Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 976

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 976


This is the grave of Henry Mower Rice.

Born in 1818 in Waitsfield, Vermont, Rice personifies the kind of guy who moved to the West for opportunities, cynically integrated himself into the tribes, and then went all into genocide when it could help his career.

Rice was excited about opportunities in the West from the time he was a kid. After a short stint in Virginia, in 1836, he moved to Detroit and worked there. Among the many things he was up to was part of the surveying crew to build a canal between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. By 1839, he was out in what became Minnesota, working in fur trading for the American Fur Company. Now, to be a good fur trader out here, you had to have relationships with the tribes. Ultimately, you couldn’t really work without that. So Rice embraced it. Working with the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe, he integrated himself into the tribes pretty well. Rice became a trusted intermediary between the tribes and the U.S. government and he worked out the 1847 treaty with the Ojibwe that gave up much of their land to whites. This was after some time in Iowa, working with the Ho-Chunk after they had been removed there from Wisconsin. Rice rose in Indian society for a few reasons. For one, he was very good at languages and really did learn several indigenous languages. Second, he came to understand tribal culture quite well, in particular the gift system that dominated trading networks and which whites often did not try to understand and thus found frustrating. This is why the Ojibwe trusted him as their agent in the treaty process. In fact, it wasn’t just in 1847 that the Ojibwe worked with him. As whites and their endless greed for land continued to pressure the tribe, they turned to him in 1854 and again in 1887 as their agent. Given what a greedy and awful individual Rice was, this really demonstrates just how bad the less trusted people must have been.

Rice pretended to be a friend to the tribes, but very much was not. He was one of the key players in the removal of the Winneabago from Iowa in 1848 and then got a federal contract in 1850 to be in charge of the removal of those who refused to leave. He also convinced the Dakota to give up their land east of the Mississippi River in exchange for an annual annuity. The failure of whites to live up to this led to the bloody Dakota War in 1862, which then led to the largest mass execution in American history. Rice was very much on the take through this whole process. For example, he pushed through an idea to provide scrip to Metis people dislocated by the new Dakota treaty. In this, they would get federal land. There was a loophole in it that allowed Rice and his partners to buy up the Metis scrip for pennies on the dollar. Did they write this intentionally and then take advantage of it to build an empire for themselves? Oh you sweet summer child, you know they did.

By the early 1850s, whites were flooding into Minnesota. Rice may have had those deep ties with the tribes but he was absolutely a white man at heart. He immediately took advantage of the integration of Minnesota into the United States for his own benefit, serving as Minnesota Territory’s delegate to Congress from 1853-57. While there, Rice was charged with corruption. The House found him not guilty and did not expel him, but he probably was guilty. It was railroad corruption, which just placed Rice ahead of his time as the Gilded Age began.

As Minnesota became a state in 1858, it had to elect senators. A strong Democrat, Rice was one of the choices. He was in the Senate until 1863, choosing not to run for a full term himself in 1862. Probably a good idea since was pro-secession, not necessarily a popular position in [checks notes] Minnesota. He had supported a bill that allowed for a peaceful secession process and was a big John C. Breckinridge supporter in 1860. Now, once the war got underway, Rice was a Union Democrat and certainly did not support the Confederacy, but he also did not support Lincoln at all. At best, he was good at using his supplier connections to get needed supplies to Union soldiers. He did run for governor of Minnesota in 1865, but did not win. Through all of this, Rice was deeply committed to building up Minnesota institutions and mythology of its settlement. He was on the initial board of regents for the University of Minnesota from 1851-59. He was also president of the Minnesota Historical Society. Now, we have to think a bit about the origin of these groups. In many western and Midwestern states, historical societies sprung up immediately after settlement. They were all about the people who had stolen the land from Native Americans ensuring their story is what got told. No one had more to gain by covering up the truth than Henry Mower Rice.

Rice ran for governor of Minnesota in 1865, but this was a strong election for Republicans and the Democrat lost the race. After this, he was basically done with politics. He had a lot of business interests, in part coming out of his old empire stolen from the tribes and in part now invested with his corrupt railroad friends. He also was still involved in federal Indian policy.

Rice died in 1894, while on vacation in San Antonio, Texas. He was 77 years old.

Unfortunately, Rice is one of Minnesota’s two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection. That’s because Minnesota was and remains a pro-genocide state, as the reaction to the Minnesota Historical Society to interpreting Fort Snelling from an indigenous perspective demonstrates.

Henry Mower Rice is buried in Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul, Minnesota.

If you would like this series to visit other American fur traders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Auguste Pierre Chouteau is in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma and Robert Campbell is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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