A Metis Treaty in the U.S.?
In 1850, Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey was trying to solidify the position of his territory to become one of the United States, and was also concerned with the economic needs of the American Fur Company in its ongoing struggle to wrest away the market from the Hudson Bay Company. One of the ways Ramsey attempted to do this was to consolidate the Metis around Pembina – part of his Minnesota Territory – and to pit them against their relatives living in Red River settlement who were mainly employed by the Hudson Bay Company.
Ramsey wrote a report to Luke Lea, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, on October 21st, 1850, detailing the origins of the Metis of Red River, describing their troubles, and their political power as a distinct Indigenous nation with whom has was interested in affecting a treaty.
The report reads as follows:
The Metis or Half-breeds of the Red river of the North number eleven hundred souls, and are mostly of a mixed descent of Chippewa and Canadian French. Owing to their apparent seclusion from the world, the accounts given of them have been meagre and jejune; yet already have they laid a solid foundation for the fabric of social improvement, and, as a political community, present many interesting features for consideration.
By the laws of Minnesota, they are admitted to the rights of citizenship, and, by means of annual caravans, carry on an extensive and profitable commerce with our citizens. Many of their traders, during the past season, have been robbed by the Pillagers [Minnesota Ojibwe], through whose territory they are compelled to pass in pursuing the trail to St. Paul.
Since my last annual report, this people have, upon several occasions, importunately urged the necessity of decisive and peremptory action by government to protect them in their rights as American citizens, and preserve the buffalo which range the northern plains from the trespass of British subjects [Hudson Bay hunters], who, destroying them in their annual, hunts diminish thereby their means of subsistence.
In a letter received from the Rev. G. A. Belcourt, of Pembina, with whom I have had much correspondence, dated the 15th of September last, grave complaints are preferred of manifold injuries and insults received by the Half-breeds, during a series of years, from subjects of the British crown, and of the overbearing spirit exhibited in the deportment of the agents of the Hudson's Bay Company. The communication speaks in strong terms of the cupidity of their factories; and, referring to the trespasses which continually occur upon American soil in pursuit of buffalo, says: “The yield of the hunt of our Half-breeds has been a great deal less than ordinary, as the Half-breeds on the British side came over first and frightened away all the animals. This has caused us much damage.”
The British Half breeds returned heavily laden, taking away the game of our prairies to their homes, while the proprietors returned only with half-loads, after being gone one month longer than usual. In consequence of this injustice, a great number of our Half-breeds, having nothing to live on this winter, will be obliged to go far to hunt, after the Indian fashion, and be exposed to a great deal of misery, and then return home too late to sow in the spring. In the meantime, a great number will have to pass the winter here [in Pembina], and suffer great privations in keeping themselves in readiness for planting season next spring.
Congress, at the close of its late session, I perceive, made an appropriation to defray the expenses of a treaty with the proprietors of the soil on Red river. When this is effected, and the operation of our laws extended over these Half breeds, adequate remedies will accrue, and all that they can reasonably desire will undoubtedly be accomplished.
As these Metis, though considerably advanced in civilization, were practically without law, at the request of a deputation of their people who visited me in July last, I recognized Jean Baptiste Wilkie, Jean Baptiste Dumont, Baptiste Vallee, Edward Harmon, Jos. Laverdure, Jos. Nolin, Antoine Augure [Azure], Robert Montour, and Baptiste Lafournaise, persons freely elected by the Half-breeds of Pembina as councilors or chiefs, to whom the general administration of the affairs of the Half-breeds residing upon the Red river of the North should be entrusted. Accompanying this report, I have the honor to transmit you the annual reports of the Winnebago agents, and of the Sioux and Chippewa sub agents, which enter more fully into the affairs of the tribes under their respective charge than the general nature of this report would admit.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Ramsey, A. (1850). House Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Executive Documents (13th Congress, Vol. 1, Ser. 2nd Session). US General Printing Office.