Sibley Historic Site

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Introduction

The Sibley Historic Site features four limestone buildings from the era when the American Fur Company operated a regional trade with the Dakota, between 1825 and 1853. The home of Henry Hastings Sibley is on the site, as is his office as first state governor. The site is managed by the Dakota County Historical Society.

Background

The Sibley House Historic Site, just a short distance south of St. Paul, is home to an unexpectedly rich part of Minnesota's history. Not only does the Sibley House have an important story to tell, but the Mendota area was also home to several formative changes in Minnesota's history. The area served as one of the most important centers of Minnesota's fur trade in the 1820s, played a significant role in the Minnesota's birth as a U.S. Territory in 1849, and was the site of two 1851 treaties that abruptly and permanently changed the makeup of Minnesota residents.

Visitors to the Sibley House Historic Site come for a variety of reasons. Some want to tour the home of the state's first governor, Henry Hastings Sibley. Others look forward to seeing the home of fur-trader-turned-hotelier Jean-Baptiste Faribault. Still others are fascinated by the chance to touch goods that might have been traded a fur company store. And all visitors will get to experience the DuPuis house, the residence of Sibley's secretary, which is now used as a tearoom.

While touring these homes, visitors can dig deeper into the stories that bring life to these buildings. Built in the mid-1830s by the hands of more than 100 Dakota and white laborers, the Sibley House is considered the oldest private residence in Minnesota. Originally, a large front room on the first floor served as Sibley's office and trading headquarters. He kept the outside stairway door unlocked, so Indians could come into the attic to rest at any time of the day or night. From the home, Sibley operated an influential trade outfit that stretched from the Mississippi to the Missouri. For example, a year after Sibley arrived in Mendota, the total value of furs collected exceeded $59,000. Sibley House became the territory's capital. From there, Ramsey declared the U.S. territory to be officially organized. As Minnesota's most powerful fur trader, Henry Sibley soon became the new territory's representative in Washington.

By this time, Mendota's hey day as a fur-trading center was coming to an end. New businesses, like lumbering and selling land, were becoming lucrative. Sibley and Ramsey -along with missionaries, other government officials, and local fur traders - were looking for ways to open land to white settlers from Europe and the eastern United States. Among Minnesota's white population, eagerness to make land treaties with the area's Dakota became widespread. In the summer of 1851, two separate treaty negotiations occurred. At each, hundreds of Dakota met with U.S. delegates in a series of tense negotiations.

From July to August, several U.S. representatives, including Sibley and Ramsey, tried to convince reluctant Dakota to sign. Several Dakota leaders, including Taoyateduta, or Little Crow, and Chief Wapahasa, or Red Banner, explained their mistrust of such land treaties. Negotiators on both sides addressed important questions, such as who would speak for the Dakota and how translations would occur. After weeks of miscommunications, offers and counter offers, and various negotiations, two separate treaties had been signed.

By the end of the summer of 1851, the Dakota had given up nearly all their remaining lands in Minnesota and Iowa - about 35 million acres. In exchange, the government agreed to pay more than $3 million and provide a permanent reservation along the Minnesota River. The U.S. Senate later changed the terms of these treaties, deeming the "permanent" reservations "temporary." Almost immediately after these (and other) treaties were signed, white settlers moved to the area in immense numbers. Over the next decade, Minnesota's white population grew 3,500 percent: from 4,800 to 170,000.

These major events of the Mendota area - the fur trade, establishment of Minnesota Territory, and the 1851 treaties - have greatly influenced the Minnesota we know today. Visitors to the Sibley House Historic Site can see tangible evidence of these major events, and learn about the people who shaped them.

The site contains many glimpses into these intriguing lives. Cutouts of the Sibley House walls reveal willows woven by Indian women. The home-turned-inn of the Faribault House tells the stories of a fur trader respected for his intelligence and fairness. By touring these buildings and the rest of the site, visitors will gain valuable insight into important segments of Minnesota's history.

Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart

Congressman, governor, military leader, and senior statesman - no person played a longer, more influential, or more varied role in the shaping of Minnesota than Henry Hastings Sibley (1811-91). Yet Sibley's history reveals universal tensions about the duality of the 19th-century frontiersman who is at once an accommodating trade partner of the Indian/European/Métis worlds and the conquering government official of the ever-expanding West. Rhoda Gilman has spend more than 30 years examining Sibley - through hints and fragments of stories that Sibley himself left in articles, an unfinished biography, and scores of family letters - and uncovers in this perceptive and balanced biography the complexities of a man who embodied these clashing extremes.

