Settlers – Milford

Settlers – Milford
© August 7, 2014, John LaBatte

 The first white settlers in Milford Township, Brown County, have been called land thieves and squatters.[1] But, were they land thieves and squatters, or were they victims? Read on. 

Incorrect Statements

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

  • The first settlers in Brown County were land thieves and squatters.
  • One of the squatters was killed by a Dakota.
  • Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith sought authorization to evict the squatters.
  • Regardless of whatever happened to the Germans, they were encroaching on our way of life; our land.
  • The Milford settlers did not realize they were part of the problem.

Reservation Ownership

The 1851 Treaty with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute established the lower Dakota reservation. The 1851 Treaty with the Sisseton and Wahpeton established the upper Dakota reservation. However, the treaties did not give ownership of these reservations to the Dakota.

In 1852, President Fillmore agreed to let the Dakota stay on their reservations for 5 years.[2]

On July 31, 1854, Congress passed a bill granting ownership of the lower and upper reservations to the Dakota. This bill was never signed by the President, but it added to the confusion.

What was the intention of the President and Congress? Were the Dakota given “exclusive use” of this land for 5 years? I cannot answer these questions except to describe the sequence of events from 1855 to 1863.

Reservation Boundary Line

The 1851 Treaty with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute established the mouth of the Little Rock River as the eastern boundary of the lower Dakota reservation. But, which of the many streams in this area was the Little Rock River?

Land Offices

The U.S. set up Land Offices in various towns to record claims on the land ceded to the U.S. in the treaties. New settlers went to a Land Office to learn what land was available or they staked their claims and then went to a Land Office to file their claims.

First Settlers in Milford Township

On October 1, 1854, Ludwig Meyer, Athanasius Henle, Alois Palmer and Joseph Massopust visited fur trader Joseph LaFramboise at his post on the north side of the Minnesota River east of Fort Ridgely. They were looking for a good site for a town. LaFramboise likely told them the reservation boundary was the mouth of present day Fort Ridgely Creek. After visiting LaFramboise, they crossed the Minnesota River. They found an abandoned Indian village on a creek, later Milford Creek. They continued down the south side of the Minnesota River, across the future site of New Ulm and stayed overnight in an abandoned Indian village near the mouth of the Big Cottonwood River.[3]

They returned to Traverse des Sioux [near present day St. Peter] to give their report to others. A group departed from Traverse des Sioux to view this area. On October 8, they spent the night in the Big Cottonwood River Indian village. On October 9, they met Surveyor M. M. Hayden who was in the area to do the U.S. Survey of section lines.[4]

The settlers selected a site for their new town, just east of the Milford Creek Indian village.[5] They occupied the Indian village. They measured the streets and began to clear the land. They constructed a large log cabin.[6]

The Dakota returned to their village and saw the log cabin nearby. They saw the survey lines of the new town. They threatened to kill the settlers. LaFramboise intervened and restored peace. The Dakota complained to the commander of the fort and to the Governor. The Dakota pitched their tents nearby, and did not return to their village.” In mid-February 1855, smallpox broke out among the Dakota. They placed their dead on tree branches and moved to the Lower Agency and did not return.[7]

In February 1855, the log cabin was destroyed by fire. The settlers moved into the abandoned Milford Creek Indian village. LaFramboise suggested another town site further down the Minnesota River near the Big Cottonwood River. On March 1, they left, some going to their farms, probably in present day Milford Township. Others went to the Lower Agency where they found work.[8]

In May 1855, members of the Chicago Land Association arrived with a surveyor. They decided in favor of LaFramboise’s suggestion. They called the new settlement, New Ulm. Rather than move to New Ulm, some of the settlers remained on their farms near Milford Creek. In the summer of 1855, a saw mill was built on Milford Creek. Milford was named for this mill and for a fording place on the Minnesota River below the mill.[9]

In June 1856, the Red Wing Land Office permitted Lorenz and Josephine Ammann to file for Lots 7-10, Section 31, Township 111, Range 31. According to the 1859 U.S. reservation boundary survey, this land was on the lower reservation. The Milford mill and the Milford Creek Indian village were located on this land.[10]


There was a great deal of confusion as to the boundaries of the reservations and whether whites could settle on the reservations. In January 1855, Senator Henry Rice wrote to George Manypenny, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, that it was important to mark the boundaries of the reservation. “The whites are settling around it very rapidly – and unless the lines are defined much difficulty may ensue.”[11]

The reservation boundaries were not surveyed probably because U.S. officials thought the Dakota would be moving off these reservations by 1857.

