As already noted, the scrip handed out to mixed-blood Sioux was exchangeable for land claims both inside the Sioux Half Breed Tract – which land reverted to the public domain with the July 17, 1854 act – or elsewhere in Minnesota and the United States.
As it happened, during the two dozen years between 1830, when the 4th Treaty of Prairie du Chien was inked, and 1854, when the scrip act passed into law, more than a few white settlers had taken lands and made their residence in the Half Breed Tract’s rich farmlands. (This influx occurred especially from 1851 onward.) Then, from 1857 forward, Sioux half-breed scrip filtered into the hands of land speculators who in turn sold it to prospective settlers wishing to secure lands for themselves. Some of these prospective settlers sought land claims within the Half Breed Tract. Some original scripees also sought to locate land in the Tract. Thus did conflicts arise between prospective settlers and the actual settlers already there.
Below, I’ve reprinted the fullest account I’ve been able to find of what happened. It comes from the third chapter, titled “Reign of the Indians,” in a book titled History of Wabasha County, Wisconsin, compiled and edited by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge and others (1920). I was lucky enough to find the long segment I’ve quoted on the web, here. The segment also mentions scattered instances in which scrip held by half-breeds themselves, usually children attaining their majority, was employed in an effort to locate land in the Half Breed Tract. These claims also came into conflict with settlers. As I read this quotation’s account, however, this category of disputes was not a major factor in the story being told. One other note, a caution: The text, below, sometimes uses the words “raise” or “raised” in a meaning that I’m unfamiliar with, seemingly — if meaning is taken from context — meaning “destroy,” “withdraw,” or even possibly “raze.”
About this time there were probably two hundred families of whites settled upon the agricultural portions of this tract, some in what is now Goodhue County and some in what is now Wabasha County. Some of these people had settled in the tract in ignorance of its limits, or of the fact that its status was different from that of the other government lands. Others knew of the provision of the 1851 treaty, purchasing the lands, without knowing the further fact that the clause had been rejected by the Senate; others were adventurous and were willing to take their chances even though they knew their settlement was illegal; other more cautious ones secured quit-claim deeds from individual half-breeds or permission from the Indian relatives of the half-breeds. These quit claims and these permissions were of course valueless, as the half-breeds had no right except that embodied in the script and could transfer such rights only by transferring the actual possession of the script. Nothing but this scrip would avail in filing on any portion of the land.
The actual settlers had naturally taken up the choicest portions, and in many cases had made somewhat extensive improvements. The soil had been broken, crops raised, and buildings and fences erected by people who were in reality only squatters without legal rights. When strangers who had purchased script from the speculators attempted to take up these improved claims and oust the squatters, the trouble began, and those who were actually in possession effected an organization and resorted to extreme measures to avoid being dispossessed. These actual settlers had the sympathy of all the surrounding population, but holders of the scrip had the legal advantage of the situation, and commenced to obtain titles to farms already improved. Red Wing, where the land office was located, at once became a scene of excitement. Meetings were held by the actual settlers and counsel taken as to methods of procedure. They assessed upon themselves a tax, and sent one man to Washington to demand justice, as they called it, in their behalf. They secured from the land office correct copies of plats of all the townships and fractional townships included with the tract, and every quarter-section upon which a settler had made improvements was definitely marked. Holders of scrip were publicly warned against filing upon such land. At a meeting of those interested in the cause of the settlers, which was held at the Kelly House in Red Wing, March 17, 1856, a vigilance committee of 21 members was chosen to prevent any more scrip being laid upon the land already occupied. This committee was empowered to demand that in every case where scrip had been laid on the land of actual settlers, said scrip should immediately be raised. The members of the committee were men of dauntless courage and muscular power, and devoted their whole time and energy to the work until it was accomplished. Two of them stood as sentinels at the land office armed with loaded revolvers, constantly watching every transaction therein, being relieved by another two at stated times. In the meanwhile the majority of the committee were acting as detectives, arresting and bringing to trial those who had offended, the trial not being before a court of justice, but before the committee. There was at that time no courthouse and no jail, and the lawyers knew that the scrip holders were acting within their legal rights. The holders, however, were threatened and intimidated by the committee and through fear compelled to raise the scrip, though there is no record of any personal injury being inflicted on anyone. That such would have been inflicted in case of continued resistance there is little doubt, as one man was led to a hole cut through the ice in the river, and given his choice either to raise his entry of scrip or be put through the hole, and though he was a man of strength and courage, he found it prudent to submit. There were other cases of the same kind. The excuse for these extreme measures was soon after removed by a decision from the land office at Washington, whereby those who had settled on a tract of this land and made improvements thereon, had the pre-emption and homestead rights the same as on other government lands. The same decision granted to the holders of half-breed scrip the privilege of laying the same upon any other Government land not previously claimed by an actual settler. All the vacant land on the half-breed tract was taken very soon after this decision, the situation near the river enhancing its value. The disadvantage of a few miles from market was considered a great drawback in those days, before the advent of railroads. Few or none of the mixed bloods ever cared to settle on the agricultural land thus set apart for them. Occasionally, a decade or two afterward, there was an echo of the half-breed affair, when some half-breed whose guardian has sold his (the half-breed’s) scrip rights, would, upon attaining his majority, demand of the settler on the property that he, too, be paid. In most cases these demands were complied with, the farmers, whose lands had greatly enhanced in value, deeming it wiser to pay a small sum than to undergo the expense of a lawsuit. Thus passed the last vestige of Indian title to the rich valleys and plains of this county, which was once, and for countless generations, a camping and hunting ground of the red men.
Let me suggest some observations about what we learn from this narrative. First, it appears quite evident, I think, that neither the author of this narrative nor the actors on the ground questioned the legal right of scrip owners — that is, owners who had purchased their scrip from either speculators or perhaps mixed-heritage Sioux themselves — to employ that scrip for claiming land. In other words — and despite the 1854 act’s proscription and the scrip’s explicit expression of it — secondhand uses of the scrip for “locating” property were seen as legitimate and, indeed, were even seen as having the upper hand in the land conflicts discussed in relation to the courts.
Next, it seems that the General Land Office also embraced the legitimacy of secondhand uses of this scrip. It was that embracement after all that brought palpable reality to the conflict between prospective (scrip-bearing) and actual settlers. If the GLO had seen secondhand scrip as an illegitimate or void instrument, then prospective settlers would have had little or no chance to displace their already settled adversaries in the conflict.
Finally, it noteworthy, I think, that the GLO appears to have taken a thoroughly pragmatic attitude toward the conflict. Its decision to let settled homesteads be and invite prospective settlers to settle elsewhere seems to suggest a path-of-least-inconvenience approach to the conflict, one that preoccupied itself not very much with the explicit legalities or regulatory strictures that may have applied to the situation.
Let me close with a word of warning. Historians, much like journalists, are very wary of historical accounts based on a single source. And what I’ve presented above — in the long, long quote — is just that. Therefore, and until further sources turn up, the reader is urged to take caution.
Still, the story the long quotation recounts sheds interesting new light on the scrip, its meaning at the time, and the GLO’s land-administering predilections toward it. So, at least, thought I.
But more conflict and intrigue follows!