Thief River Falls
Thief River Falls: The Indian Connection
- by David Thorstad
“Thief River Falls? That’s an unusual name. What does it mean?” I’ve often been asked this while traveling, and have answered as follows:
A long time ago, a Sioux warrior was camped out at Squaw Point, where the Red Lake River and the Thief River meet, not far from a falls. He was stealing horses from the Ojibwe, who eventually discovered him and attacked and killed him. Hence, the name: a thief on the river near a falls.
This explanation was based on my recollections of a pageant I had seen as a boy put on by the Red Lake Indians on the Fourth of July sometime during the 1950s. The pageant was staged for an audience seated on the recently landscaped outdoor amphitheater slope of what had been a woodsy, secluded “lovers’ lane” just behind the town’s armory. The Red Lakers reenacted this legend for the entertainment of the whites on the day the whiteman celebrates his country’s independence—ironically, a day that ultimately led to cultural annihilation for many Native Americans. This legend is incorrect on several counts.* Neither Dakota nor Ojibwe were likely to camp out as lone individuals under such circumstances. And although the Ojibwe, a woodland tribe, had probably acquired horses by the early nineteenth century, and the Sioux from Indians to the southwest by the first half of the eighteenth century, it is unlikely that a Dakota warrior would want to, or need to, or even have been able to, steal horses from Ojibwe who lived fifty or more miles to the east, when the westernmost Ojibwe village was located at Red Lake. Furthermore, even the Dakota in the late eighteenth century reportedly continued to hunt mostly on foot, not on horseback. This legend about the origins of the name of Thief River Falls is one of several. It is based on an account by Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, who had been expelled from Italy by the king and who left Major Stephen H. Long’s exploring party near present-day Hallock to scout the source of the Mississippi on his own by canoe. He had joined the expedition in 1823 at Fort Snelling and decided to make his way back to the fort on his own. The Dakota were credited with naming Thief River, calling it “Wamans Watpa” (Robber River), and Beltrami explained that it got this name
because one of the Sioux, in his flight from vengeance which had been denounced against him for murder, kept himself concealed and robbed on this spot for many years, escaping the observations of his persecutors and enemies by whom he was completely surrounded.
This version is repeated by former Thief River Falls mayor W. C. Smiley in 1908, who says about Beltrami that, after leaving Long’s expedition, he
struck across country, alone, to Thief River, which he descended in a canoe to the site of this city, Thief River Falls. Thence following up Red Lake River he crossed lower Red Lake, ascended Mud river to Mud lake and portaged to a little lake which he believed to be the source of the Mississippi and which he named, in honor of his sweetheart [Giulia] in far off France, “Lake Julia”. Thence following the Turtle lakes and river he paddled down to Cass lake and from there followed the Mississippi back to Fort Snelling. Lake Julia still bears that name and this group of lakes is called the “Julien sources” of the Mississippi.
Smiley asserts that Thief River “is an ancient name, hoary with the traditions of centuries, and was, without doubt, the proper title of this stream before Columbus discovered the new world.” He repeats Beltrami’s account that “the first white men who set foot in this region found the lake and river so called and learned the Indian tradition of the origin of the name, learned how a grim Sioux murderer, long before his tribe had been driven out by the Chippewas, had concealed himself in the vicinity of this river, and, for years, lived an outlaw’s life of pillage and robbery, defying capture though surrounded by enemies.” But the first white man did not arrive in the area until some three hundred years after Columbus (pace those who point to the Kensington Runestone and other evidence of Viking visitation to Minnesota prior to Columbus—although none of this evidence indicates that the Vikings left the Red River to explore the vicinity of Thief River Falls or that they knew anything about such a legend). This version amounts to little more than fanciful speculation. The first indication of the name of Thief River in English occurs in the journals of Major Long of the U.S. Army, whose expedition explored the Red River of the North in 1823 as far north as Winnipeg. Although Long himself never saw the spot, he noted “Thief R.” on the map accompanying his report on his explorations—the first time the name occurs in English. Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the Hudson’s Bay Company, in 1800 mentions the “Lac aux Voleurs” and “Rivière aux Voleurs” (French for Thief Lake and Thief River). Before examining other legends and explanations for the naming of Thief River Falls, a look at some of the history of Indian–white encounters in the area will provide a useful context.
