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The Eviction of the Squatters from Fort Snelling

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This article was originally published in Hennepin History, magazine of the Hennepin County Historical society.

When the Abraham Perry family was evicted from the Fort Snelling army reservation in 1840, it was the fourth time in 20 years they had lost or left behind almost everything they had and tried to start over. Unlike the prior moves, there was nothing voluntary about this time. In fact, Perry and the other squatters made a determined effort to stay where they were.

The Perrys were among 165 Swiss recruited to go to British North America and join the colony on the Red River, also known as the Selkirk colony for its founder, the Scottish Lord Selkirk, and presently known as the city of Winnipeg in Manitoba. They left Switzerland in May 1821. Despite a contract spelling out in detail what the colonists were to receive and what they would pay for it, they were left with the impression they were going to the Red River of the south. The ice of Hudson's Bay disabused them of that notion, and they soon enough learned the rest of the contract didn't mean much either.

The Red River Colony was founded in 1811. Lord Selkirk bought a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which held a government granted monopoly over the fur trade in all the waters that drained into Hudson's Bay, and acted as the government over said lands. Selkirk intended the colony first as a means of relocating Scottish Highlanders who had been cleared from their traditional lands with no place to go. He also hoped the colony would provide food for the Hudson's Bay Company, a place for employees to retire, and a brake against American expansion.

It was for these objectives that a contingent of Highlanders and Irish in a similar impoverished condition arrived at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. However, the colonists were assailed by both the forces of nature and the Northwest Company, the rival of HBC, which found the colony a threat to its hunting grounds and attempted to remove it by force. The colonists survived the Northwest Company as well as the cold, floods, and insects, and were living a meager existence when the Swiss families arrived unexpectedly just before the winter of 1821-22.

The Swiss found that not only was there no food for them that first winter, forcing many to depart for Pembina in hopes of surviving by hunting, but there also weren't the tools that were promised, and the best land, that along the river, had already been claimed by the earlier colonists. A few left immediately that spring, heading into the Unites States, but most tried to make something out of their situation. Only one season of attempting to farm was enough to persuade many of the Swiss to leave in the spring of 1823, and more followed every year thereafter until the remaining Swiss left in 1826. Their numbers included some of the other colonists, and more arrived at Fort Snelling throughout the 1830's.

Fort Snelling sits at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota (then known as the St. Peter's) rivers, on the north bank of the Minnesota and west bank of the Mississippi. Refugees from the colony followed the Red River overland by foot and oxcart to the headwaters, where they made the short trip to the headwaters of the Minnesota, and took rafts and dugout canoes to the river's mouth at Ft. Snelling.

They were trespassing on Indian land the whole way, and one family traveling alone was attacked. When they reached the fort, they were now trespassing on the army reservation, and settlement was prohibited. Nevertheless the fort's commandant, Col. Josiah Snelling, provided the refugees with sanctuary and supplies from the garrison's stores. Most refugees took passage on one of the rare boats that reached St. Peter's, as the river junction was known. Some sought work in St. Louis, and many went to join the Swiss community in Vevay, Indiana. However, Snelling allowed some to stay in the barracks at Camp Coldwater, which had been the garrison's summer encampment during the fort's construction. It was built around Coldwater Spring, about a mile up the Mississippi from the fort. This is the same spring that's part of the current controversy over the rerouting of Highway 55 (Hiawatha Ave.) in Minneapolis. Among those who stayed were the Perrys, who left the colony in 1826 after massive spring floods wiped out the work of the prior four years.

The refugees who stayed integrated themselves into the life of the fort. The two orphans from the attack mentioned above were taken in by Snelling and another officer. One former soldier enlisted. Others became servants, married soldiers, and some were successful enough farmers to improve the land and provide some food for the garrison. Abraham Perry built the largest livestock herd in the area over the next decade, and his wife, Mary Anne, was a midwife who came to be considered indispensable by the officers' and soldiers' wives. The officers, however, weren't as aware of the value of a midwife so close by. This difference became apparent in the events that ended the developing community at Coldwater.

