Lesson 18 – Madison Sweetser

Lesson 18 – Madison Sweetser

In October, 1851, a trader named Madison Sweetser arrived in Minnesota.  Sweetser represented the interests of the G.W. and W.G. Ewing Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a rival trading firm to Henry Sibley and the American Fur Company.  Although it cannot be determined for certain, it seems that the goal of the Ewings and Madison Sweetser was to overturn the results of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux because it benefited traders of the American Fur Company.  Sweetser sought to nullify the traders’ paper and gain the favor of the Dakota in order funnel treaty money away from the American Fur Company and toward the Ewing Company.  To this effect Mr. Sweetser stated, “. . . if I get into the country be assured I will knock Mr. Sibley’s two hundred thousand agreement so high he will not get a glimpse of it until his congressional term expires.”

Immediately upon his arrival, Madison Sweetser obtained proper license to trade in the region and he established a trading post  at Traverse des Sioux.  Sweetser then wooed the Dakota with extravagant gifts to earn their trust and he sent out runners in order to set up a council that would disavow the previously signed traders’ paper.

It did not take long for Henry Sibley and those representing the American Fur Company to recognized the opposition of Madison Sweetser.  First, they objected to his trading post which they argued was built without proper authority and argued that it was placed too close to the claims of other traders.  They also sought to dissuade the Dakota from speaking with Sweetser.  Henry Sibley himself referred to Madison Sweetser as “opposition of a formidable character,” and he authorized one of his men to “conciliate his faction, even at a small sacrifice to ourselves.”  Sweetser, in a letter to the Ewing’s, wrote that “The Sibley interests have made a tremendous exertion to keep me out of the country.”

Sweetser succeeded in gaining the trust of many of the Dakota people.  In December, 1851, he earned from them the Power-of-Attorney to act on their behalf and he obtained their signatures on a written protest arguing against the legality of the traders’ paper.  If this protest was upheld in Congress, it meant that Sibley and his men would receive no money as a result of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.  Once it appeared that Sweetser had the advantage, he offered a bribe of $30,000 to remove his opposition.  But Sibley and the traders of the American Fur Company refused this offer because they believed it was too much to pay for their own money.

Determined not to allow Sweetser to obtain the money from the treaty for himself, Sibley, along with Senator Henry Rice, managed to revoke Power-of-Attorney from Sweetser.  When the time came for the money to be paid, Sweetser influenced a near uprising at Traverse des Sioux, but he was unsuccessful in stopping payment to the traders.  In a final effort, Sweetser filed formal charges against Governor Alexander Ramsey for his role in deceiving the Dakota and allowing the treaty money to be paid directly to the traders.  The Unites States Senate sent a committee to St. Paul to investigate matters, but they determined that “the conduct of Governor Ramsey was not only free from blame, but highly commendable and meritorious.”

In a letter written January, 25, 1853, trader Hercules Dousman wrote to Henry Sibley that, “He (Sweetser) looks and feels used up so much so that I did not have the heart to put my thumb to my nose as I had promised when I met him.  He is bound for Washington and says that he will never cease til he exposes the villainous misapplications of the Sioux money.”

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

“You wish us to pay how much!” said Hercules Dousman, who sounded shocked.

“Certainly thirty thousand is not too much to ask in the face of your two hundred ten thousand,” replied Madison Sweetser in a vile manner.  “With this payment I will pull back all opposition to your traders’ agreement.”

All of the sudden my heart sank.  Heavy as a rock, down to the pit of my stomach and I felt sick.

“You detestable and vile fiend,” accused Dousman callously.  “You are making powerful enemies for yourself.”

“How dare you,” retorted Sweetser.  “I have done no more wrong than you and your Company.  You are anxious to get your money and I am only asking for a piece.”

The two were unaware of my presence.  Sweetser and I had remained in St. Paul several weeks following the signing of the protest.  On this particular evening I had returned to find Mr. Sweetser in an attempt to blackmail Hercules Dousman, a trader from the Company and one of Sibley’s main men.  This was not a stunning revelation, but one which I found to be extremely disappointing.  Were there no decent men in this treaty deal?

“A piece!” replied Dousman indignantly.  “The traders of my company will never agree to pay for their own money, or certainly not to the amount of thirty thousand.”

“Of course they will,” countered Sweetser.  “I know you are anxious to discourage and prevent opposition to your claims being paid.  I have already gained power-of-attorney and I have sent a written protest to Congress.  If I don’t pull back my opposition, I can assure you that you and the Company will not see a dime of your claims.  And besides,” continued Sweetser, “I know Sibley has authorized you to conciliate me and my faction.  Franklin Steele has come to me recently looking for a compromise.”

“That may be so,” responded Dousman, “but we are more confident than ever that your opposition will fail.  That old dotard of an agent fears Sibley and Ramsey and has already refused to certify your words.  Also, we have bribed several of your former cohorts and led them onto our side.  They are poor and it did not take much.  Finally, we have nabbed, through bribery, your key Indian, Little Crow.  Our influence is much greater than yours and we no longer fear your opposition.”[2]

“Villains!” admonished Sweetser.  “You are all villains.  You will regret not making this deal.”

“And you will regret coming to this region and tampering with our claims,” replied Dousman in a relaxed manner seeing that he had the upper hand.  “You may have gained temporary influence, but ours is deeper and more lasting.”

“Be gone, you scamp,” demanded a distraught and frustrated Madison Sweetser.

Hercules Dousman coolly exited the quarters.  I could not avoid him as he passed in the hallway, chuckling to himself.


Read about the Ramsey Investigation (page 462-470).

See this blog post on YouTube. 


William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).

Lucille M. Kane,  “The Sioux Treaties and the Traders,”  In Minnesota History, Vol. 32, No. 2, June, 1951.

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