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When the Dakota moved to reservations: The Treaty of Mendota

By signing  the Treaty of Mendota and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, the Dakota transferred ownership of their lands to the United States.

View of Mendota c. 1848, where treaty negotiations began on July 29, 1851. Painting by Seth Eastman.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Treaty of Mendota was signed between the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of the Dakota and the United States Government in 1851. By signing this treaty and the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux the same year, the Dakota transferred ownership of their lands to the United States. The Treaties of 1851 opened millions of acres to white settlement. For the Dakota, the treaties represented a step towards the loss of their homeland, and the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

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By 1849 there was great demand for the lands of the Dakota to be acquired by the United States. The white population of the Minnesota Territory had outgrown the lands acquired from the Dakota in the 1837 Treaty. Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey began to push for a new treaty in 1849. He was aided in his efforts by Territorial Delegate and fur trader Henry Sibley. The Dakota owed Sibley, and other traders, a great deal of money. Ramsey, and his fellow commissioner Luke Lea, represented the United States Government in the treaty process. Sibley represented the powerful traders.

First, the treaty delegation traveled to Traverse des Sioux and negotiated a treaty with the upper bands of the Dakota which included the Wahpeton and Sisseton. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed July 23, 1851. The vast majority of the chiefs also signed a Trader’s Paper, which directed the government to first pay debts claimed by traders using the money promised to the upper bands. Afterward the treaty delegation traveled to Mendota to meet with the two lower bands of the Dakota, the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute.

The negotiations began on July 29, 1851 in one of Sibley’s warehouses. They then moved to Pilot Knob where an arbor was erected. The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute were in a stronger position than the upper bands when it came to negotiations. They were not as desperate for food and goods. Further, the Mdewakanton had learned much from the Treaty of 1837. However, the treaty commissioners pointed out that with the sale of the upper bands’ land, the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute would be surrounded by white settlers, and eventually forced to give up their land.

Led by Little Crow and Wabasha, the Dakota asked that an annuity from the 1837 Treaty be paid before there was any further discussion. The bands also tried to change the boundaries of the proposed reservation. These disagreements stalled the negotiations until August 5, 1851. It was agreed that $30,000 would be paid to the Dakota immediately in place of the 1837 annuity. The commissioners stated that the reservation borders were not negotiable. Many of the younger tribal leaders threatened their elder chiefs with death if they signed. Even so, Little Crow stood and boldly signed the treaty followed by Wabasha and sixty-three other chiefs.

Sibley tried to get the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute to sign Trader’s Papers, but both bands refused. Eventually in November, 1851 leaders from the two bands did so. Some sources suggest that tribal leaders and their agents were bribed into signing the papers. The Wahpekute agreed to pay traders $90,000. The Mdewakanton paid $70,000 and were given $20,000 which was shared between seven chiefs. Five Dakota warriors were also released from the jail at Fort Snelling when the papers were signed. The Treaty of Mendota stated that there would always be friendship between the Dakota and United States Government. The Dakota were to receive $1,410,000 for their land, most of which would be held in trust and paid in annual annuities.

The treaties with the Dakota were approved by Congress, with some changes, on June 23, 1852. Forty-five chiefs of the lower bands signed the treaty on September 4, 1852. With the treaty, Ramsey and other government officials accomplished one of their greatest goals. Sibley and the traders received some money, though not all of the Dakota’s debts were paid. The Dakota ceded much of their homeland with the treaties of 1851, and began living on reservations, which was a permanent change to their way of life.

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