Clothed in myth and legend and held in sacred awe by the Siouan Indian, Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake had rested in seclusion for ages at the headwaters of the Little Sioux. To the red men these lakes had been a sort of Mecca, second only to the red pipestone quarry to the northwest, for the silent adoration and worship of the Spirit. Although the region had been little disturbed by the whites the Sioux were becoming uneasy as the frontier continued its westward advance. By the middle of the nineteenth century the meeting and clashing of the two races became more frequent.
This rivalry of the races was engendered by the white man's disregard of what the Indian held as sacred: it was embittered by the unstable policies of the government. Finally, in the early days of March, 1857, came one of those tragic events in the long series of misguided attempts to deal with the Indian and solve the problem of the frontier. In this terrible tragedy in the pioneer history of northwestern Iowa, the lives of more than forty white people were sacrificed. The Spirit Lake Massacre was the result of an Indian policy which has been characterized as vacillating, full of inconsistencies and incongruities, of experiments and failures. For the Sioux this policy had been the cause of frequent humiliation.
It must be frankly admitted that in dealing with the Indian the whites too often lost sight of the fact that the red man was really a human being, seeking to have his person as well as his rights respected. To compel the respect which his proud spirit demanded, he frequently resorted to massacre. In fact, an Indian was open to insults and abuse from his fellow tribesmen until he had killed a foe.
To some extent the Indian appreciated his own inferiority, and he was expectantly on the alert to prevent being over-reached and deceived by the whites. Suspicious by nature, he became doubly so when his activities brought him into relation with another race. Unhappily he was not always wrong in his suspicions of the white man's deception, and many unpleasant border difficulties sprang from his attempts to match deception with deception. Physically superb, he too often had recourse to those physical means of redress that have marked the history of the frontier with tales of tragic revenge.
Accustomed to the matching of intellects, the whites frequently resorted to the stilted verbiage of treaties in their efforts to push the Indian farther toward the setting sun. In these treaties the red man found much cause for complaint—not so much in the strict wording of the documents themselves as in the management of affairs they induced. This too often exasperated and provoked the Indian.
To him the Iowa country was a paradise. Not only was it his home and hunting ground, but here centered much of the traditional lore of his tribe and race. Thus Iowa was doubly dear to him and worth his most determined effort to hold. As the wave of settlements advanced, the Indian was induced to sell—sometimes under circumstances provoking a strong suspicion of compulsion rather than voluntary agreement in the transfer. He felt instinctively that he had to retire, but in his racial pride he resented the necessity. He knew well the later traditions of his race, in the light of which he could foresee that in a very brief time force, which "comprises the elements of all Indian treaties," would be used to drive him from his domain.
As tract after tract was ceded, lands that the Indian did not want were given to him in exchange — lands devoid of good camping places and wanting in such game as was essential to his very existence. Moreover, the very lands the Indians prized most were the most sought for by the whites. The qualities causing them to be prized by the one made them desirable for the other. Thus the Indian's subsistence became so precarious that often he was on the verge of starvation. Coupled with this deprivation of favorite pleasure and hunting grounds was the white man's idealistic dream of civilizing the Indian by making him work at tilling the soil or at the various trades. This seemed to the haughty red man a real degradation. He could die fighting, if need be; but work he would not. His steadfast refusal to work or become civilized could only end in banishment from the lands he valued so highly. In view of this policy of forcing him into an involuntary exile, one ceases to wonder that he grew discontented and rebelled rather than submit. He could not have done otherwise and retain his pride of race.
Forcible dispossession of his ancestral hunting ranges, however, would not have provoked in him an overweening hatred for the white man if it had not been so often coupled with a show of military force. The sole purpose of such military campaigns seems to have been to frighten the Indian in order that he might learn to be peaceful and pliant through fear of punishment.
These campaigns‐of which the one by General Harney against the Sioux ending in the affair of Ash Hollow on September 3, 1855, is the most cruel example‐sometimes ended not in pacification but in massacre in which the ferocity of the white man vied with that of the Indian. Harney had been recalled from Europe and sent into the West against the Indians for no other purpose than that of terrifying them. Such affairs as this were most unworthy of the American soldier. Nor did the Indian soon forget these atrocities: thereafter he seldom let an opportunity pass which offered revenge.
