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Henry Hastings Sibley was Minnesota’s ‘Wahzeomanee’

Henry Hastings Sibley

The son of Solomon Sibley and Sarah Sproat, Henry Hastings Sibley arrived in Detroit, Michigan on February 20, 1811. His father was a native of Sutton, Massachusetts and became a prominent judge in the state of Michigan after participating in the westward migration following the American Revolution.

As a young man, Henry was schooled in the classics, then read (studied) law at his father’s office in preparation for his bar exam and licensing. In 1828, he began work as a clerk for a mercantile establishment in Sault Ste. Marie. The town served as a prominent fur trading center for both Canadian and US trappers/traders.

Between the years 1829 and 1834, Hastings was the supply-purchasing agent for Mackinac’s American Fur Company. He was made a partner in the company in 1834 and transferred to AFC’s headquarters in St. Peter’s, Minnesota (now known as Mendota). St. Peter’s would be his home from 1834 to 1862.

Sibley built Minnesota’s first private residence, a stone house, in 1836, which is today the Sibley House Historic Site. Overlooking Fort Snelling on the opposite side of the Mississippi, the home is located in Mendota.

During the winter of 1839-40, Sibley was part of a de facto marriage to Red Blanket Woman. Red Blanket was the granddaughter of a Mdewakanton Dakota chief and bore Henry a daughter, Helen Hastings Sibley. Born in August 1841, she was also given the Indian name “Wahkiyee” (Bird). Though the circumstances of Sibley’s relationship with Red Blanket are relatively unknown, it is believed she remarried a man of the Dakota nation in 1842, then died the following year.

Sarah Jane Steele became Sibley’s second wife on May 2, 1843. The daughter of General James Steele, commander of Fort Snelling, and Mary Hume; Sarah’s brother was a prominent businessman in Minneapolis and her sister’s husband was St. Paul’s first mayor. Sarah bore Henry seven children and had little contact with her stepdaughter. This was due to the fact Helen was adopted by a missionary family and grew up in St. Paul. Henry maintained a congenial relationship with his daughter until she died in 1859.

Though all of the children born to Henry and Sarah began life in the stone house he built, their birth certificates reflect different political units, as a result of the numerous territorial changes during those years – Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota Territory and finally the state of Minnesota on May 11, 1858, 32nd to join the Union.

In 1838, Henry Sibley’s political career began when he became the first Justice of the Peace west of the Mississippi River. Iowa’s Territorial Governor, John Chambers, appointed him to the post. This was followed by his election as a delegate to the 30th United States Congress, filling the seat vacated by John H. Tweedy from the Wisconsin Territory, due to his disqualification.

Between October 30, 1848 and March 3, 1849, Sibley served as the at-large congressional district representative. This district was later eliminated when the Minnesota Territory was crated on March 2, 1849. Rather than "Itasca," the name preferred by the territorial bill's sponsor, Stephen A. Douglas, Sibley insisted that his adopted home be named "Minnesota" (Dakota mnísóta - whitish [cloudy or milky] water).

Despite the fact Wisconsin had become a state; Sibley continued his term as a delegate from the Territory of Wisconsin until March 3, 1849. The district was then officially eliminated when the congressional session ended. The Minnesota Territory soon formed and Sibley returned to Congress to serve as its first representative. The post was an at-large position during the 31st and 32nd congresses, which were in session from July 7, 1849 until March 3, 1853. The area Sibley represented included a portion of Wisconsin and a tract of land west of the Mississippi River.

Between January and March 1855, Sibley served in the Minnesota Territorial House of Representatives, sent there by the citizens of Dakota County. A member of the Democratic Party during the first Minnesota Constitutional Convention, Sibley later became the presiding officer. During the assembly beginning July 13, 1857, the convention framed Minnesota’s constitution, which was adopted on October 13th.

The following year, Henry Hastings Sibley was elected Minnesota’s first governor. He would become the first of four Democratic governors of the state to win election at the same time there was a Democrat in the White House. Sibley’s term of office began on May 24, 1858 after he narrowly defeated Republican Alexander Ramsey and lasted until January 2, 1860. During his inaugural address, Sibley declared, “I have no object and no interests which are not inseparably bound up with the welfare of the state.” At the end of his term, he chose not to seek reelection.

As the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad began, Governor Sibley was approached by the legislature on the subject of issuing bonds to the railroads. He refused, and based this refusal on the fact the railroads would not give priority of lien on their property to Minnesota. The Minnesota Supreme Court intervened and ordered Governor Sibley to issue the bonds the legislature had authorized. Per the request of the legislature, Sibley endeavored to market the bonds in New York; however, the capitalists there refused to purchase them. Following this, the state repudiated their issuance.

In 1862, Sibley acquired a new title. With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Sibley was appointed a colonel in the Minnesota militia. His greatest “claim to fame” during his Union Army service was his efforts in suppressing the "Sioux Uprising of 1862" in Minnesota. To the Sioux or Dakota people, Sibley was known as "Wah-ze-o-man-ee" (Walker in the Pines). The name had a potent influence among them, both near and far, throughout the time the Dakota race dwelt within the Minnesota Territory. Sibley and his troops were assigned to the upper Minnesota River to protect settlements there against the Sioux Indians.

During the summer, the Santee Sioux took encouragement with respect to the Federal soldiers being sent east and rebelled against Minnesota’s white settlers. Chief Little Crow led them on a rampaged across the Minnesota River Valley, killing more than 800 whites in the process. The governor commissioned Sibley a colonel in the state’s militia and assigned him to command 1,400 volunteers. Following the Acton Massacre on August 18, 1862, he also saw action in the Battles of New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee and Wood Lake.

Of these, Wood Lake was the most decisive battle. Sibley and his troops defeated Little Crow’s warriors on September 23, 1862, resulting in the Sioux releasing 250 white captives and the militia capturing 2,000 Sioux, both men and women. 321 of those captured were put on trial in a “kangaroo court” for capital crimes, of which 303 were sentenced to death. 28 men were hanged on December 26, 1862 at Mankato; one of which had had his sentence commuted by President Lincoln.

Afterwards the Sioux fled into the Dakotas and Sibley received a promotion to Brigadier General. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to confirm the commission, which was given on September 29, 1862 and expired on March 4, 1863. The commission was reappointed and confirmed on March 20th. Sibley was later brevetted Major General for "efficient and meritorious service" on November 29, 1865, then mustered out on April 30, 1866, at the close of the American Civil War. Following his military service, Sibley became active in helping to settle a number of Indian treaties.

Sibley had moved his family to St. Paul in 1862, and when he returned to his business life following the war, he served as the president of not only the local Chamber of Commerce, but also several corporations, with banks and railroads numbered among them. Civic organizations also listed his name on their leadership rosters, including the Minnesota Historical Society, which he had joined in 1849 and would go on to serve as president. In addition, Sibley served the University of Minnesota as President of the Board of Regents.

Postwar Minnesota offered a number of opportunities for Sibley to prosper. An active businessman, Sibley saw success with a bank, an insurance company and also St. Paul Gas Light Company.

Sibley died in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 18, 1891 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery. During his life, Sibley served as an example of an individual who was somewhat pragmatic, yet possessing an almost charismatic personality. He was blessed with the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time on a number of occasions and bring a sense of order, righteousness, and permanence to an unstable community. Through personal example, Sibley helped to put Minnesota on the road to producing individuals who tend to be part family man, part statesman, part soldier, part outdoorsman, part preacher, part cad, part introvert, and part motivator.

Though he did not end his life with anything remotely resembling an unblemished record regarding fairness, Henry Hastings Sibley continues to be an example of what Minnesota expects of her leaders.

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