Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,158
This is the grave of Henry Sibley.
This is the grave of Henry Sibley.
Born in 1811 in Detroit, Sibley grew up in a political household of the frontier. His father was Detroit’s first mayor, was a Michigan Territory delegate to Congress, and close to Michigan powerbroker Lewis Cass. The family had to flee when Sibley was a tot as the British attacked Detroit and they barely escaped. But they would do fine in the long run. Young Henry was educated with the best education available out there at the time. His parents wanted him to study law but he found it boring, so they relented and let him choose his own path.
Sibley preferred the frontier lifestyle and got into the fur trading business. He wasn’t a trapper, but rather a clerk in fur trading posts. Working for the American Fur Company way up in northern Michigan, he soon proved himself an able and reliable businessman who could conduct important business for the company with efficiency, even if that meant overcoming difficult conditions, whether that was the hardship of travel of arriving in Detroit in the middle of the 1832 cholera epidemic. Although under parental pressure, he tried to get out of his contract (which was ultimately part of the Astor empire) his bosses refused. Instead, they convinced him to go out to represent the company in Minnesota, which in the mid-1830s was seeing its first white residents.
Sibley somewhat reluctantly agreed, but found his future out there. He became the head of the AFC’s Sioux Outfit in 1835, based at Fort Snelling, which is today in the Twin Cities. The fur trade was already in heavy decline in Minnesota during this time, the tribes were becoming more nervous about the arrival of whites, and the Army was becoming a bigger factor. Sibley was useful to the military as well and was given the contract to run the Army’s sutler store at Fort Snelling. Sibley also helped negotiate the late 1830s land cessions by the tribes, by which they were forced off their lands. Sibley was outraged though when the government didn’t pay the fur traders enough because as part of the deal that forced the various tribes west of the Mississippi River, the government was supposed to pay all the supposed debts they owed to the traders.
The fur trade itself was doomed and American Fur went under in 1842. But by this time, Minnesota was already changing rapidly, with timber speculators and settlers pouring into the territory and putting greater pressure on the Dakota and other tribes. Sibley decided to stick around and be a leader in the new territory. He had a Native wife for awhile, a woman named Red Blanket Woman, but of course he dumped her for a white wife when it made sense for him to do so and since such marriages were not recognized as Christian, he could easily do so. He did have a daughter with Red Blanket Woman, which caused no small level of inconvenience for this ambitious man. Mostly, his white wife was horrified and furious that he recognized her as his daughter. He also supported her financially. She actually later married a prominent white doctor, despite her looking much more like her mother and with very dark skin, although she died of scarlet fever shortly after.
Anyway, Sibley went into business. The furs may have been gone but Minnesota had lots of other resources, especially timber. He used his connections with the tribes to sign a contract with the Ojibwe to provide timber to his own company for ten years. He invested in steamboats, owned a store, and supplied British troops just over the border in Canada. He contracted with the tribes to trade for bison robes, supplying an increasingly robust eastern market that already caused bison numbers to decline before the railroads arrived and the military decided to exterminate the food source of the Plains tribes. He got rich.
Sibley was always interested in politics and had briefly held a justice of the peace position back in Michigan. He got a similar position in the new state of Iowa in the late 1830s, mostly basing himself there for the next few years while maintaining his interests in Minnesota. He became a common political person to call in when “western interests” needed representing, which meant lobbying for controversial treaties to throw the tribes out. Sibley was pro-genocide but when it made sense to him to lobby for the tribes he did so, such as against an 1846 treaty to push out the Winnebago, because to him, they were a good buffer between the Dakota and Ojibwe. As Minnesota Territory was established after Wisconsin became a state, Sibley became the territorial representative to Congress and was there from 1849-53.
It didn’t take long for Minnesota to move toward statehood and Sibley made sure he was where he needed to be for that. A strong Democrat, he came back to be leader of that party in the state legislature and then was elected the first governor of the state upon its admission to the union in 1858. His time in his two years as governor wasn’t that exciting. Mostly it was battles over railroads that took up his time.
