Lesson 10 – “We will talk of nothing else . . .”

Lesson 10 – “We will talk of nothing else . . .”

In 1851, the U.S. treaty commissioners believed that by first completing a treaty with the upper bands of Dakota at Traverse des Sioux, it would persuade the lower bands at Mendota to do the same.  This was not the case.  Upon meeting the lower bands, the Dakota were quite reluctant to speak on the terms of a new treaty.  The treaty commissioners persisted, but so too did the Dakota and chief Little Crow who stated, “We will talk of nothing else but money, if it is until next spring.  That lies in the way of a treaty.”  Shortly after Little Crow’s statement, negotiations were broken off and did not resume for another four days.

Lands ceded by the Dakota and Ojibwe in 1837; map from treatiesmatter.org.  

Fourteen years earlier, in 1837, the United States Government completed a treaty with the Mdewakanton Dakota.  In this treaty, the Dakota ceded approximately five million acres of land east of the Mississippi River in exchange for annuities as well as goods and services.  The majority of the promised annuities and payments were made to the Dakota with the exception of one disputed clause.  The language of the clause is technical, but it was generally agreed that according to this clause, the government would pay $5,000 annually for the benefit of the Dakota.  This became known as the “education fund” because in the first few years it was given into the hands of the missionaries for the purpose of education.  But this angered the Dakota who believed the money was intended to be paid to them directly.  Because of the disagreement, the money was no longer forwarded to the Dakota or the missionaries and by 1850 the payments had accumulated to an excess of $50,000.

By the time it came to negotiate the Treaty of Mendota in 1851, the Dakota were already dissatisfied with the United States Government and did not wish to negotiate a new treaty until they had received the money for the previous treaty.  As argued by historian Linda Clemmons, the treaty of 1837 may have been a turning point in government-Dakota relations, which led the Dakota to distrust the government for years to follow.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

“We will talk of nothing else but the money, if it is until next spring,” the great chief said staunchly.  “That lies in the way of a treaty.”

The commissioners were clearly displeased by Little Crow’s insistence.  They began to whisper among each other.  So too did the audience creating an imperceptible chatter that was carried along by the breeze.

It had become apparent to me that this stalemate was caused by a particular stipulation in the 1837 treaty.  In this stipulation, it was stated that $5,000 annually should be paid, in such a manner as the president should direct, for the enlightenment of the Indians.  This became known as the education fund and for whatever reason, it had never yet been paid.

“It is all very nice to talk about money,” began Governor Ramsey in his response to Little Crow.  “Money is a rather fine thing if properly used, but there is also some business to be done first, and besides it is in many boxes, and will take several days to count and put in order.  In the meantime we can go on and complete the business for which we are assembled.  You talk about money.  We are willing to give it to you, as soon as we get through with this treaty.  Now, if your people want this money, you know how to get it for them.”

There was a long silence and then Commissioner Lea decided to break in.

“You can believe my words and the words of my brother,” said Commissioner Lea, assuring the Dakota chiefs.  “Your Great Father did not send me all the way from Washington to lie to you.  We hope you are now satisfied in reference to the money.  We now go back to the proposals for a treaty we have made you.  If you wish to hear the proposals again, that can be done.”

There was another long silence.  The chiefs looked at each other and at the commissioners, but then back at each other.  The tension surrounding talks slowly dissipated and it appeared that the issue of the money had been settled.  But there was something else discouraging the chiefs.  The warriors, standing behind the chiefs, showed disfavor in their expressions.  There was apparently a rift between the chiefs and warriors regarding what to do next.  Finally, one of the chiefs whom we had not heard from stood to speak.

Read Linda Clemmons’ essay We Will Talk of Nothing Else:  Dakota Interpretations of the Treaty of 1837.  

See this blog post on YouTube.  


Linda M. Clemmons, “‘We Will Talk of Nothing Else’:  Dakota Interpretations of the Treaty of 1837,” in Great Plains Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, (Summer 2005), 173-185.

Rebecca Snyder, The 1851 Treaty of Mendota:  A Collection of Primary Documents Pertaining to the Treaty, (South St. Paul, MN:  Dakota County Historical Society, 2002).

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