Land Grab: Ramsey vs. the Indians

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[This article was written for the book The Story of Old Crossing: A Manual, to be published in summer 2008 in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the state of Minnesota.]

Land Grab: Ramsey vs. the Indians

by David Thorstad

Alexander Ramsey, first Minnesota territorial governor and recently elected U.S. senator, who negotiated the 1863 Old Crossing Treaty on behalf of President Lincoln (the Great Father), was a consummate negotiator. His methods included duplicity, innuendo, imperiousness, barely veiled threats, divide-and-conquer tactics, lies, and bribery. A Christian, he had the temerity to invoke the Great Spirit as favoring his mission.

The treaty period was in reality a land grab by the whiteman. Old Crossing was part of that: “land acquisition by a method best described as one of food, flattery, and fraud was the order of the day; cynically, the historians of that time called the Minnesota treaties ‘as honest as any.’” The cession of some 11 million acres by the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Ojibwe at Old Crossing transferred to the whites the fertile land of what would become known as the breadbasket of the nation.

Native Americans viewed themselves as stewards of the land, not its owners, and therefore it was not their prerogative to sell the land itself, but only use of the land:

land concepts of Indian people differed markedly from the views motivating the British and American officials with whom they were dealing. In the belief system of Indian people, land, like air and water, was available to all on the basis of need. Personal ownership was limited to things individually crafted, crops raised, or proceeds of hunting and fishing activities. Tribal groups exercised stewardship over particular areas under their control. Only gradually did Indian people realize that the cession or surrender of land to a non-Indian government meant more than sharing use of the land, and actually threatened eventual dispossession.

Although Ramsey’s goal was acquisition of the land, he reiterated repeatedly that all he wanted was a “right-of-way” for the growing numbers of settlers and tradesmen to cross it. Already, he estimated, the British settlements along the Red River “contain a population of from ten to twelve thousand souls, and are rapidly advancing in numbers, wealth, and importance.” Commerce was rapidly expanding throughout the region. Ramsey endeavored “especially to impress upon them [the Ojibwe] the fact that their Great Father desired to make a treaty with them—not in order to obtain possession of their lands, but chiefly with a view to their benefit, and to prevent the recurrence of difficulties between them and his white children passing through their country. . . .” Ramsey anticipated that asking to buy the land outright “would lead to extravagant demands,” so instead he offered to pay for “a right of way over the roads and rivers of the country.” But a mere “right-of-way” would have left the Indians with the belief that they had a right to levee tolls on merchants or steamboats, so his ultimate aim was to get them to cede the land.

The costs of the ongoing Civil War also played a role: “Because of the massive war expenses incurred by the Union, Ramsey was under considerable pressure to finalize the treaty, so that the Red River Valley could be sold to White settlers, and the proceeds credited to United States accounts in the U.S. Treasury.” The Dakota Uprising had distracted the authorities, but with the suppression of that rebellion and the mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato the day after Christmas 1862, Ramsey was ready to pursue his goal.

Financial gain and pacification of the Natives were central to his efforts, despite his repeated assertions that the land was worthless and only good for travel over. A sampling of Ramsey’s arguments reveals his prevarication:

• “Their Great Father has no especial desire to get possession of their lands. He does not want their lands at all if they do not want to part with them. He has more land now than he knows what to do with. He simply wishes that his people should enjoy the privilege of travelling through their country on steamboats and on wagons unmolested.”

• “Now, your Great Father thinks that the passing of steamboats and carts through the country does not harm you in any way. It does not deprive you of anything; you have no steamboats nor carts; you lose nothing by it.”

• “We cannot tell what are the motives of the Great Spirit, but, for some reason which we know to be wise and good, he has brought another race with different habits and different ideas from theirs around and about them. It is possible they may not be making the best use of the lands which the Great Spirit has given them. They have broad lands here, occupied by about a thousand men, that the system of cultivation and settlement adopted by the white race would support a thousand times, and perhaps ten thousand times, that number. . . . It is probable that the Great Spirit had in view the mutual advantage of both races in bringing them together. They have lands here which many of them never see, and from which they derive nothing whatever, which, if occupied by white men, would yield them abundant food, blankets, and whatever else they need.”

• “We cannot help it; no one can help it; it is the work of the Great Spirit. As I told them before, the Great Father at Washington, with a sincere desire for their welfare, and a big heart, wishes to prevent the difficulties that might occur by the meeting of these two races without some mutual understanding. I told them plainly before that we do not care so much about the land; all we wanted was security for the travelling over it.” The land, he said, was “worthless to them” and “entirely valueless to a civilized people”: “They are not the kind of lands that white men want at all.”