Moose Dung and the Old Crossing Treaty
In 1863, the state of Minnesota raised the bounty it paid for an Indian scalp to more than one hundred dollars. That same year, while the states were engaged in the Civil War, the federal government in Washington, D.C., sent an invitation to the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Ojibwe to come to a powwow at Old Crossing for the purpose of signing a treaty whereby the bands would agree to cede nearly all of an immense tract of land known as the Red River Valley of the North. Old Crossing was near the confluence of the Red Lake and Black rivers, at Huot, near present-day Red Lake Falls. It was by then already a crossing for thousands of oxcarts, and is one of Minnesota’s most historic spots, even if it remains unknown to most citizens and is not part of the curriculum in schools. (French Americans hold an annual Chautauqua festival there, and in 1933 a monument to the treaty was raised on the spot.) The government had originally hoped to hold the treaty signing a year earlier, but the Dakota Uprising in southern Minnesota had distracted it. With the mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato on December 26, 1862, bringing an end to the U.S. government’s war against the Dakota, the government was able to turn its attention to getting hold of the coveted land to the northwest and opening it to white settlement. The story of this land acquisition, which amounts to expropriation, is of a piece with the rest of the U.S. government’s duplicitous dealings with Indian tribes throughout the treaty period. Like other treaties, the Old Crossing Treaty was achieved through duplicity and lies, and it demonstrates how the entire treaty period was essentially nothing more than a stratagem whereby the whiteman gained possession of Indian lands. The land in question is approximately 180 miles long, north to south, and approximately 127 miles wide, east to west, and amounted to approximately 11 million acres, according to Ramsey’s estimate. It runs from Lake of the Woods at the north down to the mouth of the Thief River, where it joins the Red Lake River, then southeast to the Wild Rice River to the river’s mouth, then up the Red River of the North to the mouth of the Sheyenne River, north to the “Place of Stumps, otherwise called Lake Chicot,” and continuing north to the boundary between U.S. and British possessions. This encompassed the land west of the Thief River and Red Lake River and into Dakota Territory as far as Devil’s Lake. For this huge tract of land, the United States paid $510,000. The sordid story of this treaty and the manner in which it was achieved may explain why it is not taught in schools. Chiefs and headmen from Red Lake arrived at Old Crossing in mid-September 1863 and pitched their wigwams. With them came Indian agent Ashley C. Morrill. On September 21, former Minnesota governor and recently elected U.S. Senator Alexander Ramsey, representing the U.S. government, arrived with a detachment of U.S. soldiers, and they pitched their tents. Two days later the Pembina band arrived and the first negotiating session took place. By October 1, all chiefs had agreed to the terms of the treaty, except for Chief May-dwa-gun-on-ind of Red Lake. The next day, after a few hours of further discussion, and in the absence of May-dwa-gun-on-ind, Red Lake Chief Monsimoh (Moose Dung) “touched the pen,” and was joined by five other chiefs, eight warriors, and one head warrior, along with commissioners Ramsey and Morrill. The Indians signed with an “X” mark. Thus Red Lake and Pembina ceded to the United States the fertile part of the Lake Agassiz lakebed that became known as the breadbasket of the white nation, and made it possible for thousands of white families to take possession of the land. In the winter of 1863–64, May-dwa-gun-on-ind, who had refused to sign the treaty, walked 150 miles to White Earth to complain to Episcopal Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple about the whole affair. Whipple recorded in his diary that he left for Washington to inform the government that the Red Lake Indians had not known precisely what they were signing, and that the treaty was “from beginning to end a fraud.” Several Indians were taken to Washington to agree to amendments to the treaty in April 1864. The U.S. government used whiskey as one of its techniques to get them to agree. Whipple, who served as “counsel” to the Indians, said he “might as well have whistled against the wind.” A narrative description of the treaty negotiations by Ramsey to William P. Dole, commissioner of Indian affairs, shows that Ramsey lied to the Indians about the true aims of the U.S. government in seeking the treaty, and that the two sides were not always on the same page, in part because of misunderstandings and mistranslations by the “special interpreter,” Paul H. Beaulieu. Beaulieu had served as interpreter for other treaty negotiations (a potentially lucrative service because interpreters controlled what each side learned and how their positions were formulated, and could thus help their own families escape paying assessed fees for alleged or real debts), including the treaty of 1854 that ceded Ojibwe land in northern Wisconsin. Ramsey reports: “I addressed them [the Indians] at length