ST PETER — It wasn’t as if the Dakota elders were signing the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with strangers they didn’t trust in 1851.
On July 23, near the site where the Traverse des Sioux History Center sits in St. Peter, the Dakota ceded half of present-day Minnesota to the U.S. government in exchange for promises of gold, goods, education and a 20-mile reservation along the Minnesota River.
Two weeks later, the Treaty of Mendota resulted in the Dakota relinquishing rights to a big portion of southern Minnesota in exchange for $1.4 million.
And Ben Leonard, executive director of the Nicollet County Historical Society, said the Dakota had good reason to trust the government to honor its end of the bargain.
The Dakota had been working and living beside white settlers for 200 years. Leaders, such as Henry Sibley and Philander Prescott, had married Dakota women. Dakota had established “kinship ties” with white settlers, Leonard said.
“Kinship ties were really important to the Dakota. It goes beyond trust,” Leonard said.
Whether or not the government purposefully broke the treaties is more difficult to discern. Agreeing to provide payments in supplies and food, as well as education and agricultural training, was difficult to deliver without bureaucratic oversight, Leonard said.
“I think the general populous thought the Indian way of life was inferior to the Euro-American way of life, but I don’t know that people set out to not uphold the treaties,” Leonard said.
The Civil War had a big effect on mounting tensions between the Dakota and U.S. government. The war created a shortage of gold, which caused late payments.
Four bands of Dakota had been living on temporary reservations in southwestern Minnesota, and for 20 years, they had often been treated poorly by the government, traders and settlers.
“They saw their hunting lands whittled down, and provisions promised by the government rarely arrived. Worse yet, a wave of white settlers surrounded them,” the Historical Society records say.
Minnesota became a state in 1858, and representatives from several bands of Dakota led by Chief Taoyateduta (known as Little Crow) went to Washington, D.C., to renegotiate with government officials. But in the several years that followed, the Dakota lost the northern half of the reservation along the Minnesota River, as well as rights to their sacred quarry at Pipestone.
As settlers took over much of the land, the Dakota farming, hunting and fishing seasons were interrupted because the forest and prairie were being stripped of timber to make farm areas for white settlers. And wild game was being chased out of the area.
The summer of 1862 was the tipping point. Cutworms had destroyed most of the Dakota’s crops. Families were starving, and traders were refusing to extend credit lines to the Dakota for food and other needed goods.
Leonard described the circumstances as the “perfect storm,” but not just because of mistreatment and oppression by whites. Internally, there were deep divides among the Dakota people, he said.
Some Dakota had converted to Christianity and adopted Euro-American farming practices. Some wanted to retain their traditional culture and practices. Some were angry and wanted to incite violence. Others were angry but advocated nonviolence.
Coupled with a tremendous amount of change all around them, with tens of thousands of immigrants moving in — as well as starvation from late government payments, drought and grasshopper plagues — something was bound to happen, Leonard said.
The first bloodshed associated with the war is what happened near Acton. (See accompanying story.)
“I look at the Acton incident as kind of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in World War I,” Leonard said. “WWI would have happened without that (incident).”
On the night of Aug. 17, 1862, four Dakota warriors had come up empty on a hunting expedition, so they tried to steal eggs from a white settlement. When confronted, the young men fought with the hen’s owner. The fight escalated, and the Dakota killed five members of the family, Historical Society records show.
The bloodshed led Dakota leaders to fear an attack, so they decided to take the initiative in the hopes of gaining the upper hand. Little Crow (Taoyateduta) led Dakota attacks on local agencies and the settlement of New Ulm.
In the days to come, more than 500 white settlers and perhaps as many as 150 Dakota warriors would lose their lives. (Although only a small percentage of the Dakota nation actually participated in the war, Leonard said.)
“It was the first act of violence associated with (the war) near Acton,” Leonard said. “But that didn’t really start the war. It was the catalyst. War was inevitable.”