Treaties-1851-“Treaty of TDS Painting”

“The Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux” Painting
(1905), by David Francis Millet
© November 16, 2015, John LaBatte
Modified November 26, 2015

This essay is prompted by recent comments made about artwork in the Minnesota State Capitol Building. First, I will give some background on myself. Then, I will give some background on Sioux origins and migrations. Finally, I will discuss recent comments made by the Art Subcommittee and members of the media about the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” painting.

My background

My great-great-grandfather, Francois LaBathe, was a Dakota/French mixed-blood fur trader. He had a fur trade post at Traverse des Sioux. It is likely he was present at the treaty signing. It is also likely that some of my other Dakota ancestors were present during the signing.

I have reviewed more than 250 products related to the Dakota War of 1862. The Treaties of 1851 between the United States and the Dakota Indians are often misunderstood and often misrepresented. Many allegations are made which cannot be proven. Many opinions are treated as facts. I am not offended in any way by this painting. I am offended by the incorrect, inaccurate and unbalanced statements made about this event.

Art Subcommittee Website

Refer to this website for more information on their purpose, meetings, the artwork, media articles and information on Public Input Meetings.

Sioux and Dakota

The Sioux Nation was and still is made up of seven bands: Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Yankton, Yanktonai and Teton. The first four bands are the Dakota subgroup.

Sioux Origins

The ancestors of the Sioux Indians migrated into present day Minnesota. In one Dakota narrative, the Sioux migrated from the east. As they passed the Great Lakes, they saw a Viking ship. [1] Guy Gibbon gives three origins, all outside Minnesota. [2] In a future essay, I will explore this in greater detail.

Sioux Migrations

Whites first encountered the Dakota in 1660, either in present-day northwestern Wisconsin or northern Minnesota. [3] They occupied villages in the Mille lacs Lake area in northern Minnesota. The Sioux probably had already started their migrations to the west and south. Warfare with the Ojibwe Indians caused the last of the Dakota subgroup to migrate to the south. As the Sioux migrated, they killed members of other Indian nations, forced them to move and took their land. They did not write treaties.

Fur Traders

The fur traders began to arrive among the Dakota Indians in 1686. The fur trade was mutually beneficial. However, it caused the Dakota to kill off many of their fur-bearing animals.

Treaties of 1851 between the United States and the Dakota Indians

These treaties came about for a number of reasons including the demand for land by settlers and a way to collect debts owed by the Dakota to their traders.

Sissetons are starving to death

There was another reason for treating with the Sisseton and Wahpeton. Martin McLeod was a fur trader at Lac qui Parle. The winter of 1849-50 was cold and snowy. McLeod estimated that a third of the Sissetons in his area “starved to death over the winter. McLeod believed their only salvation was government support in exchange for ceding their lands. Consequently, part of the rationale for a cession treaty was that it would be a humane action.” [4]

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 in 1851. William Lass wrote, “Thus, like the Europeans, the Americans, while they ostensibly regarded Indian tribes as sovereign nations, really thought that the natives held only occupation rights.” [5] They did not have clear title to this land; hence the value of this land was significantly reduced. They could not sell this land to anyone but the United States. The Dakota did not sell their land; they sold their right to occupy this land.

The 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

On June 30, 1851, Treaty Commissioners Luke Lea and Alexander Ramsey arrived at Traverse des Sioux to begin negotiations with the Sisseton and Wahpeton.

The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux Paintings

Frank Mayer, “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” was painted in 1885. This painting is based on Mayer’s sketches as an eyewitness to the event in 1851. [6]

“David Francis Millet was the artistic director of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, which much influenced Cass Gilbert’s Minnesota State Capitol design.” [7] He painted “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” in 1905. This painting hangs in the State Capitol.

Comments by Subcommittee members and media reporters

My reactions to these comments are preceded by — (3 hyphens).

“There is a sketch drawn by a person present at the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux that was the basis for an 1885 version of the painting of the event. It contrasts significantly with the 1905 version in the Governor’s office in many ways.” [8]
—What does this mean? – Are these differences enough to have the painting removed?

“The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” (1905), by David Francis Millet is considered to be culturally insensitive.” [9]
—What does this mean? – Why is it culturally insensitive?

