St. Croix Riverway
Time and the River: A History of the Saint Croix
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Valley of Plenty, River of Conflict

Moving almost silently through the forest Little Crow approached the place where he had set one of his steel beaver traps. Through the morning mist the Mdewakanton Sioux leader saw that someone had preceded him to the site. The stranger lifted the trap, heavy with a fine, fresh beaver carcass, and was about to remove the valuable catch when he suddenly looked up to see Little Crow. With "a loaded rifle in his hands" Little Crow "stood maturely surveying him." The stranger was not a Sioux, or as Little Crow himself would have referred to his people, a Dakota. The man was dressed in the manner of the Chippewa. For two generations the Dakota and the Chippewa had been at war for control of the Upper Mississippi and St. Croix River valleys. This Chippewa had been caught not only deep in Dakota Territory, but also in the act of committing the worst type of thievery, robbing another hunter's trap. As an act of war and self-defense, Little Crow "would have been justified in killing him on the spot, and the thief looked for nothing else, on finding himself detected." [1]

"Take no alarm at my approach," said Little Crow. Instead of raising his rifle, the Dakota chief spoke gently. "I only come to present to you the trap of which I see you stand in need. You are entirely welcome to it." The wary Chippewa was further taken back when Little Crow held out his rifle. "Take my gun also, as I perceive you have none of your own." The chief capped this unlikely encounter by offering the stunned Chippewa a healthy piece of advice, "depart. . .to the land of your countrymen, but linger not here, lest some of my young men who are panting for the blood of their enemies, should discover your foot steps in our country, and fall on you." With that, Little Crow turned his back on the rearmed enemy and traced his steps back to his village.

The story of Little Crow's gesture was recorded by the United States Indian Agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in his narrative of an 1820 journey to the Upper Mississippi country. Schoolcraft included the story because it illustrated the contradictory perception held by European Americans of the Dakota people. Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike who had visited Little Crow's village in 1805 had described the Dakota as "the most warlike and independent nation of Indians within the boundaries of the United States, their every passion being subservient to that of war." Yet Schoolcraft also noted that they were "a brave, spirited, and generous people." Little Crow's gesture was magnanimous, but it also was an exercise of supreme self-confidence by a warrior whose mastery over his opponent did not depend upon his ownership of a mere firearm. Through his exaggerated generosity, Little Crow counted a notable coup. Through Little Crow's action the Chippewa thief was reduced in status from that of an invader, to that of a mere beggar. The encounter also underscores an important historical point. For the Dakota and the Chippewa, the most important event on the St. Croix between the mid-eighteenth century and mid-nineteenth century, was not the expansion of the fur trade nor the arrival of European-American settlers, but a terrible and persistent intertribal war. It was the interests and actions of the Indians, not those of a handful of fur traders or Indian agents that shaped the early history of the valley. [2]

sketch of Chippewa Family
Figure 1. A Chippewa Family, c. 1821. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.

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Last Updated: 17-Oct-2002