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Government's Disregard of Treaty Stipulations

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                     


In this same code of instructions by the Indian Bureau there is a record of another instance of the Government's disregard of treaty stipulations. At the time of the treaty of Prairie du Chien, in 1850, the Sioux chiefs had requested that a certain tract be set apart and bestowed upon the half-breeds of their nation. This was provided for in the ninth Article of that treaty; but the Government refused to give to the half-breeds any title to this land, except "in the same manner as other Indian titles are held." It was agreed, however, that the President might "assign to any of said half-breeds, to be held by him or them in fee-simple, any portion of said tract not exceeding a section of six hundred and forty acres to an individual." This tract of land was known as the "Half-breed Reservation on Lake Tepin."

The half-breeds had made almost unintermitting efforts to have these assignments made, but the Government had as constantly refused to do it. The Indian Bureau now assigns two reasons why this treaty stipulation was never fulfilled:

  • 1st, that "the half-breeds, or most of them, would be speculated upon by designing persons, and cheated out of their reservations;
  • 2d, that, "on account of the quality of the lands, some would necessarily have much better reservations than others, which would engender dissatisfaction and heart-burning among themselves as well as against the United States."

The Bureau felicitates itself that "the only title they now have to this land, therefore, is that by which other Indians hold their lands, viz., the occupant or usufruct right, and this they enjoy by the permission of the United States." Such being the case, and as the Government would probably never find it expedient and advisable to make the assignment referred to, this tract, whatever may be the character of the land, must be and would continue comparatively worthless to them.

Nevertheless, it appears that in 1841 one of the three treaties made with the Sioux, but not ratified, was with these very half-breeds for this same "valueless" tract of 384,000 acres of land; that they were to be paid $200,000 for it, and also to be paid for all the improvements they had made on it; and that the treaty commissioners are still instructed "to allow them for it now whatever sum the commissioners deem it to be "fairly worth;" under no circumstances, however, "to exceed the sum stipulated in 1841." Putting this all into plain English, it simply means that in 1830 the Government promised to let a band of men take out tracts of land in fee-simple, and settle down like other men on their homesteads; that for ten years the men begged to do so, and were refused; that at the end of ten years, thinking there was no hope of anything better, they agreed to sell the whole tract back to the Government for $200,000; that this bargain, also, the Government did not fulfill (the treaties never being ratified), and nine years later was found congratulating itself on the fact that, by reason of all these unfulfilled agreements, the land was still "held only in the same manner as other Indian titles are held" i. e., not "held" at all-only used on sufferance of the Government, and could be taken possession of at any time at the Government's pleasure. (This matter was supposed to be finally settled in 1854 by a law of Congress; but in 1856 the thing appears to have been still unsettled. A commission had been sent out to investigate it, and the report was that "the subject has been one of some difficulty and intricacy; but the final report of the commissioners has just been received, and steps will be taken at once to cause the scrip to issue to the parties entitled thereto.") A little farther on in this same notable document is a mention of another tract, of which it is now "desirable to extinguish the title." This was set apart by the tenth Article of that same old treaty for the half-breeds of the Omaha, Otoe, Iowas, and Yankton and Santee Sioux. This contains about 143,000 acres, but is "supposed to be of much less value than that on Lake Tepin:" much less value than "valueless;" but the "amount to be paid for it is left to the discretion" of the commissioners.

At this time the bands of the Mdewakantonwan Sioux were occupying a tract of over two hundred miles along the west shore of the Mississippi, reaching also some twenty-five miles up the St. Peter's. The Yankton, Santees, and other bands lived high up the St. Peter's, reaching over into the lands west of the Missouri, out of reach of ordinary facilities of intercourse. These bands were often in great distress for food, owing to the failure of the buffalo. They never lost an occasion to send imploring messages to the Great Father, urging him to help them. They particularly ask for hoes, that they may plant corn. In his report for 1850 the superintendent of the territory embracing these Indians says: "The views of most of those who have lived the longest among the Indians agree in one respect-that is, that no great or beneficial change can take place in their condition until the General Government has made them amenable to local laws-laws which will punish the evil-disposed, and secure the industrious in their property and individual rights."

