“We Will Talk of Nothing Else: Dakota Interpretations of the Treaty of 1837,” published in Great Plains Quarterly 25:3 (Summer 2005). Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Items of Interest
The author attempts to prove that the Treaty of 1837 was the major turning point in the relations between the Dakota Indians and the federal government.
- Too many generalities. The Dakota, the Mdewakanton, the missionaries did not all think and feel the same way.
- The author dismisses the positive results of the Treaty of 1837 and focuses on the negative results.
- The author fails to mention that the U.S. did not provide schools until after the 1851 Treaties.
- The author fails to discuss the final disposition of the 1837 Treaty money.
- The author fails to mention that the missions survived and their success was seen during the Dakota War of 1862 and in the mass conversions of Dakota to Christianity after the War.
Most Objectionable Statements
During treaty negotiations with federal Indian agents in 1851, Taoyateduta (Little Crow), a Dakota representative, warned that the council members would “talk of nothing else” until conflicts related to the previous Treaty of 1837 had been resolved.
—Incorrect – These were federal officials or commissioners not Indian agents.
—Why did Chief Little Crow say this?
The Treaty of 1837, negotiated between the Mdewakanton band of Dakota (one of the four eastern bands of the Minnesota Dakota) and the federal government…
—Incorrect – They were one of the two eastern bands of the Minnesota Dakota.
Indian agents at the time, as well as subsequent historians, have ignored the significance of the Treaty of 1837.
—Incorrect – Not all historians have ignored the significance of the Treaty of 1837
…fur traders encouraged Indians to roam over large areas of land searching for animals, at the expense of learning about the benefits of cultivating small farms and living in permanent log cabins.
—Incorrect – The Indians did not roam, they hunted.
—Incorrect – They did not need encouragement by the traders to hunt. Most, if not all, preferred hunting rather than farming.
Government officials also worried about the amount of alcohol sold to the Indians by white traders.
—Incorrect – Mixed-bloods and Indians were also involved in the liquor trade.
—What does the liquor trade have to do with the Treaty of 1837?
Despite the misunderstanding, Poinsett and Harris pressed ahead and lost no time in making an offer for the lands. They demanded that the Mdewakanton cede all their lands lying east of the Mississippi River for $1 million.
—Is this correct? They “demanded”…
—The Mdewakanton continued to hunt on this ceded land after the treaty.
These divergent responses ranged from those who stressed the unqualified success of the treaty (government officials and some historians), to those who denounced the treaty as a crime against all Dakota (originally the Mdewakanton, and later the three other Eastern Dakota bands who joined in these vocal protests).
—Incorrect – When did “the three other Eastern Dakota bands” “denounce the treaty as a crime against all Dakota?”
The ABCFM missionaries of the time occupied a middle position between these two extremes, supporting the document in theory but finding fault with the way the government carried out some of its provisions. From 1837 on, sources existed to document all these interpretations, but the historical record has largely ignored that of the Dakota (and to a lesser extent, the ABCFM missionaries). In order to fully assess the Treaty of 1837, all interpretations must be considered.
—Incorrect – Did all ABCFM missionaries feel this way?
—Incorrect – What does “historical record” mean? Were not these sources the author mentions part of the “historic record?”
…government officials believed that the Treaty of 1837 with the Mdewakanton would help to bring Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal one step closer to completion.
—Incorrect – Where does it say that government officials believed this?
The government farmers, along with the agricultural implements, would be utilized to convert the Mdewakanton men from hunters into settled farmers. According to the parlance of the day, teaching the Dakota men to farm would lead them to self-sufficiency and away from lives of starvation and privation which supposedly corresponded with a hunting existence.
—Incorrect – Use of the word “supposedly” implies they were not starving. The Mdewakanton signed this treaty because they were starving due to unsuccessful hunts.
Agent Lawrence Taliaferro, who was charged with carrying out the Treaty of 1837 on the local level, did nothing to dispel the federal government’s positive interpretation of the document.
