Henry Sibley Biography

The state's first governor commenced his long, colorful tenure in Minnesota in 1834 when it was the homeland of the Dakota and Ojibwe people. Henry Sibley began his career as a fur trader with the American Fur Company. For both good and ill, Sibley played a vital role in the transformation of Indian Country into the nation’s thirty-second state.

The well-educated son of a Michigan Supreme Court justice, Sibley was at ease with backcountry traders and Native people, as well as frontier gentry. He quickly earned the trust and respect of employees, officials and especially the Dakota with whom he traded.

Sibley soon became the most influential man in the territory, serving three times as territorial delegate to Congress (1849 –1853). He used his influence with the Dakota to force through the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851 which stripped them of more than 24 million acres of land and diverted a significant portion of the payments to cover alleged debts to fur traders, including Sibley himself.

Sibley narrowly defeated Alexander Ramsey in the first state gubernatorial contest in 1858. As Governor, he selected the design of the state seal and the state motto, “L’Étoile du Nord” or “Star of the North.” His success was short-lived. Soon after the election, the legislature rushed to issue five million dollars in railroad bonds in the midst of a nation-wide financial panic, leaving the state virtually bankrupt. Sibley unfairly took the brunt of the criticism and bitterly retired from politics after one term.

During the U.S.– Dakota War of 1862, Governor Ramsey called the 51-year-old Sibley to lead a military force against Dakota Indians. Sibley had no previous military experience but he knew the Dakota well and had a healthy respect for their courage and skills. Because he proceeded cautiously, the press accused him of being too soft on the Dakota.

Far from sympathetic or lenient, Sibley quickly convened a military commission that condemned 303 Dakota to death and protested when President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences to prison terms. Following the hanging of 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, Sibley was awarded the rank of General and assigned to pursue the fleeing Dakota farther west.

Later in life, Sibley enjoyed the role of elder statesman, businessman, president of the University of Minnesota board of regents, and the Minnesota Historical Society. Sibley was a prolific chronicler of the state history he helped make. He died in St. Paul in 1891.