Then, 1862 came. By this time, the tribes were fed up with the lies told them by Sibley and the other leading Minnesotans. Whites kept pouring in without stop. Finally, they struck back in a desperate move to kick out the whites. This was the Dakota War. It led to the greatest mass execution in American history. And Henry Sibley was its key architect. He led the militia against the Dakota and planned to simply eliminate all Native people from Minnesota, whether through killing or removal. It didn’t take too long, once the whites were ready to go and had recovered from the surprise of the war, to put down the uprising. So what do you do then?
This is where Sibley decided to make his decisive move. The idea of his tribunals was to hang everyone who was even remotely believed to have participated in the war. Sibley and his fellow tribunal members were obsessed by the idea of red men raping white women, never mind their own long histories with Native women. They weren’t asking too many questions. Anyone accused of rape or some other depredation was going to get a death sentence, regardless of guilt. And to be clear, lots of Dakota opposed the war and did not participate so there was plenty of innocent folks being tried, even if you don’t think their war was justified. Moreover, lots of Dakota held similar names. So if someone was accused by name, it might be that person or it might be another person who was tried for the crime. In the end, Sibley and his men had sentenced 307 people to death out of 392 “trials.” The defendants had no rights and had no representation by a defense lawyer.
This eventually got back to Abraham Lincoln. He was disturbed. Lincoln was no friend of the tribes. But this level of execution was something else, something unprecedented in American history. So even though he had a bit on his plate in 1862, he decided to personally review the cases. He reduced the number of executions from 303 (4 had been overturned in Minnesota) to 39 and then 38 after he changed his mind one. This was still the largest mass execution in American history. Lincoln still lacked the ability to know who was innocent and who was not. We know from recent historical explorations that there are definitely cases where Lincoln said yes to the death of someone based on their name and that it was another person of the same name who was actually involved in said crime. And yet, Minnesota whites and especially Sibley were disgusted by Lincoln’s wimpiness here. This was the moment for genocide and revenge, not legal niceties! Sibley himself made hay out of this to promote George McClellan in the 1864 election and Lincoln was in fact unhappy by his performance in Minnesota that fall.
Well, Sibley still could commit genocide by other means. Minnesota decided to ban all Dakota from the territory, simply abnegating the treaties without congressional approval. Sibley was in charge of enforcing that ban and what that meant was a reward for any scalp of a Dakota found in Minnesota Territory. What if some whites went over into Dakota Territory to take a scalp and collect the money? Well, Sibley wasn’t asking too many questions. He also pursued his private war with the Dakota far west, as far as Montana. This started twenty years of war between the government and the assorted “Sioux” tribes that would only include with their complete defeat. By this time, Sibley was under the leadership of John Pope, himself exiled from the eastern front due to incompetence. Pope ordered Sibley, now a brigadier general of volunteers, to pursue the Dakota. This led to the Battle of Big Mound in 1863 that destroyed Little Crow’s forces, their leader having been shot and scalped by settlers shortly before.
After the Civil War, the need for yahoos from Minnesota to kill Indians wasn’t so necessary. Sibley was mustered out in 1866. He still was useful to the government when it needed to settle some tribal disputes. But mostly, he did what a lot of these genocidal architects did–he founded the institutions that would remember himself as a hero. It’s interesting how conscious these men and women were of doing something “historic.” Across the West, it was these people who founded the state level historical societies, only a few years after they had done the deeds of conquest, to provide official institutional memory of themselves. So he was a member of the Minnesota Historical Society as early as 1849–nine years before it even became a state!!–and eventually was its president. Otherwise, he looked after his business interests, engaged in charitable works, served on boards, did all that stuff that being in charge of genocide got you in a state like Minnesota.
Sibley died in 1891, at the age of 79.
Henry Sibley is buried in Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul, Minnesota.
If you would like this series to visit other purveyors of genocide in American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Patrick Edward Connor is in Salt Lake City, Utah and Eugene Baker is in Walla Walla, Washington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.