That the refugees had come to think of themselves as settlers became apparent in 1837. Their numbers had grown from additional arrivals, births, and the presence of discharged soldiers and American Fur Company (AFC) employees. B.F. Baker had a trading establishment, and in July, 30 men of Coldwater petitioned the Secretary of War to permit the fort sutler, former Col. Samuel Stambaugh, to erect a public house. At the same time, negotiations began between the government and the Ojibwa to cede lands east of the Mississippi. Also in that month, the 5th Infantry, which had garrisoned the fort during Snelling's years, (they started construction in 1819, Snelling arrived in 1820, left in 1827, and the 5th left in 1828) returned to garrison the fort. Major Joseph Plympton arrived to take command in August.

With the signing of the Ojibwa treaty, it became apparent that land would soon be open for settlement, which would likely mean the eviction of squatters from the army reservation. The Coldwater men met at the home of Abraham Perry (referred to by Dakota chief Big Thunder as "old man Perry"), and this time they petitioned President Van Buren for compensation for improvements they'd made to Camp Coldwater. At the same time, one Selkirk refugee, Peter Quinn, accompanied Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced "Toliver") as an interpreter when Taliaferro took a delegation of Dakota to Washington to also cede lands east of the Mississippi. Taliaferro left on the same boat which brought Plympton, and their opposite directions were typical for the relationship the two men would have.

Taliaferro had been the agent for St. Peter's since 1820, with jurisdiction over the Dakota and Ojibwa. He lost jurisdiction over the Ojibwa in 1827, though they insisted on seeing him thereafter, which brought them onto Dakota land. Both tribes trusted him. He'd had a good working relationship with Col. Josiah Snelling during the 5th's first tenure at the fort, but relations with the AFC ranged from difficult to bitter.

The fact the squatters asked for compensation instead of permission to remain indicates they knew they would be forced to leave, but they still felt entitled to compensation, and they were going to want protection from the Indians once they were on the east side of the river and farther from the fort. Unfortunately, squatters wanting to farm were lumped in with whiskey peddlers in the eyes of the officers and Taliaferro.

With squatters selling whiskey to the soldiers, drunkenness became a threat to the garrison's health and discipline. Many soldiers suffered frostbite and hypothermia trying to get back to the fort after getting drunk, and some froze to death. Plympton was primarily concerned with keeping whiskey peddlers as far from the fort as possible, which made it necessary for the army to claim as large a reservation as possible. While Taliaferro remarked upon the problems whiskey caused for the garrison, he was at least as concerned about the Indians. He shared the opinion of the missionaries and some Indian leaders that whiskey was causing hardship as drunken Indians neglected their work and injured themselves. Only the government could legally provide alcohol to Indians, but grog shops sold to Indians and soldiers alike.

The fur traders had always chafed under the restriction on selling alcohol to Indians since it was one of the most highly desired trade items, and they generally found ways around the rules. The trade had been profitable in the 1820's and early 30's, but by the late 30's something substantial had changed. The price of muskrat pelts had dropped from 25¢ in the 20's to 6¢ in 1837. This was disastrous since muskrats were the majority of the pelts. The traders discouraged Indians from hunting muskrats and eventually refused to take any more. This change in the fur trade had the duel effect of impoverishing the Indians and reducing their economic importance enough to eliminate AFC objections to their removal. Their only interest in the Indians was in collecting accumulated debts, and they expected, and eventually received, payments from the Indians annuity money. Moreover, the interest of individual traders turned to land speculation, which required the Indians' removal and aligned the traders with the squatters.

Cooperating with the traders didn't help the squatters' case with Taliaferro. He had a hostile relationship with the AFC throughout his years as Indian Agent, and the dislike and suspicion could hardly have been more intense. The traders sat in on the treaty negotiations with the Ojibwa, which Taliaferro was not part of since his jurisdiction was only over the Dakota (though the Ojibwa insisted on seeing him instead of their assigned agent). Henry Sibley, who ran AFC operations at St.Peter's, was incensed when Taliaferro didn't permit the traders to sit in on the negotiations with the Dakota, which took place in Washington.

