Thief River Falls

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Thief River Falls: The Indian Connection

by David Thorstad
Moose Dung/Red Robe (photo by David Thorstad, November 23, 2006)

“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

Statue by Carl C. Mose of Ojibwe man holding peace pipe, Old Crossing Treaty Park (photo by David Thorstad)

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.
Where the Two Rivers Meet (photo by David Thorstad, November 23, 2006)

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.

Thief River Falls in Early History

Old Crossing (photo by David Thorstad)

Ira Richardson, a village attorney, agreed that Moose Dung had made a good selection for his “Chief’s Section” when he wrote nearly a century ago that “the site of Thief River Falls was perfectly formed by nature for a large city. Excluding the depression in the surface made by the Red Lake River, there is not a natural elevation or depression of more than eight feet in the entire surface of the city; and the natural drainage is nearly perfect.” Although he does not offer any evidence for it, he claims that “it was there that the Sioux of Dakota and the Chippewas of Minnesota joined in their great Sun Dance each year, and recounted their experiences and deeds of valor and by tradition perpetuated their history.” He credits Indians, including Moose Dung, for picking out a terrain fit not only for Indians, but for white people as well: “While the Indians are not a literary people, no one will deny that they knew their hunting grounds and the places where their people met most easily.”

Various artifacts have been found in the area, demonstrating a long period of Native American presence. These include hide scrapers, parts of a stone knife, banded chert arrowheads made sometime after 500 BCE, and a large stone axe dating to sometime after 850 BCE. All have been identified as having been made by Late Woodland people. Also found near Grygla are trading axes that probably were traded for furs at the Hudson’s Bay trading post near the mouth of the Thief River. The Thief River Falls News of May 23, 1895, reported, in a column titled “Echoes of the Rapids”: “Thief River derived its name from the circumstances that many years ago the Hudson Bay Fur Co. had a trading post near its mouth in charge of Geo. McKinstry, which was plundered by a band of Chippewa during McKinstry’s absence.” The oldest artifacts in northern Minnesota were found at Greenbush and date back eight thousand years. Other Native peoples also inhabited the area at various times, including the Gros Ventres (who Alexander Henry reported lived in earthen wigwams), the Minataree (Hidatsa), and probably others. The Thief River area was an ancient home and rich hunting ground for the Dakota, some of whom stayed on there for decades after the Ojibwe, around 1740 or 1750, moved into the area after having driven the Dakota from their ancestral homes to the east, in Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota. Their home where the two rivers meet was several days of paddling from the new Ojibwe village on Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’igan (Lake That Appears Red at Sunset, or Red Lake), where the westernmost Ojibwe village at the time was located. The Dakota knew that their historic enemy only occasionally sent war parties that far west. An article in the Thief River Falls Times from 1990 paints a vivid picture of this transitional period:

The Ojibwe had to take drastic measures to survive in their new home. The Dakotas, who for many years after their evacuation often sent war parties to view sites of their former villages and the graves of their fathers, would shed blood of those who had forced them from their once-loved grounds. Almost daily, Ojibwe lost the lives of their hunters by the hands of Dakotas. In those days, the hunter moved through the forests and marshes in fear and trembling. He paddled his light canoe over a calm lake or down the rapid current of a river, in search of game to clothe and feed his people, expecting each moment that from behind a tree, or a clump of bushes on the river bank, would speed the arrow which would kill him. As the tired hunter calmly slumbered by the dying embers of his fire, he could be aroused by the sharp yell of his enemies as they rushed on his camp to extinguish his fire forever. And so for several generations the Minataree at the river’s headwaters lived in continual dread of an attack from the new people. In later years when they could get guns from traders they chose not to use them on account of their loud report. They relied on bow and arrow and traps to kill what game they needed. The Minataree built a high earthen embankment—about six feet high—for defense, around their lodges. Day and night the young men watched and slept upon the roofs of the houses. The tops of their huts were almost level, about 50 feet in circumference, and so supported the square pieces of timber, that they sustained the weight of 50 men. The Minataree were, however, at last discovered by their enemies. The Crees and Assineboines, during a short peace which they had made with the Dakotas, learned of the existence and locality, and informed their allies, the Ojibwe. The Ojibwe war party discovered the Minataree encamped within their earthen enclosure. After a brave but unavailing defense with their bows and arrows, the ten lodges and their inhabitants were destroyed. The Minataree lodge fires were extinguished forever.

