History offers several examples of white settlers’ greed for gold and how it led to violence, disease, land theft, and genocide of Indigenous peoples, the California and Black Hills gold rushes being prime examples.
Less well know is that it happened in Minnesota, too. Reports of gold in northern Minnesota led state business and political interests to seek the U.S. government’s help in securing a treaty to force the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe to cede lands coveted by gold speculators and prospectors. That treaty was signed on this day in history, April 7, 1866.
Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor (1858-1860), was a lead government treaty negotiator. Sibley was no stranger to profiting at the expense of Native Americans. In 1851, he used his position as a key negotiator in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux to cheat the Dakota people out of land and money. In that instance, he was able to secure for himself thousands of dollars of treaty money to get his fur company out of debt. (For the details, check out This American Life.)
This time around, Sibley’s get-rich-quick scheme was gold mining. It began when the Minnesota State Geologist misidentified iron pyrite as gold in the northern part of the state, according to the website Why Treaties Matter.
The rush was on.
This non-event was still a catastrophe for the Bois Forte Band. In 1854, Ojibwe peoples, including the Bois Forte Band, had ceded a large part of their lands to the United States. As part of that agreement, the Bois Forte Band had secured a reservation around Lake Vermillion — right in the area white settlers now believed gold deposits existed.
According to Why Treaties Matter:
Gold mining companies had been incorporated in Minnesota months prior to the treaty, and an armed contingent of miners had moved to Lake Vermillion in December of 1865. … Speculative mining companies were quickly formed, attracting capital from throughout the U.S. “One of the most secure, both financially and politically,” according to historian David Walker, was the Minnesota Gold Mining Company, headed by president Henry Sibley, which rapidly sold $5,000,000 in shares.
The gold rush was over in about a year. And today the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe still has a reservation in northern Minnesota, but smaller than what it had prior to the 1866 treaty.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website on the history of mining in Minnesota offers an example of how we still turn a blind eye to this history. Here is the DNR’s sanitized history, with no mention of the Ojibwe people or Bois Forte:
The discovery of gold in northern Minnesota led to the Vermilion Lake gold rush of 1865-66. However, hardly any gold was found. Tiny amounts of gold were found embedded in quartz. Mining the gold out of this hard rock was not profitable. The gold prospectors abandoned the area by 1867. …
For more, read Lake Vermillion Gold Rush published in Minnesota History magazine in 1974.
As one last note, Benjamin Thompson was one of the other white signers for the Treaty of 1866. Just three years prior to the treaty, Thompson played an ugly role in the Dakota exile of 1863. It was Thompson who chose Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory as the Dakota people’s home in exile, according to Why Treaties Matter. Crow Creek was a dry, unproductive, and isolated piece of land. Thompson became the Indian agent there, and under his directions, “rations were given on Saturday, eaten up by Sunday and the Indians starved for the rest of the week.”
The California and Black Hills gold rushes
Most people know about the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855, but fewer know about its devastating impact on Indigenous peoples. According to the Kumeyaay Tribe website: California had an indigenous population of approximately 150,000 prior to the Gold Rush. They outnumbered whites 10 to one. An estimated 300,000 white settlers arrived in seven years. Estimates are that white miners took $10 billion in gold from tribal lands during that period. “By 1900 it was estimated that less than 16,000 California Indians had survived the invasion of their homelands.”
At the time of the Black Hills Gold Rush, the Black Hills were fully part of the Great Sioux Reservation and had been so since the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. A George Custer-led 1874 expedition to the Black Hills confirmed gold in the area, triggering an invasion of white miners. Following the inevitable fighting, the United States eventually claimed 900,000 of Lakota land in the Black Hills under an 1877 Congressional Act known as the Manypenny Agreement.
The Lakota never considered the law legitimate and the land is still in dispute today.
More than a century after the Black Hills Gold Rush, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 in United States vs. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980) that the Sioux were due compensation, with interest, for the loss of the Black Hills and other treaty violations, such as the gold theft.
The Supreme Court set compensation $105 million at the time, according to a story in the Native Sun News Today. The Great Sioux Nation has not accepted the money, which continues to accumulate with interest. It wants the Black Hills back.