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The People Who Owned Themselves Knew No Borders

In an 1865 letter to Army Headquarters, Alfred Sully, commander of the Northwest Indian Expedition, described his travels from their temporary encampment at Devils Lake looking for renegade Dakota Sioux. During his foray, Sully and his men encountered a large group of Metis/half-breeds and his description of the meeting provides interesting information regarding how the Metis viewed their right to hunt and their right to cross the European-created “medicine line” between Canada and the United States.

Sully mentions that after three days of travel west, only seeing a few individual Indians moving north (probably towards Turtle Mountain), they finally found tracks that they were certain were from a large group of Santee and Yanktonai Dakota. They followed the trail to the southeast, but due to a heavy rainstorm, they lost the trail somewhere between the James and Missouri Rivers.

The soldiers eventually came upon a heavy trail of Red River cart tracks, coming from the north and going toward the Missouri. Thinking that the Metis might be a party going to trade with the Dakota, Sully sent 300 men to follow the trail. After several days, the soldiers found a huge encampment of 1,500 carts arranged in a large corral. The Metis were busy drying buffalo meat from a successful hunt and the party contained hundreds of men, women, and children, along with a resident priest and a French nobleman from Paris who had joined the hunt for an adventure. The soldiers made a show of force and searched the camp, but could find nothing contraband that could be traded to the Dakota.

In questioning the Metis, Sully’s men discovered that this party was from the British Possessions and had been out about two months hunting. They were asked if they had seen the American President's order about trading with the Dakota, but the hunters assured that their only purpose was to hunt so they could feed themselves. Sully spoke to the priest and head men and informed them that it was illegal to trade ammunition to the Dakota, and while they admitted that some people were trading and supplying the Dakota, they were not.

Sully then told the Metis that they were no longer to be allowed to come across the border and were to hereafter stay in Canada, but the Metis answered that they knew and recognized no line or frontier. They stated that the half-breeds on the north and on the south of the line were all one family; they were intermarried, and that their kin lived on both sides of the line, spoke the same language, and paid no taxes because they were Indians. They informed Sully that they did not recognize the white man’s laws and that each colony and camp made their own laws, appointed their own chiefs, councilors, and police. They then handed Sully a written copy of their laws, among which he reported seeing a fine of £5 to sell ammunition to hostile Indians. The Metis then went on to explain to Sully that if they could not hunt in Dakota Territory that they would starve. They further explained that the half-breeds living in Dakota Territory also come north to hunt and trap for furs.

The Metis did inform Sully about what they knew about the Dakota movements and they also assured him that there were no hostiles east of Devil's Lake. The Santee they knew were still in the British possessions, including Chiefs Sleepy Eye and White Cloud, who were at Turtle Mountain.

Sully also reported that his men had found a camp of half-breeds near the west end of Devil’s Lake which included twelve men with their families. They were from Pembina. Sully’s men searched their camp, but found nothing. Although they seemed innocent, Sully wondered if they were secretly in league with the Dakota, as he couldn’t believe that such a small hunting party would dare venture out so far from home with their families and not be molested by hostile Indians. Sully then placed the camp under guard for fear that they might inform the Dakota that the soldiers were looking for them.


Letter from Maj. Alfred Sully, June 27, 1865, to Capt. R.C. Olin, Assistant Adjutant-General, District of Minnesota. (1896) United States Congressional serial set, Issue 3437.

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