This account is clearly derived in part from William Warren’s account in his History of the Ojibway People, based on oral histories he took in 1852 with elders who had either participated in events described or recalled being told about them by their recent ancestors. After noting that his own ancestor, the Indian trader Michel Cadotte, who had exercised his vocation till 1823, had left “marks of his wintering posts” at Thief River, Warren provides the following account of the Ojibwe defeat of the Dakota at the place where the two rivers meet:

For a number of years, on the headwaters of Thief River (which empties into Red River below Otter Tail Lake), a camp of ten Dakota lodges, succeeded in holding the country by evading or escaping the search of the Ojibway war parties. Here, loth to leave their rich hunting grounds, they lived from year to year in continual dread of an attack from their conquering foes. They built a high embankment of earth, for defence, around their lodges, and took every means in their power to escape the notice of the Ojibways—even discarding the use of the gun on account of its loud report, and using the primitive bow and arrows, in killing such game as they needed. They were, however, at last discovered by their enemies. The Crees and Assineboines, during a short peace which they made with the Dakotas, learned of their existence and locality, and informing the Ojibways, a war party was raised, who went in search of them. They were discovered encamped within their earthen inclosure, and, after a brave but unavailing defence with their bows and arrows, the ten lodges, with their inmates, were entirely destroyed. The embankment of earth is said, by Wa-won-je-quon [Feathers from Different Directions], the chief of Red Lake (who is my informant on this subject), to be still [in 1852] plainly visible. From this circumstance, the Ojibways named the stream (the headwaters of which the Dakotas had so long secretly occupied), Ke-moj-ake-se-be, literally meaning, “Secret Earth River,” which the French, pronouncing Ke-mod-ake, meaning Stealing Earth, has been interpreted into Thief River, by which name it is laid down on Nicollet’s Map.

This annihilation is known as the Battle of Thief River and took place, according to Mittelholtz, between 1810 and 1815. Dan Needham, an expert pipe carver from rural Goodridge on the Red Lake Reservation, confirmed Warren’s account to Gretchen Beito, who writes that Needham

remembers his “old aunt” telling of how his grandfather, who was born in 1820, led war parties of a dozen braves over here [Thief River] from Red Lake. He sometimes came back wounded. When queried as to how they could live here so long without being detected by their enemy, Dan says, “The Indians didn’t travel so far out this way at that time. The only time they came out here was when they went on a war party looking for Dakotas.”

Needham, then eighty-one years old, told Beito that the Ojibwe do not use the name Thief River, but prefer to say they are “going to where the two rivers meet” (Ne-gid-dah-mi-ti-gway-yung).

Origins of the Name

We have seen thus far three explanations for the name Thief River: the Beltrami legend of a lone Dakota horse thief; the Dakota “Wamans Watpa” (Robber River) and its French translation (“Rivière aux Voleurs”); and Warren’s account of a mispronunciation of an Ojibwe term by French (and English) fur traders, and subsequently also the Ojibwe, resulting in “secret” changing to “stealing,” and then to “Thief River.” Warren Upham, who also gives Warren’s version, notes that Rev. Joseph A. Gilfillan gives the Ojibwe name as “Kimod akiwi zibi, the Stolen Land river or Thieving Land river,” which found its way into Major Stephen Long’s 1823 map, and Joseph Nicollet’s map, published in 1843. Earlier spelling varies from the current Ojibwe spelling system. In order to appreciate the ease with which the two Ojibwe words might have gotten confused by non-Native speakers at the time, it is helpful to see how the words in question are spelled in Bishop Frederic Baraga’s 1853 Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language (first published in 1878). The Ojibwe words for “secret” and “stealing” vary by only one syllable, so it is not farfetched to surmise that the current name is the result of a translator’s error. In Baraga, “secret” is gimodisiwin, “stealing” is gimodiwin. In early writing, “Secret Earth River” would have been “Ke-moj-ake-se-be.” That is clearly related to the stories of the earthen shelters built by the Dakota at Squaw Point. “Stealing Earth River” makes no sense. The most fanciful story, with its echo of the biblical baby Moses story, ties the name of the town to both river and falls in ways the other versions do not:

