Bison Slaughter of the Late 1800s Has Done Lasting Damage to Plains Indian Nations Today, Study Says

Descendants of Native Nations That Relied on Buffalo Have Less Wealth, Poorer Health, Greater Suicide Risk

1892: bison skulls await industrial processing at Michigan Carbon Works in Rogueville (a suburb of Detroit). Bones were used processed to be used for glue, fertilizer, dye/tint/ink, or were burned to create”bone char” which was an important component for sugar refining. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

A study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis late last year bares the academic title: “The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains” but the picture it paints is one of deep and lasting suffering.

The study looked at members of indigenous nations in the Great Plains, Northwest, and Rocky Mountains where buffalo had once been a primary food source for their ancestors and central to their cultures. According to the study:

Once the tallest people in the world, the generations of bison-reliant people born after the slaughter were among the shortest. Today, formerly bison-reliant societies have between 20-40% less income per capita than the average Native American nation. …

We find increased levels of suicide and news reports of social dislocation among formerly bison-reliant tribes, suggesting that the bison’s decline may have generated a psychological impact that has persisted across generations. This result is consistent with the psychological literature on historical trauma …

Arguably, the decline of the bison was one of the largest devaluations of human capital in North American history …

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Swindling Dakota Prisoners: Franklin Steele and the Fort Snelling Concentration Camp

Franklin Steele provisioned the 1862-63 Dakota Concentration Camp and managed to fleece prisoners of valuable land rights.
Franklin Steele provisioned the 1862-63 Dakota Concentration Camp and managed to coerce prisoners to give up valuable land rights.

The names of Minnesota’s early political and business leaders dot our landscape. While they often are held up as heroes, some did truly horrific things.

Today we look at Franklin Steele, the namesake of Steele County. Steele arrived in the region in the 1837 and is credited with launching the lumber industry, organizing the water resources and building mills. He held the post of “sutler” at Fort Snelling for a time, a plum job selling provisions to the Army.

His business dealings and connections grew. In the aftermath of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, Steele got the government contract to provide food to the Dakota prisoners held at the Fort Snelling concentration camp. The conditions were horrible during the winter of 1862-63. Between the cold and disease, hundreds of prisoners died, including young children.

One of the horrors at the camp has remained nearly invisible. Some “mixed blood” prisoners held valuable paper “scrip,”a form of land grant promising them up to 640 acres. History does not record how he did it, but Steele connived to get his hands on the scrips at very little if any cost. While prisoners left the camp broken, destitute, and hungry, Steele used the scrips to help build his fortune.

This narrative of Steele’s misdeeds comes from a powerful article titled The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp by William Millikan, published  in the Minnesota History magazine, Spring, 2010. (Thanks to Alisha Volante for sharing this article.)

Here is the kicker at the end of article. Steele, his partner Henry Welles, and a corporate partner would later create the Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis. According to Millikan:

The bank that became the backbone of the financial empire of the northwestern United States could trace its initial capital to the inmates of the Fort Snelling prison camp.

What happened? I highly recommending reading the entire article. It runs 14 pages. If you want a quick summary first, continue reading. Continue reading