Josiah Snelling’s quarters
Early October 1825
Snelling paced the room while Anton was seated on the straight-backed chair in front of the office desk. The smell of tobacco smoke was in the air. “I want you to lead a small contingent of troopers to Lake Traverse with the sole purpose of studying the conduct of traders at the Columbia Fur Company and the organization of that post under the leadership of Joseph Renville.”
Anton listened while the Colonel explained himself.
“Renville was licensed to conduct the fur trade in the area of Lake Traverse and Lac qui Parle. He has a strong personality and natural leadership attributes that rankled a few that came up against him, none more than John Jacob Astor himself.”
Snelling walked behind his desk and sat down before continuing.
“Astor felt that Renville was costing him thousands of dollars by trading in the area that was controlled by the American Fur Company. The problem facing Astor’s organization was one of poor leadership, so much so that Renville was approached to run the posts, sharing in profits, but also sharing any loss.”
Anton commented, “It sounds like Renville is a pretty good leader.”
“Somehow he is able to maintain order and discipline where no one else has been able to. I’m going to send some scribes into the area to learn all they can about his organization. I’d like you to take two men to Fort Washington and two others to Renville’s post at Lac qui Parle.”
Snelling tapped a well-used pipe against his desk, spreading cold tobacco ash on the floor, and then stuffed the bowl with fresh tobacco and laid it on the corner of his desk, unlit.
“Winter will soon wrap us in a blanket of snow so I figure you should spend the season there. I calculate it’ll take six months for my men to learn the ins and outs of how the posts are managed. While they do their work, I want you to move around the area. Get to know the bands and gain their trust. But most of all, learn their strengths and weaknesses.”
“Colonel, I like these people. I relate to them. I’m not going to spy, looking for ways that they may be defeated in battle.” Anton liked talking to Snelling. He liked to speak in the proper manner taught to him by Drury, and the Colonel was one of the few who spoke the educated tongue. There was a mutual respect, and each spoke their minds.
“Don’t misunderstand me Anton. The information you learn will help them when the area is opened up to settlers. The U.S. Government is making treaties with native people, and our Dakota friends will get a fair deal. There is no ill intent, only a desire to know what is important to them, the better to provide for their needs.”
Anton knew that Snelling was a career officer, and as such strove for promotion and heightened authority. However, he also trusted the Colonel’s sense of fairness. Nevertheless, deeply troubled by the Colonel’s request, he sought council with a second white man, Indian agent for the western tribes, Major Lawrence Taliaferro; the man he first met at Shakopee’s camp and for whom he had gained a great respect.
“Annawon, my friend.”
Taliaferro often addressed Anton by his given name, and was likely the only living person to do so. “I fear for our red brothers. The Washington bureau concerned with affairs of the Indian is filled with scoundrels, unaware and uncaring. I fear for the future of these great people.”
Anton responded, “Your high regard for them is felt by the Chippewa and Dakota. Your dealings have been fair and your words true.”
“Last year, when I gathered the great chiefs from the Sioux, Chippewa, and Menominee people and traveled to Washington, I expected their stately bearing and outright openness to impress the powerful men there. In reality, they were but a sideshow paraded from reception to reception in their finest dress and treated as children. Oh . . . great words were spoken and many promises made. Promises that have already been broken.”
Anton was getting his first lesson in political reality and he was growing increasingly uncomfortable. “Surely the white father can see the ambition of these men, the men holding the power over the future of the great Indian nations.”
With a chill in the late October air, Taliaferro rose to place another piece of wood on the fire. They were in the confines of his small office and the fire crackled as the flame licked at the freshly split log, red-hot cinders popping and sending sparks streaming up the chimney.
“Annawon, you are a good man. Your concern for the people is evident. I believe we can forestall the inevitable if you are willing to help me.”
Anton responded with a brief nod.
“The bureau has the power to grant licenses for trading in the territory. It is the agents’ duty to fairly divide and issue those licenses in a prudent manner. A blanket license was issued to the American Fur Company through agents at Mackinac. One agent, George Boyd, issued blank sub-licenses. Trappers now roam the Indian country doing business wherever they please, neutralizing the law that designates points at which the trade should be conducted. My hands are tied until I receive specific authority to stop it.”
Taliaferro leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped. “Annawon . . . I would like you to go to the Big Stone area. Talk to people. If possible, contact Mazasha, Red Iron, and see if he has seen trouble brewing. Red Iron is one of the few that see the big picture. He is wise. I’ve got to control what’s happening, and you can be a factor.”
Anton again answered with a nod and the conversation deepened, revealing facts that were troubling, yet filling him with a positive energy for the future. A future that he could influence to a great degree by how he accomplished the dual tasks set to him by Snelling and Taliaferro—two men with their own agendas and visions.
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