A History of Minnesota
(v. 2)

William Watts Folwell

William Watts Folwell These pages:A History of Minnesota

Volume 1:
first part
second part

Volume 2:
first part (here)
second part




index pages:

A History of Minnesota

Volume 2

Revised edition Copyright © 1961 by the Minnesota Historical Society

I. Admission to the Union The story of the entrance of Minnesota into the Union with its irregularities, procrastination, tricks, and blunders teaches the facility with which democracies may overcome such obstacles and reach their reasonable ends.



Without expressing an opinion on the merits or demerits of constitutional amendments recently adopted, Governor Sibley vigorously attacked as one of the most serious defects in the constitution of the state the facility afforded for its own amendment. “The ‘Magna Charta’ . . . of a sovereign State” ought, he said, to be held sacred from innovation, and placed beyond the reach of feverish and temporary excitement.
Members, mostly in the lower house, easily conceived it to be a worthy and proper thing to relieve the treasury of that money and divide it in equal shares among the senators and representatives who had borne the burden and heat of so many legislative days for a “per diem” of three dollars. They had earned it many times over and needed the money. The ingenuity displayed in the concoction of schemes to reach this coveted treasure testifies that intellect was not wanting in that legislature.



Another extraordinary measure passed by this legislature, by a vote nearly unanimous, provided for the squandering of the state school lands. Sibley’s pocket veto of this bill should stand to his credit to the end of time.
II. The Five Million Loan The House had passed a bill to encourage the destruction of gophers and blackbirds and had asked the concurrence of the Council. The latter body in committee of the whole made merry with the measure by amending the title to include the Sioux Indians, and Joseph Rolette moved its reference to the military committee. On May 20 the Council went into committee of the whole for the further consideration of this bill and after some time spent therein reported an amendment striking out all after the enacting clause and inserting a consolidation of the three railroad bills transferring the land grant to four corporations. The amendment was agreed to and the title was changed to correspond. The next day the message of the Council announcing its concurrence in the House bill to encourage the destruction of gophers and blackbirds, with an amendment, was received by the House. A ruling by the speaker, Joseph W. Furber, that the amendment was not truly such but was an entire new matter was appealed from effectively by a vote of 28 to 8. There were but three negative votes on concurrence.




III. Minnesota on the Eve of the Rebellion

On January 2, I860, Alexander Ramsey took his oath of office as governor and on the same day Lieutenant Governor Donnelly assumed the presidency of the Senate. In his inaugural message the new executive denounced the waste and extravagance which Sibley had censured and urged a reduction of expenses. The legislature took him at his word, cut down his salary from twenty-five hundred to fifteen hundred dollars, and also trimmed the salaries of other officials.

For many months newspapers were compelled to apologize for the absence of telegraphic news because the wire was down or because there had been a thunderstorm or a sudden thaw, and in one instance because of some mysterious influence of moonbeams on the electric current.



The contest between the great political parties generally in I860 was far less violent than that which followed within the ranks of the Republican party. It had not yet enjoyed the sweets of government patronage and the prospect of capturing a number of desirable appointments was alluring. [...] To a number of aspiring gentlemen of his party Ramsey was much in the way. A feeble effort to secure for him the position of secretary of the interior had for its object his promotion out of their daylight quite as much as to pay him a compliment or to render the country a service.

It is important that the reader should understand that the Republican triumph of I860 did not imply a disposition to interfere with African slavery in the southern states. It did mean, however, an unalterable resolution to prevent its extension into the territories. There was still a general and notable tolerance in the north of the continuance of the institution in the southern states. “Abolitionist” was still a term of scorn among Democrats and among Republicans it was one of reproach. The state of mind was illustrated in a case of liberation which took place in St. Anthony in August, I860. [...]

On the twenty-first of August complaint was made that a colored woman was “restrained of her liberty” by her master, a guest at the Winslow House. A writ was granted and the woman was brought into court. The master was too well advised of the law to plead any claim to her and she was set at liberty. If the Democratic newspapers can be believed, there was general disgust and indignation against the abolitionist fanatics who had tampered with the girl, as they alleged, and persuaded her to run away from a kind and generous master. [...] The sentiment of hospitality was so notable that in March, I860, a resolution was presented in the House and a bill was introduced in the Senate to permit slave owners to bring servants with them and hold them to service for a period of five months.



V. The Sioux Outbreak, 1862

From the white man’s point of view these operations amounted simply to a massacre, an atrocious and utterly unjustifiable butchery of unoffending citizens. The resources of invective were exhausted in the descriptions of the day. The Indian, however, saw himself engaged in war, the most honorable of all pursuits, against men who, as he believed, had robbed him of his country and his freedom, had fooled and cheated him with pretensions of friendship, and who wished to force upon him an alien language and religion. [...] The more reputable chiefs would gladly have restrained their warriors from indiscriminate slaughter, but that was impossible when there were hundreds of young braves to whom the eagle feather was the most precious thing in life; and that could be won by the murder of a baby as easily as by the killing of a foe in equal combat.

