For thousands of years, Traverse des Sioux was a crossroads and meeting place where Native Americans gathered to hunt and to use the shallow river crossing. Then in 1851, it witnessed the signing of the treaty between the Dakota and the US government that would lead to the US-Dakota War a decade later.
By the 1840s, Traverse des Sioux was heavily used as a exchange point in the fur trade. Pelts arrived here from upstream fur posts and were transferred to flatboats bound for nearby Mendota and eastern markets. A Native American mission was established there in 1843, and by 1851 the settlement had two missionaries and their families, a school, several fur trading establishments, a few cabins of French voyageurs, and twenty to thirty Native American lodges.
When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, white settlers were eager to establish homesteads on the fertile frontier. Pressured by traders and threatened with military force, leaders from the upper bands of the Dakota reluctantly agreed to sign a treaty that would open up land to white settlers.
On July 23, 1851, the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota gathered at the Traverse des Sioux camp, where US government representatives Luke Lea, commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey, negotiated the first of two treaties promising payments of cash, goods, education, and a reservation in exchange for their land. Days later, on August 5, a virtually identical treaty was signed at Mendota with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands. Through these treaties, the Dakota ceded approximately 24 million acres in present-day Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa, leaving a 150-by-20-mile strip of reservation land flanking the north and south banks of the Minnesota River. Without access to the land upon which they had hunted for generations, they relied on treaty payments for their survival.
But before the US Senate would ratify the treaties, they removed the provision for a reservation. The Dakota could live on the land previously set aside for reservations, they said, but only until it was needed for non-native settlement. And before appropriating desperately needed cash and goods, congress required the Dakota to approve this change.
The US government kept more than 80 percent of the money promised through the treaties, with only the interest on the amount--at 5 percent for 50 years--paid to the Dakota. By 1862, stripped of their land and left without the food and money promised them, the Dakota were starving.
With the bands of Dakota relocated to strip of land along the Minnesota River, the town of Traverse des Sioux soon grew up around the site. At its peak, it had more than 70 buildings, including five taverns, two hotels and several churches. In 1856, however, nearby St. Peter was chosen as the county seat and by the late 1860s, nothing was left of the once-booming town of Traverse des Sioux.