The military expeditions referred to were frequently followed by the making of treaties providing for land cessions and the consequent westward recession of the Indians. Moreover, these treaties, the making of which was stoutly resisted, were usually acknowledged only by a tribal remnant; and so they were not deemed as binding by the widely scattered major portion of the tribe. Their provisions were not always observed, and often blood had to flow to secure a temporary obedience. Thus the story of the government's relations with the Sioux became an alternation of treaties and Indian and white retaliatory measures. A treaty was only too often accepted by the Indians as a challenge for some shrewdly devised scheme of vengeful retaliation.
Through a series of treaties extending from 1825 to 1851 the Indian occupants of Iowa soil were slowly but surely dispossessed. They felt the westward push of white migration, and were fearful of being unable to stem it. Unluckily for themselves they fell to intertribal quarreling, and for the moment, being off their guard, they accepted white mediation. Thus, the two treaties of Prairie du Chien had attempted to settle the differences between the Sioux and their traditional enemies, the confederated Sacs and Foxes. But they did not succeed, since the line established in the first of these two treaties was so indefinite that neither white man nor Indian could locate it to his own satisfaction. To the Sioux their claim to northern and western Iowa seemed assured, and they proceeded confidently to its occupation. The Sacs and Foxes believed the same concerning their rights in southeastern Iowa and jealously sought to exclude all others from it.
By the second treaty of Prairie du Chien there was established the Neutral Ground, which only aggravated the difficulties already existing. Then, by the treaty of September 15, 1832, the eastern portion of the Neutral Ground was designated as a reservation for the Winnebagoes." The Wahpekuta Sioux never forgot this action, which they regarded as a violation of their proprietary rights in the district; and from that time on they became increasingly more difficult to deal with and more restive of restraint. Later the Winnebagoes by two successive treaties made an absolute cession of this land." It was then opened to settlement, and the Sioux sulkily retired westward.
In 1832 Black Hawk, the able Sac and Fox leader, burning with revenge for past wrongs and fearful of his waning power as a tribal leader as well as of the steady advance of the westward moving frontier, declared war. The conflict was brief, resulting in the defeat of Black Hawk. By four successive treaties covering the period from 1832 to 1842 he or his people were compelled to accede to agreements which had for their purpose the removal of the Indians to lands west of the Missouri wholly unsuited to their needs."
Likewise the Iowas were required to surrender all claims which the United States had recognized in former treaties as entitling them to occupy Iowa soil. With the surrender of all right or interest which they held in the Iowa country they were in turn removed to a reservation beyond the Missouri. Southern Iowa had not as yet been cleared of its aboriginal inhabitants, for remnants of the Potta wattamies, Chippewas, and Ottawas yet remained. By the treaty of June 5 and 17, 1846, however, these Indians agreed to withdraw to other reserves further west and south.
The withdrawal of these tribes left only the Sioux who were striving to maintain a precarious foothold in northwestern Iowa. The steadily advancing frontier was menacing their peace of mind, as it now became increasingly evident that they in turn would be ejected. Two conditions, the urgent demands of alarmed and annoyed border settlers and the troublesome character of the Sioux themselves, determined the Indian authorities at Washington to remove the members of these tribes. When informed of the government's intention to remove them, the Sioux begged to retain their lands. Notwithstanding Indian importunities representatives of the Sissetons and Wahpetons were cited to appear at Traverse des Sioux, Minnesota, to consider withdrawal.
Here they gloomily gathered at the time appointed. Though outwardly ready to treat for withdrawal they did not conceal their displeasure. On July 23, 1851, however, the treaty of Traverse des Sioux was witnessed, by the terms of which these Indians were to definitely withdraw from northwestern Iowa to lands on the Minnesota River.
At the close of the conference all seemed settled. But within a brief time the Sioux, who had not been parties to the treaty, positively refused to abide by its provisions. Later, at Mendota, Minnesota, on August 5, 1851, the Mdewakanton and Wahpekuta tribes, in part, acceded to the Sisseton and Wahpeton cessions. These cessions had not been accomplished without considerable opposition: strong tribal parties refused their consent outright and threatened trouble. For the period of nearly a decade the frontier settlements of the northwest were not free from the alarms created by these discontented bands.