According to the Treaty of the Traverse des Sioux, the Upper Bands of Dakota Indians were to be given $275,000 known as “hand money” in order to assist with the cost of removal to a reservation and subsistence for one year. However, at the same time as signing the treaty, the Dakota signed the “traders’ paper” which designated much of the hand money directly toward the payment of debts. Later, when payment was to be made, this came into contention and caused a near outbreak of violence at the Traverse des Sioux.
On September 8, 1852, Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey obtained signatures from the Dakota Indians on a document which “broke all former papers” including power-of-attorney. The Dakota believed that the previous “traders’ paper” had also been revoked, but this was not the case. Governor Ramsey, whose duty it was to distribute the hand money to the Dakota, saw the traders’ paper as an irrevocable order to pay to the persons named the designated sums. In other words, Ramsey intended to pay the treaty money to the traders and not the Dakota.
Ramsey arrived at the Traverse des Sioux on November 14, 1852, and he sought the signature of a receipt which would allow him to pay the majority of the money to the traders and thereby fulfill the terms of the traders’ paper. But what the Governor found when he arrived was an evil and turbulent spirit. The Dakota persisted in demanding that the hand money be paid to them in full. They argued that the traders’ paper was not an agreement made in open council and that the document had been revoked based on what they had signed two months earlier.
Led by Chief Red Iron, the Dakota established a Soldiers’ Lodge and began brandishing their weapons and dressing in war attire. In response, Governor Ramsey summoned a detachment of soldiers from Fort Snelling who arrived on November 19. Violence nearly erupted when the Soldiers’ Lodge came down to the council house where the Fort Snelling detachment was stationed. Seeing that the U.S. troops were ready to open fire, the Dakota turned away.
Governor Ramsey then decided to arrest and detain Red Iron when the chief refused to meet in council. This led to the disbursement of the Soldiers’ Lodge and the opening of discussions. Eventually, eleven chiefs and braves were found willing to sign a receipt for the payment of the hand money. As a result $250,000 of the total $275,000 was paid directly to the traders and half-breeds as stipulated in the traders’ paper.
Excerpt from Ceding Contempt
I stepped outside to see forty to fifty warriors, firmly resolved to do battle or force the release of their cherished leader. A sudden tinge of fear enveloped me like a wave splashing against my body. Out in front was Lean Bear, the principal brave of Red Iron’s band. The Dakota warriors halted their march about one hundred feet from the U.S. soldiers. Lean Bear, a large man with broad shoulders, thick arms, and powerful legs, removed his blanket and brandished his knife. He turned to his Dakota brethren and began recounting to them the war-like deeds of their imprisoned chief.
“Ho, ho!” they shouted with each statement Lean Bear made on account of Red Iron’s brave exploits.
Then he turned, and for all to hear he began an impassioned call to war.
“Dakotas,” he shouted with his knife raised high in his hand. “The big men are here. They have got Mazasha in a pen like a dog. They mean to kill him for not letting the white men cheat us out of our lands and the money our Great Father sent us.”
“Ho, ho!” shouted the warriors with ferocity.
“Dakotas, must we starve like buffalo in the snow? Shall we let our blood freeze like the little streams? Or shall we make the snow red with the blood of the white braves.”
“Ho, ho!” they answered with even more ferocity than before.
“Dakotas, the blood of your fathers talk to you from the graves where we stand. Their spirits come up into your arms and make you strong. I am glad of it. Tonight the blood of the white man shall run like water in the rain, and Mazasha shall be with his people”
“Dakotas, be ready and I will lead you against the Long Knives and the big men who have come to cheat us, and take away our lands, and put us in a pen for not helping them rob our women and children. Be not afraid, Dakotas. We are stronger than the whites. We fight for what is right. We fight for what is ours. Be ready and I will lead you to victory!”
The warriors shrieked and yelled in an uproar of excitement and pandemonium which literally shook the earth below my feet.
“Take aim!” commanded Captain Monroe as the troops lowered their bayonets from their shoulders and pointed them straight ahead.
I looked to Governor Ramsey who seemed unmoved and unwilling to step in and mediate the situation. But something had to be done. Somehow I had to prevent such futile and meaningless disaster.
I was scared and so I waited, hoping for someone to step forth and stop this. No one came. Suddenly I remembered young Takoda. I remembered his grief and sadness. I remembered him telling me not to give up. And I remembered the words his father gave him—Be strong but gentle, brave but cautious, firm and true. I had to do something. I owed it to Takoda.
William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).