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.