a fate worse than death to be alive and yet, dead inside, to have the Indian die inside you…They wanted us to assimilate, but yet, on the other hand, the general population didn’t want Indians to assimilate.  You had pressure on one side and pressure on the other, resisting.  It was a no-win situation.”
—This is exaggerated – “a fate worse than death”.
—Incorrect – This statement implies the U.S. forced the Indians to assimilate. Indians chose to convert to Christianity and become farmers. If this was so terrible, they would not have made this decision.

The Story of This Land

For centuries Traverse des Sioux has been a crossroad

“…the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota, sold most of southwestern Minnesota – some 21 million acres – to the government for about 7.5 cents per acre.” 
—Incorrect – Elsewhere on these signs, it states they sold 24,000,000 acres.
—Incorrect – The two 1851 treaties combined sold this acreage.
—Incorrect – This estimate of 7.5 cents per acre does not agree with other higher estimates.


The Eastern Dakota of Minnesota – Map

“The Dakota Indians, known to outsiders as the Sioux, have lived in this place for centuries.  The Eastern branch of the Dakota Nation, also known at the Santee, includes the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton, and Sisseton bands.”
—Incorrect – What is the year of this map? It is difficult to orient to present day Minnesota. 


The idea of space


Swan Lake

This area was the traditional homeland of…the Sisseton and the Wahpeton…The largest Sisseton population lived on islands in Swan Lake, about 10 miles west of this spot.”
—Incorrect – When were these statements ever true? 

Only a Memory Now

In 1856 a new town thrived where you are now standing.

A River Crossroad

Ministering to the Dakota

Without their assent at all

After the Dakota made a unanimous decision in 1849 to stop attending Christian worship services and the mission school, a disappointed Hopkins wrote… “We came here without the hearty assent of the Indians – perhaps without their assent at all…We found Brother Pond here…The Rev. Stephen Riggs asked Mr. Pond whether he should ask the Indians for leave to stay here.  He answered, not if you wish to stay.”
—Incorrect – The source document states Dakota leaders voted to stop all Dakota from attending the church and school at this location. This was not a “unanimous decision” by all Dakota. Dakota who wanted to attend this mission were denied their freedom of religion. 

The “Treaty Rock” site across the highway

—A plaque on this boulder states this boulder marks the site of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.

The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

Near this place on July 23, 1851

 “…the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota sold 21 million acres of land…for…7.5 cents per acre. The Dakota, hoping to ensure a future for their children, had little choice but to sign. Besides an annual payment, the treaty promised the Dakota a reservation extending 10 miles on either side of the Minnesota River above the Yellow Medicine River. The U.S. Senate eliminated this reservation before ratifying the treaty. But President Millard Fillmore decided to let the Dakota live on the proposed reservation, until it was needed for white settlement.”
—Incorrect – On the Traverse des Sioux site, a sign states that 24 million acres were sold.
—Incorrect – Two 1851 treaties combined sold this acreage.
—Incorrect – This estimate of 7.5 cents per acre is lower than other estimates.
—Incorrect – “hoping to ensure a future for their children” is drama and incorrect. They signed because they were starving.
—Incorrect – The Sisseton and Wahpeton reservation was also about 100 miles long. Why isn’t this length given here?
—Incorrect – The 1851 treaties stated the Santee could not be moved unless they approved the new location. In 1854, the Senate authorized the President to give this land to the Indians. 

A boulder becomes The Boulder

—From the sign text: “…there is no evidence that this or any other boulder played a part in the treaty signing.” This conflicts with the plaque on the boulder.

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