Superintendents, agents, commissioners, secretaries, all reiteratedly recommending this one simple and necessary step toward civilization-the Indians themselves by hundreds imploring for titles to their farms, or at least "hoes" why did the United States Government keep on and on in its obstinate way, feeding the Indian in gross and reckless improvidence with one hand, plundering him with the other, and holding him steadily down at the level of his own barbarism? Nay, forcing him below it by the newly 'added vices of gambling and drunkenness, and yet all the while boasting of its desire to enlighten, instruct, and civilize him. It is as inexplicable as it is infamous: a phenomenal thing in the history of the world.

In the summer of 1851 the desired treaties were made, the upper and lower bands of Sioux being treated with separately at Traverse de Sioux and at Mendota. The upper bands were soon disposed of, though "some few of them, having been taught to read," bad become impressed with the idea that their country was of immense value, and at first demanded six million dollars for the lands to be ceded. The treaty with the lower bands-the Mdewakantonwan and Wahpacoota-was "exceedingly difficult of attainment" on account of, firstly, "their proximity to the flourishing settlements on the east side of the Mississippi producing necessarily frequent contact with the whites, whose ideas of the great value of the country bad been imparted to these Indians; secondly, their great experience in Indian diplomacy, being in the enjoyment already of liberal annuities under former stipulations"- all these things rendered them as "indifferent to the making of another treaty at present as the whites on their borders were anxious that their lands should he acquired." In consequence of this indomitable common-sense on the part of the Indians the sessions of the commissioners were tedious and long; not until a month had passed did they prevail on these Indians to sign away the coveted lands," the garden-spot of the Mississippi Valley," and they were obliged to more than treble the number of cents per acre which they had been instructed to pay. For thirty-five millions of acres of land they agreed to pay nominally $3,075,000, which would be between eight and nine cents an acre. But as$2,500,000 was to be held in trust, and only the interest at five per cent. to be paid to the Indians, and this only for the term of fifty years, at which time the principal was to revert to the Government, it will be easily reckoned that the Indians would receive, all told, only about six and one-quarter cents an acre. And taking into account the great value of the relinquished lands, and the price the Government would undoubtedly obtain for them, it will be readily conceded that Governor Ramsey was not too sanguine when lie stated, in his report to the Interior Department, that the "actual cost to the Government of this magnificent purchase is only the sum paid in hand" ($575,000).

The governor says that it was "by no means the purpose" of the commission "to act other than justly and generously toward the Indians;" that "a continuation of the payment of large sums of interest annually would do them no further good" after fifty years had expired, and would be "inconsistent with sound governmental policy." He says that the Dakota nation, although warlike, is "friendly to the whites," and that it may be reasonably expected that, "by a judicious expenditure of the civilization and improvement funds provided for in these treaties," they will soon take the lead "in agriculture and other industrial pursuits."

One of the provisions of this treaty forbade the introduction of ardent spirits into the Dew reservation. This was put in accordance with the "earnest desire" of the chiefs, who requested "some stringent measures should be taken by the Government to exclude all kinds of liquors from their new home." By this treaty the four great bands of Minnesota Sioux were all to be "consolidated together on one reservation in the upper part of the Mississippi Valley." This region was thought to be "sufficiently remote to guarantee" them against any pressure from the white population for many years to conic. Farms were to be opened for them, mills and schools to be established, and dwelling-houses erected. They were to have now a chance to own "that domestic country called home, with all the living sympathies and all the future hopes and projects which people it." From this time "a new era was to be dated in the history of the Dakotas: an era full of brilliant promise." The tract of territory relinquished by them was "larger than the State of New York, fertile and beautiful beyond description," far the best part of Minnesota. It is "so far diversified in natural advantages that its productive powers may be considered almost inexhaustible. Probably no tract on the surface of the globe is equally well watered. A large part is rich arable land; portions are of unsurpassed fertility, and eminently adapted to the production in incalculable quantities of the cereal grains. The boundless plains present inexhaustible fields of pasturage, and the river bottoms are richer than the banks of the Nile. In the bowels of the earth there is every indication of extensive mineral fields."