In May 1857, H. Francis Huebschmann, Superintendent of the Northern Superintendency, wrote to James Denver, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, that there was a difference of opinion as to where the Little Rock River was. Joseph LaFramboise insisted that the Little Rock River was just below Fort Ridgely.[12]

In January 1858, James Denver wrote to A. Hendricks, Commissioner, U.S. General Land Office, that the Henderson Land Office was permitting settlers to settle on Indian land.[13]

But, how did Denver know this? The Dakota had not been given ownership of their reservations. The President said they could stay until 1857. The President did not signed the 1854 Bill passed by Congress. The Little Rock River had not been located.

The Treaties of 1858 gave ownership of the reservations on the south side of the Minnesota River to the Dakota. It became more important to survey the reservation boundaries.

From 1858 to 1862, it was unclear to the Milford settlers whether their farms were located on the lower reservation and what the solution would be.

After the Treaties of 1858 were signed, the U.S. decided to survey the boundaries of the reservations on the south side of the Minnesota River. Although LaFramboise insisted the eastern boundary of the lower reservation was near Fort Ridgely, surveyor William Dodd located the Little Rock River 4-6 miles downriver from LaFramboise. The U.S. decided in favor of the Dakota Indians and moved this boundary east to Dodd’s location.[14]

Francis Baasen, Minnesota Secretary of State wrote to the Secretary of the Interior that settlers in Brown County were requesting information on the boundaries of the Reservation. Where does the boundary cross the Minnesota River? Does it extend south of the Big Cottonwood River? Old settlers state that the boundary line crosses the MN River 4 to 6 miles west of where the Indians claim. Many settlers have already located on reservation land. An early answer will hinder many difficulties that will arise between settlers and the Indians.[15]

A Public Announcement stated that land sold to settlers west of New Ulm is still Indian reservation land. The U.S. needs to purchase this land either from the Indians or from the settlers. A “mass of petitions” were sent to President Buchanan, Senator Rice and to the Secretary of the Interior. This is not an order to quit this land. The U.S. needs to take a closer look at these settler claims.[16]

Francis Baasen stated that the border of the Indian Reservation is not known at this time. They have to wait for the public survey to determine which river is the Little Rock River. The “border of the reservation will not be moved more easterly than the creek on which the upper sawmill is located, but hopefully more westerly.”[17]

Senator Rice stated, “…if you are on the south side of the river, and within the ten miles reservation strip, there is no relief. I regret this, for it is hard to see settlers lose their homes.”[18]

Charles Mix, Commissioner of Indian Affairs provided the instructions for the survey of the boundaries of the reservations. The eastern boundary of the lower reservation will start at the mouth of the Little Rock River and drop due south to the Little Cottonwood River.[19]

This is the first official mention that the Little Cottonwood River is the southern point of the eastern line of the lower reservation. Did Mix have the authorization from the U.S. Senate to make this change in favor of the Dakota.

In mid-summer 1859, U.S. Surveyors Snow and Hutton surveyed the boundaries of the Dakota reservations. They established mileposts in mounds along the boundaries.

A public announcement stated that the eastern boundary of the lower reservation extended “from the mouth of Little Rock River due south to the Waraju (Big Cottonwood River), then upward that River and following a line drawn ten miles south from and parallel with the Minnesota…[20] This contradicted the U.S. survey.

A Memorial of the Minnesota State Legislature to the President of the United States stated that the citizens living on or near the eastern and southern boundaries of the lower Dakota reservation have always believed that the eastern boundary is the west line of Range 31 and the southern line is the Big Cottonwood River.
         A U.S. survey in the year 1859 established the boundaries as the Little Rock River, approximately a mile east of the western line of Range 31 and a direct south-running line from the mouth of this Little Rock River down to the Little Cottonwood, a distance of approximately 13 miles.
         Relying on information received from officials at Fort Ridgely and from Land Office officials, a number of settlers have made expensive improvements. Several settlers were permitted, before the determination of the boundaries, to pay the U.S. for their claims. On one of these claims a saw mill was built and other improvements for the purpose of farming were made.
         The petitioners ask that the U.S. move the eastern boundary line to the west. If this is not possible, the petitioners ask that the U.S. compensate them for improvements made.[21]

In May 1860, Joseph R. Brown, Indian Agent, reported to William Cullen, Indian Superintendent, that a settler by the name of John Smith was murdered.[22] After an investigation by Brown and soldiers from Fort Ridgely, it could not be proven who killed Smith.

