Tricounty News

Early contacts with the Indians

© 2012 By Duane Stanley

Before detailing the dramatic events of the Dakota War that have etched themselves into Minnesota's history and psyche, we will look back to earlier Indian life on Maine Prairie, the relationship between the Indian tribes themselves, and the relationship with the earliest settlers.

As Frost records her first trip west of the Mississippi, crossing by ferry at Clearwater, she gives us a somewhat troubling insight into the perspective new arrivals in Minnesota had on the "Indian issue" and the anxieties new settlers felt with regard to the Indian population: "The great, wide Mississippi divided the lands once owned by the Chippewa [Ojibwe] and Sioux [Dakota] Indians. The east side, the St. Francis side, belonged to the former, a quiet tribe of Indians whom we did not fear, while on the west side of the river roved the savage Sioux. In a treaty they were permitted to own a reservation on the Minnesota River not far from its confluence with the Mississippi, the most desirable strip of land. As they were being paid for their lands by the government, they were better off than were the poor homesteaders. The only hesitancy I had about going [to Fair Haven and Maine Prairie] was that I feared the treachery of the Indians."

It is clear that the settlers had little idea of Indian history, U.S. government policy, or the treaties that had been made to open the land for settlement by European descendants. The early settlers, who enthusiastically claim their new lives in the expanding America, had no appreciation for the culture of the indigenous people, nor the culture they would forever change and nearly eradicate. Their goal was to "Christianize and civilize" Native Americans. With regard to the land, the settlers thought in units of 40 acres, ownership of which was individual and specifically for the purpose of cultivation. They could not conceive of the concept of communal ownership, and mobile "wanderings" that characterized the lives of hunters and gatherers and seasonal farmers.

Also, it is extremely difficult to know how the pioneers felt at the time they first arrived. Frost's account is her record some 50 years after the events themselves. Had she written her thoughts in a journal at the time, would she have used such words as "savage" and "treachery," or drawn such a sharp contract between the Ojibwe and Dakota that came into focus as one tribe pursued the war in 1862 and the other did not.

There were few settlers on the prairie by this stage. The census of 1860 records fewer than 200 in the township of Marysville, including the settlements of Fair Haven, Maine Prairie and Rockville. And of those, few recorded their memories. The few memoirs that are available to us were not written down for some three decades or more, when later events had helped shape those memories.

It should be emphasized that there are no incidents of Indian depredations prior to the war of 1862. Atwood's History of Maine Prairie began as an effort to document Indian contact in the area during the early settlement years. The conflicts he records are the animosities between Dakota and Ojibwe, not between Indians and pioneers.

Two centuries earlier, the Ojibwe had driven the Dakota from their traditional lands in northern Minnesota. The Ojibwe, in their trade with whites, had guns earlier than their enemies and were able to push the Dakota south across the Mississippi after a significant confrontation in the Lake Mille Lacs (Kathio) area in 1745. The two tribes had deep scars from a fierce history as violent adversaries long before the treaties. Evan Jones, in his detailed study of Minnesota Indian relations, describes it as a "holy war."

Under treaties of 1825 and 1852, the two tribes were officially relegated to separate reservations and their vast lands were opened up for pioneer settlement. Technically, an 1830 treaty established a 40-mile wide strip boundary reaching from the Mississippi to the Missouri River. The government planned this as a new home for the Winnebago, but that tribe would never become the buffer the government envisioned. Instead, the area was a favorite winter hunting area of both tribes who disputed its possession, and between whom occasional hostilities broke out. Each winter, bands from both tribes would arrive for short periods to track the abundant game for food and hides.

Early settlers spoke of tepee cities around Fair Haven as well as both east and west of Pearl Lake. Freeland Dam reported that as many as 75 tepees were at times on his claim north of Carnelian Lake. The History of Fair Haven tells of an Indian band in the winter of 1856 killing 700 deer in three weeks. In 1859 an encampment of Sioux just northwest of Fair Haven is reported with a count of "100 warriors, with 200 squaws and young Indians." Frost's detailed description of a trip to barter with the Sioux at their camp in the winter of 1861-62 notes that it was "a very large encampment" with tepees in long straight streets. That winter the St. Cloud Times reported 400 Indians in two camps on Maine Prairie, one west of Pearl Lake and one east.

There is not one incident of violent confrontation recorded between settlers and Indians during the early years, and relationships could be friendly and mutually supportive. An early incident recounts that once when a settler showed begging Indians that he had no flour to share, they later returned with venison from a deer they had killed, recognizing that the settler was in even greater need than they.

A most striking account of early Indian friendliness is by Mary (Greely) Street, born before Minnesota statehood to Martin and Cordelia Greely, who arrived at Maine Prairie during the summer of 1856, and staked their claim a short distance southwest from Pearl Lake. Street later described the Indian visitors as "our elite society," and tells of playing with Indian children, which she says consisted mostly of staring at each other and perhaps touching each other's clothing and hair. In total contrast to the later descriptions of fear and terror, Street tells that her mother allowed the Indians to take her as a young child to their encampment on the shores of Pearl Lake. There Indian women cut and sewed her a new pair of moccasins before a chief carried her back to the Greely home and proudly placed her on the table where her new footwear could be admired. Street's account tells us that Indians and settlers could indeed be good neighbors.

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Join the celebration: Just a few weeks and Kimball Days will be in full swing. Hope it's on your calendar. Friday, Aug. 10, 5-8 p.m. "Supper in the Park." Adults $6.50 at the Willow Creek Park Shelter. Kimball All-School Reunion begins at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11, at Kimball Area High School, featuring an all-school historical exhibit and all-school history displays, with full dinner at 5 p.m., all for an affordable $15. Everyone is invited, not only alumni. Be sure to reserve and purchase your All-School Reunion ticket, no later than July 20. If you need a reservation form, call (320) 398-5743, or 398-5209, or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

And don't forget Saturday morning, Aug. 11, coffee and rolls/juice, at Audrey's Coffee Nook at 30 South Main Street, for you early birds, open at 7 a.m. All for you. And this supports the historical Kimball City Hall projects in progress.

Kimball Area Historical Society, PO Box 55, Kimball MN 55353; (320) 398-5743 or 398-5250; e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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You are at the center of everything we do

"Making memories together at the reunion"

Time is so precious. An opportunity of a lifetime to enjoy some "forever friends" again. Build another family memory. A special "All School Reunion Yearbook will be available.

Watch here every other week for upcoming September and October eventsa: "Orphan Train Story," and "Moccasins on Maine Prairie," before our holiday social event.