As Gilman writes in her preface,

"On the broader stage of national history Sibley's life spanned nineteenth-century America. Rooted in the political and social establishment of the old Northwest Territory, he witnessed the colonizing of a continent and its people, the closing of the frontier, the agony of civil war, and the explosive birth of an urban, industrial society. He was keenly conscious of what he conceived to be the nation's destiny, and he identified closely with it. An heir to the Indian policy of Lewis Cass, who had managed to dispossess the Great Lakes tribes without war, Sibley belonged to the generation that was left to pay the price of that betrayal in blood and shame. And unlike Cass, he had personal ties to the Dakota people that placed him in deeply ambiguous position."

Gilman sets the controversial but altogether human Sibley against the tapestry of trade, politics, frontier expansion, and intercultural relations in the Upper Mississippi valley, and reminds us that throughout his life Sibley was poised to become a national figure but always chose to remain in the place he loved and had helped to name "Minnesota." Rhoda Gilman is the author of "The Story of Minnesota's Past" and co-author of "The Red River Trails" (MHS Press). She is a founding member of Women Historians of the Midwest and a former candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota on the Green Party Ticket.

Fun Facts
  • Sibley was Minnesota's first state governor.
  • In 1835 - a year after Sibley's arrival in the Mendota area - his fur trade operation was already successful: the total value of furs collected exceeded $59,000.
  • Sibley's home contained the first safe ever built in the Northwest.
  • A dog lover, Sibley had two Irish Wolfhounds - named Lion and Tiger - imported from England. Tiger was so ferocious that he eventually had to be destroyed. Lion, on the other hand, had an affectionate nature. In 1841, Sibley commissioned a painting of Lion, which is on display for visitors to the Sibley House.
  • When Sibley was a bachelor, he spent some of his time hunting with the Indians and entertaining visitors in his home.
  • Original construction of the Sibley and Faribault houses was resourceful. Mud and willow branches from the Minnesota were used to make wall interiors.
  • The Sibley House is considered the oldest private residence in Minnesota. It was built by Indian and white laborers in 1835 and 1836.
  • The outside stairway door of the Sibley House was never locked. General Sibley left it unlocked so the Indians could come into his attic to rest - at any time of the day or night.
  • During the Civil War, soldiers training at Fort Snelling regularly took the ferry to Mendota, seeking nightlife.
Timeline

circa 1779 Fur traders begin frequenting the Mendota area.

1820s Mendota becomes one of the most important centers of Minnesota's fur trade.

1826 Jean-Baptiste Faribault, who had begun participating in the fur trade at a very young age, arrives in Mendota.

1834 Henry H. Sibley arrives in the Mendota area as a young fur trader.

circa 1836 Construction of the Sibley House is completed. Sibley, a bachelor, moves in.

1839-1840 Faribault House is built. It begins use as a residence and inn.

1840s Mendota ferry begins service and becomes an important link between the village and Fort Snelling. Fur traders and the military depend on its transportation.

1847 After spending two decades in the Mendota fur trade - where he was respected by the Indians for his intelligence and fairness - Faribault leaves the area, shortly after his wife's death.

1849 Minnesota becomes a U.S. Territory. Sibley, Minnesota's most powerful fur trader, becomes the territory's first representative to Congress.

1851 Two treaties are signed: one at Traverse des Sioux and one at Mendota. U.S. officials (including Sibley) meet with hundreds of Dakota to negotiate the terms. The Dakota give up most of their remaining lands - about 35 million acres - and soon afterward, streams of white settlers begin coming to Minnesota.

1858 Minnesota state elects its first governor: Henry H. Sibley.

1850-1860 In the decade following the 1851 treaties, Minnesota's white population grows at an incredible rate: more than 3,500 percent - from 4,800 to 170,000.

1862 Sibley is named commander of volunteer forces in the Dakota War. The Sibley family moves to St. Paul, selling their Mendota home to St. Peter's church.

1860s and 70s Nuns operate a school and convent in the Sibley House.

1880s No longer bustling with activity, Mendota becomes a relatively quiet village.

1890s During the summers, well-known artist Burt Harwood uses the Sibley House as an art studio and school.

Early 1900s Deserted, the Sibley house falls into gradual decay.

1909 St. Peter's church donates the Sibley property to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The DAR begins restoring the Sibley House as a historic site.

1910 The DAR opens the Sibley House to the public.

1934 Restoration of Faribault House begins.

1937 Newly restored Faribault House opens to the public.

Images

Sibley Historic Site Images

Sibley Historic Site Images

Sibley House

Sibley House

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Sibley House, 1893

Sibley House, 1893

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Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley engraving by J. C. Buttre, 1862

Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley engraving by J. C. Buttre, 1862

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