A major reason for making treaties with the American Indians, was to fulfill the debts of the Indians and satisfy the claims of the traders. By the time of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, this had become a common and expected practice. The Sioux Treaty of 1837, allowed $90,000 for the payment of debts while the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux allowed $210,000 for debt repayment. For this reason, traders swarmed whenever an Indian treaty was appointed. While writing to Governor Ramsey in March, 1851, the trader Henry Sibley stated, “I do not know of a single man who is not anxious that the Government shall succeed in making these treaties . . . in which the traders . . . are particularly interested.”
The investment traders had in the making of an Indian treaty was indeed large, and was due to the system itself. By the 1840’s, the fur trade was quickly declining because of the scarcity of game and fur animals. Generally, Indians paid off their debt with payment in furs and skins at the end of the hunting season. But as furs became more scarce, individual debts began to accumulate. Eventually, individual debts turned into tribal obligations. Traders were then able to convince tribes to make treaties in order that such debts could be paid directly out of moneys coming from the United States. The effect on the Indians was to encourage the more reckless and dissolute in extravagant expenditures.
Over the years, debts grew higher and higher and traders had to hold out for a treaty. In a letter written in 1849, Henry Sibley noted that, “It is notorious that not a single man who has been engaged in the trade for any length of time is not reduced to utter poverty or overwhelmed with debt, because none have been paid their dues by the Indians.” Sibley himself had claims of over $65,000 in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Another such example was that of Joseph LaFramboise, a mixed-breed trader. LaFramboise was quite dependent on the outcome of the treaties. After the failed Doty Treaty of 1841, LaFramboise agonized in a letter to his cousin, “I don’t know what we’ll do to subsist . . . they (furs) have no value. If I had known things would turn out as they now have I would have abandoned the whole affair.” A few years later while writing to the store clerk William Forbes, LaFramboise expressed even further agony and desperation writing, ” . . . if you have anything for me to do down there or any other place for I must provide for myself and my family.”
Whether or not the traders’ claims were sincere and their means of obtaining payment honest, is debatable. But it is clear that the traders depended heavily on Indian treaties for the payment of debts and for their own well-being.
Excerpt from Ceding Contempt
“Gentlemen,” he bellowed out with a glass held high. “I appear here under somewhat extraordinary circumstances.” He paused and turned to the commissioner. “We thank Colonel Lea, the able and sagacious head of the Indian Department for the special favor he has shown us in coming so far to see us; the Indian and the white man alike, and we trust that he and Governor Ramsey will treat us to a good treaty.”
He paused again and looked over the assembled guests. Mr. LaFramboise was an older gentleman and acted as a trader, interpreter, and guide in the region for many years. He was well known and respected and had ties with nearly all present for the negotiations.
“I cannot express just how important this treaty is,” continued the old trader. “I have been with the American Fur Company since 1823 and I have been trading in this region since 1833. I have taken part and been witness to the changes for the whites, the traders, and the Indians. The value of the fur continues to decline whilst the needs of the native Indian continues to rise. Our debts climb but competition does not allow us to cut off credit. The immoral trade of alcohol also causes problems. It further indebts the Indian while bankrupting the good and moral traders who abide by the law. The days of the voyageur have passed, the Big Woods no longer flourish with game, and the white encroachment will only persist. A treaty is our only solution. A treaty is our only chance.”
William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).
Janet Timmerman, Joseph LaFramboise: A Factor of Treaties, Trade, and Culture, Master’s Thesis, Kansas State University, 2009.