This year (1999) is the 150th Anniversary of Progress in Little Falls, Minnesota. A dictionary definition of progress is “gradual betterment; especially: the progressive development of mankind”. This definition as related to progress in Little Falls, speaks to the city’s commercial and industrial development, starting with the building of the first dam in 1849. The city has clicked along with some ups and downs since then, but is economic progress the only progress there is? What was the definition of progress to the inhabitants of the area before there was a city of Little Falls?
We are now in the realm of the Indians. With their tradition of oral history, it is difficult to document much of their past in this area before the arrival of the Europeans. William Warren, author of History of the Ojibway People, attempts to reconstruct some of this history. His book was written between 1851 and 1852 (close to the beginnings of Little Falls). Warren wrote much of it in what is now Bellevue Township, Morrison County. (Minnesota was still a Territory during this time.) He was in a unique position to capture the stories of the Ojibway Indians and their encounters with other Indians and the “Whites” because he was part Ojibway and part European (French & English). He learned both the Ojibway and English languages and served as an interpreter during treaty signings.
What comes across in Warren’s book is that the Indian’s idea of progress was certainly not the same as the European’s. It never occurred to the Indians to take advantage of the natural resources in a materialistic or economic sense until the Whites came into the area. Back in the mists of time, the Ojibway apparently lived on the eastern coast of the continent. Within their oral memories, they migrated and eventually set up their homeland on LaPointe Island in Lake Superior. The Ojibway made it a habit to settle on islands so as to avoid attacks from neighboring unfriendly tribes. While at LaPointe, their ancestral enemies were the Sioux or Dacotah, the Foxes and the Iroquois.
Progress to most of the Indian tribes at this time was to have tribal lands that were free from attack and that had enough resources to support the tribe. The general impression of Indians conveyed in history classes is that they had no permanent home and were constantly on the move. Not so! They were very attached to their ancestral lands and had boundaries separating each tribe. This was much like the countries in Europe where France, Spain, Britain, and Italy all have their definitive boundaries. The Sioux, Ojibway, Iroquois, and Foxes all had their boundary lines, too. Within the Ojibway area, villages cropped up hither and yon. Family members often travelled to these villages for visits. Hunting parties also used the entire area to gather food.
The Ojibway were quite satisfied living on LaPointe and in the Lake Superior region and this is where they first encountered the white fur traders. According to Warren, the Ojibway were fond of the French furtraders. The French had great respect for the Ojibway and tried to work within their spiritual framework. The British, in contrast, were pushy and domineering. This was Manifest Destiny, after all.
The French and the British knew that the Indians could help them with their furtrading ventures, so they set up the Indians with supplies and guns. The Ojibway apparently were given guns before their foes, the Sioux, were. Now they had a new definition of progress. With the guns, they could keep the Sioux out of their ancestral lands.
With the expansion of the eastern United States, all of the Indian tribes were being pushed like dominoes to the west. The Ojibway felt this push from the Iroquois and Foxes, so they, in turn, pushed the Sioux. They decided to drive the Sioux out of the Minnesota area with the help of the Assiniboin and Cree Indians. Through a long series of battles, the Ojibway eventually managed to take control of Mille Lacs, along with Sandy, Leech, Red, Winnibigosh, and Cass Lakes. The Mille Lacs takeover was especially difficult for the Sioux, as this was their revered homeland. They resettled in the Minnesota River Valley. The entire central Minnesota area remained a point of contention between the two tribes, with small skirmishes breaking out periodically. The furtraders were not happy with the fighting between the Sioux and the Ojibway because, when the Indians were at battle, they neglected to collect furs for the French and English. As a consequence, the Whites tried many times to bring peace between the tribes. The Treaty of 1825, signed at Praire du Chien, established a boundary line between the Ojibway and the Sioux which was just north of St. Cloud in Minnesota.
By this time, the Whites were moving into Minnesota Territory and living rather peacefully with the Indians. Perhaps the unsettling of two major Indian tribes gave the Whites a backdoor advantage for their own settlements. Eventually, the Federal Government stepped in and displaced entire tribes to suit its purposes. The government wanted land for the immigrant explosion and it wanted the fighting to cease between the Ojibway and Sioux. The Winnebago were brought in as a buffer between the warring tribes in the late 1840s. (Fort Gaines was erected in 1849 to assist the Winnebago in their buffering duties. It was renamed Fort Ripley in 1850.) More treaties were signed between the Indians and the Federal Government in which the Indians (both Sioux and Ojibway) agreed to give up huge tracts of their land in exchange for money and provisions. More often than not, the treaties were “rigged” against the Indians, who didnot get all they were promised. The progress that was forthcoming to the Whites, was certainly not progress for the Indians.
This eventually led to a new definition of progress for the Ojibway and Sioux; namely, drive the Whites out of Minnesota. According to Carl A. Zapffe in his book, Kahbe nagwi wens: The Man Who Lived in 3 Centuries, Kwi-wi-sens, who was the Ojibway Chief Hole-in-the-Day II, and Chief Little Crow of the Sioux made an allegiance that started what is now known as the 1862 Sioux Uprising. Kwi-wi-sens and Little Crow were aware of the fact that most of the able-bodied white men in Minnesota had left to go fight in the Civil War. Now was their chance to get rid of the rest. Chief Little Crow and his followers successfully massacred hundreds of Whites before being stopped. Kwi-wi-sens barely got going. A number of Whites tried to talk Kwi-wi-sens out of his plans, including Father Pierz and Clement Beaulieu. Kwi-wi-sens and his warriors managed to burn the St. Columba Mission to ashes and take a few white prisoners before being stopped at Fort Ripley by a number of Ojibway chiefs who were willing to attack the chief if they had to. He was stymied and backed down.
Can the progress of Little Falls be considered true progress considering the seeming lack of progress it produced for the Indians? That is left for the reader to decide while pulling the handle of a slot machine. (Maybe time will produce the progress all seek.)
By Mary Warner
Copyright 1999, Morrison County Historical Society