It would seem that the assertion made only a few lines before this glowing paragraph" to the Indians themselves the broad regions which have been ceded are of inconsiderable value"-could not be true. It would seem that for eight thousand people, who, according to this same writer, "have outlived in a great degree the means of subsistence of the hunter state," and must very soon "resort to the pursuits of agriculture," nothing could have been more fortunate than to have owned and occupied thirty-five millions of acres of just such land as this.

They appear to be giving already some evidence of a disposition to turn this land to account. The reports from the different farms and schools show progress in farming industry and also in study. The farming is carried on with difficulty, because there are only a few carts and ploughs, which must be used in turn by the different farmers, and therefore must come to some quite too late to be of use, and there is much quarrel-ling among them owing to this trouble. Nevertheless, these bands have raised over four thousand bushels of corn in the year. There is also a great opposition to the schools, because the Indians have been told that the accumulated fifty thousand dollars that is due to them would be paid to them in cash if it were not for the schools. Nevertheless, education is slowly progressing; in this year fifty copies of a little missionary paper called The Dakota Friend were subscribed for in the one mission station of Lac qui Parle, and sixty scholars were enrolled at the school. The blacksmith at St. Peter's reports that he has made during the year 2506 pieces of one sort and another for the Indians, and repaired 1430 more. Evidently a community keeping blacksmiths so busy as this are by no means wholly idle themselves.

It is worthwhile to dwell upon these seemingly trivial details at this point in the history of the Minnesota Sioux, because they are all significant to mark the point in civilization they had already reached, and the disposition they had already shown toward industry before they were obliged to submit to their first great removal. Their condition at the end of two years from the ratification of these treaties is curtly told in the official reports of the Indian Bureau:

"The present situation of that portion of the Sioux Indians parties to the treaties of July 23d and August 5th, 1851, is peculiar, unfortunate, and to them must prove extremely injurious. By these treaties they reluctantly parted with a very large extent of valuable country, which it was of the greatest importance to the Government to acquire. An insignificant portion of it near its western boundary, not deemed necessary or desirable for a white population for many years, if at all, was agreed to be reserved and assigned to them for their future residence. The Senate amended the treaties, striking out this Provision, allowing ten cents an acre in lieu of the reservations, and requiring the President, with the assent of the Indians, if they agreed to the amendments, to assign them such tracts of country, beyond the limits of that ceded, as might be satisfactory for their future home. To the amendments was appended a proviso' that the President may, by the consent of the Indians, vary the conditions aforesaid, if deemed expedient.' The Indians were induced to agree to the amendments; 'confiding in the justice, liberality, and humanity of the President and the Congress of the United States, that such tracts of country will be set apart for their future occupancy and home as will be to them acceptable and satisfactory.' Thus, not only was the assent of the Indians made necessary to a country being assigned to them without the limits of that ceded, but, by the authority given to the President to vary the conditions of the amendments to the treaties, he was empowered, with the consent of the Indians, to place them upon the designated reservations, or upon any other portion of the ceded territory, 'if deemed expedient.'

"To avoid collisions and difficulties between the Indians and the white population which rapidly commenced pouring into the ceded country, it became necessary that the former should vacate at least a large portion of it without delay, while there was neither the time nor the means to make the requisite explorations to find a suitable location for them beyond the limits of the cession.

"Under these pressing and embarrassing circumstances the late President determined to permit them to remain five years on the designated reservations, if they were willing to accept this alternative. They assented, and many of them have been already removed. However unavoidable this arrangement, it is a most unfortunate one. The Indians are fully aware of its temporary character, and of the uncertainty as to their future position, and will consequently be disinclined and deterred from any efforts to make themselves comfortable and improve their condition. The inevitable result must be that, at the end of the time limited, they will be in a far worse condition than now, and the efforts and expenditures of years to infuse into them a spirit of improvement will all have been in vain.

