My hobbies sometimes run together. I searched an 1896 land ownership map for Wabasha County, Minnesota, hoping to find the footprints of a peripheral ancestor. I knew the Nineteenth Century property ownership existed, in fact I’d visited the site in person, but I’d never seen this particular vintage map before. The print covered a small farming community a few miles west of the Mississippi River, a place called Plainview.
View Larger Map
I wasn’t expecting anything particularly remarkable. I like old maps and I wanted to gaze upon the family name printed upon it, and I found it readily. Look along the bottom of the image, about half-way across for the name E. L. Sylvester on an 80 acre parcel. Edwin L. Sylvester was the eldest son of George W. Sylvester, the original homesteader, and he owned the property when the map came into existence.
However I noticed something unusual, a diagonal line that ran directly through many of the properties in this section of Plainview Township. I drilled down and read the label. It was something called the "Sioux Half Breed Treaty Line." I had absolutely no idea what that was about. I knew from previous research that this branch of my family arrived in Minnesota only a few years after Native Americans had been forced from their land. But what should I make of this peculiar Half Breed label?
I found a surprising amount of information. The U.S. Government and Native Americans of various tribes set aside several of what they called "Half Breed Tracts" in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota through a series of treaties negotiated circa 1820-1830. Traders and explorers of European descent had long wandered along the upper Mississippi watershed. They met plenty of Indian women and left behind lots of children that weren’t accepted completely by either community. Even so, both communities must have felt at least a modicum of responsibility because they set aside specific lands for these people of mixed descent.
The tract in Minnesota, the one I’d spotted on that 1896 map, was created by Article 9 of the 4th Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1830.
The Sioux Bands in Council having earnestly solicited that they might have permission to bestow upon the half breeds of their Nation, the tract of land within the following limits, to wit: Beginning at a place called the barn, below and near the village of the Red Wing Chief, and running back fifteen miles; thence in a parallel line with Lake Pepin and the Mississippi, about thirty-two miles to a point opposite Beef or O-Boeuf River; thence fifteen miles to the Grand Encampment opposite the River aforesaid; The United States agree to suffer said half Breeds to occupy said tract of country; they holding by the same title, and in the same manner that other Indian Titles are held.
Wikipedia actually has a pretty good overview and provides a map. It is the green block with the number 232.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain
None of these reservations that were set-aside expressly for mutli-ethnic people exist today. They didn’t even exist on the 1896 map I spotted except as an artifact. What happened after their creation is a matter of various views. Some sources claim that the government forced people from these lands on a pretext when it seemed that minerals might be located there. Others claim that it was quite a bit more complicated and that the rightful owners were essentially swindled by unscrupulous land speculators not connected with the government. Either way they were gone by the 1850’s due to one dubious scheme or another.
There wasn’t much sympathy for the dispossessed even as late as 1920 when the History of Wabasha County Minnesota wryly noted,
This “Half-Breed Tract,” the reservation of which was doubtless made through the influence of the Indian traders and those in their employ who had married Indian women, subsequently was the cause of much trouble which delayed the permanent settlement of the lands involved.
The occupants and claimants of the so-called Half Breed Tract weren’t seen as much more than speed bumps blocking "permanent settlement." That was an unfortunate sign of the times. All evidence of these people were removed from the territory with the exception of a series of dotted lines on vintage maps.