Why Does This Blog Exist?

You never know what you'll find here - anything with genealogical or historical value is fair game. This blog will be updated as I clean out my office, go through boxes and piles, or find pertinent items at antique shops. In the meantime, I hope you find something of interest here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

St. Paul – Chapter XII – Sibley, The Frontierman

(From “St. Paul Location-Development-Opportunities” by F. C. Miller, Ph. D., Webb Book Publishing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota, 1928)

The pioneer of progress and achievement.   -- Benjamin Harrison

Measuring a man at his true value, not so much from the point of view of great achievement as from that of what he was, General Henry Hastings Sibley was one of the greatest men that ever trod the streets of St. Paul. Of distinguished parentage—his father was Judge Sibley of Detroit, Michigan —young Sibley received a good education in academies, from private tutors, and in a law school.  Law, however, had no charm for him.

The unknown wilderness of the West from which stories of high adventure and romance found their wav to the law student's heart made him long for the forest primeval north and west of Detroit. His father sympathized with young Henry and helped him to gain positions in trading houses, where the young man came into intimate touch with the Indian trade beyond the frontier. In 1829 he entered the services of the American Fur Company at Mackinac. Though his duties comprised considerable clerical work, his heart was in the errands he was asked to do at far distant points. It was on these trips through the wilderness that he acquired that skill with rifle, rod, and canoe that established his reputation among Indians and frontiersmen. His worth speedily recognized by the fur company, he was promoted to posts of great responsibility. Sibley, being a young man of thrifty habits, gradually amassed capital which, in addition to what he received from his father, was enough to obtain for himself a partnership in the Astor company, for which he became agent.

So great was the confidence the fur company placed in him that in 1834 he was made manager of the American Fur Company of the Upper Mississippi Valley. From his arrival at Mendota in the fall of 1834 until his death in 1891, "Sibley is," says Folwell," easily the most prominent figure in Minnesota history." In addition to his services in behalf of the fur company, Sibley was persistently drafted by his admiring neighbors and friends for public service. The Indians, half-breeds, Canadian voyageurs, and frontiersmen respected, trusted, and loved him. It is no exaggeration to say that his influence with the pioneer population of Minnesota was greater than that of government officials. Shortly after 1837 the business of the American Fur Company began to decline because of the unfair competition of unlicensed Indian traders who by trickery, particularly the sale of the deadly "firewater," succeeded in obtaining the lion's share of the fur business. Eventually in 1842, the American Fur Company went out of business, selling its interest to a St. Louis concern.

Sibley led many hunting expeditions of Indians and trappers to the north and northwest of Mendota, usually giving his followers a great feast before departure. On one occasion, he entertained with a bounteous feast something like 1,000 Indians, including women and children. In 1841, accompanied by 150 Indian warriors, he headed an expedition to a hunting field about 200 miles from Mendota. On this seventy-day trip his party killed 2,000 deer, 60 elk, many bears, a number of buffaloes, and 6 panthers.


In 1838, Sibley was appointed Justice of the Peace, the first civil office in what is now Minnesota. In 1848, he was elected a delegate to Congress and succeeded in having a bill passed that established the Territory of Minnesota. He was re-elected in 1849 and again in 1850. In 1855, Dakota County elected him a member of the territorial legislature.

After Minnesota had been admitted as a state, Sibley became its first governor.   In 1862, he moved to St. Paul, where he continued to reside till the time of his death. In the same year, Governor Ramsey appointed him commander of the militia which was to suppress the Sioux outbreak. He defeated the Indians, released their white captives (about 250, one of whom is still living in St. Paul), and took about 2,000 Sioux prisoners. Of the 303 Sioux condemned to death because of their fearful cruelty, only 38 were executed.

Sibley served in many civic capacities until his death in 1891.

In 1836, Sibley built in Mendota the first residence of stone erected in Minnesota. The building, having been repaired, is still standing and is at present owned (thanks to the generosity of Archbishop Ireland) by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was in this house that all his children were born. The political boundaries in the eventful years of 1834—62 were so changeable, that each child, though born in the same room, was, strange to say, born in a different political unit, the oldest one in Michigan, the second in Wisconsin, the third in Iowa, the fourth in Dakota, the fifth in the Territory of Minnesota, and the youngest in the state of Minnesota.

It was here also that Sibley entertained, hospitably and lavishly, practically all the  distinguished men that visited this section of the country. The more prominent of Sibley's guests were Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan, Major Long of the United States army, Schoolcraft, the explorer of the source of the Mississippi, Jean Nicollet, the explorer of the upper Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Lieutenant John C. Fremont, the Pathfinder, George Catlin, the noted author of a book on North American Indians, Captain Maryatt, the well-known author of many sea stories, and Governor Ramsay, the first territorial governor of Minnesota. Here, in fact, Sibley lived a happy life till 1862, when he moved to St. Paul.

