I started this little research endeavor when I asked myself the following: “What the heck is Sioux half-breed scrip?” Well, this isn’t a bad moment to take up that question more directly.
The Mississippi River defines the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin from the little town of Prescott, Wisconsin, at the north end of this border-defining stretch, to Minnesota’s southern boundary with Iowa, at the south end. That stretch runs about 135 miles from end to end.
Roughly 25 miles southeast of Prescott commences a natural widening in the River called Lake Pepin. This ersatz lake is roughly 20 miles long and averages 1.7 miles wide.
On the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin, in 1830, the 4th Treaty of Prairie du Chien assigned a roughly rectangular area of land to the mixed-blood relatives of a number of Sioux tribes.
The treaty provided that full-blooded Sioux and full-blooded members of other tribes involved would receive, as tribal units, certain “considerations” for ceding their traditional lands to the United States government. These considerations came in the form of money or goods and technical assistance, not land. Article 4 of the treaty specified that tribes would be paid either two thousand or three thousand dollars per annum for ten years (the amount depended on the specific tribe named) “…in money, merchandise, or domestic animals, at their option.” The Sioux tribes would also receive “one Blacksmith at the expense of the United States, and the necessary tools; also instruments for agricultural purposes, and iron and steel” to the amount of either seven hundred or four hundred dollars (once again, depending on the tribe). (The treaty’s full text is available here.) (These sums, it may be noted, represented much larger amounts in the 1830s than they would in today’s dollars.)
Beyond the compensations to tribes — and for the first time in the history of treaties between the United States and Indian populations — the 4th Treaty of Prairie du Chien also made provisions for the mixed-blood relatives of tribe members. This group, referred to as “half-breeds” in the contemporary vernacular, was comprised chiefly of the sons and daughters of unions between native women and French, Scottish, American, and other traders, fur trappers, and other whites.
Unlike the full-blooded Indians, half-breeds received their compensation in the form of land. The land grant to “half-breeds” is the green area identified as “292” in the map above. This was no postage-stamp-sized land grant — it comprised over 320,000 acres or, over 500 square miles, of fertile farmlands. “At that time,” wrote Gustav O. Brohough in his 1906 master’s thesis (1), “land in the North West was plentiful and undervalued and the commissioners [i.e., the treaty makers on the U.S. side] no doubt thought this deal a trifling sop thrown to the tent-lobby for securing the signatures of the Indians; and yet, it has led to important results” (p. 9). The grant land as a unit became referred to chiefly as the “Sioux Half-Breed Tract,” although it is sometimes also called the “Wabasha Reservation” (though it was not an Indian reservation in the usual sense of the term).
But there was a problem — one for which the U.S. Congress could not find a suitable solution for nearly a quarter-century. According to Folwell (1922, p. 482), a generation of mixed-blood Sioux, after the 1830 treaty, refused to settle at the reserve set aside for them; it was land which, wrote Folwell, “…they never intended to occupy…” (2). “Speculators and politicians soon began scheming to get possession of the reserve,” explained Brohough,
The Indian title to the surrounding country had been extinguished and the full-bloods had moved westward. It was but natural that the half-breeds would wish to follow their relatives; and as they did not understand the value of the land, the speculators found them willing enough to dispose of their interests. But how to transfer title was the question. It was evidently contemplated by the Government, that they should hold their lands as joint tenants or as tenants in common, and no one could dispose of his integral part of the common property. Neither could they dispose of it by joint action for they were only “holding by the same title and in the same manner that other Indian titles are held” (Brohough, 1906, pp. 9-10). (3)
Congress, over the years that followed, received numerous appeals to allow mixed heritage Sioux to claim title to separate lots within the grant area, which titles would in turn allow owners to sell their lands. These appeals reflected the convergence of several interests, some noble, some less so. Scheming land speculators, legitimate agents of the half-breeds, some government representatives, and the half-breeds themselves all saw rich potential rewards in subdividing the Tract and allowing half-breed owners to sell their properties.
Yet, the push for the Tract’s division and apportionment to individual owners also met with pushback and disagreement. One divisive issue, for example, concerned eligibility. Should the term “half-breed” apply solely to persons with one Indian and one white parent or, on the other hand, should it include mixed-bloods of varying Indian and white heritages? Another issue concerned the difficulty of defining lots of roughly equal value for all eligible half-breed applicants. Assigning equal land areas to applicants wouldn’t solve the problem because equal-area properties would be located on more or less valuable lands.
The federal government’s interest in the handling of the Sioux Half-Breed Tract problem incorporated a strongly held benevolent paternalism. Many feared that permitting half-breed owners to sell their land would invite unfair dealings and swindles by white land speculators, leaving half-breeds with little more than a few groceries, liquor, or pocket change in exchange for their valuable properties.
Thus, a stalemate across these conflicting interests and concerns stalled action on the Half Breed Tract for two dozen years. Twice, in 1841 and 1849, treaties were put before the U.S. Senate seeking to “buy” the Half-Breed Tract for $200,000, both times failing to gain sufficient votes for passage. Constitutional objections were raised against attempts to employ the treaty mechanism to solve the Half Breed Tract problem. “The constitutional objection on which all these treaties stranded,” explained Brohough (p. 27), “was the fact that the Sioux half-breeds were not a tribe or nation and hence had no right to treat. Under the laws of the territory they had become [U.S.] citizens” (p. 27).
Congress finally settled on what it saw as a workable solution in 1854. MNOPEDIA, Minnesota’s online state encyclopedia, described, in its article on the Tract and half-breed scrip, what happened as follows:
Henry Rice, a Minnesota territorial delegate to the US Senate, hadn’t forgotten the Half-Breed Tract. In July 1854, he convinced the Senate to offer the mixed-race claimants a deal. Each could get up to 640 acres of unsurveyed federal lands by giving up their claim to the Half-Breed Tract. Those eligible would receive “exchanging scrip,” certificates that could be used to buy land.
What seemed to solve one problem, however, would soon give rise to others.
(1) Brohough, Gustav O., Sioux and Chippewa Half-Breed Scrip and its Application to the Minnesota Pine Lands, Master’s Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1906 — available for download at Google Books, here.
(2) Folwell, William Watts, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922 — available for download at Google Books, here.
(3) Brohough quoted Article 9 of the 4th Treaty of Prairie du Chien in the final sentence of the passage I’ve quoted from his thesis. The meaning of the quoted words — “holding by the same title and in the same manner that other Indian titles are held” — is that the land is held communally, not individually. It may be noted, however, that the treaty also made some provision for the transfer of lots in the Sioux Half-Breed Tract to individuals. In Article 10, following the same conditional assertion Brohough quoted, appeared the following additional words: “but the President of the United States may hereafter assign to any of the said half-breeds, to be held by him or them in fee simple, any portion of said tract not exceeding a section, of six hundred and forty acres to each individual.”