“…3 of the 1st 4 paintings listed above specifically depict Dakota tribes, not all Native Americans…several paintings are romanticized representations.” [10]
—What does this mean? – Is the author saying that other tribes need to be represented?
—What does this mean? – If they are romanticized, should they be removed? I am not sure if the author is even including “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.”

“Also, it is little known that there is a version of the Treaty translated into to the Dakota language and its contents are very different from the English version.” [11]
—What does this mean? Is this person saying that the Dakota leaders were deceived?
—Colonel William G. LeDuc was present at Traverse des Sioux on Wednesday, July 23, 1851. He was a reporter for the New York Tribune. On July 23, LeDuc wrote:
            “The labor of the traders and missionaries (the services of Rev. Mr. Riggs are especially to be remembered) who have been among them, and understand their language, have been unceasing to effect this treaty. Messrs. Sibley, McLeod, Riggs, and others are sent for at all hours of the day and night, to explain to the different bands the provisions of the treaty, to answer objections, to try and persuade the stubborn warriors and headmen many of whom, from mere jealousy of their chiefs, refuse to be satisfied, and with all the persistence of ignorant obstinacy, refuse to be convinced that the terms now offered them as an ultimatum are at all favorable.” [12]
—On July 23, LeDuc also wrote:
            “The English copy of the treaty was now read aloud by the secretary of the commission, and then immediately afterwards the Rev. S. R. Riggs, the missionary of the A.B.C.F.M. at Lac qui Parle and the author of the Dakota Lexicon, who was acting as one of the interpreters of the commission, read the translation in Dakota. Those who are acquainted with both languages say, that the translation was full and clear; and one thing that has been said of other treaties can never be alleged of this one – that the Indians were not made to understand it fully, clearly, completely, before signing it.” [13]
—It cannot be said with certainty what the Dakota leaders did understand and what they did not understand when they signed the Treaty. This should not be a reason to ban the painting.

“People are exposed to only the titles of the paintings and the elements shown within the paintings. Most visitors have no prior knowledge of the history surrounding the paintings and cannot fill in the blanks.” [14]
— I have been told that the present State Capitol tours are giving the visitors the wrong interpretation. I do not know the details. Any new interpretation of these paintings and future paintings needs to be as accurate, respectful and balanced as possible.

“The painting, “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” shows the 1851 signing of a treaty that secured…some 22 million acres…” [15]
—Incorrect – This cession was never surveyed. We do not know how many acres were included. Estimates range from about 22 million to about 35 million acres.
—Incorrect – In this treaty, the Sisseton and Wahpeton gave up their right to occupy this land. In the 1851 Treaty of Mendota, the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute gave up their right to occupy the same land.

“The…figures depicted as happy participants in a fair exchange…In reality, nearly all of the Dakota land was at stake in the treaty, and Native American leaders signed it on the quick after then-Territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey refused to give them more time to consider their options.” [16]
—Incorrect – The painting does not depict happy participants or a fair exchange.
—Incorrect – I do not find that Ramsey refused to give them more time. In fact, on Saturday, July 19, the Sissetons abruptly left the council. Commission Lea, thinking the Sisseton did not want a treaty, started preparations to leave in the morning. Saturday evening an Indian committee asked the Commissioners to stay and resume the session in the morning.

—In my responses unless otherwise footnoted, I rely on Hughes, Old Traverse des Sioux, Goodhue, Minnesota Pioneer newspaper, Mayer, With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851, and LeDuc, 1852 Minnesota Yearbook.

