Lesson 6 – Traverse des Sioux

Lesson 6 – Traverse des Sioux

The Traverse des Sioux is a natural crossing point at a bend in the Minnesota River.  It was called Traverse by the French and Oiyuwega by the Dakota.  In both cases the word means crossing.  This was an important place for the Dakota and traders alike because it bound together the great forests of the east and vast prairies of the west.  For the traders is was distinguished as a gateway into the fur country  and for the Dakota it was the meeting place of their ancient trading paths.

Old Trading House, Travers des Sioux, by Frank Blackwell Mayer
Old Trading House, Travers des Sioux, by Frank Blackwell Mayer

At the time of the treaty in 1851, Traverse des Sioux was the village of a band of Sisseton Dakota led by chief Red Iron.  The village had been founded when one group of Sissetons living at Lake Traverse had broken into two factions over a dispute.  Traders had established themselves at Traverse des Sioux as early as the second half of the 18th century.  The first permanent trading post was established by Louis Provencalle around 1815.  He was then followed by several other traders.  In 1843, the Reverend Stephen R. Riggs established a permanent mission at Traverse des Sioux.

Historian Thomas Hughes described Traverse des Sioux as it was in 1851:  “The neatly painted school building of this mission, the residences of the two missionaries, and of the trader Alexander Graham, four old log store buildings, with dilapidated log stables in their rear, the trading establishments of Provencalle, Faribault, and others, scattered along the hillside, two or three cabins of the French voyageurs, and some twenty to thirty Indian lodges, comprised all there was of Traverse des Sioux when the commissioners landed here.”

Following the treaty in 1851, it was believed that Traverse des Sioux would grow to become one of the great metropolises of Minnesota.  For awhile, this appeared to be the case.  Buildings were put up quickly including a post office and eighteen stores by December, 1853.  Also in 1853, Traverse des Sioux was named the county seat of Nicollet County.  By 1857 there were as many as seventy buildings and by 1858 the population reached over three hundred.  But in October, 1858, Traverse des Sioux lost the county seat to St. Peter, an adjacent town practically within its own boundaries.  This doomed Traverse des Sioux as most businesses and inhabitants moved to St. Peter.  Today, Traverse des Sioux is marked only by a plaque commemorating the signing of the treaty.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

“I am Mazasha, known to the pale-face as Red Iron, chief of the Sisseton band that lives at Oiyuwega.”

“Oiyuwega?” I asked curiously, barely able to pronounce the word.

“That is the Dakota word for this place.  It means “crossing” in your language.  It was named Traverse by the men who trade for furs.  This is an important place to the Dakota.  For here our ancestors created an ancient trail from the flat grasslands where the sun sets to the endless forests where the sun rises.  It is not only important for the Dakota, but for all who wish to go into the country to the west.  This is where they must cross.”

“It is a magnificent place,” I commented politely and truthfully.  “Minnesota is a beautiful and rich region and I can understand why it is sought after.”

“It is our homeland.  But it is being taken away from my people,” said the chief softly.

I saw that Red Iron was in distress, but I did not shy away.  “May I ask, do you oppose the treaty?”

Red Iron looked at me, his eyes dark but gentle.  “I am not the Dakota I once was.  I no longer follow the buffalo or migrate with the fawn.  I feel the winds of change and it carries me along.  If my people are to survive, they too must change.  We are poor and have nothing to eat, but the white man has plenty.  His fires are warm and his tepees keep out the cold.  I fear this treaty because we must sell our hunting grounds and the graves of our fathers.  We must sell our very own graves.  But to do otherwise would be to create our own graves.  I think we must accept the treaty or the winds of change will blow us away.”

“That does not seem just,” I stated adamantly.

“The white man knows no justice,” replied Red Iron calmly.  “He makes promises he does not intend to keep.  He says things he knows to be untrue.  His greed is not like his thirst or his hunger; it cannot be quenched.  He is not satisfied to share the land, he must have it all, giving nothing in return.”

See a Plat of Traverse des Sioux village showing location of buildings (page 106).

See this blog post on YouTube.


Thomas Hughes, Old Traverse des Sioux, (St. Peter, MN:  Herald Publishing Company, 1929).

Thomas Hughes, “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, Under Governor Alexander Ramsey, with Notes of the Former Treaty There, in 1841, Under Governor James D. Doty, of Wisconsin,” in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 10, Part 1, (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society, 1905), p. 101-130.


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