The Federal Government and the Native People: Treaties and Reservations

Since American colonial days until 1871, the federal government made treaties with the Indian nations. Since the presidency of Andrew Jackson in 1830 the removal of native people from their homelands to less desirable, far away land became open public policy. The westward march of whites and the ever increasing demand for farm land brought hundreds of treaties, all of them to the disadvantage of Indian people.

Eventually by the 1850s the government treaty-making commissions and negotiations reached the Northern Plains. With the creation of Dakota Territory in 1861 and the Homestead Act in 1862, the pressure for more and more land for settlement increased year after year.
The treaty and reservation making process spanned the years from 1851 into the 1890s. Four reservations were established and treaties negotiated or agreements reached with all the state’s native people—the Three Tribes, the Yanktonai, the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota, the Lakota, and the Plains Chippewa.

Fort Berthold

In 1851 the Treaty of Fort Laramie established the general borders for the reservation of the Three Tribes—the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. It consisted of more than 12 million acres west of the Missouri, between the Yellowstone and Cannonball Rivers. In 1870 Indian agents became concerned that quite a few white settlers had squatted within the boundaries of the reservation. The federal government claimed that the limits of the reservation had never been exactly defined. To remedy the situation, by executive order President U. S. Grant formally established Fort Berthold Reservation of eight million acres.

Ten years later when the Northern Pacific Railroad was planning to extend its line through western Dakota and through the southern portion of the Fort Berthold Reservation, its president, Frederick Billings, talked U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes into further reducing the reservation. Hayes chopped another five million acres (the southern two-thirds) from the reservation.
In 1886 the government persuaded the Three Tribes into selling two-thirds of their remaining reservation land and to use the proceeds to pay for homes, schools, and other needs. It was also agreed that land would be allotted for individual Indian ownership.  Unallotted lands were to be held in trust by the Three Tribes. Congress ratified this in 1891. In the following year President Benjamin Harrison added 23,000 acres to the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Fort Totten

The reservation of the Three Tribes illustrates the gradual reduction in size of a people’s land—people who hunted and lived on that land. The Fort Totten Reservation’s story is quite different—it illustrates removal. Native people gave up their homeland someplace else and agreed to move to a new reservation. After the Dakota Uprising of 1862, the federal government was determined to move them out of Minnesota. In the Treaty of 1867 the Dakota Sisseton and Wahpeton bands were held blameless in the 1862 war and their treaty rights were restored. They received new lands. They located on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation (only a small tip of the reservation is in present-day North Dakota) or on the Devils Lake, also called Fort Totten, Reservation. Those who wanted to farm received 160 acres of land. (Title to the land would be granted only to “competent Indians” after several years.)

The government agreed that when 500 people had located at Devils Lake, an agent would be appointed. In order to persuade them to become farmers, the Treaty stipulated that no food, clothing, or other goods would be provided for able-bodied men. The Cuthead Band of Yanktonai were also allowed to settle on the Fort Totten Reservation. The Treaty of 1867 did not undo the native people’s claims to about 8 million acres of land in eastern Dakota Territory. Finally in 1872 the government agreed to pay $800,000 for the land—about 10 cents an acre.
The boundaries of the Fort Totten Reservation were ill-defined and its size decreased from time to time:  300,000 acres in 1867; 275,000 acres by 1880; 230,000 acres in 1884. In 1883 a resurvey of the reservation discovered that whites had homesteaded on 64,000 acres of reservation land. A hassle with Congress over payment for the lost acres dragged on into the twentieth century. (In 1904 Congress required the homesteader to pay $3.25 per acre for the land.)

The Great Sioux Reservation

The Sisseton and Wahpeton, Dakota, Cuthead Yanktonai, and Three Tribes numbers were small in comparison to the thousands of Lakota with whom the government negotiated. And, the Lakota were hunters who needed great space in which to live. The seven Lakota bands were represented at the Laramie Treaty conference in 1851. There they claimed millions of acres of land from Canada to Kansas; no one objected to their claim. The treaty, however, was never ratified. Between 1851 and 1868 some Lakota, especially the Oglala and Brule, fought to keep the whites—army and road builders—from crossing or occupying their land.