upon the object of our visit, endeavoring especially to impress upon them the fact that their Great Father [President Lincoln] desired to make a treaty with them—not in order to obtain possession of their lands [!], but chiefly with a view to their benefit….” Ramsey began with an oration about the “wickedness and perfidy of the Sioux,” a reference to the war against the Dakota in August–September 1862 in southern Minnesota. During that conflict, 1,250 Dakota were imprisoned, many were exiled to Dakota Territory and Canada, and 303 were sentenced to death by hanging (Lincoln commuted the death sentence of most—and was criticized by his enemies for doing so), of whom thirty-eight were hanged in a mass hanging in Mankato the day after Christmas 1862. (The Christian authorities apparently felt that staging the hangings on Christmas Day would conflict with the spirit of observing their god’s birth, which, to this day, they describe as a day of “peace and goodwill toward men”!) After Pembina chief Mis-co-muk-quoh (Red Bear) observed, “You are here upon a visit to lands that do not belong to you. It is just the same with me. I am on a visit on lands that do not belong to me. I did not bring my land to lay it before you…,” Ramsey tells his interpreter: “I stated to them very plainly, that if the offers were not agreeable to them they should make another proposition. The Great Father had several times offered to purchase the land, not because he wanted it for settlement—at least during the lifetime of the youngest of them, but because he wanted a free passage over it….” At one point, Ramsey interrupts Red Bear and tells the interpreter:
Ramsey: Tell Red Bear this. He and his friends are better friends to the Sioux than to the whites. They harbor the Sioux, and the gold that was red with the blood of the whites was traded in their country. While our men and women were murdered in cold blood by the Sioux, the assassins were received and harbored in the lodges of the Pembina Indians and half-breeds, and the gold and horses which the Sioux had stolen were traded in their camps. Red Bear: I do not harbor them. Ramsey: He does not harbor them? They are in his country, on friendly terms with his people—receiving all their supplies from his country…. Red Bear: I did not harbor any Sioux. Ramsey: Tell him I did not speak of him personally. I have great respect for him personally. I spoke of those who occupy the country….
Red Lake chief Ase-e-ne-wub (Little Rock) makes the point that indigenous people cannot sell their sacred relationship to the land (he was not accurately translated, according to Wub-e-ke-niew, whose comments below are in brackets):
What I am to say I speak with truth and confidence. I want the earth to listen to me, and I hope also that my grandfather may be present to hear what I have to say, and I invoke the Master of Life [sic. This is a mistranslation—he said Grandfather and meant Midé] to listen to the words I have to speak. I hope there is not a single hole in the atmosphere in which my voice shall not be heard. My friend, the question you have laid before us is of great importance to us. We have heard the words you have uttered, and understood them partially…. Now, my friend, I am going to show you how we came to occupy this land. The Master of Life [sic] placed us here, and gave it to us for an inheritance…. The Master of Life [sic] gave us the river and the water thereof to drink, and the woods and the roads [sic] we depend on for subsistence, and you are mistaken if you think we derive no benefits from them. The Master of Life [sic] gave it to us for an inheritance…. Now, my friend, I am going to show you a little. You know partially what I am going to say. Here, on this track [sic], is where my grandfather was placed—the one who made the soil. The Master of Life [sic], when he put you here, never told you that you should own the soil; nor, when the Master of Life [sic] put me here, did he tell me that you should own the soil. I see the place that was made for you on the other side of the great sea…. The words that were told to my great-grandfather you shall hear, but not comprehend…. And 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. My friend, at the time I speak of they put four doors (pointing to the four cardinal points) for my great-grandfather’s house. They put persons to guard the doors—a guard at each door. 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 [sic]: “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.”
Helen Hornbeck Tanner explains that
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.
In his report to Dole, Ramsey says that “an important object of the treaty was the improvement of the Indians,” who in any case had minimal needs because of their “primitive” existence. With regard to Red Lake, for instance, he observes:
With the exception of a narrow border of fertile “hardwood” lands around the shores of that lake where these bands now have their homes and raise small crops of corn and potatoes, the tract reserved for their future occupancy, while abounding in game, fish, fields of wild rice, and other resources adapted to the primitive wants of the Indian, is, from the nature of the surface, which may be generally described as a series of impassible swales, entirely valueless….