Legend of the Indian Maid and the Thief River “Hush, little one,” cooed the Indian maiden to her babe as they huddled in the brush near the river. The river lapped at the weeds about their feet as they crouched out of the view of the trappers. “They were right here,” shouted one trapper. “Keep looking ’til you find them,” roared another. What was the maiden to do? Her mind raced. They would not stop until they found her. The baby was of no consequence to them. She was. Tenderly she gazed upon her first-born, a son, a future chief. She stroked his cheek, then laid him beside the water. “Hush,” she whispered. “Let the river tend you. I will come back for you. Do not worry.” Then she bolted out of the brush into plain view of the trappers. “There she is, boys,” bellowed one from atop the ridge. The maiden leapt away with the trappers close behind. Still lay the babe, listening to the water lap against him gently, softly, tenderly as if to caress him. Night fell and so came on the sounds of the night; the choir of frogs croaking and crickets chirping and always, always the gentle rhythm of the waves against him… the waves loving him. His eyes grew weary and he leaned to nuzzle the one who left him for comfort, for love… and fell into the arms of the waiting river. Swiftly the current carried him on and on down the river and over the falls to the rocks below. There the Indian maiden found his lifeless body. She clutched her son close to her bosom. She wept for her tribe’s future chief and in a cry of anguish, she branded the river a thief. The blood of her son was upon the river and so also, the blood of her tribe. She vowed that someday her tribe would rid themselves of this river and the land about it. Then only would her tears cease. Yet even today on still nights when the waves of the river make gentle rhythmic music in the night, you can hear the Indian maiden… weeping.

The name Thief River Falls was officially adopted after a two-year battle, initiated by village attorney Ira Richardson’s petition in 1894 to incorporate. On June 8, 1896, Lars Backe and C. J. Knox presented affidavits to the Polk County board of commissioners to incorporate under the name Twin Falls. Another petition urged that the name stay Thief River Falls, which settlers on the west side of the two rivers had named their village in 1890. In 1889, settlers on the southeast side of the rivers had named their village Red Lake Rapids (for the series of three rapids that were converted into a waterfall by the construction of a dam in the 1890s). Besides Twin Falls, another contender for the name of the merged village was Beau Falls. The name of the Ojibwe village at Squaw Point—Negiddahmitigwayyung, “Where the Two Rivers Meet”—was not a contender; the village was not affected by the incorporation. The name chosen in an election on September 1, 1896, was Thief River Falls. “It was important to town boosters to have ‘Falls’ in the name because ‘Falls’ would tell prospective settlers that the location had water power available to develop industry and electricity.” Of 177 votes cast (about 50 percent of the eligible male voters, from a total population of 840), only 30 voted for incorporation; 78 voted for Thief River Falls; 52 for Twin Falls. Two weeks later the name became official. The opposition fought incorporation until, on April 9, 1897, the state legislature ruled that the election had been legal. In 1910, Red Lake County was divided into two, and Thief River Falls became the county seat of the new Pennington County. So, it appears that the name Thief River Falls is a pastiche of a Dakota term (“Wamans Watpa”—Robber River), a mistranslation of an Ojibwe term (“Giimoodaki-ziibi”—Secret Earth River), and boosterism (the addition of “Falls”).


Memorial to the 1863 treaty, Old Crossing Treaty Park (photo by David Thorstad)

Old Crossing Treaty, 1863

TREATY WITH THE CHIPPEWA-RED LAKE AND PEMBINA BANDS, 1863 Articles of a treaty made and concluded at the Old Crossing of Red Lake River, in the state of Minnesota, on the second day of October, in the year eighteen hundred and sixty-three, between the United States of America, by their commissioners, Alexander Ramsey and Ashley C. Morrill, agent for the Chippewa Indians, and the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewas; by their chiefs, head-men, and warriors.

ARTICLE 1. The peace and friendship now existing between the United States and the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians shall be perpetual.

