Lesson 19 – The Steamboat Excelsior

Lesson 19 – The Steamboat Excelsior

On June 29, 1851, the steamboat Excelsior departed from St. Paul transporting the treaty commissioners, Luke Lea and Alexander Ramsey, along with their attendants and supplies to the Traverse des Sioux.  Upon reaching its destination, the Kaposia band of Dakota assembled upon the deck and as a compliment to the village, they sang in full chorus a traditional Dakota song.  Over the next few weeks the treaty commissioners and the upper bands of Dakota met and negotiated the historic Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.  

A sidewheeler steamboat (not the Excelsior)

The Excelsior was a side-wheeler of 172 tons that was built at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in 1849.  Its main use was for trade along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and St. Paul.  Called the “Buck Boat” by the Dakota, it was one of just three steamboats to navigate the Minnesota River in 1851.  Although the first steamboat entered the Minnesota River in 1823, the first genuine attempt to navigate the river was not until 1850.  This was accomplished by the steamer the Anthony Wayne which set out on June 28, 1850, to entertain the prominent citizens of St. Paul as well as some St. Louis travelers.  This simple trip, which slowly passed quaint Dakota villages on a warm summer afternoon, proved to be relevant toward the future settlement of Minnesota.  This is because, according to historian Thomas Hughes, once the navigability of the Minnesota River by steamboat had become a demonstrated fact, “the desirability for settlement of the fertile country it drained was . . . everywhere enthusiastically heralded.”  Hughes also remarked that, “This focussing of the public eye on the valley contributed in no small degree to the making of the great treaty with the Dakota in the following summer, whereby this magnificent country was thrown open to civilization.”  Unfortunately, this viewpoint gave no acknowledgement to the Dakota people or culture, who were already living there.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

I found myself unexpectedly aboard the Excelsior on its way south toward the Traverse des Sioux, a trading post and Indian village about seventy-five miles distance from Fort Snelling.  I say unexpectedly because the steamer arrived a day early.  As a result, the twenty-five dragoons assigned to escort the guests on board were unable to ready themselves in time and the boat departed without them.  The boat carries the men of the Treaty Commission, hence the reason for the escort.  The commission included several important political figures, the foremost being Alexander Ramsey, the Governor of the Territory and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The Treaty Commissioner was the honorable Luke Lea from Mississippi who is the current Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington.  Also aboard as a part of the Treaty Commission was Henry Sibley, the most well-known and successful trader throughout the territory; a Mr. Ashton White of the Home Department; Dr. Thomas Foster, secretary to the commission; Mr. W.C. Henderson; Mr. Richard Chute, who represented the interests of the W.G. and G.W. Ewing Trading Company; and finally Mr. Hugh Tyler of Pennsylvania, the commissariat to the commission.  Along with the commissioners were a variety of men and equipment, which included Indian traders; men of French, “half-breed,” and American blood; a delegation of the principal men of the Kaposia band; and the tent furniture, buffalo robes, blankets, rifles, moccasins, and other provisions.  All these things packed in the boat made it an eclectic array of people, materials, and interests, all prepared to determine the future of Minnesota.

Read from the History of Steamboating on the Minnesota River

See this blog post on YouTube. 


Bertha L. Heilbron, Ed.  With Pen and Pencil on the Frontier in 1851:  The Diary and Sketches of Frank Blackwell Mayer, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1986).

Thomas Huges, History of Steamboating on the Minnesota River” in Minnesota Historical Collections, Vol. 10, Part 1, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1905), 131-163.

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