Little Rock, in one of his eloquent, poetic speeches, referring to his grandfather, said: “now that which he has given to his children for an inheritance has been shaken to the winds. You have trodden it under your feet. . . . This is what was spoken by my great-grandfather at the house he made for us. He was the one who spoke it. And these are the words that were given to him by the Master of Life: ‘At some time there shall come among you a stranger, speaking a language you do not understand. He will try to buy the land from you, but do not sell it; keep it for an inheritance to your children.’” Even Little Rock’s eloquence did not deter Ramsey from referring to his Indian interlocutors as “these ignorant savages”! At one point, his negotiating stance comes across as downright insulting: “I cannot afford to spend my time in listening to all Little Rock’s old-womanish nonsense.”

On the ninth day of negotiations, he ratchets up the pressure: “Tell them I find all this counciling comes to nothing. It is all talk, talk, talk, and no business.” He resorts to a divide-and-conquer tactic, impressing upon the Ojibwe what was fresh in everyone’s mind, namely, the war against the Dakota:

The bad conduct of the Sioux had created a prejudice in the minds of a great many whites against all Indians, and the people and the chiefs who formed the council of the Great Father had all begun to place a lower estimate upon Indian titles than heretofore. There was a growing disposition to disregard their claim to own the soil which they did not use themselves. Besides, their Great Father had had a great war upon his hands for nearly three years. It was now, it is true, coming to a triumphant close, but it had cost a great deal of money, and when it was ended he would look a great deal more closely to money than now, and the people from whom the money came would also look much more closely to their money. It was safe to say, then, that now, if ever, was their time to make a treaty if they wished to make one. It would probably be their only opportunity for many years.

He promised government help in subduing young men among them who might not want to go along with a signing of the treaty by the chiefs and headmen.

In his speech opening the negotiations, Ramsey had denounced the Dakota—traditional enemies of the Ojibwe—for violating treaties, but in reality, it was the whiteman who consistently violated treaties: “The Sioux have not only behaved badly, but they have destroyed all confidence in their faith. They have shown that treaties and pledges, however solemn, have no binding force with them. Hence, hereafter, they will never be believed or trusted. They have proved themselves before all the world a base and treacherous people, and good men and good spirits must hereafter be against them.” These words accurately describe the U.S. government’s own violation of treaties.

Economic development was uppermost in Ramsey’s mind throughout. Of the huge area ceded, he reported to Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole: “The whole of this area may be regarded as ultimately available for agriculture and settlement, the soil being generally of extraordinary fertility and finely adapted to the production of the small grains, though portions of it along the banks of the Red river are imperfectly drained, and are subject to occasional overflow. It embraces all the present paths of commercial travel, and the designated routes of projected railroads and telegraphs between the settlements of Minnesota and the British colonies of northwestern America.” And: “The position of the ceded tract, embracing all the routes of travel, commerce, and emigration between the Mississippi valley and the prosperous British colonies of northwestern America, renders the extinction of the Indian title thereto a matter of the first consequence to the people of this State, and essential, indeed, to the development of the northwest.” Moreover, the soil “is extremely fertile, and if reclaimed from overflow, would be equal to the bottoms of the Nile in its productiveness of the cereals.”

A line of the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad was already under construction, running two hundred miles across the ceded tract, and eventually to the Pacific Coast, and a telegraph line was about to be created between Pembina and the Pacific, demonstrating that “it is not the least of the advantages of the treaty that it will now make these lands available for construction.”

Because a mere right-of-way would have given rise to future ambiguities and complications with the “rapid advance of settlement throughout the valley of the Red river,” and “in view of the unruly disposition manifested by these Indians in consequences of their isolation from the control of the government,” Ramsey decided to seek “an absolute purchase of their lands.”

Little Rock made most of the speeches for the Red Lakers during the deliberations, but it was Mon-si-moh (Moose Dung) who played the main role in finalizing the terms of the treaty. He was rewarded with a 640-acre tract of land (the “Chief’s Section”) at Thief River Falls, and Red Bear of the Pembina Band also received a 640-acre tract for himself. By 1901, Moose Dung the Younger had sold off the last of his inheritance, lumbermen and other white investors having bought parts of it earlier. By 1904, the Red Lake Band had ceded all the rest of its lands, except for the much- diminished present-day reservation—and part of that (the northeast third of Upper Red Lake and the surrounding area, including Waskish) was stolen outright from them since they never ceded it.

The Old Crossing Treaty had far-reaching consequences for white settlement and the “pacification” of the Ojibwe, as well as for the westward expansion and economic growth of the United States. Until recently, however, it has received little attention and has remained under the radar of most white citizens. Many place-names carry the names of lumbermen and politicians who, like Alexander Ramsey, helped to wrest away ownership of Ojibwe lands, yet few are named for Ojibwe figures, and the paltry payments they received in the exchange have long since vanished.

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