ARTICLE 2. The said Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians do hereby cede, sell, and convey to the United States all their right, title, and interest in and to all the lands now owned and claimed by them in the State of Minnesota and in the Territory of Dakota within the following described boundaries, to wit: Beginning at the point where the international boundary between the United States and the British possessions intersects the shore of the Lake of the Woods; thence in a direct line southwesterly to the head of Thief River; thence down the main channel of said Thief River to its mouth on the Red Lake River; thence in a southeasterly direction in a direct line toward the head of Wild Rice River, to the point where such line would inter- sect the northwestern boundary of a tract ceded to the United States by a treaty concluded at Washington on the 22d day of February, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-five, with the Mississippi, Pillager, and Lake Winnebigoshish bands of Chippewa Indians; thence along the said boundary-line of the said cession to the mouth of Wild Rice River; thence up the main channel of the Red River to the mouth of the Shayenne; thence up the main channel of the Shayenne River to Poplar Grove, thence in a direct line to the Place of Stumps, otherwise called Lake Chicot; thence in a direct line to the head of the main branch of Salt River; thence in a direct line due north to the point where such line would intersect the international boundary aforesaid; thence eastwardly along said boundary to the place of beginning.

ARTICLE 3. In consideration of the foregoing cession, the United States agree to pay to the said Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians the following sums, to wit: Twenty thousand dollars per annum for twenty years; the said sum to be distributed among the Chippewa Indians of the said bands in equal amounts per capita, and for this purpose an accurate enumeration and enrollment of the members of the respective bands and families shall be made by the officers of the United States: provided, That so much of this sum as the President of the United States shall direct, not exceeding five thousand dollars per year, may be reserved from the above sum, and applied to agriculture; education, the purchase of goods, powder, lead, &c., 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.

ARTICLE 4. And in further consideration of the foregoing cession, and of their promise to abstain from such acts in future, the United States agree that the said Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians shall not be held liable to punishment for past offenses. And in order to make compensation to the injured parties for the depredations committed by the said Indians on the goods of certain British and American traders at the mouth of Red Lake River, and for exactions forcibly levied by them on the proprietors of the steamboat plying on the Red River, and to enable them to pay their just debts, the United States agree to appropriate the sum of one hundred thousand dollars it being understood and agreed that the claims of individuals for dam- ages or debt under this article shall be ascertained and audited, in consultation with the chiefs of said bands, by a commissioner or commissioners appointed by the President of the United States; furthermore, the sum of two thousand dollars shall be expended for powder, lead, twine, or such other beneficial purposes as the chiefs may request, to he equitably distributed among the said bands at the first payment: Provided, That no part of the sum of one hundred thousand dollars shall be appropriated or paid to make compensation for damages or for the payment of any debts owing from said Indians until the said Commissioner or commissioners shall report each case, with the proofs thereof, to the Secretary of the Interior, to be submitted to Congress, with his opinion thereon, for its action; and that, after such damages and debts shall have been paid, the residue of said sum shall be added to the annuity funds of said Indians, to be divided equally upon said annuities.

ARTICLE 5. 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, there shall be paid to each of the said chiefs annually, out of the annuities of the said bands, a sum not exceeding one hundred and fifty dollars, to be determined by their agents according to their respective merits. And for the better promotion of the above objects, a further sum of five hundred dollars shall be paid at the first payment to each each of the said chiefs to enable him to build for himself a house. Also, the sum of five thousand dollars shall be appropriated by the United States for cutting out a road from Leach Lake to Red Lake.

ARTICLE 6. The President shall appoint a board of visitors, to consist of not less than two nor more than three persons, to be selected from such Christian denominations as he may designate, whose duty it shall be to attend at all annuity payments of the said Chippewa Indians, to inspect their field and other improvements, and to report annually thereon on or before the first day of November, and also as to the qualifications and moral deportment of all persons residing upon the reservation under the authority of law; and they shall receive for their services five dollars a day for the time actually employed, and ten cents per mile for travelling expenses: Provided, That no one shall be paid in any one year for more than twenty days' service or for more than three hundred miles' travel.