Plympton had a map made of the reservation in October 1837 by Lt. Smith. It showed 157 people living around B.F. Baker's (Cold Water) and the AFC post. Squatters had about 200 horses and cattle. In November of 1837, the Sec. of War told Plympton to mark whatever land he thought necessary for a reservation. In March of 1838, Plympton wrote to the Adjutant General describing the limits of the reservation based on Lt. Smith's map and claiming much of the east side. He was desirous of pushing the squatters as far from the fort as possible, and the army considered claiming all the land to the St.Croix River. He was justified in being concerned about speculators squatting before ratification. Some went to cut lumber on Ojibwa land on the St. Croix already in October 1837.

The first squatters to move to the east bank probably did so in the spring of 1838. One was infamous whiskey peddler Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant, who set up shop at Fountain Cave, about three miles below the fort. The Perrys, having heard from Major Plympton that the army reservation extended to Fountain Cave, built a home just downstream from Parrant. John Fletcher Williams, first librarian of the Minnesota Historical Society who wrote a history of early St. Paul, says there was an eviction order in May 1838 but doesn't mention specifics. It appears the other squatters stayed on the west side, perhaps waiting for the news of ratification before moving, or perhaps waiting upon the President's response to their petition. No response was coming. Some may have moved, as the new Territory of Wisconsin conducted a census and counted those on the east bank as part of Clayton County.

The Perrys ran into difficulties in their new location. Parrant wasn't particular how his customers paid, and it appears they sometimes did so with Perry livestock. More ominous, the Indians resented Perry's and Parrant's intrusion before ratification. In June, some Dakota warned Perry about trespassing. Taliaferro was receiving reports of Dakota killing cattle. He felt Indians and Whites should be kept as far apart as possible. He warned Big Thunder and other Indians to leave the livestock alone or there could be bad consequences. Big Thunder complained about Whites moving onto ceded lands before ratification, and he specifically complained about Parrant and Perry taking wood. He asked Taliaferro to order them off, and tell them not to insult Indian young men. He also complained that the Ojibwa had chased off the game and the traders wouldn't take muskrats, so the Dakota were destitute. Taliaferro said in his journal that the treaties should have been ratified in March and the annuities were very late. The treaties were ratified in June, but word hadn't reached St.Peter's. Most settlers remained on the west side of the river.

While everyone waited for word of ratification and the arrival of the annuity money, the Dakota continued killing livestock. They had neglected their crops in expectation of the annuities, and found themselves squeezed between the Ojibwa and the traders' refusal to extend credit. They also resented the presence of squatter livestock on land that was still theirs. When Taliaferro was asked if the Indians have the right to shoot intruding livestock, he dodged by saying it's illegal for livestock to trespass onto Indian lands. He suggested the settlers hire a guard. Antoine Papin (Pepin) twice had his only cow killed. A horse belonging to one of the Selkirk refugees had an arrow sticking in it, thought to have come from the Lake Calhoun band. After Papin's replacement cow was killed, Taliaferro wondered how to punish the transgressors if they could be identified, and he felt he lacked the authority. He commented in the agency journal that those who loose horses and cattle on the reserve have no right of occupation, and they want summary proceedings without knowing the culprits. He swore to uphold the law and report incidents to the fort commandant and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The Indians claimed there were just a few young men doing the killing, and they were killing Indian cattle as well. Taliaferro warned them to find a way to stop them or no one would be able to keep property or remain on peaceful terms.

There must have been some relief on all sides when news of ratification arrived on the 15th of July. A passenger on the boat that brought the news was Franklin Steele, who became one of Minneapolis' better known land speculators, including buying the fort when it closed (temporarily it turned out) in 1858. He immediately made his way to St. Anthony falls and set up on the east bank ahead of army officers who had planned on doing so themselves. Taliaferro's suspicions about the officers' intentions for that land had been aroused when the map of the reservation didn't include the east side of the falls. True or not, Steele beat them to it. Meanwhile, Parrant and Perry were now legal, and others started making claims east of the reservation.