In 1867 Congress created a Peace Commission to negotiate a new treaty. The Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 established boundaries for what was called The Great Sioux Reservation: 25 million acres, all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The Lakota claims in present-day Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota were marked as “hunting territory” and the Lakota could hunt those areas as long as buffalo roamed there. The treaty also stipulated that the government provide food, clothing, farming tools, education, and other assistance. The Lakota promised that they would stop attacking white officials and the government agreed to prevent white settlement within the reservation. The government hoped that the Lakota would turn from hunting to farming.
Some Lakota, especially Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa, refused to accept the settlement. Some Lakota attacked railroad survey crews to the west of Bismarck. More Lakota became angry when the army under Colonel George Armstrong Custer surveyed the Black Hills in 1874. This was an open violation of the treaty.

In 1875 President Grant extended the reservation north to the Cannonball River in present-day North Dakota. That same year the government met with the Lakota bands to negotiate a mineral right (gold had been discovered) purchase in the Black Hills and rights-of-way for roads. The Lakota refused to consider the sale of their sacred places.  In spite of treaties, miners and business interests flooded into the Black Hills. Tensions between the Lakota and whites grew with each passing day.

After the death of Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn in June 1876, the government became determined to move the Lakota out of the Hills and onto a more restricted reservation. That fall a government treaty commission drew up a document that forced the Lakota out of the Black Hills and their “hunting territory.”  There was no negotiation; the commission traveled from band to band to get the required signatures. Although in some cases not enough required signatures were obtained, Congress enacted the Treaty in 1877.
In 1879 and 1884, presidential executive orders placed Lakota land east of the Missouri River in the public domain for white settlement. With statehood for the Dakotas white pressure for more land forced Congress in 1889 to break up the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller units. This opened nine million acres of reservation land to homesteading. On February 10, 1890, Standing Rock Reservation was officially organized.

Turtle Mountain

The last reservation to be created in northern Dakota was the Turtle Mountain Reservation in 1882 by order of President Chester A. Arthur. This brought to the twenty-two township (286,000 acres) reservation the Plains Chippewa and Métis of the north and the Pembina Band of Chippewa. This, however, was not the first dealings that the government had had with the Chippewa who had moved to the prairies of Dakota from the woods of Minnesota.

In 1863 the Pembina Band gave up claim to the northern Red River Valley in return for the right to homestead in that area and a 640-acre reservation on the north side of the Pembina River for the few who could not homestead. The Pembina Band, however, maintained their claim to 10 million acres in northern Dakota.

The Turtle Mountain Reservation provided a home for all the Plains Chippewa and Métis who were in northern Dakota and as a result the Pembina Band reservation ceased to exist. Two years after the creation of the reservation, President Arthur drastically reduced its size from 286,880 to just 46,080 acres. This unexpected and unwarranted action caused severe problems. The reservation could not accommodate the people! The government dropped, with little rationality, many from the tribal rolls. Some took up public land at Devils Lake and Trenton, near Williston. Others took land in Montana.

In 1892 the government agreed to pay the Turtle Mountain people one million dollars for the ten million acres that they claimed in northern North Dakota: ten cents an acre.

The federal government dealt in different ways with the different tribes in matters of boundaries and compensation for lost land. Adjustment to the reservation, however, was a common experience. In most cases one word describes that adjustment— DIFFICULT. The confines of a reservation went against the natural Indian ways.

Most Indians were less than eager to stay on or go to the reservation. Sitting Bull and his people refused for years to go to the reservation, fleeing into Canada at one time. The Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Cuthead Yanktonai moved as slowly as possible toward Devils Lake. Even at Fort Berthold where the usually accommodating Three Tribes lived, Crow-Flies-High stayed off the reservation with his band of “Huskies” between 1870 and 1894.

And the reservation life was hard. The government wanted the native people to become farmers. In many cases neither the land nor the people were suited to farming and the government discouraged ranching. Food was often in short supply. During the winter of 1887, 150 people starved to death on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.
In the effort to “Americanize” the Indians, agents on the various reservations banned traditional Indian religion, language, and learning. Educational and spiritual matters were left to Christian religious groups. For examples, Roman Catholics started schools at Fort Totten in 1874, at Standing Rock in 1876, and Turtle Mountain in 1884. The Congregationalists set up schools at Fort Berthold in 1876 and Standing Rock in 1884. Some children were sent off the reservation to boarding schools. The schools taught white ways and white spiritual beliefs. Government policy clearly intended to turn Indian people into white people.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

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