The Western Wilderness

Of the great Siouan family of tribes found along the upper reaches of the Mississippi when the curtain of history lifted, those to whom we give the name of Sioux were by far the most numerous and the most powerful. Dakota, or “allies,” they called themselves; and their own name has been preserved in the two states in which the greater portion of these people now live. But the name by which we call them is a reminder of their age-long feud with the Chippewa or Ojibwa, north and east of them. Through the Canadian-French the Chippewa word has come to us as Nadowessioux, a diminutive of the word meaning “snakes,” or, figuratively, “enemies.” Enemies the two nations were, through all the years of which we have either record or tradition.

The Chippewa folk-story tells of finding the Sioux first where the three Great Lakes meet at Sault Ste. Marie. But the pressure of their constant warfare drove the bands westward before the white man penetrated to this far inland country. In the Jesuit Relations for 1640 we have our first authentic account of the Nadowessioux, and at that time they were eighteen days’ journey farther to the west. They were no less brave and no less powerful than the Chippewa, but the latter were nearer they received from the white man enabled them to drive their enemies before them. Farther back the Dakota retreated into the fastnesses where the European penetrated only at great intervals and with most serious difficulty.

So it is that at first we get no more than an occasional glimpse of these remote warlike folk. The long history of wandering and warfare remains forever untold. The Chippewa from whom they fled and the Cheyenne and Kiowa and many other tribes that fled before them, leave us but a scanty tradition. But from 1700 on they have an important though vaguely define part in the history of the northwest.

It was about 1750 that they crossed the Missouri, and still later when they drove off other tribes and took possession of the Black Hills, to which they attached a mysterious and religious significance. In 1763 the French lost their hold upon the land, and the Dakota, or at least some portions of them, entered into friendly relations with the English. That fact was to color their whole later history. They were leagued with the English throughout the War of the Revolution and the War of 1812; and the tradition of enmity to the American stayed with them many a year, though they made a treaty of peace and friendship when the second war with England was over in 1815.

In the period between the two wars with England the United States had begun its unparalleled history of expansion. There was no authority in the Constitution for the addition of this wide Louisiana Territory which had never been connected in any way with the domain of the thirteen original states; but necessity superseded the Constitution. The alternative to purchase would have been the growth of a foreign and quite probably unfriendly power, facing the new nation across the Mississippi, and controlling the all-important shipping along that stream by its command of the port at New Orleans. To this main purpose and need the disposition of the unknown land that stretched to the north and west was probably quite subsidiary; no realization of the future development of the region could have come to the negotiators of 1803.

To learn something of our vast new possessions, the Lewis and Clark expedition set forth to follow the Missouri to its source; and from its headwaters they crossed the mountains to the valleys of the Pacific slope. From St. Louis to the northern Rockies they encountered many a tribe of Indians, linguistically of several different stocks, but in their culture all “Plains Indians,” warriors and hunters of the buffalo. Of them all, the Sioux were the most widespread and the most warlike, roaming over the northern expanse of the great plains.

“Almost the whole of that vast tract of territory comprised between the Mississippi, the Red River of Lake Winnipeg, the Saskaskawan and the Missouri,” the journal of the expedition reads, “is loosely occupied by a great nation whose primitive name is Darcota, but who are called Sioux by the French, Sues by the English. Their original seats were on the Mississippi, but they have gradually spread themselves abroad and became subdivided into numerous tribes.”

These different tribes were grouped by the Indians themselves into “seven council fires.” Four of these, the Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute and Sisseton, constitute the Santee Indians or eastern division of the Sioux, and were located along the upper banks of the Mississippi until the days of the Civil War. Two more, the Yankton and Yanktonai the latter divided into Upper and Lower Yanktonai – lived above the Missouri in what is now the eastern part of the Dakotas. The last great division, the variously subdivided Teton, were west of the Missouri. These Teton were more than half the Sioux Nation in numbers and far more than that portion in menace and disturbance.