It was reported that those settlers on the reservation who filed prior to the survey could pay for their claims “at the office of Major Cullen, and thereby become full owners of the land.”[23] But, this was incorrect.

A few weeks later, James Nelson, General Land Office, wrote to Emerson, Surveyor General, Minnesota, that the U.S. Senate approved the 1858 Treaties with the Dakota Indians. The Indians were granted ownership to their reservation on the south side. “Settlers that have settled on the reservations in good faith, have the right of pre-emption to 160 acres, pending the approval of the Indians.”[24]

In the 1860 US Census, there were about 475 people in Milford Township.[25]

In April 1861, William Pfaender, New Ulm, wrote to President Lincoln that a “number of honest pioneers have been anxiously awaiting a decision for many years, uncertain whether they shall remain in possession of their homes or be driven off as they have been threatened” They were encouraged by the US Land Offices to settle on this land. Attached is a petition signed by 32 settlers “on lands which are said to form part of the Sioux Reservation…”[26]

This petition was forwarded to Thomas Galbraith. He attempted to gain assent of Dakota leaders to permit those whites who have settled upon the reservation to remain. He offered to buy the land from the Indians. Red Owl answered, “The Great father has plenty of land elsewhere which he can give to these white children of his who are settled on our Lands which our Great father gave us.” The Indians make many objections to allowing these white men to remain upon the Reservation. These settlers were selling whiskey to the Indians. Galbraith suggested the U.S. pay the settlers for their improvements and give them land elsewhere. Their improved farms can be given to Indians waiting for farms.[27]

In 1918, Christian Spelbrink and William Pfaender drew a map of “The Town of Milford in 1862.” The eastern boundary of the lower reservation is shown either on the present day mouth of the Little Rock River or on the western border of present day Milford Township.[28]

In October 1863, Thomas Galbraith testified to the U.S. Sioux Claims Commission that the settlement of whites on the Reservation did not provoke the war. Prior to the survey of the Reservations, a number of white settlers settled in the southern end of it understanding this to be government lands. After it was found they were on reservation land, they did not all leave. The Indians complained about this. “The Citizens were generally kind to the Indians who frequented their neighborhoods.” Some persons were detected in the sale of whiskey to the Indians, but this was suppressed by the police and military.[29]

War and Removal

 On August 18, 1862, a Lower Dakota soldiers’ lodge declared war on the United States. The war lasted about six weeks. More than 650 whites were killed by Indians. In 1863, the US abrogated the treaties and removed most of the Dakota from Minnesota.

My Opinion

In my speeches, I often give the following warning: “Just because you see it in a book, an essay, an exhibit, a video or hear a speaker say it, does not mean it is correct. You must do the research to approach the truth.” Too often, authors use statements from primary and secondary sources as facts without checking them out.

One author wrote that the first settlers in Brown County were land thieves and squatters.[30] No where in these documents, does anyone say that white settlers intentionally settled on Indian land. The settlers were being misled by the Land Offices and by people in the immediate area. The boundaries of the reservations were not surveyed until 1859.

One author wrote “one of the squatters was killed by a Dakota who was returning home from a carousal in New Ulm.”[31] If this victim was John Smith, this is incorrect. It cannot be proven that his homestead was on the reservation nor can it be proven he was killed by an Indian.

One author wrote that Indian Agent Galbraith “sided with the Dakota and sought authorization to evict the squatters.”[32] This is incorrect as shown above. Galbraith sought to buy this settled land from the Dakota. Galbraith recommended that the settlers on the reservation be paid for their land and improvements.

One author wrote that in the winter of 1854-55, when Dakota people returned from a winter hunt to their village, they were surprised to find their homes occupied by “pale-face guttural speakers”[33] This is correct, but it is offensive. The Dakota were also guttural speakers. What if I were to write “red-skinned guttural speakers”? People would find this offensive. Shouldn’t all ethnic groups be respected?

One author implied that all of the Milford settlers were on the reservation.[34] This is incorrect. After the boundaries were surveyed in 1859, it was found that 5 to 8 homesteads in the Milford area were totally or partly on the lower reservation.[35]

One author wrote that the Milford settlers did not realize they were part of the problem.[36] This implies that the settlers were a cause of the 1862 Dakota War. This is incorrect. As mentioned above, Thomas Galbraith said that the settlement of whites on the Reservation did not provoke the war.

Author/historian Carrie Zeman wrote, “Modern historians must take excruciating care to investigate 1862 atrocity stories before repeating them…”[37] I agree. Historians should not disrespect historic individuals, organizations or groups without solid proof. This includes the early Milford settlers.

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