Henry Hastings Sibley
First governor of the state of Minnesota
Born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of a Michigan Supreme Court justice, Henry Sibley abandoned his own legal training at eighteen to pursue "a more active and stirring life." When he died some sixty years later, Sibley could look back on a truly active life that included stints as a fur trader, politician, military leader, and, finally, president of the St. Paul Gas Light Company.
Sibley arrived in Minnesota in 1834, settling in St. Peter's (now Mendota), where the house he built for himself still stands. Sibley was in charge of regional affairs for the American Fur Company and oversaw trade with Dakota Indians, from the Falls of St. Anthony to the Dubuque River and west to the headwaters of the Missouri River. Already fluent in French, during his time in Mendota Sibley also learned the Dakota language and forged friendships with missionaries, settlers, and Indians active in the fur trade.
Sibley's political career began in 1838 when he was appointed the first justice of the peace west of the Mississippi River. He was elected a delegate from Wisconsin Territory to the U.S. Congress in 1849, where he worked to ensure passage of an act recognizing Minnesota Territory. He insisted that his adopted home be named "Minnesota" rather than "Itasca," the name preferred by the territorial bill's sponsor, Stephen A. Douglas.
Sibley later served in the Minnesota legislature and was elected the state's first governor in 1858. He chose not to run for reelection, and for the rest of his life he pursued a range of interests--as a military commander, president of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents, president of the Minnesota Historical Society, and president of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce. He served as president of several banks and railroads, among other interests.
Like so many of his contemporaries who were active in shaping Minnesota, Sibley seems to us today to have conducted a life filled with contradictions. His years as a fur trader made him a trusted friend and advisor of Dakota Indians, yet in 1851 he headed a group of traders who negotiated the acquisition of vast tracts of Dakota land through the Treaties of Mendota and of Traverse des Sioux. In 1862, he was appointed commander of an emergency force of volunteer militia that fought Dakota Indians in the bloody U.S.-Dakota War. Later that year, after thirty-eight Dakota Indians had been hanged, it was Sibley who telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln that "everything went off quietly." Sibley's biographer, Rhoda Gilman, notes that in Sibley's writings she has "sensed a silent admission that there were things he could not say. . . . Like the rest of the country, he never questioned the moral superiority of European civilization and he saw assimilation with it as uplifting the 'savage.' Yet this easy justification for conquest, when contrasted with the reality of the Indians' fate, left an unhealed wound upon both man and nation."
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