The treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota were introduced to Congress in February, 1852. Two months later, the Senate committee on Indian affairs took them up for consideration. The treaties were highly debated and created much controversy. The main reason for controversy, was the fact that Southern senators did not desire to see an enlargement of the area of settlement in a new northern territory, which would soon be applying for statehood. On June 23, after several amendments, the treaties were ratified. As Henry Sibley put it, “The long agony is over . . . Never did any measure have a tighter squeeze through.”
The ratification came in the aftermath of The Compromise of 1850. This was a federal agreement in which Texas surrendered its claim to New Mexico, California was admitted as a free state, future states were given the right to choose whether to be admitted as slave or free, and Washington D.C. outlawed the slave trade. The Compromise was the end of a four year disagreement in Congress. The political confrontation regarded the debate over whether or not to admit those territories acquired from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) as slave or free. This was a national controversy that polarized the Southern and Northern United States. The Compromise preserved the Union, but only for another ten years.
In the context of The Compromise of 1850, it is easy to understand why the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota were an important and highly debated national issue.
Excerpt from Ceding Contempt
“Since arriving in Minnesota, I have learned that the Indian treaties are much more complicated than the buying and selling of land.”
“Oh, yes,” Mr. White agreed willingly.
“This treaty is no different, I presume.”
“Not at all,” Mr. White agreed once again. “You have to understand that there are varying interests involved.”
“Being here has made that apparent,” I said.
“You have the government which wishes to expand its territory and increase its resources,” explained Mr. White suddenly sounding less like a southerner and more like a politician. “You have the settlers who seek land, opportunity, and prosperity. You have the traders who wish to collect on their debts. You have the trading firms who also wish to collect on their debts and increase their now dwindling markets. And finally the Indians who wish to obtain fair compensation for their rich and bountiful homeland.”
“I did not recognize how complicated it was before I came here.”
“It is perhaps more complicated than you know or than I can explain,” admitted Mr. White. “Even the southern slave states have a vested interest in the outcome of this treaty.”
“How can that be so?” I queried.
“Well,” responded Mr. White, “if this treaty is signed and ratified it will inevitably lead to the creation of the state of Minnesota. The southern slave states will undoubtedly oppose this in order to avoid an unequal balance of slave versus free states in the federal government.”
“That makes perfect sense now that you mention it,” I said, feeling enlightened. “It reminds me of the major compromise made in Congress just last year.”
“Exactly,” replied Mr. White with a smile. “For years Congress has been debating this slave issue and whether or not to admit new territories as slave or free. With the compromise they admitted California as a free state, but will allow future territories to decide for themselves whether to be slave or free.”
“I never thought of such things,” I said with a nod of acknowledgement. “But I can see now why this treaty is a matter of national interest.”
William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).
“Compromise of 1850,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compromise_of_1850