Families of the Sibley Historic Site

Henry Hastings Sibley

One of the most prominent figures in Minnesota in the nineteenth century was the fur trader, frontier politician, military leader, and public citizen, Henry Hastings Sibley.[1]  Born February 20, 1811, in Detroit, Michigan, Sibley came from a long line of New England ancestors.  His father, Solomon Sibley, was the territorial congressman from Michigan and later chief justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan Territory.  His mother, Sarah Whipple Sproat Sibley, was the daughter of Ebenezer Sproat, a colonel in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  She managed family business affairs while her husband was away in Congress.[2]


By the age of eighteen, Henry Sibley had received a good education, including two years in the study of law. He loved outdoor adventure, hunting, shooting and fishing.  The study of law became tedious to him and the adventuresome life of the West appealed to him.[3]


When the American Fur Company offered Sibley a job, he spent five years at Mackinac. In 1834, he became a partner in the reorganized American Fur Company.  Sibley was in charge of its affairs, including control of the trade with the Dakota Indians, north of Lake Pepin and west to the headwaters of tributaries of the Missouri River, with headquarters at St. Peter's (Mendota).  He learned the Dakota language and also spoke French in the fur trade.  The Dakota called him "Wah-pe-ton hau-ska"—the "tall trader."  He hunted with the Dakota and, like many fur traders, had a daughter with a Dakota woman.[4]


In 1835 and 1836, Sibley had two stone buildings constructed, one a warehouse and the other a commercial building that contained Sibley’s living quarters.  The latter was turned into the family home after his marriage in 1843 to Sarah Jane Steele.  She was a sister of Franklin Steele, the sutler at Fort Snelling.  In addition to Henry Sibley’s library, the family home contained a new piano.  Sarah Sibley became known for her hospitality.  Henry and Sarah Sibley had at least nine children, of whom only four survived to adulthood.[5]


In 1838, Sibley was commissioned a justice of the peace when Mendota was part of Clayton County, Iowa.[6]

Sibley contributed many articles to the Spirit of the Times, a New York magazine of sport.  He often wrote on hunting, especially with the Dakota.  For these articles he used the pseudonym "Hal, A Dacotah."[7]


In 1848, Sibley was sent as a delegate to Congress from the part of the Territory of Wisconsin that remained after the rest of the territory became the State of Wisconsin.  Against much opposition, Sibley obtained the passage of an act on March 3, 1849, organizing the Territory of Minnesota.[8]


Serving as a delegate until 1853, Sibley obtained large grants for roads and public buildings for Minnesota territory.  In a speech in Congress on August 2, 1850, he called for change in the government’s approach to American Indians.  He warned his fellow congressmen that they must treat “the powerful bands who inhabit your remote western plains . . . with terms of conciliation and of real friendship or you must very soon suffer the consequences of a bloody and remorseless Indian war.”[9]


Through Sibley’s efforts, a double grant of land, two sections instead of the usual one, was set aside for schools in every township of the new territory.[10]


Sibley arranged for the State Seal based on modification of the territorial seal.  The state seal includes a white man plowing eastward and an American Indian riding on horseback toward the west. “L'Etoile du Nord,” which means "The Star of the North," is above, and in the background the setting sun and the Falls of St. Anthony.[11]


In 1851, Sibley and other traders were active behind the scenes during negotiations of treaties with the Dakota that resulted in substantial payments to the traders for debts resulting from the fur trade.[12]  However, during the Senate consideration of the treaties, Sibley told a senator to remove the provisions that would provide payments to traders if that would win Senate approval of the treaties that would obtain the Dakotas’ lands for the United States.[13]  Despite resistance by a significant number of the Dakota, Sibley and other traders eventually received payments.[14]


Before Minnesota was admitted as a state on May 11, 1858, Minnesota voters elected Henry Hastings Sibley their first state governor.  Alexander Ramsey succeeded him as state governor on January 2, 1860.[15]



Dakota forces attacked and killed hundreds of white settlers in southwestern Minnesota in 1862.  Though some Dakota leaders warned of white society’s broader capacity to respond, the Dakota forces sought to retake the Dakota homeland while many white men of fighting age were away in the Civil War.[16]  Governor Ramsey appointed Sibley to head the militia sent to quell the uprising.  After defeating the Dakota in the battle of Wood Lake, Sibley appointed a military commission to try Dakota combatants, and approved the execution of more than 300 Dakota.  President Lincoln reduced the number of the condemned, and 38 were hanged at Mankato.  Many other Dakota died in prison or at an internment camp at Fort Snelling, often of disease.[17]


The trials can be seen as part of an evolution of the laws of war in the United States.  In white society, a prevalent view was that the European-American laws of war generally were applicable only to wars among “civilized” nations, not to wars with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  One scholar has suggested the Dakota trials were movement toward applying the European-American laws of war to Indian wars.  Given the executions of American Indians without even holding a trial in other conflicts, he observed, the “real question” is why the government held any trials of the Dakota, even trials that did not satisfy the “dubious standards” in court trials at the time.  He concluded, “Sibley probably convened the commission for the Dakota simply because the idea of military commissions was in the air” during the Civil War.[18] 


After Sibley was commissioned as commanding officer of the Military District of Minnesota, he and his family moved to St. Paul in December 1862.[19]  The Senate approved his appointment as a brigadier general in 1864.[20]  He was elected in 1870 to a term in the state legislature, was president of the St. Paul Gas Light Company and of the Minnesota Historical Society, and was a regent of the University of Minnesota.[21]


General Sibley died at his Woodward Avenue home in St. Paul, February 18, 1891, a respected citizen and recipient of numerous honors, including an honorary doctor of laws degree from Princeton University.[22]



To learn more about Henry Hastings Sibley and his life, you may wish to purchase the three books that the Friends group has published.  Six Miles from St. Paul—The family and society of Sarah Jane Sibley, by David Grabitske is the story of Henry's wife, Sarah.  As the wife of the first governor, you will learn about her relationships with family, friends and a rapidly homogenizing culture.  Learn more about this book on our News section, find the online order form here or in our online store.