Aside from the financial inducements offered, other improvements (for whites) that Ramsey points to would be the transcontinental telegraph and the St. Paul and Pacific railroad (“now in the course of construction”), which “is not the least of the advantages of the treaty that it will now make these lands available for construction….” So much for wanting only right-of-way to cross Indian lands. The financial terms of the treaty were as follows:
•$20,000 per year for twenty years to the Red Lake and Pembina bands, with up to $5,000 annually subtracted from it by the president of the United States to be “applied to agriculture; education, the purchase of goods, powder, lead, etc., for their use, and to such other beneficial purposes, calculated to promote the prosperity and happiness of the said Chippewa Indians, as he may prescribe” •$100,000 “to pay for damages for the robberies committed by their young men, and for their debts to their traders” (this consisted of payment to Indian trader Norman Kittson, who “had been running steamboats up and down the Red River: cutting forests as fuel for the wood-fired steam-boilers, starting forest fires.” Ramsey pointed to the hanging of Dakotas at Mankato as an example of what the Ojibwe might expect if Kittson were not remunerated) •up to $150 annually to the chiefs (“to be determined by their agents according to their respective merits”), to be taken out of the annuities to the bands, “to encourage and aid the chiefs of said bands in preserving order and inducing, by their example and advice, the members of their respective bands to adopt the habits and pursuits of civilized life” (a strategy of divide and conquer) •$500 to each chief “to enable him to build for himself a house” (more divide and conquer) •$5,000 for “cutting out” a road between Leech Lake and Red Lake
The American president was to appoint a committee, “to be selected from such Christian denominations as he may designate,” to oversee the implementation of the treaty and to report on “the qualifications and moral deportment of all persons residing upon the reservation.” Christian missionaries and priests functioned as advance men for “civilizing” colonized peoples, a role they also played for European colonialism in Africa, Asia, and Southeast Asia. Male half-breeds or mixed-bloods related to the bands whose members were U.S. citizens and had “adopted the habits and customs of civilized life” would be “granted” 160 acres of land within the ceded territory. (This reflected the then-current government policy goal of turning “wild Indians” into yeoman farmers.) The Indian negotiators were not in agreement about these provisions. Three Red Lake chiefs had supported the treaty from the start: Monsimoh (Moose Dung), Kaw-wash-ke-ne-kay (Broken [Crooked] Arm), and Naw-gaun-e-gwan-abe (Leading Feather). About the others, Ramsey reported to Dole:
My impression is, that their dissatisfaction is in some degree the mere effect of wounded pride, arising from their not having been consulted in framing the provisions of the treaty. This feeling might be readily removed by some slight concessions, in addition to that above indicated, and for this object I would recommend that two or three of the more influential chiefs be invited to Washington. The intimation that I would urge these points in their favor was received by them with great satisfaction, but no circumstance of my interview with the Indians had a happier effect in assuaging their discontent than the address made by Hole-in-the-Day, of Gull Lake, to the chiefs, which was marked by a breadth and elevation of views which are rare among his race. He advised them to submit cheerfully to the provisions of the treaty, since their Great Father willed it.
As a sign of government appreciation for their support of the treaty, two chiefs were each given a private reservation of 640 acres: Red Bear on the north side of the Pembina River, and Moose Dung a tract near the mouth of the Thief River, known as the “Chief’s Section,” in present-day Thief River Falls. This parcel ran along the west side of the Thief River from the present-day Soo Line depot north past Squaw Point, where the Red River meets the Thief River. Moose Dung expressed his appreciation: “My father, I arise once more. I come here to meet you as a chief. I do not consider myself a chief as high as you are, but I have a right to speak freely. My father, I think when I look upon this land, and compare it with other lands, that I have a very fine tract.” Moose Dung died in 1872, and his son (Mo-ko-ke-wai) inherited both his name and the Chief’s Section. White investors—lumbermen, for instance, who wanted to lease his land—were not long in expressing interest in the Chief’s Section. The Thief River Falls News (January 3, 1895) reports that
Mon-si-moh, Jr., evidently decided to not let this valuable tract of land lie idle, and that the inheritance from his father should be made to yield him some of the white man’s money. This decision formed, he set about to seek investment for his landed estate. He finally met [Patrick and James Meehan of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin] . . . and found that they were very anxious to enter the lumber business, erect a saw mill and carry on extensive business at the junction of the rivers mentioned [the Red Lake and Thief rivers].
On December 31, 1895, James Meehan Jr. purchased Lot 1 of Section 34 from Moose Dung for $1,500; this was the first sale of any of Moose Dung’s land to the whiteman. A few days later, the Thief River Falls News carried a story in which Meehan said he was ready “to defend his title to anyone,” adding: “Now let us all put together to wipe out the reservation, form a new country, get in more railroads, linen factories, cheese factories, etc., and be somebody.” By 1901, Moose Dung the Younger had sold off the last of his inheritance. In 1904, 256,152 acres of Red Lake land known as the eleven western townships were ceded and sold at auction for four dollars an acre. The last of Moose Dung’s band of forty-two families were removed from the village at Squaw Point to the greatly diminished reservation at Red Lake. The Indians and their burial grounds of about 113 dead were moved on a barge towed by a gasoline-powered boat, the Dan Patch, under the command of Joseph DuChamp, whose government contract paid him $14.50 per body. DuChamp’s interpreter was the young Norwegian Rudolph Berg, who had left his family at the age of thirteen to live with the Ojibwe. As part of its Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, Thief River Falls unveiled a statue of Chief Monsimoh (Moose Dung) that gazes out over what used to be the Ojibwe village at Squaw Point, at the confluence of the Thief and Red Lake rivers.