In 1839, there was a sharp dispute between the United States and Great Britain concerning the Maine boundary. The dispute assumed such a threatening character that public opinion became highly inflamed. The newspapers of the day brought out fiery articles and editorials. In short, the United States and Great Britain were on the brink of war. Congress passed a bill authorizing the enlistment of 40,000 volunteers and granting $10,000,000 for expenses necessary for a military enterprise.

It was just about the time when the relations between the two nations had reached a critical stage that Captain Maryatt was a guest of Sibley at Mendota. Maryatt, who had served in the British navy, became violently abusive of the American claims. The courteous host, never for a minute forgetting his obligations toward a guest, attempted to answer quietly and temperately these abusive attacks. The Britisher, mistaking the genial courtesy of Sibley for cowardice, easy-going tolerance, or lukewarm patriotism, continued ranting about Britain's cause and became actually insulting. He intimated to Sibley that he would show a thing or two to these Yankees when his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the British Naval Forces on the Great Lakes should arrive. Even then Sibley continued to be the affable and friendly host. Maryatt, however, went one step further. While Sibley was in church, Maryatt began to undermine the loyalty of about 60 Sioux warriors, in trying to persuade the Indians that, in case war should break out, they should lift their tomahawks for their "mother-country." After Sibley detected the vicious plot and charged the combative Britisher with his offence, Maryatt stoutly denied his guilt. Sibley, however, had indisputable evidence and politely but firmly requested the Captain to leave his house.

Some of the squatters of the Fort Snelling Reservation who were ejected from the fort in 1840 took various holdings in what now is St. Paul and thus became the founders of the city. Whatever stretches of land they occupied upon the future site of St. Paul they held merely as squatters, as there was no federal land office within reach. When, however, in 1847, the United States government began to survey land west of the St. Croix River and in the vicinity of St. Anthony Falls, the St. Paul pioneers became uneasy as to their titles.

Accordingly, they formed a loose organization and had some 90 acres, including the business part of the village, surveyed and platted, meanwhile awaiting anxiously the opening of a land office at St. Croix Falls. Eventually, in the summer of 1848, the office was opened. Such was the confidence these hardy pioneers had in Sibley that they commissioned him to bid for all parcels of land in his own name and then reconvey them back to the real holders. Practically the whole male population of St. Paul accompanied Sibley to St. Croix Falls. Each settler was armed with a club, and, when the holdings were offered for sale, they watched the bystanders closely, ready, no doubt, to use their primitive weapons, should anybody else, besides Sibley, have the hardihood to offer a bid. Sibley had great difficulties in reconveying the land bought, especially with his French Canadian clients, who firmly believed that their property was safer in Sibley's name than in their own.

In 1849, Sibley, as a delegate to Congress, was successful in having a bill passed that provided for the formation and organization of the Territory of Minnesota. As Sibley was a particular friend of Senator Douglas (of Lincoln-Douglas debates fame), the Illinois senator wished to do a favor to Sibley in proposing to make Mendota instead of St. Paul the capital of the territory. Sibley, however, opposed this proposal and insisted vigorously upon the location of the capital in St. Paul. Here, again, is an instance of the high-mindedness of the man; if he had consented to the change, his real estate holdings in Mendota would have made him a very rich man.

St. Paul was a town of something like 10,000 inhabitants when Sibley moved from Mendota to St. Paul in 1862. He was chiefly responsible for making St. Paul the capital of Minnesota. This event made St. Paul the most conspicuous settlement in the former territory, in giving it the widest publicity at a time when publicity meant life or death to the straggling and struggling pioneer settlements of Minnesota.

St. Paul thus owes much to General Sibley. It seems to have been more within his power than in that of any other man to settle the destiny of this city. Sibley was pre-eminently a Minnesota man and a resident of St. Paul. His sphere of action was necessarily limited to the confines of the state and the city. Even in Congress, though keenly alive to all the big questions of the day, he did not become conspicuous nationally, largely because his heart was in Minnesota. No doubt he had the ability and the personality to play as important a part in national affairs as he played in state matters and municipal problems, but he was by choice and preference a frontiersman. What attracted him and called forth his intense interest was the simple, unaffected life of the trapper, the Indian trader, the half-breed, the full-blood Chippewa or Sioux, and the affairs of the pioneer whites of St. Paul and Minnesota. He shunned, as much as he could, the conventional life of the East and the complicated, intricate problems of national scope. For all that, he was a man, every inch.

What moved Sibley to come west?
In what business did he engage?
What kind of man and citizen was he?
How did he treat the Indians?
What political offices did he hold?
What distinguished men visited him?
What bill did he have passed in Congress?
Tell about the treaty he made with the Indians.
How can Sibley be said to be the founder of St. Paul?

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