—Disrespectful – Taliaferro either did not want to criticize the treaty or he believed it to be a good treaty.
Just as they had hoped, the missionaries initially benefited from the Treaty of 1837. For example, ABCFM missionary Gideon Pond was appointed to serve as the government farmer -a position that had been created by the Treaty of 1837. The government’s payment of Pond’s salary freed up funds for investment in other missionary activities.
—Incorrect – Many people benefited from the Treaty of 1837, not just missionary Gideon Pond. This benefited Pond not the ABCFM who lost Pond’s fulltime services as a missionary.
Moreover, in 1838 the missionaries were pleased when Agent Taliaferro asked Washington to designate $5,000 of the treaty funds for the ABCFM schools.
—What happened to Taliaferro’s request? Did the ABCFM receive any funds?
Again in 1839 the agent requested that the federal government give $500 to the ABCFM school at Lake Harriet.
—What happened to Taliaferro’s request? Did the ABCFM receive any funds?
First, the Dakota had been very upset over the delay in the treaty’s ratification.
—Incorrect – It is not possible to say that all Dakota were very upset. Only the Mdewakanton were included in this treaty. It cannot be said that all Mdewakanton were very upset.
—Why was the ratification delayed?
Worse yet, once the treaty had been ratified the promised payments and goods did not arrive on time, despite Taliaferro’s assurances to the contrary in his reports. All these delays and broken promises caused Riggs to worry that the Dakota would lose all “confidence in our government.”
—Incorrect – Why were they late? Not all payments and goods were late.
If the Dakota lost faith in the government, the missionaries realized that they would be the first to suffer the consequences.
—Incorrect – Is this the author’s opinion? What is the source for this statement?
In the 1830s the Dakota (with reason) treated the missionaries as an extension of the federal government.
—Incorrect – Show that “the Dakota” believed the missionaries were an extension of the federal government.
Jedediah Stevens, who worked at the ABCFM mission, described this problem. “The Indians about us for several months past have manifested much dissatisfaction and restlessness, occasioned principally by a delay in carrying into effect the Treaty made with them last fall,” he informed the ABCFM Secretary in Boston. As a result, the Dakota killed four of Stevens’ mission cattle, which he estimated to be worth $100.
—Incorrect – Because Dakota killed 4 of his cattle does not prove that “the Dakota” treated the missionaries as an extension of the federal government; nor does it prove that all missionaries felt this way.
When analyzing the Treaty of 1837, most historians have downplayed or ignored missionary reports like Stevens’. Instead, they have treated the events of 1837 as relatively unimportant to the larger history of Dakota government interaction.
—If this has been downplayed or ignored maybe this is because this is not as significant as the author thinks. It was not uncommon for Indians to kill livestock of the government, missions or settlers.
Historian Bruce David Forbes argued that the turning point in Dakota-government relations “was 1851, when the Dakota signed two treaties that ceded almost all of southern and western Minnesota to the United States.”
—While I disagree that there was a single turning point, the 1851 Treaties were certainly more significant than the 1837 Treaty.
[The author lists the positive effects of the Treaty of 1837 as given by Gary Clayton Anderson. Most important, the Mdewakanton were starving and it “obviously saved the Mdewakanton from utter destruction.”]
—While these are very important points, the author disputes Anderson’s interpretation. This is ironic, because Anderson’s points support the author’s position that the Treaty of 1837 was “the major turning point.”
Dakota at the time, especially the Mdewakanton, would have challenged this [Anderson’s] interpretation of the Treaty of 1837. First, the Treaty of 1837 was a seminal event for them…
—Incorrect – We cannot possibly say that “the Mdewakanton” would have challenged Anderson’s interpretation.
—Incorrect – The Treaty of 1805 was a seminal event.
