1851 Treaties – Land

1851 Treaties – Land
© July 11, 2014, John LaBatte

In 1851, leaders of the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of the Dakota Nation signed treaties with the U.S. They sold their right to occupy a large part of Minnesota and parts of present-day South Dakota and Iowa. They agreed to move to reservations along the upper Minnesota River where their people would learn to live as the whites. This essay discusses the title held by these bands to this land, how many acres were ceded, how much was paid per acre and the title held by these bands to their new reservations. 

Incorrect Statements

In my reviews, I found the following statements on these subjects to be incorrect. Duplicates have been removed.

  • The 1851 Treaties gave away all of the Dakota land in Minnesota.
  • Through the treaties of Traverse des Sioux in 1851 and Mendota in 1852 the Dakota Indians ceded virtually their entire Minnesota homeland to the U.S.
  • This territory ran from central Minnesota in the north to northern Iowa in the south, and from the Red and Sioux Rivers in the west to an undefined border in the east.
  • The Dakota ceded 16,000,000 acres to the U.S.
  • In the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, the Mdewakanton sold 21 million acres.
  • At Traverse des Sioux, the Sisseton and Wahpeton…ceded 21 million acres for $1,665,000, or about 7.5 cents an acre. The terms of the Mendota treaty with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute…were similar, except that those payments were even smaller.
  • In the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, two bands of Dakota cede to the U.S. lands in southwestern portions of the Minnesota Territory (as well as portions of Iowa and South Dakota) for $1.665 million in cash and annuities.
  • At the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, the Dakota lost 24,000,000 acres of rich farm land.
  • The Indians ceded some 24 million acres, over half the Minnesota Territory…
  • On July 23, 1851, representatives of the Dakota peoples…and U.S. officials met to sign a treaty that would open 24 million acres of land to settlement.
  • The Dakota are paid $3,000,000 for 35 million acres
  • The Dakota sold 35,000,000 acres at 2 cents an acre.
  • The land ceded by the Dakota for about 7.5 cents an acre was resold to settlers at $1.25 per acre–more than 15 times what the U.S. had paid for it.
  • The U.S. got the land for 10 cents an acre.
  • Dakota people sold most of their land to the U.S. in exchange for $3,750,000 (estimated at 12 cents per acre).
  • In the 1851 Treaties, Dakota reservations were to be held by them as Indian lands are held.

 What sort of title did the Dakota have to their land?

In the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. purchased from France, most if not all of the land claimed by the Dakota Indians. From the U.S. viewpoint, the Dakota Indians had a right to occupy this land. However, they could not sell this land to anyone but the U.S. They did not have clear title to this land; hence the value of this land was significantly reduced.[1]

How many acres were ceded to the U.S. in 1851?

To view a map of the 1851 land cessions see Minnesota Historical Society:


Thomas Foster, Secretary to the 1851 Treaty Commission, estimated a total of 35 million acres were ceded in the two 1851 treaties. Mankato historian Thomas Hughes estimated 24 million acres.[2] In the Incorrect Statements above, estimates of ceded acres range from 16 million to 35 million acres. All of these estimates are wrong because the ceded land was never surveyed. We do not know exactly how much land was ceded in the 1851 treaties.

The Sisseton and Wahpeton bands signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands signed the Treaty of Mendota. There was no dividing line on the ceded land. The Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton and Wahpeton bands gave up their claims to the very same land. We cannot subdivide this land by treaty as some have tried to do.[3]

How much was paid per acre?

According to the 1851 treaties, the U.S. paid $1,410,000 to the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute and $1,665,000 to the Sisseton and Wahpeton for a total of $3,075,000. Possibly the higher amount paid to the Sisseton and Wahpeton was due to their larger population. Initially, the treaties gave ownership of the reservations to the Dakota. But, the Senate struck this article and paid the Dakota an additional 10 cents an acre for their reservations. This could explain why some think the U.S. paid 10 cents an acre for all the ceded land. However, the calculations of the total amounts paid cannot be found.[4]

The Incorrect Statements above state the U.S. paid from nothing to 12 cents an acre. That the U.S. paid nothing for this land is obviously incorrect. The other amounts are also incorrect, because we do not know how many acres were sold.

Some suggest that the U.S. cheated the Dakota by paying only 10 cents an acre and then selling this land for $1.25 an acre. This land was not all desirable farm land as some think. To make this land available for sale, the U.S. had to survey it and establish land offices to sell it.

What sort of title did the Indians have to their new reservations?

They were not given ownership of their reservations. In 1852, President Fillmore agreed to let the Dakota stay on their reservations for 5 years.[5]

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