Lesson 23 – Camp Life at Traverse des Sioux

Lesson 23 – Camp Life at Traverse des Sioux

One of the most interesting and unique aspects of the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was the camp that formed as a result of the negotiations.  Traverse des Sioux was a small Dakota village at a bend in the Minnesota River, but from the day that the treaty commissioners arrived on June 30, until the day the treaty was signed on July 23, it became a vibrant and eclectic community filled with many interesting people and events.

Camp Life at Traverse des Sioux by Frank Blackwell Mayer
Camp Life at Traverse des Sioux by Frank Blackwell Mayer, Newberry Library of Chicago. 

Artist and traveler Frank Blackwell Mayer described the camp at Traverse des Sioux:  “This camp life is by no means a hardship as many might suppose, situated as we are in a beautifully picturesque and healthy country surrounded by agreeable and amusing associates, and hospitably entertained by “Uncle Sam.”  A mattress laid on the ground and wrapped in a blanket, we breathe the pure air of the prairie and sleep as soundly as in the most luxuriant succession of novel scenes, and the variety of cheerful companions and amusing studies of character, contribute to engender good digestion and cheerfulness.  The day is passed in visiting, reading, intercourse with the Indians, seeing the ball-plays, dances, and at night, talks by the camp fire of frontier and Indian subjects, witnessing an Indian dance or listening to their wild, monotonous music, or turning to a neighboring tent where are assembled the gentlemen of French descent the traders and voyageurs, we hear the Canadian boat songs, or the national airs of Old France sung with spirit by melodious voices.”

Life in camp for those few weeks was marked by events both positive and negative.  Although a major celebration was planned for July the Fourth, it was cancelled due to the unfortunate death of the missionary Robert Hopkins.  Reverend Hopkins had been bathing in the river that morning when he drowned.  The camp was filled with grief following his death and a funeral was held three days later.  But, shortly thereafter the camp celebrated a wedding ceremony.  Nancy McClure, a young Dakota girl, and David Faribault, a young Indian trader of mixed descent, were joined in matrimony in witness of the entire camp.  The ceremony was filled with speeches, dancing, and a Dakota tradition known as the “Virgin’s Feast.”

Marriage of Nancy McClure and David Faribault by Frank Blackwell Mayer
Marriage of Nancy McClure and David Faribault by Frank Blackwell Mayer, Newberry Library of Chicago. 

Along with the major events, camp life was also characterized by many small events.  This included Dakota dances, competitive games of lacrosse,  and theatrical performances such as the enactment of a buffalo hunt.  Life in camp was also marked by unusually wet weather.  It rained nearly everyday and incited the Dakota “Thunder Dance” in order to appease the Thunder Bird.

Camp life at Traverse des Sioux had few dull moments and represented a unique mixture of cultures at a rare moment in time.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

As this turbulent day came to an end, I put aside my thoughts and admired the unique qualities of camp life.  Slowly the sun became low, the moon became high and twilight was enveloped by darkness.  The wistful sounds of the flute drifted softly through the air while young men, dazed with affection, sought to gain the attention of young maidens.  In each tepee across the long-reaching, ever-flowing prairie, fires burned to give light within and produce smoke that might shield its occupants from the constant attack of the bedeviling mosquito.  With that light a peculiar, yet lovely effect was created as the fires danced off the skin of the tepees and the cloth of their tents.  This effect exposed their transparent qualities allowing the shadowy figures inside to show through the walls.  Each figure bounced back and forth, here and there, reflecting the rising and falling flames.  So shown the graceful silhouette of the frontier Indian as he smoked his pipe or the lonely traveler, who, by the light of the candle, penned a note to his wife back home.

Read the speeches made following the wedding ceremony of Nancy McClure and David Faribault (page 45-47).

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, 1922).

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