View of Mendota, Seth Eastman, 1848.
During the first two decades of the 19th century, the fur trade boomed in the Northwest Territory. By the 1830s the American Fur Company (AFC) dominated the trade in the region. The AFC was one of America’s first multi-national companies, with European countries importing the majority of furs. The company held a monopoly over the American fur industry, forcing out foreign and domestic competition whenever possible, becoming one of the largest corporations in the nation and making its founder, John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men of his time.
Interior or a typical fur trading post,
ca. 1877. MNHS collections.
Henry Sibley was appointed regional manager of the AFC's "Sioux Outfit" and made his headquarters at Mendota in 1834. After his arrival at Mendota, Sibley reorganized his department, travelled to all the posts within his jurisdiction, and built both a stone warehouse and residence at Mendota. Sibley's home did duty as a private residence, business office and hotel for individuals travelling in the area. Sibley relied on the trading posts scattered throughout the territory to supply him with furs, which were then auctioned off to processors in the U.S. and abroad. Sibley worked with traders, American Indians, and voyageurs to ensure the successful harvest and transportation of fur.
During his time at Mendota, Sibley established close ties with the local Dakota community. He often hunted with Dakota men and wrote about his experiences for a New York magazine, Spirit of the Times, under the pen-name "Hal a Dacotah." Sibley entered into a kinship relationship with some of the Mdewankanton Dakota through his union with Red Blanket Woman, the daughter of Bad Hail, in the winter of 1839-40. Their daughter, Helen Hastings or Wahkiyee (Bird), was raised by missionary William Brown and his wife and was educated in a missionary school. Fur traders often relied on kinship networks to maintain trade with particular Dakota communities. Details are unclear, but it is believed that Sibley left Red Blanket Woman in 1842, and she died the following spring.
Sarah Steele Sibley, ca. 1858.
In 1843 Sibley married Sarah Jane Steele, the sister of friend and business associate Franklin Steele. In order to accommodate a family, Sibley converted his business headquarters into a family home. He built an addition to his stone house, a privy and an ice house. The Sibleys had nine children, four of whom lived to adulthood (Augusta Ann, Sarah Jane, Charles Frederick and Alfred Brush).
By the early 1840s the fur trade was dying in the region. Treaties with the U.S. government reduced prime fur hunting territories for the Dakota, and the demand for furs declined due to changing fashion trends. In 1842 the American Fur Company went bankrupt, but Sibley decided to remain in the Minnesota region, claiming that he was "better known in this country than I am any where else...it is all together probable that I can [earn] my livelihood at St. Peter's or elsewhere in Minnesota, with less exertion than would be necessary elsewhere." Sibley subsequently became a land speculator, investing in land at Traverse des Sioux, Hastings, St. Anthony Falls and Mendota. In December 1862 Sibley moved his family to a large house in St. Paul and began selling off his Mendota properties.
Bibliography / Resources
- Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society press, 1997.
- Gilman, Carolyn. Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982.
- Gilman, Rhoda R. Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2004.
- Grabitske, David M. Six Miles from St. Paul: The Family and Society of Sarah Jane Sibley. Mendota, MN: Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, 2008.
- Kohn, Bruce A. Dakota Child, Governor’s Daughter: The Life of Helen Hastings Sibley. Mendota, MN: Friends of the Sibley Historic Site, 2012.
- Lass, William E. Minnesota: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.
- White, Helen M. Henry Sibley's First Years at St. Peters or Mendota. St. Paul: Turnstone Historical Research, 2002.
- Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Web Resources & PDFs