"The large investments in mills, farms, mechanic shops, and other improvements required by the treaties to be made for their benefit, will be entirely wasted if the Indians are to remain on their reservations only during the prescribed five years. At the very period when they would begin to reap the full advantage of these beneficial provisions they would have to remove. Another unfortunate feature of this arrangement, if temporary, is that the Indians will have expended the considerable sums set apart in the treaties for the expenses of their removal to a permanent home, and for subsistence until they could otherwise provide it, leaving nothing for these important and necessary purposes in the event of another emigration. In view of these facts and considerations, no time should be lost in determining upon some final and permanent arrangement in regard to them."

The Governor of Minnesota also writes at this time: "The doubtful tenure by which this tribe hold their supposed reservation is well understood by their chiefs and headmen, and is beginning to give deep dissatisfaction, and throwing daily more and more obstacles in the way of their removal. This reservation will not be wanted for white men for many years.

"There is not wood, or timber, or coal sufficient for the purposes of civilization, except immediately on the St. Peter's and its tributaries. From near the vicinity of the new agency there commences a vast prairie of more than one hundred miles in extent, entirely destitute of timber, and I feel confident that we never shall be able to keep any very large number of them at their new agency, or near there.

"Already the fund set apart for the removal and subsistence the first year of the Sisseton and Wah-pa-ton has been expended, and all their provisions eaten up. Seventeen thousand dollars and upward have been expended by Governor Ramsey, and one year in advance of the time fixed by the treaty for their removal. This expenditure was made while he was getting them to sign the Senate amendments to the treaty of 1851, which they were very reluctant to do, and which not more than half the chiefs have signed. These Indians want the Government to confirm this reservation to them. I would recommend that this be done as the only means to satisfy them, and humanity demands it."

Here is a picture of a helpless people! Forced to give up the "garden-spot of the State," and accept in its stead an "insignificant tract, on the greater part of which there is not wood, or timber, or coal sufficient for civilization;" and then, before the ink of this treaty is dry, told that even from this insignificant tract they must promise to move at the end of five years. What words could characterize such a transaction between man and man? There is not a country, a people, a community in which it would be even attempted! Was it less base, or more, being between a strong government and a feeble race?

From the infamy of accomplishing this purpose the United States was saved. Remonstrance's, and still more the resistance of the Indians, prevailed, and in 1854 we find the poor creatures expressing "much satisfaction" that the President has decreed that they are to remain permanently on their "insignificant tract."

The Upper Missouri Sioux are still suffering and destitute; a few of them cultivating little patches of ground, depending chiefly on the chase, and on roots and wild berries; when these resources fail there is nothing left for them but to starve, or to commit depredations on white settlers. Some of the bands, nevertheless, have scrupulously observed the stipulations of the Fort Laramie treaty in 1851, show a "strong desire for improvement," and are on the most friendly terms with the whites. These peaceable and friendly bands are much distressed, as well they may be, at the reckless course pursued by others of their tribe. They welcome the presence of the soldiers sent to chastise the offenders, and gladly render all the service to them they can, even against their relatives and friends.

In 1855 it is stated that "various causes have combined to prevent the Minnesota Sioux from deriving, heretofore, much substantial benefit from the very liberal provisions of the treaties of 1851. Until after the reservations were permanently assured to the Indians (1854) it would have been highly improper to have made the expenditures for permanent improvements, and since then the affairs of the agency have not been free from confusion."

"Large sums of money have been expended for these Sioux, but they have been indolent, extravagant, intemperate, and have wasted their means without improving, or seeming to desire to improve their condition."

Both these statements are made in grave good faith; certainly without any consciousness of their bearing on each other. It is not stated, however, what specific means the Sioux could have employed "to improve their condition," had they "desired" to do so.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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