Far from bringing stability to the Mississippi Valley, the document fomented protest, discord, and anger, among not only the Mdewakanton and the federal government, but among the three other bands of Dakota (the Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Wahpekute) who had not originally been involved in the treaty negotiations.
—Why were the Sisseton, Wahpeton and Wahpekute angry? Could it be because they had not been included in this treaty’s benefits?
Indeed, the Mdewakanton succeeded in establishing a loose alliance of Dakota villages across Minnesota united against the Treaty of 1837. Because of the significance that all four bands of Eastern Dakota came to attribute to the document, the Treaty of 1837 can be seen as one of the turning points in Dakota-white relations.
—Yes, one of the turning points, but not the turning point.
From the very beginning, many aspects of the Treaty of 1837 angered the Mdewakanton. Some Dakota questioned the underhanded method by which the Indian agents had conducted the negotiations; they pointed out that the delegates had been brought to Washington under false pretenses. Several Mdewakanton also were upset about the concessions that had been given to the traders and metis, while others believed the selling price for the land was much too low.
—Disrespectful – Where does this come from: “underhanded method”? The US offered to buy the land and the Mdewakanton accepted the offer. They were starving and had little choice.
—Incorrect – The Mdewakanton were told prior to leaving Minnesota that they would be asked to sell land. See Anderson, Kinsmen of Another Kind.
—The treaty did help the Mdewakanton as Gary Clayton Anderson explains above.
Once the treaty had been ratified, this initial dissatisfaction only increased. Despite Taliaferro’s assurances to the contrary, the promised annuities and payments did not arrive on time, and the Mdewakanton strongly criticized the government’s inability to carry out their side of the bargain.
—Were all annuities and payments late?
—Incorrect – It cannot be shown that all Mdewakanton “strongly criticized the government.”
The government, however, failed to follow through with one clause of the Treaty of 1837 for the next fifteen years. While seemingly minor, this provision took on extraordinary significance and led to a significant break in relations between the federal government, ABCFM missionaries living near their villages, and all four bands of Dakota. These problems continued from the early 1840s into the 1850s.
—Incorrect – If the government gave money to the missionaries for schools, this was a small fulfillment of the education money. And I suspect there were other expenditures. However, the majority of this money was not spent and accumulated.
—Incorrect – The 1837 Treaty was replaced by one of the Treaties in 1851.
—What does this mean? When was there a “significant break” in relations between all these groups?
The disputed treaty clause stated that the government would invest $300,000 and pay the Mdewakanton “annually, forever, an income of not less than five percent . . . a portion of said interest, not exceeding one third, to be applied in such manner as the President may direct.’
—Now, the author is getting to the heart of the problem with the 1837 Treaty.
In one sense, all involved parties agreed on the meaning of the treaty clause-the government was required to spend $5,000 per year for the benefit of the Mdewakanton people. The agreement ended there, however. Government officials argued that during the treaty signing they had made it clear that the president would use the entire sum to pay for educational programs; they certainly never intended for the president to give the money to the Mdewakanton to spend as they pleased. The Mdewakanton, however, had a different understanding of the article’s meaning. They told the Commissioner of Indian Affairs “that at the time of the treaty they were assured that the money would be used for something other than education.”
—The problem was not in the treaty but in the understanding of how this $5,000 a year would be spent.
As both sides dug in and refused to compromise, tensions increased as the government failed to distribute the funds for several years in a row, until by 1850 the payments had accumulated to an excess of $50,000.
—Incorrect – The government failed to spend the money.
—Incorrect – It took more than several years to accumulate more than $50,000
Although the majority of the funds remained unspent, the ABCFM missionaries received several initial payments of the disputed money to help run their schools. This angered the Mdewakanton, who charged that the government paid the Protestants “for teaching the children here out of money due them . . . for their lands sold to the United States.
—How much did the missionaries actually receive?
—According to the Pond Brothers, had the government built schools and spent this money, there would not have been a problem. See their report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1849.
