How a Spanish spy set in motion a fake treaty to acquire lands that would become Minneapolis and St. Paul

On this day in history, Sept. 23, 1805, history books used to tell us “Pike’s Treaty” was signed, the first time Dakota people ceded lands to the U.S. government in what is now Minnesota. It covered 100,000 acres, including what are now the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Fort Snelling.

The problem is, it wasn’t a treaty at all. It wasn’t negotiated on behalf of the U.S. government. Most Dakota leaders did not agree to it.

James Wilkinson, first governor of the Louisiana Territory and Spanish spy.

It’s another ugly chapter in the history of broken or illegitimate treaties, but for those of us who live in the Twin Cities area it’s one to which we are deeply connected.

This story has been getting more attention in recent years. Here are five facts to know about this so-called treaty.

1. Article II of the Constitution authorizes the President to negotiate treaties. Zebulon Pike, who negotiated the “treaty” was not authorized to do so.

Pike was following orders of James Wilkinson, Senior Officer of the United States Army and Louisiana’s first territorial governor. Unbeknownst to Pike and other American officials, Wilkinson was also a Spanish spy.

Wilkinson become Louisiana’s territorial governor at the same time Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery” sought to find a route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean through indigenous lands. The Lewis and Clark expedition threatened both the Spanish and British. For Spain, it threatened their land claims in the west. For the British, it threatened competition to its fur trade and its Indian alliances.

Wilkinson had moved to Louisiana years before to become a spy for Spain, according to Marty Case’s book, The Relentless Business of Treaties. Wilkinson also had antipathy towards the British, Case writes, and one of his first acts as Territorial Governor was to send Lt. Zebulon Pike north “to assess relations with indigenous nations, locate sites for fort construction, and assert American dominance among British fur traders of the Upper Mississippi.”

Significantly, Wilkinson sent Pike on this trip “without informing the federal government,” according to the website Why Treaties Matter.

Since President Thomas Jefferson didn’t authorize the treaty negotiations, Pike’s Treaty couldn’t have been valid, or even a treaty.

2. Most Dakota leaders present didn’t agree to the “treaty.”

Why Treaties Matter reports:

He [Pike] recorded in his journal that two of the seven Dakota leaders had agreed to sell the site so that the U.S. could build a fort and promote trade, in exchange for an unspecified amount of money.

3. It’s unclear whether the Dakota understood the terms of the agreement, according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s brief summary of the 1805 “treaty.”

Generally, the Indians who signed treaties did not read English. They had to rely on interpreters who were paid by the U.S. government. It is uncertain whether they were aware of the exact terms of the treaties they signed.

4. While the President negotiates treaties, it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to ratify them. In 1808, three years after Pike negotiated the treaty without proper authority, the Senate unilaterally changed the language and ratified it.

Pike valued the purchase price of the 1000,000 acres at $200,000 in his journal. “Upon parting, Pike left $200 worth of gifts and allowed the traders that accompanied him to leave barrels of whiskey, leading some writers to characterize these gifts as the purchase price,” according to Why Treaties Matter.

When the U.S. Senate voted on the “treaty,” it inserted the amount of $2,000 as compensation for the land (one percent of Pike’s estimated value.) The Dakota people did not consent to that language, according to historical documents from the U.S. House of Representatives,.

5. Even the U.S. government acknowledged the flawed negotiations.

As late as 1842 — 37 years after the so-called treaty — Congress was trying to sort out a land title dispute because of the botched “treaty.” It concerned ownership of Faribault Island (also known as Pike Island.)

A report from the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the matter stated:

It does appear that General Pike made an arrangement in 1805 with two Sioux Indians for the purchase of the lands of that tribe, including the Faribault island, but there is no evidence that this agreement, to which there is not even a witness, and in which no consideration was named, was ever considered binding upon the Indians, or that they ever yielded up the possession of their lands under it. [I]t was never promulgated, nor can it be now found upon the statute books, like any other treaty—if indeed a treaty it may be called—nor were its stipulations ever complied with on the part of the United States.

Comment: The first step in making amends is to acknowledge the truth of what happened. We need to take the next steps and look for repairs. No matter what they are, they will never be enough.

Post Script: Wilkinson’s spycraft was not unearthed until decades after his death in 1825. According to his Wikipedia entry:

In 1854, following extensive archival research in the Spanish archives in Madrid, Louisiana historian Charles Gayarré exposed General James Wilkinson as having been a highly paid spy in the service of the Spanish Empire. In the years since Gayarré’s research became public, General James Wilkinson has been savagely condemned by American historians and politicians. According to President Theodore Roosevelt, “[I]n all our history, there is no more despicable character.”

 

3 thoughts on “How a Spanish spy set in motion a fake treaty to acquire lands that would become Minneapolis and St. Paul

  1. […] Cantemaza said it is important to know and name your treaties. These can be included in the Land Acknowledgement  Statements, such as UMD did. (For those of us who live in the Twin Cities, here is background on the “treaty” which ceded the lands upon which we live: How a Spanish spy set in motion a fake treaty to acquire lands that would become Minneapolis and St.….) […]

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  2. […] Cantemaza said it is important to know and name your treaties. These can be included in the Land Acknowledgement  Statements, such as UMD did. (For those of us who live in the Twin Cities, here is background on the “treaty” which ceded the lands upon which we live: How a Spanish spy set in motion a fake treaty to acquire lands that would become Minneapolis and St.….) […]

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  3. “The first step in making amends is to acknowledge the truth of what happened. We need to take the next steps and look for repairs. No matter what they are, they will never be enough.”

    This reminds me of a favorite Annie Humphrey song “We the People” where she talks about her mother (Anne Dunn) going to the mountains of Chiappas where she realized that “Whatever we do, it’ll never be enough… but let’s not get caught doing nothing…” This song inspires me every day.
    https://www.anniehumphreymusic.com/sample-album-page

    Like

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