The second book published by the Friends is Dakota Child, Governor's Daughter— The Life of Helen Hastings Sibley, by Bruce Kohn.  This book features background about Helen, Sibley's daughter by his Dakota wife.  Helen was a daughter that Henry cared about and supported, but never acknowledged officially.  You will learn insight into her upbringing and cross-culture injection into society, as well as discussion of politics and relations between the Dakota and the government, as Henry played a pivotal role in this history.  Learn more in our News section, find the online order form here or in our online store.


The third book is Historic Mendota before 1863—A walk through time where the waters meet, by Ann Essling.  The book discusses events that happened two hundred years ago and shaped the Minnesota of today.  The story centers on the Sibley Historic Site.  Learn more in our News section, find the online order form in our online store.


Friends of the Sibley Historical Site ©2000-2016







[1] For additional overviews of Sibley’s role in Minnesota, see Rhoda R. Gilman’s article on him in MNopedia, online at http://www.mnopedia.org/person/sibley-henry-h-1811-1891, and articles on the Minnesota Historical Society’s website on the Sibley Historic Site accessible at http://sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/sibley-historic-site/history.   

[2] Rhoda R. Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley:  Divided Heart (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004), pp. 4-5, 8-11.

[3] Henry Hastings Sibley, The Unfinished Autobiography of Henry Hastings Sibley Together with a Selection of Hitherto Unpublished Letters from the Thirties, edited by Theodore C. Blegen (Minneapolis:  The Voyageur Press, 1932), pp. 9-10, 26; William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota (St. Paul:  The Minnesota Historical Society, 1956), vol. 1, p. 161.

[4] Sibley, The Unfinished Autobiography, pp. 10, 13, 16-18, 24-26, 29-30, 38-39; Bruce A. Kohn, Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter:  The Life of Helen Hastings Sibley (Mendota, Minnesota:  The Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, 2012), pp. 14, 22-23, 37; Henry Hastings Sibley (under pseudonym “Hal, a Dacotah), “Buffalo Hunting,” in Spirit of the Times, vol. 20, New York (January 4, 1851) (example of his translation from French).

[5] David M. Grabitske, Six Miles from St. Paul:  The family and society of Sarah Jane Sibley (Mendota, Minnesota:  The Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, 2008), pp. 20, 26, 30-33, 41; Nathaniel West, The Ancestry, Life, and Times of Hon. Henry Hastings Sibley, LL.D. (St. Paul:  Pioneer Press Publishing Company, 1889), pp. 60, 419; Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 89-90; Ann Essling, Historic Mendota before 1863—A walk through time where the waters meet (Mendota, Minnesota:  The Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, 2015), pp. 23-24.

[6] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, p. 77; Return I. Holcombe, Minnesota in Three Centuries (The Publishing Society of Minnesota, 1908), vol. 2, p. 95.

[7] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 73, 273-74.

[8] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 107-08; Folwell, A History of Minnesota, vol. 1, pp. 236-46.

[9] West, The Ancestry, Life, and Times, pp. 180-81, 196, 202; Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 118-19 (quote).

[10] Folwell, A History of Minnesota, vol. 1, p. 244.

[11] Folwell, A History of Minnesota, vol. 1, pp. 460-62; vol. 2, pp. 359-60.

[12] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 121-28, 130-34.

[13] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, p. 131; Folwell, A History of Minnesota, vol. 1, p. 291, n. 51.

[14] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 132-34.

[15] Folwell, A History of Minnesota, vol. 2, pp. 3, 17, 63.

[16]  Kenneth Carley, The Sioux Uprising of 1862 (St. Paul:  The Minnesota Historical Society, 1976), pp. 5, 10, 21; “Big Eagle’s Account,” in Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth, eds., Through Dakota Eyes:  Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862 (St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988) (“Big Eagle” was Wamditanka, or Jerome Big Eagle), pp. 21, 26.

[17] Carley, The Sioux Uprising, pp. 30-31, 62-63, 68-75, 78-79; Corinne L. Manjeau-Marz, The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-1864 (St. Paul:  Prairie Smoke Press, 2006), pp. 53-61.

[18] John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Code:  The Laws of War in American History (New York:  Free Press, 2012), pp. 92-93, 330-33.  In Oregon in the 1850s, military commissions previously were used in connection with the execution of Native Americans.  Witt, Lincoln’s Code, p. 332.  For other discussions of the Dakota trials, see Walt Bachman, Northern Slave, Black Dakota:  The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey (Bloomington, Minnesota:  Pond Dakota Press, 2013), pp. 138-284, and Carol Chomsky, “The United States-Dakota War Trials:  A Study in Military Injustice,” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 13-98 (1990).

[19] Grabitske, Six Miles from St. Paul, pp. 141-42.

[20] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, p. 202.

[21] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 212-13, 221, 224.

[22] Gilman, Henry Hastings Sibley, pp. 230, 232; Helen M. White, Henry Sibley’s First Years at St. Peters or Mendota (St. Paul:  Turnstone Historical Research, 2002), pp. 63-64.