There was tension and distrust between the officers, the squatters, and Taliaferro. On the 26th of July, 1838, Plympton issued an order forbidding building or cutting firewood by individuals on the army reservation without War Department permission. This indicates that there were still people on the west side. Taliaferro's suspicions were aroused because the order was issued when he was gone at the Lake Harriet mission, and some officers and other individuals had been making land claims. He complained that officers grabbed the mouth of the St.Croix while he was leading the Dakota delegation to Washington. Another sign of the tension between Taliaferro and some officers showed the next May, when Taliaferro marked off space on the reservation for an orphan asylum and said an individual claim should be recognized if an asylum is not wanted. He then felt it necessary to deny Captain Martin Scott's suspicions that he was becoming a squatter himself.

Troubles continued between the Dakota and Ojibwa. The Ojibwa appear to have been actively encroaching on Dakota land. The Dakota particularly hated Hole-in-the-Day. Hole-in-the-Day was a chief whose daughter died in Fort Snelling's hospital from wounds suffered during a Dakota attack on Ojibwa lodges next to the fort in May 1827. The Dakota believed him to be the instigator of an ambush at Lac Qui Parle earlier in 1838, and in August of 1838 the Dakota learned he was staying with B.F. Baker, who still had his establishment at Coldwater. The Dakota attacked Baker's. Hole-in-the-Day took refuge inside the fort, and the Dakota threatened to attack. The garrison took the threat seriously enough to cut the brush around the fort to remove hiding places, and they kept someone standing by the cannons with a lit match (cotton cord soaked in saltpeter). Plympton wanted to expel all half-breeds from the reservation, which is another indication there were substantial numbers of squatters still on the west side. Battle was avoided in the vicinity of the fort, but the squatters thought this scare strengthened their case for being allowed to stay nearby.

In September, Taliaferro wrote a list of compensation offered to individuals for losses to the Indians. Perry was marked down for $459. Taliaferro thought the figures were inflated and he thought he recognized the handwriting of Col. Stambaugh, whom he distrusted. The squatters seem to have gotten along well with Stambaugh, as not only did they petition on Stambaugh's behalf as referred to earlier, but Stambaugh wrote a memorial on their behalf to Secretary of War Poinsett in February of 1839. This relation with Stambaugh may have been a sore point in the squatters' relations with Taliaferro.

Taliaferro recorded a specific instance of livestock loss by the Perrys. On the 18th of October, Mary Anne Perry called at the Indian Agency (the agency was located on the reservation near the fort) to complain that Dakota killed three cattle and wounded one near Stone Cave, about 3.5 to four miles from the fort. The meat wasn't touched. Taliaferro speculated that the Indians hadn't adjusted to the loss of their land yet, and there might be more trouble. Charles Perry, Mary Anne and Abraham's son, came to the agency the next day to discuss the loss of cattle, and he said a pig and a calf were taken. Taliaferro gave the Perrys $200 from the annuities, probably in the form of 10 barrels of flour Taliaferro made the Wabasha and Lake Pepin bands pay the Perrys on the 23rd. Taliaferro left on furlough the 24th. On the 25th, a logger named Levi Stratton passed the settlement now growing east of the reservation and commented that the Perrys made quite an improvement.

The memorial Stambaugh wrote in February of 1839 gave arguments for allowing settlement near the fort. Proximity to the fort offered the settlers protection from Indians, having the settlers right across the river from the fort would allow close observation of the whiskey trade, and the settlers' presence would protect value of claims, including those of officers.

Others thought otherwise. Plympton's March, 1839 letter to the War Department urged the expulsion of all settlers from the reservation. Dr. Emerson, the post surgeon, also complained about whiskey selling by settlers and the effects on the soldiers. In a letter to the Surgeon General in April, he mentioned Joseph R. Brown specifically. Emerson suggested extending the reservation line to the St.Croix, and he mentioned that the Indians retained the right to hunt on ceded lands. In May, two missionaries, Gideon Pond and Dr. Gavin, complained to Taliaferro about the effects on the Indians of whiskey selling. Taliaferro also mentioned seeing soldiers and Canadians (probably French-Canadian AFC employees) drunk near the agency. He doesn't say how common such occurrences were.

