The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux
Francis Davis Millet
Painted around 1905 by Francis Millet, The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, depicting the treaty signing, was inspired by Frank Blackwell Mayer’s sketches of this historic event near present-day St. Peter, Minnesota, on July 23, 1851. This document, between the United States and the Sissitunwan and Wahpetunwan bands of the Dakota Oyate (Nation), was one of 12 treaties signed with the Dakota between 1805 and 1858.
Two 1851 treaties (the other being the Treaty of Mendota with the Bdewakanwunwan and Wahpekute Dakota) were intended to address two issues: land tensions between the Dakota and the region’s growing white population, and provisions of the treaty of 1837 not upheld by the United States. Negotiations for the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux lasted over three weeks. Between it and the Treaty of Mendota, the Dakota were to cede 35 million acres of land at 12 cents an acre in exchange for $3,750,000 to be paid over time—money that they never received. The Dakota were to retain a 20-mile strip of land along the Minnesota River, while the rest of their lands were opened up for Euro-American settlement.
Reluctant Dakota signers of this treaty included Istamahba (Sleepy Eye), Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), and Upi Iyahdeya (Extended Tail Feathers). American government representatives included Alexander Ramsey (governor of the Minnesota Territory) and Luke Lea (United States commissioner of Indian affairs). Also in attendance were trader Alexander Faribault and missionary Stephen Riggs, who served as interpreters.
After signing two copies of the treaty, the Dakota were led to sign a third document prepared by the traders, which had not been explained to them. Many thought it was simply another copy of the treaty. Instead, this document determined that monies promised to the Dakota for their land would instead go to traders for supposed “past debts.”
Where Cass Gilbert and Francis Millet saw a coming together of cultures and the exchange of land and money that created the state of Minnesota, viewers of the painting today see a more complicated story. The treaty that was signed at Traverse des Sioux deprived the Dakota of their land and diverted the money they were promised to the fur traders. The depiction of the American Indians in the painting was also historically inaccurate. Millet based his painting on Mayer’s contemporary sketches, but the details in the painting were borrowed from other cultures and were not accurate representations of the Dakota present at the treaty signing.
MNHS staff interviewed a wide range of people with various perspectives on the painting. Interview subjects included Minnesota state legislators, historians, experts on western art, members of Minnesota’s Native American communities, and descendants of both the Dakota and the settlers involved in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Their words illuminate the challenge of restoring the past in a building meant to represent all the people of Minnesota.