“The painting, “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” is artist Francis David Millet’s rendering of the moment in 1851 at which desperate Dakota people were coerced into yielding control of 24 million acres — most of today’s southwestern Minnesota — at the pittance of 7.5 cents per acre. Millet portrays Minnesota Territory’s leading politicians, Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, presiding over a placid scene of native and white people transacting a business deal. During that same ceremony, Dakota leaders were tricked into signing a separate “traders’ paper” that cheated them out of a goodly portion of the annual federal annuity payment the treaty promised. A delayed payment of that depleted annuity in 1862 sparked the bloody uprising known as the U.S.-Dakota War. The painting puts a glorified gloss on the moment when that war’s seed was planted.” [17]
—Incorrect – I do not find that the Dakota were coerced. As mentioned above, at one point, the Commissioners began preparations to leave.
—Incorrect – This cession was never surveyed. We do not know how many acres were included.
—Incorrect – Because we do not know how many acres were sold, we do not know how much was paid per acre. The payment in the 1851 Treaty of Mendota needs to be included in the total amount paid.
—Incorrect – The treaty included all land south of an approximate line between Moorhead, Minnesota and Winona, Minnesota.
—Incorrect – Henry Sibley was not presiding over this treaty signing. Commissioners Alexander Ramsey and Luke were.
—Incorrect – We do not know if any Dakota leaders were tricked into signing the Traders Paper. In 1852, Missionary Stephen R. Riggs wrote Henry Sibley, “In regard to the treaty made at the Traverse des Sioux last July…everywhere, on all occasions, and at all our meetings with the principal Dakota men, during the holding of the Treaty…I told them plainly, and heard others tell them that the $275,000 was intended among other things, to enable them to pay their just debts. And I have not the slightest hesitation in express it as my firm conviction that they so understood it at the time; and further, that they understood that that paper which they signed, after they had affixed their names to the treaty, had for its object the regulation of that matter.” [18]
—Incorrect – A delayed payment in 1862 was a primary cause of the Dakota War, but, it was not the only primary cause. It was not the spark. The murders at Acton were the spark.
—Incorrect – In 1862, a Lower Dakota (Mdewakanton and Wahpekute) Soldiers’ Lodge made the decision for war. The 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was with the Sisseton and Wahpeton.

“I’d argue that what Sibley and Ramsey did to the Dakota that day and in the years that followed is not fitting company for the good governors who’ve stood beneath that painting…” [19]
—Disrespectful and Incorrect – This person obviously does not understand the Treaty of Traverse, its negotiations or its signing. How many Sisseton and Wahpeton survived as a result of this treaty?

“It’s a painting that basically shows how we took land from the Indians…It’s insensitive… [20]
—Incorrect – We did not take land from the Indians. The Dakota took land from other Indians. We made treaties and tried to help the Sisseton and Wahpeton who were starving.
—Incorrect – Exactly how is it insensitive?

In the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux “wasn’t it Governor Ramsey who was in that picture who signed a letter in modern times comes close to genocide because he wanted the Indians eradicated? [21]
—Incorrect – Ramsey, at no time, came close to genocide. If the whites committed genocide, then the Dakota also committed genocide.

“The treaty did little to help its Dakota signatories…much of the money promised to the tribe never arrived or was diverted to pay fur traders who claimed the tribe owed them money.” [22]
—Incorrect – Reporters apparently can say whatever they want without showing proof for their opinions.
—Incorrect – The Dakota signatories benefitted in many ways. We do not know how many were saved from starvation. By 1862, there were about 250 Dakota farms on the two reservations. The treaties provided for doctors. How many lives did they save?
—Incorrect – Which money never arrived?
—Incorrect – Which money was diverted to pay fur traders?
—Disrespectful – The author suggests that claims by the traders were not valid. Name the fur traders and provide proof that this is correct. Don’t generalize all fur traders this way.

The committee should, “Imagine seeing yourself or your family depicted in these paintings. As a Dakota person coming to the state Capitol and viewing this art, I have a very different reaction than other people who have no connection to it. And, I find it problematic in terms of how American Indian people are depicted in the state Capitol.” [23]
—As a Dakota person, I am not offended in any way by these paintings. One person does not speak for all Dakota people.

“…one painting that has been prominently displayed in the Governor’s Reception Room commemorating treaties in which tribes lost much of their land.” [24]
—Incorrect – The Dakota were paid for this land. They did not lose it.

The “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” “tells an incredibly one-sided version of history. Under the treaty, the Dakota ceded 24 million acres of land to the United States… The painting represents the treaty signing as a fair, calm negotiation between two sides with equal power. It does not square with what we know of the process. Historian William Lass wrote: “As the treaty’s terms were explained to them, the chiefs and headmen realized they were being presented with an ultimatum. Collectively, they concluded it was better to sign and get something for their land rather than refuse and run the risk of simply having it taken from them.”” [25]
—Incorrect – This cession was never surveyed. We do not know how many acres were included.
—Incorrect – During the signing, some of the Dakota leaders made brief statements. It was a fair and calm event.
—Incorrect – Lass’s quote is an interpretation of LeDuc’s quote. See LeDuc’s two July 23 complete quotes above.