VI. The Indian Campaign of 1862

In the foregoing account Major Joseph R. Brown has been recognized as the person in command of the Birch Coulee detachment, although that distinction has been claimed for another, Captain Hiram P. Grant of Company A, Sixth Minnesota Infantry, already mentioned. [...] It is both affirmed and denied that Major Brown, being a civilian or merely an aide-de-camp on staff duty, could not really exercise command over the troops and that he did not in fact exercise command. The matter may be dismissed with the reflection that, when the unfortunate outcome of the expedition, resulting from gross lack of judgment and foresight, is considered, one may well wonder why either party to the controversy should desire to win its cause. Admirable as was the behavior of the men who made the gallant defense at Birch Coulee, nobody now considers it a victory in any sense.

Assuming it to be in some degree probable that after the repulses he had suffered the chief might be coming to himself and might be glad to entertain some plan for ending the war, Sibley left on a split stake on the Birch Coulee field this message: “If Little Crow has any proposition to make to me, let him send a half-breed to me, and he shall be protected in and out of camp.” To this Crow replied from Yellow Medicine on September 7. He gave as his reasons for the commencement of the war the misconduct of Agent Galbraith and the insolence and extortions of the traders and he casually remarked that he had a great many prisoners, intending Colonel Sibley to understand that a proposition from him might be entertained.
VII. The Punishment of the Sioux An interpreter was directed to notify all the Indians in the camp to appear on the following morning at the agency to be counted by Agent Galbraith preparatory to receiving their unpaid annuities for the year. “This ruse worked like a charm.” The unsophisticated savages appeared at an early hour, to find the agent and the military commandant seated at a table outside the ruin of the stone agency building with clerks “hard at work on the rolls.” The families came up, were counted, and were motioned to pass on. As they came to a doorway the men were told to step inside to be counted for extra pay. As they entered they were asked to give up their arms upon a promise that they would receive them back “shortly.” Two hundred and thirty-six of Little Crow’s warriors were thus safely placed in custody and were presently “fixed” in the same way as their comrades at Camp Release. A military necessity may have justified this “strategy,” but the reader may judge whether it was calculated to increase the Indians’ respect for either the truthfulness or the bravery of the white man.

Sibley promptly approved all the proceedings except in one case and transmitted them to the department commander.* He had instructed the commissioners not to concern themselves about the degree of guilt if they were satisfied that prisoners had been guilty of voluntary participation in the murders and massacres.

* [...] After a few instances, the specifications became stereotyped, as follows: “Charge: Participation in the murders, outrages and robberies committed by the Sioux tribe of Indians on the Minnesota frontier. Specification: In this, that the said . . . a Sioux Indian [or half breed] did join with and participate in the murders, and outrages committed by the Sioux tribe of Indians on the Minnesota frontier, between the I8th day of August, I862, and the 28th day of September, I862, and particularly in the battles at the Fort, New Ulm, Birch Coolie, and Wood Lake.” In a large proportion of the cases the proceedings were very brief, consisting of an arraignment and a confession by the accused that he had been in one or more of the battles. Believing that they would be considered as prisoners of war, the Indians had no hesitation in confessing to presence in the battles.

No sooner was it known that President Lincoln had taken the disposition of the condemned Indians into his own hands than he was inundated with “appeals”: appeals for mercy, on the one hand, from friends of the Indian who never had seen one, from people opposed to the death penalty, and from those who regarded the convicts as prisoners of war. Among the last was the commissioner of Indian affairs, who entered his formal protest against “an indiscriminate punishment of men who have laid down their arms and surrendered themselves as prisoners.” On the other hand, there was no lack of “appeals” to the president from the highest sources in Minnesota to hang the whole batch without delay or discrimination. [...] A memorial of the citizens of St. Paul demanded that the United States authorities, being the chosen instruments of divine vengeance, should perform their plain duty. If they did not, there would be no security for the future. The memorialists also hoped that the friends and relatives of those “foully murdered by those Indian devils, will not be compelled to take vengeance into their own hands, as they assuredly will if Government shall fail in its duty.” [...] General Sibley, having approved the sentences, seems not to have volunteered any advice. In a letter to his wife, he says: “I shall do full justice, but no more. I do not propose to murder any man, even a savage, who is shown to be innocent.”

In December Bishop Whipple published in the St. Paul newspapers a calm, clear statement of the train of events which had led to this terrible explosion. So far as is known, he was the only public man who had the courage to face the whirlwind of popular denunciation of all Indians and of the Dakota in particular. To punish the guilty would avail little if the traditional Indian policy was to be left unreformed. In some quarters the bishop came in for denunciation almost as spiteful and unsparing as that directed against the Sioux themselves, but he never retracted a syllable nor budged an inch.

text checked (see note) Jul 2008

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