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Treaty of Traverse des Sioux ceded millions of acres from Dakota to U.S.

The treaty opened twenty-four million acres of land to immigration. For the Dakota, it marked another step in their increasing marginalization in land that was their home.

Painting by Frank B. Mayer, a witness to the negotiations and signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, 1885.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux of 1851 is an agreement between the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota and the U.S. government. It transferred ownership of much of southern and western Minnesota from the Dakota to the United States. The treaty is significant in Minnesota’s history because, along with similar treaties signed that same year, it opened twenty-four million acres of land to immigration. For the Dakota, these treaties marked another step in the process that saw them increasingly marginalized in and dismissed from land that was their home.

During the early decades of the 1800s, white immigrants began moving west of the St. Croix River into land held by American Indians. Though their numbers were relatively small at first, they saw the value of the land and its resources. They wanted to move further west, deeper into Indian lands. Influential men, including Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley, convinced the U.S. government to negotiate the purchase of land from American Indian groups living in the region. Through this transaction, Ramsey and Sibley also hoped to recoup debts that fur traders claimed various Indian bands owed to them.

By 1850, both the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota were in a tough spot. Animals that they had hunted for food and trade were not abundant enough to support their people anymore. Some groups saw selling their land as a way to gain resources they needed to survive. A land cession treaty, with guaranteed annuity payments, could help them through these tough times and, for some Dakota, offered a way to rebuild their communities.

In July 1851, Sibley, Ramsey, and federal commissioner Luke Lea chose Traverse des Sioux as the site for treaty negotiations. It took several weeks for enough representatives of the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands to arrive. Once they had arrived, however, it did not take long to come to an agreement. The Dakota were in a very weak bargaining position because they believed that if they did not sell their land, the United States would take it. Negotiations took several days, and some Dakota chiefs initially resisted the demands made by the commissioners because they asked for so much. Ultimately however, the chiefs gave in.

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On July 23, the Dakota signed the treaty with the government commissioners. The Treaty had three primary results. First, it ceded much of the southern and western portion of Minnesota to the U.S. for about seven and a half cents an acre. Second, it provided for a reservation of ten miles on each side of the Minnesota River. Finally, the treaty arranged for payment to the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands for the land they had ceded. They were to receive a portion of the money immediately. Some funds were set aside for the construction of schools and other services. The rest was to be placed in an account managed by the federal government. From that account, the bands were to receive an annual interest payment in both cash and goods.

After the chiefs had signed two copies of the treaty, they were directed to a third piece of paper held by Joseph R. Brown, a prominent fur trader. All but two of them also signed this agreement. The paper, known as the Traders’ Paper, directed the government to pay off various debts claimed by white and mixed-race fur traders using the money owed to the bands from the treaty. This repayment method was common at the time, and the chiefs, given the chance, would perhaps have agreed to it. However, the deceptive methods that Brown and other traders used to get the chiefs to sign angered the Dakota. No one read the paper aloud or translated it for the chiefs, many of whom believed it to be another copy of the treaty. Many Dakota felt cheated by this process, and they added this incident to a growing list of reasons to distrust the federal government.

Following this treaty, Sibley, Ramsey, and Lea negotiated a similar treaty at Mendota with other Dakota bands, which was signed on August 5. In the decade after the signing of these treaties, over 100,000 white immigrants would move to Minnesota to live on the land that the Indians had ceded.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.