ARTICLE 7. The laws of the United States now in force, or that may hereafter be enacted, prohibiting the introduction and sale of spirituous liquors in the Indian country, shall be in full force and effect throughout the country hereby ceded, until otherwise directed by Congress or the President of the United States.

ARTICLE 8. In further consideration of the foregoing cession, it is hereby agreed that the United States shall grant to each male adult half-breed or mixed-blood who is related by blood to the said Chippewas of the said Red Lake or Pembina bands who has adopted the habits and customs of civilized life, and who is a citizen of the United States, a homestead of one hundred and sixty acres of land, to be selected at his option, within the limits of the tract of country hereby ceded to the United States, on any land not previously occupied by actual settlers or covered by prior grants, the boundaries thereof to be adjusted in conformity with the lines of the official surveys when the same shall be made, and with the laws and regulations of the United States affecting the location and entry of the same: Provided, That no scrip shall be issued under the provisions of this article, and no assignments shall be made of any right, title, or interest at law or in equity until a patent shall issue, and no patent shall be issued until due proof of five years' actual residence and cultivation, as required by the act entitled "An act to secure homesteads on the public domain."

ARTICLE 9. Upon the urgent request of the Indians, parties to this treaty, there shall be set apart from the tract hereby ceded a reservation of (640) six hundred and forty acres near the mouth of Thief River for the chief "Moose Dung," and a like reservation of (640) six hundred and forty acres for the chief "Red Bear," on the north side of Pembina River.

In witness whereof, the said Alexander Ramsey, and Ashley C. Morrill, commissioners on the part of the United States, and the chiefs, headmen, and warriors of the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians, have hereunto set their hands, at the Old Crossing of Red Lake River, in the State of Minnesota, this second day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty -three.

Alex. Ramsey, .Ashley C. Morrill, Commissioners.

Mons-o-mo, his x mark, Moose Dung. Chief of Red Lake. Kaw-wash-ke-ne-kay, his x mark, Crooked Arm, Chief of Red Lake. Ase-e-ne-wub, his x mark, Little Rock. Chief of Red Lake Mis-co-muk-quoh, his x mark,Red Bear, Chief of Pembina. Ase-anse, his x mark, Little Shell, Chief of Pembina. Mis-co-co-noy-a, his x mark, Red Rob[e], Warrior of Red Lake. Ka-che-un-ish-e-naw-bay, his x mark, The Big Indian, Warrior of Red Lake. Neo-ki-zhick, his x mark, Four Skies, Warrior of Red Lake. Nebene-quin-gwa-hawegaw, his x mark, Summer Wolverine, Warrior of Pem- bina. Joseph Gomon, his x mark, Warrior of Pembina. Joseph Montreuil, his x mark, Warrior of Pembina. Teb-ish-ke-ke-shig, his x mark, [Even Sky or Balanced Sky], Warrior of Pembina. May-shue-e-yaush, his x mark, Dropping Wind, Head Warrior of Red Lake. Min-du-wah-wing, his x mark, Berry Hunter, Warrior of Red Lake. Naw-gaun-e-gwan-abe, his x mark, Leading Feather, Chief of Red Lake.

Signed in presence of- Paul H. Beaulieu, special interpreter. Peter Roy, T. A. Warren, United States interpreter. J. A. Wheelock, secretary. Reuben Ottman, secretary. George A. Camp, major Eighth Regiment Minnesota Volunteers. William T. Rockwood, Captain Company K, Eighth Regiment Minnesota Volunteers. P.B.Davy, Captain Company L, First Regiment Minnesota Mounted Rangers. G.M.Dwelle, Second Lieutenant Third Minnesota Battery. F. Rieger, Surgeon Eighth Regiment Minnesota Volunteers. L.S. Kidder, First Lieutenant Company L, First Minnesota Mounted Rangers. Sam. B. Abbe. C. A. Kuffer. Pierre x Bottineau.

Thief River Falls: More Images

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Plaque to Moose Dung/Red Robe statue (photo by David Thorstad, November 23, 2006)

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The 1863 land cession (445), Source: Indian Land Cessions in the United States, compiled by Charles C. Royce. Bureau of American Ethnology, 1899

Text and Photographs Copyright 2007, David Thorstad

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