How seriously did the army take its whiskey problem? On June 2, Taliaferro talked about the squatter problem with Brig. Gen. John E. Wool, then visiting the fort. Wool reported that the "whiskey settlers" would go to war with the army, destroy army discipline, and exacerbate problems between the tribes. The very next day, 47 soldiers were confined to the guardhouse for drunkenness; that's roughly a third of the garrison. Taliaferro said they got the whiskey from Joseph R. Brown who, besides being an accused whiskey peddler, was a justice of the peace. A man named Mink, not mentioned in other records, was expelled. While the officers thought the whiskey was destroying discipline, the soldiers were drunkards at enlistment in the opinion of the Deputy U.S. Marshal for Wisconsin who carried out the evictions in 1840. The missionaries were in no doubt that the whiskey was devastating the Indians by causing them to devote their efforts to getting more whiskey, and resulting in drunken accidents and killings.

Concerns about Indian attack were likely encouraged by the Dakota threat the prior August, and in June and July, the Dakota/Ojibwa feud resulted in battles in which the Dakota took 95 Ojibwa scalps. Nevertheless, efforts to expel the squatters continued.

In October 1839, the U.S. Marshal of Wisconsin was ordered to eject intruders from the reservation, but the orders weren't received until February thanks to the distances involved, and the misdirection of the orders to Peru, Iowa instead of Wisconsin. This may be the only reason the squatters were evicted in the spring instead of right before winter, though the marshal and the officers might have been merciful enough to let them stay anyway since the deputy marshal was told to give them reasonable time to move. Lt. Thompson marked the reservation lines, which Taliaferro on October 5 said extended farther downriver than before (Taliaferro left St.Peter's for good on a steamboat that arrived the 7th). Plympton said the lines conformed to earlier survey and the lines were determined by the need for wood. Williams says this was a pretext, that the wood was never needed or used. This reservation line went to about Seven Corners, which is just blocks west of modern downtown St.Paul and several miles further downriver than any prior line. Plympton gave notice of eviction.

The squatters remained where they were and sought political support. They met at Perry's and had Brown write to the territorial legislature. They succeeded in gaining the support of the Wisconsin territorial government. The legislature passed a resolution supporting them in December 1839, and in January the delegate to Congress (later governor) J.D. Doty wrote to the Sec. of War saying the army had no right to claim land in a Territory.

The U.S. Marshal received the eviction order in February. When the Mississippi ice broke up in April, Deputy Marshal Brunson, based in Prairie du Chien, headed up to St.Peter's to carry out his orders.

Brunson arrived on May 1, 1840, and immediately gave notice. No one moved. Perhaps the settlers thought they still had legal options, or thought the deputy and the army wouldn't resort to force. Brunson had been told to seek any necessary help from the garrison, which request was granted.

On May 6, the deputy marshal and the soldiers came to drive off those whose claims fell on the wrong side of the reservation line. They removed squatters' belongings and either pulled down and burned down the houses, depending on whose account is believed. Henry Sibley, as territorial delegate, asked for compensation from Congress in 1849 and 1852, but Congress never acted. Sibley claimed the soldiers fell on the settlers without warning, were rude, insulted women, wantonly broke furniture, and fired upon and killed cattle. Deputy Brunson denied everything, and told Williams the soldiers were supervised and civil.

The evicted squatters moved east of the new reservation line to what became downtown St. Paul. The Perrys were one of the families forcibly evicted. Also among the evicted were Joseph Rondo, Pierre and Benjamin Gervais. Having again lost their property with no compensation, the Perrys moved in with daughter Rose and her husband, James Clewett. They did not succeed in rebuilding this time. Abraham Perry's health declined and he became paralyzed for a time. He still tried to work: Williams has a story of him cutting down a tree while sitting. Perry died in 1849. Mary Ann Perry lived with their grown children and died ten years later.