The MN Historical Society Needs to Reflect on its Colonial History

The Minnesota Historical Society was formed 30 years after Fort Saint Anthony (Fort Snelling) opened. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Minnesota Historical Society was founded in 1849, the same year Minnesota became a Territory. That’s only 30 years after Fort Snelling opened (known at the time as Fort Saint Anthony) and still nine years before Minnesota became a state.

It seems odd to create a Historical Society before you have that much history to tell. That’s until you realize just how important it is to control the historical narrative and define who are the heroes and who are the villains.

One of the early Historical Society presidents was Henry Sibley, the state’s first governor. (I leaned this fact by reading the new biographical sketch the Historical Society added to Sibley’s State Capitol portrait. The new narrative notes: “Sibley was a prolific chronicler of the state history he helped make.”)

Throughout its own history, the Minnesota Historical Society has been deeply rooted in telling the white colonial story. Even in the 21st Century it has struggled to free itself from that frame.

The Historical Society’s nearsightedness — and that of the state’s political leaders — was on full display during the recent Capitol renovation. There were contentious debates about whether or not to remove controversial historic artwork with images of Manifest Destiny. The Historical Society seemed resistant to change.

At some point, I hope the Historical Society does some self reflection and creates an exhibit that examines its own history, its past leaders like Sibley, and the colonial myths that they have helped perpetuate.

For now, let’s turn to the new historical interpretive plaques the Historical Society has added to the Governors’ portraits that line the Capitol hallways. In Friday’s blog, I criticized the Historical Society for the short and sanitized biography it added to Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s Capitol portrait.

Next let’s read the new biography that accompanies Gov. Sibley’s portrait. I have fewer criticisms of this narrative than I do of Ramsey’s. It offers a more balanced story, however, there still are parts of the narrative that are troubling.

The Text

Portrait of Henry Sibley in the Minnesota State Capitol.

Here is the 420-word biography the Minnesota Historical Society added to Sibley’s portrait:

HENRY HASTINGS SIBLEY
FIRST GOVERNOR 1858-1860

THE STATE’S FIRST GOVERNOR commenced his long, colorful tenure in Minnesota in 1834 when it was the homeland of  the Dakota and Ojibwe people. Henry Sibley began his career as a fur trader with the American Fur Company. For both good and ill,  Sibley played a vital role in the transformation of Indian Country into the nation’s thirty-second state.

The well-educated son of a Michigan Supreme Court justice, Sibley was at ease with backcountry traders and Native people, as well as frontier gentry. He quickly earned the trust and respect of employees, officials and especially the Dakota with whom he traded.

Sibley soon became the most influential man in the territory, serving three times as territorial delegate to Congress (1849-1853). He used his influence with the Dakota to force through the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851 which stripped them of more than 24 million acres of land and diverted a significant portion of the payments to cover alleged debts to fur traders, including Sibley himself.

Sibley narrowly defeated Alexander Ramsey in the first state gubernatorial contest in 1858. As Governor, he selected the design of the state seal and the state motto, “L’Etoile du Nord” or “Star of the North.” His success was short-lived. Soon after the election, the legislature rushed to issued five million dollars in railroad bonds in the midst of a nation-wide financial panic, leaving the state virtually bankrupt. Sibley unfairly took the brunt of the criticism and bitterly retired from politics after one term.

During the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Governor Ramsey called the 51-year-old Sibley to lead a military force against Dakota Indians. Sibley had no previous military experience but he knew the Dakota well and had a healthy respect for their courage and skills. Because he proceeded cautiously, the press accused him of being too soft on the Dakota.

Far from sympathetic or lenient, Sibley quickly convened a military commission that condemned 303 Dakota to death and protested when President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences to prison terms. Following the hanging of 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, Sibley was awarded the rank of General and assigned to pursue the fleeing Dakota farther west.

Later in life, Sibley enjoyed the role of elder statesman, businessman, president of the University of Minnesota board of regents, and the Minnesota Historical Society. Sibley was a prolific chronicler of the state history he helped make. He died in St. Paul in 1891.

Credit and Criticism

I asked the Historical Society how it went about writing these short biographies. The response I received, reads in part: “The Governor biographies were written in 2017 from historical sources including the MNHS website and the National Governors Association website. MNHS staff and an independent editor reviewed all the biographies for accuracy, balance, and neutrality.”

Dakota people whose ancestors were deeply impacted by Sibley were not consulted on this narrative.

Here are my comments on the current text.

1. What is a “colorful” person?: The narrative’s first paragraph describes Sibley as having a “long, colorful tenure in Minnesota.” Colorful is a very vague term with a generally positive overtone. On the other hand, “colorful” is one way to praise a scoundrel without creating too much offense. I guess you could say Al Capone or Billy the Kid was colorful. Sibley wanted to hang 300 Dakota men with the thinnest of legal procedures. What does the Historical Society mean by “colorful”?