The preference of the Sioux for the British, according to the judgment of Captain Lewis, was due to the fact that the English-speaking traders gave them better prices for their furs and skins than did the Spanish merchants who dwelt with them. The mild rule of the United States permitted these foreign dealers to continue their relations with the Indians; and to this fact is due some measure at least of the hostility the country had later to meet. But more of it was inherent in the natural situation, the continued warfare of all the Plains tribes and their resentment at the approach of the invader.

The early treaties with the Sioux involved no land cessions, but carried the usual assurance of perpetual peace and amity. By 1825 the United States thought to continue the creation of perpetual peace and amity by extending it to all the warring and roving tribes. Hence the treaty of Prairie du Chien, defining limits among the various tribal parties, and embodying the promise of the Sioux and Chippewa to desist from their immemorial warfare. It was a thing more easily said than done.

Five years later came the first cession of land on the part of the Sioux. Four of their bands, with a half-dozen other tribes of the plains, in a treaty at Prairie du Chien in 1830, ceded to the United States a tract of land between the Des Moines and the Mississippi. And although up to this time the Sioux had been in contact only with the farthest roving whites, traders and trappers, largely the French or British from the north, yet the half-breeds in their tribes were already of sufficient number to justify setting aside a special tract of land for their occupancy. They refused to live upon it, however, and twenty years later the United States bought it back from them for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

With this 1830 treaty began the regular payment of moneys to these bands; to each an annual appropriation of two or three thousand dollars, to be continued for ten years. A treaty with the Mdewakanton in 1837 went even further, providing that $300,000, a portion of the purchase price of their lands west of the Mississippi, should be deposited in the Treasury of the United States. Here it would draw five per cent interest, which should be distributed among the members of the tribe yearly forever after.

We see the system in its beginning-the cession of lands presages the limitation of the tribes to other sections of territory. The appointment of commissioners to make treaties, then of agents to carry out the provisions of the treaties and distribute to the Indians the Moneys, implements and goods promised to them, leads the race step by step away from its independence. From the savage warrior of the plains the Sioux is already on his way to becoming the dissatisfied recalcitrant of the reservation.

Roughly, each decade marks a change in the status of the prairie people; so rapidly are events moving in their great panorama. The early years of the century saw only the adventurous trapper and the occasional exploring party. Through the Twenties the trader was supreme; and his rule reflects no great credit on the dominant race. Guns, knives and whisky are the first fruits of the new civilization. There are a dozen traveling with a keg for one Jedediah Smith, who carries a Bible. The Thirties bring a gentler aspect of the white man’s rule; the missionary has found his way to these far off folk and is beginning to introduce a different idea of life and death, to try to establish schools, to reduce the language of the Dakota to writing and to educate these wild folk in their own tongue.

The Forties that marvelous decade! bring to the Indian prophetic glimpse of the changes the future has in store for him. It is the era when the caravans roll across the prairie to find a resting place in distant Oregon. It is the day that sees the army of Mormons toiling across to their promised land beside the Great Salt Lake set in the desert waste. It is the time when the great southwest falls from Mexico’s feeble hand into the eager grasp of the stronger neighbor, and the old Santa Fe Trail is now on American soil all the way. And the incredible story ends with the even more incredible climax of the gold discoveries in California, and the mad, ruthless horde of gold-seekers making their way across the plains, heedless of obstacles, unthinking of danger, indifferent to everything but the gleaming fortune ahead.

But with the less expansive Fifties the fate of the Indian came closer. Destiny had drawn a circle about the borders of the country, a circle that held within its circumference the Indian tribes of the prairie. Now these tribes were to see that circle filling, filling with men and women of the white race. They were coming, by this time, not merely to press madly across the plains in search of treasure or empire, but to find an abiding place. The plow was writing upon the wide expanse the message that spelled the doom of the buffalo.

And so we come to the bloody years of the Sixties. For the white man, the irrepressible conflict that had been brewing between North and South broke forth. In the west, no less irrepressible was the conflict between the white man and the red.


Seymour, Flora Warren. The Story of the Sioux Indians. Haldeman-Julius Company. 1924.

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