The treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, were more than just an agreement between the United States Government and the Dakota Indians. Among other things it was a business transaction that included the competing interests of two private enterprises in the fur trade. These companies were the American Fur Company (Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company) and the G.W. & W.G. Ewing Trading Firm of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
By 1851, Indian treaties had become a way for creditors to collect on debts owed by the Indians. To do this, creditors would seize up-front and annuity funds promised to the Indians in the treaties. In Minnesota, both the American Fur Company and the Ewing Firm had significant debts with the Dakota Indians. Therefore, both companies sought to seize as much as the treaty money as possible.
This began with the naming of a treaty commissioner. The appointment of a treaty commissioner lasted many months and was eventually won out by the American Fur Company with the naming of Luke Lea as Commissioner. Lea worked with prominent trader Henry Sibley in order to represent the interests of the American Fur Company. According to trader Madison Sweeters, who represented the Ewing Firm, Sibley had a “community of interest in [the] claim arrangement.” In order to counter this, the Ewing Firm sent their man Richard Chute who sought to secretly represent the interests of the Ewing’s. However, Chute was unable to obtain any of the treaty money for the Ewing Firm.
Following the signing of the treaties, the Ewing firm thought they might obtain the treaty money another way. Having noticed that the agreement the Dakota signed to pay their debts was never properly explained, the Ewing’s sent Madison Sweetser to expose the American Fur Company in an attempt at deceit. Sweetser, according to trader Joseph R. Brown, sought to devise the means whereby the moneys intended for the traders of the American Fur Company might be diverted to the coffers of the Ewing Firm. This attempt, however, was unsuccessful.
It is clear that the treaties represented a significant amount of money that both private interests sought to obtain in order to settle their claims. But what happened between these competing firms before, during, and after the signing of the treaties is complicated and cannot be proven.
Excerpt from Ceding Contempt
“I am Richard Chute,” he answered. “You have no doubt heard my name. I am a trader who represents the W.G. and G.W. Ewing Trading Firm of Indiana.”
“Very well,” I replied, “but I still do not understand your insinuations.”
“It is understandable that you are naive, not having any interests in this region,” Mr. Chute said coldly. “You have to understand that these negotiations have little or nothing to do with the future or well-being of the Dakota Indians. Business and politics are the only mechanisms at work here.”
“I have been learning this,” I answered respectfully, despite Mr. Chute’s bluntness.
“Let me give you just one example,” noted Mr. Chute. “I have been sent as an informer for the Ewings in an effort to break up the monopoly of the American Fur Company in relation to the treaty results. These are the real powers at hand. Not the Indians or even the government, but the trading interests. However, even I, backed by the power and influence of the Ewing firm, and in my underhanded position, can make no impact on the results of this treaty. I have not even received a hearing before the traders’ committee. The fact is that Lea, Ramsey, and Sibley are thick as thieves and they will have their way.”
I was shocked at this new information. Perhaps not so much at its revelation, but by the fact it was so openly shared with me by someone on the inside. Mr. Chute, it appeared, had become jaded to the politics of the treaty negotiations and had lost all inhibition.
Kane, Lucille M. “The Sioux Treaties and the Traders.” In Minnesota History. Vol. 32, No. 2. June, 1951.
Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922.
Snyder, Rebecca, Ed. The 1851 Treaty of Mendota: A Collection of Primary Documents Pertaining to the Treaty. South St. Paul, Minnesota: Dakota County Historical Society, 2002.