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.