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