2. Trust and Trust Breaking: The narrative says: “He [Sibley] quickly earned the trust and respect of employees, officials and especially the Dakota with whom he traded.” This paints a very positive image of Ramsey — that he personally did something to earn the trust and respect of the Dakota. Yet the Historical Society’s narrative offers nothing to back that up, and soon goes on to explain how Sibley brutally betrayed them. The short biography could just as easily say that the Dakota people were a very trusting people. Sibley wrangled himself into their good graces for his own financial gain, and later abused that relationship.

State Seal in 1879, following Sibley’s design.

3. About the MN State Seal … : The narrative says Sibley “selected the design of the state seal” but omits mentioning the Seal’s symbolism and how controversial the design is today. The Seal shows a farmer plowing a field, rifle at the ready, while a Dakota horseman rides west into the sunset  — and out of Minnesota. This seal continues to send the message that Dakota should leave the state. (The state seal today looks very similar.)

4. Credit Where Credit is Due: Give the Historical Society credit for adding language on Sibley’s flaws ad failures:

“He [Sibley] used his influence with the Dakota to force through the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851 which stripped them of more than 24 million acres of land and diverted a significant portion of the payments to cover alleged debts to fur traders, including Sibley himself.” …

Then, later in the narrative:

“Far from sympathetic or lenient, Sibley quickly convened a military commission that condemned 303 Dakota to death and protested when President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences to prison terms. Following the hanging of 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, Sibley was awarded the rank of General and assigned to pursue the fleeing Dakota farther west.”

5. Significant Omissions: The narrative is good as far as it goes, but omits some important facts about this history:

Sibley was Deep in Debt Because the Fur Trade Crashed; Treaty Money Gained by Deceit Saved His Career. Sibley himself received more money from the initial treaty payment than all of the Dakota combined. Of the initial $305,000 cash payment, Sibley got $66,000, and the Dakota got $60,000, less than 20 percent of the total, according to an NPR story. Seven years later, Sibley would become the state’s first Governor. It’s doubtful that he could have won that election if he had remained deeply in debt.

Sibley’ Military Commission was a Sham: Saying the post-war military commission was “quickly convened” doesn’t cover it. According to a University of Minnesota website on the issue: “Of the 498 trials held, more than 300 men were sentenced to death, for crimes ranging from rape to murder. The defendants were not allowed legal representation and the trials themselves were brief, with some lasting less than five minutes.”

An Alternative Biography

Portrait of Henry Sibley in the Minnesota State Capitol.

It’s tough to pack a lot of information into a short space. Staying within the Historical Society’s word constraints, here is the biography I suggest. I am open to editorial suggestions.

HENRY HASTINGS SIBLEY
FIRST GOVERNOR 1858-1860

HENRY SIBLEY ARRIVED here in 1834 as an American Fur Company trader, 15 years before Minnesota would become a territory. The indigenous Dakota and Ojibwe still lived traditional lives.

Sibley would play a key role in establishing Minnesota as the thirty-second state and banishing the Dakota.

Sibley was the well-educated son of a Michigan Supreme Court justice. He worked well with both employees and officials and developed good trading relations with the Dakota. Sibley became highly influential, serving three terms as the territory’s Congressional Delegate (1849-1853).

Yet by the 1840s the fur trade was collapsing, leaving Sibley and other traders in debt. Sibley used his influence with the Dakota to force through the 1851 treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, stripping them of more than 24 million acres of land. Further, a provision sneaked into the treaty gave fur traders like Sibley first call on the treaty money to pay for alleged Dakota debts.

Sibley received $66,000 — more than all the Dakota — from the initial treaty payments. Seven years later, Sibley would narrowly defeat Alexander Ramsey in the first state gubernatorial contest, an unlikely outcome had Sibley been broke.

As Governor, Sibley selected the State Seal’s design. The motto is still used today: “L’Etoile du Nord” or “Star of the North.” The seal also includes an image of a Native man riding into the sunset – and out of the state – a controversial image today.

Sibley retired after one term as the state teetered on bankruptcy. The legislature had pushed through five million dollars in railroad bonds during a national financial panic;  Sibley unfairly took the most criticism for the state’s financial mess.

During the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, Governor Ramsey assigned Sibley to lead a military force against the Dakota. Sibley lacked military experience but knew the Dakota, their courage, and skills. He proceeded cautiously and the press accused him of being soft.

After the Dakota lost the war, Sibley was far from soft. He quickly convened a military commission that condemned 303 Dakota men to death. Some trials lasted less than five minutes. President Lincoln commuted most sentence to life in prison. The state ultimately hung 38 Dakota men, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Sibley was promoted to General and assigned to pursue the fleeing Dakota.

As an elder statesman, Sibley enjoyed roles as president of the University of Minnesota board of regents and the Minnesota Historical Society. He died in St. Paul in 1891.

One thought on “The MN Historical Society Needs to Reflect on its Colonial History

  1. I totally agree with this assessment of the MHS. I recall my first visit to Ft. Snelling–how white-centric and Euro-centric the presentation seemed.

    Like

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