After the treaty signing, Dakota leaders were led to a second document to which most placed their mark. This paper was neither read nor explained. It allowed traders to get paid directly from treaty money for any debts they claimed individual Dakota people owed them. Of the initial $305,000 treaty cash payment, the Dakota got less than 20 percent, according to “Little War on the Prairie,” an NPR report that aired in 2012.” [26]
—Absolutely incorrect – This document was explained to them. See Reverend Stephen R. Riggs’ letter to Henry Sibley mentioned above.
—Incorrect – The Dakota received the full benefit of the $305,000. “The sum of $275,000 was to be paid to the chiefs “to enable them to settle their affairs,” to cover the removal costs to the reservation and to provide one year’ subsistence for their people. Thirty thousand dollars were dedicated to “the establishment of manual-labor schools, the erection of mills and blacksmith shops, opening farms, fencing and breaking land, and for such other beneficial objects as may be deemed most conductive the prosperity and happiness of said Indians…” [27]
—Incorrect – I suspect “NPR” should be “MPR.”


The “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” painting should not be removed from the State Capitol Building.

To contrast this painting, add a painting of “The Battle at Crow Wing” or “The Battle at Kathio” to show how the Dakota lost their land to the Ojibwe.

[1] Ruth Landes, The Mystic Lake Sioux, page 22

[2] Guy Gibbon, The Sioux, page 18

[3] Roy W. Meyer, History of the Santee Sioux…, page 1

[4] William E. Lass, The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, page 26

[5] William Lass, The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, page 2

[6] Sep 14, 2015 – Art Subcommittee Meeting

[7] Jul 4, 2015, StarTribune, Lori Sturdevant
“Minnesota is at the intersection of history, sensitivity”

[8] Oct 12, 2015 – Art Subcommittee Meeting

[9] Aug 3, 2015 – Art Subcommittee Meeting

[10] Aug 3, 2015 – Art Subcommittee Meeting

[11] Oct 12, 2015 – Art Subcommittee Meeting

[12] Hughes, Old Traverse des Sioux, 1993, page 75

[13] Hughes, Old Traverse des Sioux, 1993, page 67

[14] Oct 12, 2015 – Art Subcommittee Meeting

[15] Apr 4, 2015, MinnPost, Briana Bierschbach
“The other debate at the state Capitol: What to do with the building’s most controversial art?”

[16] Apr 4, 2015, MinnPost, Briana Bierschbach
“The other debate at the state Capitol: What to do with the building’s most controversial art?”

[17] Jul 4, 2015, StarTribune, Lori Sturdevant
“Minnesota is at the intersection of history, sensitivity”

[18] Riggs to Sibley, Jan 15, 1853, Henry Sibley papers, microfilm rolls 3 and 6-9. Transcribed by Rebecca Snyder in The 1851 Treaty of Mendota.

[19] Jul 4, 2015, StarTribune, Lori Sturdevant
“Minnesota is at the intersection of history, sensitivity”

[20] Jul 4, 2015, StarTribune, Lori Sturdevant
“Minnesota is at the intersection of history, sensitivity”

[21] Jul 13, 2015, Minnesota Pubic Radio, Tom Weber, about 30:10
“What art should be displayed in the Minnesota Capitol?”

[22] Jul 27, 2015, Governing magazine, Daniel C. Vock
“Wrestling With Dark History, This Time in Minnesota’s Capitol”

[23] Oct 12, 2015, StarTribune, J. Patrick Coolican
“On Columbus/Indigenous People’s Day, a debate about depictions of American Indians in Capitol art”

[24] Nov 2, 2015, Pioneer Press, David Montgomery
“What do YOU think should be done with the state Capitol’s art?

[25] The Petition – blog that is advertising petition:

[26] The Petition – blog that is advertising petition:

[27] William Lass, The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, page 54.

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