[Mdewakanton believed the government was giving their money to the missionaries every year. This belief was incorrect as shown in the author’s next statement:]
Despite the fact that the missionaries promised that they no longer used any of the disputed funds by the early 1840s, Mdewakanton continued to believe that the ABCFM schools were “a scheme of the missionaries for making money out of them.”
Because of these controversial school funds, the Mdewakanton focused much of their anger over the Treaty of 1837 on the ABCFM missionaries. Several other reasons also led the Dakota to direct their aggression at the Protestant missionaries instead of the federal government.
—Incorrect – It was not the Treaty but the education fund that was causing the trouble. Mdewakanton believed that if they could shut down the missions and mission schools, their education money would be given to them. While they were mostly successful, the money was not given to them.
—What were these other reasons?
Because of their ease as a target, as well as their initial receipt of money from the Treaty of 1837, attendance at the ABCFM schools located near Mdewakanton villages sharply declined beginning in 1839.
—The attendance sharply declined because Dakota men were preventing Dakota people from attending the missions and schools.
Anti-treaty Mdewakanton used many different methods to keep students from attending classes.
—Incorrect – They were not anti-treaty; they were against using their money to finance missions and mission schools.
…anti-treaty Mdewakanton not only continued to harass mission schools located near their own villages throughout the early 1840s, but also worked to spread their discontent to the three other bands of Dakota. At first the Mdewakanton focused their efforts on the Wahpeton, as the band located closest to them geographically.
—Incorrect – Those in opposition focused on Dakota in the areas of the other missions.
—The Wahpeton at Lac qui Parle were obligated to the Mdewakanton, because when Wahpeton were starving, they went to live with the Mdewakanton, who shared their benefits from the Treaty of 1837.
Stephen Riggs reported that after meeting with the Mdewakanton, the Wahpeton immediately “ordered the missionaries to leave.” Much to Riggs’s chagrin, this opposition “continued to embarrass our operations till the treaty of Mendota in 1851.
—While the missionaries were ordered to leave, the missionaries did not leave because not all of the Wahpeton wanted them to leave.
These continuing problems over the Treaty of 1837 caused all Dakota villages, regardless of their involvement in the original treaty negotiations, to distrust the federal government, and their proxies, the ABCFM missionaries.
—Incorrect and disrespectful – The ABCFM missionaries were not proxies of the federal government.
Thus, when Dakota representative Taoyateduta refused to “talk of nothing else” but the controversy over the Treaty of 1837 during the 1851 negotiations for Dakota lands, he was referring to an almost fifteen-year history of sustained conflict in the upper Mississippi region.
—Incorrect – This was not a “fifteen-year sustained conflict.”
—Little Crow wanted the remaining 1837 Treaty money to be paid to the Mdewakanton rather than be carried forward on the Government books.
Indeed, it can be argued that the Treaty of 1837 served as the turning point in government-Dakota relations, instead of the Treaty of 1851, which usually is assigned this role. By 1851 the Dakota had already learned to mistrust the government and to question their ability to follow through with promises made during treaty negotiations.
—Anything can be argued. Yes, the Mdewakanton were distrustful. It cannot be shown that the Treaty of 1837 taught all Dakota to mistrust the federal government.
Without an understanding of the Dakota response to the Treaty of 1837, Taoyateduta’s words during the 1851 negotiations remain elusive. However, his statement comes sharply into focus once the Dakota history of strong and sustained protest to the Treaty of 1837 is brought to light.
—I think that those authors who mention Little Crow’s words are very clear on why Little Crow said this.
Footnote 20 – The desire to turn the Dakota into farmers ignored the fact that Dakota women already cultivated acres of corn and other crops. Official reports only counted male Dakota as farmers. Thus, antebellum ideas about gender influenced perceptions of Dakota subsistence patterns.
—Incorrect – It was acknowledged that Dakota women maintained small gardens. Dakota farms that were farming as the whites were counted. There is no need to look for insults where none existed.