Fort Ridgely

In Nicollet County, remains of Fort Ridgely still stand, commemorating one of the earliest battles of the Dakota War of 1862. Fort Ridgely was the only military post between the Dakota and settlers who moved into southern Minnesota following the treaty of Traverse des Sioux.

One-hundred and seventy years ago this July marks the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. I was invited to speak at the 150th commemoration. This is an abbreviated version of what I had to say.

“In July of 1851, there were many people at Traverse des Sioux: Chief Sleepy Eyes from his village on the southwestern shore of Swan Lake, Wacouta, from his village on Lake Pepin and Chief Shakpay. Also, there were some people well known in the Minnesota Territorial government; namely, Gov. Alexander Ramsey and the Honorable Henry Sibley. These people represented a veritable “who’s who” in the territory. Why did they come to this place?

“Well, as we are here to remember today, they were gathered to sign and witness the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. What I would briefly like to tell you is why this place was chosen for the signing of the treaty.To do this, I want to take you back in time, not just 150 years ago when the treaty was signed, but back 150 years times 100; around 15,000 years ago.

“The ancestors of our Native Americans were living at this place then.They were of the Woodland culture, as archaeologists call them.This site, as most of you know, was a place to cross the river. This crossing connected two important life-sustaining environments; the so-called Big Woods to the east and the vast prairies to the west. Both were excellent food resource areas at different times of the year, for example, maple syrup in the spring harvested in the Big Woods to buffalo hunts on the prairie in the fall. Limestone springs provided fresh water; firewood was in abundance. In short, this area was blessed with two incredible bio-diverse environments. And, like I said, in order for Native Americans to connect these two environments, they had to cross the river, and they crossed it here.

“The French fur traders also saw it as a connection place and gave it the name: Traverse des Sioux or Crossing of the Sioux. It was a place for them to connect with the Native Americans in trade goods and furs; hence, there were trading posts and stores here. Later, it was the connecting link for white settlers taking up farms in the Minnesota River Valley.

“My point, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a simple one, but I believe it carries a significant message. It is that Traverse des Sioux was more than the Treaty signing site. It was a place for making connections. For the Native American people it made it possible to connect prairie and forest resources. For the fur trade, it was a place to connect the French, British and Native Americans. For us today, it is a place to remember and look to our past.

To recognize that, from ancient times to the present, this was a place where different cultures with different values made connections.”

Robert Douglas is a professor emeritus of Gustavus Adolphus College. He has been fascinated by the historical geography of this area for a long time. Reach him at bdouglas@gac.edu.

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