Long before Minnesota became a state and St. Peter, Minn. became the home of four state governors, Traverse des Sioux was a bustling village featuring a river boat landing, hotel, and the site of the largest land treaty in Minnesota history.
Nary a trace of Traverse des Sioux remains, but the Minnesota Historical Society and Nicollet County Historical Society has made it possible for visitors to stroll the site and learn about its fabled history.
Running north of the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter is a mile-long trail winding through a large variety of native plantings. Along the trail are a number of kiosks detailing the history of the site. “The trail we recognize today opened in May 2002,” said NCHS Executive Director Jessica Becker. “In an effort to bring the grounds closer to their mid-nineteenth century appearance, some trees were removed, and native prairie grasses were planted.”
For thousands of years, the Dakota lived and worked at Traverse des Sioux. The site of their river crossing can be accessed by the trail today. By the early 19th century, European American fur traders, missionaries and adventurers were frequent visitors. A Native American mission was established there in 1843, and by 1851 Traverse des Sioux had two missionaries and their families, a school, several fur trading establishments, a few cabins of French voyageurs, and 20 to 30 Native American lodges. When Minnesota became a territory in 1849, white settlers were eager to establish homesteads on the fertile frontier. Pressured by traders and threatened with military force, leaders from the upper bands of the Dakota reluctantly agreed to sign a treaty turning over approximately 24 million acres in present-day Minnesota, South Dakota, and Iowa.
With the bands of Dakota relocated to strip of land along the Minnesota River, the town of Traverse des Sioux soon grew up around the site. At its peak, it had more than 70 buildings, including five taverns, two hotels and several churches. In 1856, however, nearby St. Peter was chosen as the county seat and by the late 1860s, nothing was left of the once-booming town of Traverse des Sioux.
The trail system is free to use from sunup to sundown. There is a fee to visit the treaty center museum. There is also a 10-mile primitive hiking and biking trail adjacent to the site.
Schools and adult groups regularly conduct field trips at the site. The location also plays host to prairie tours, snowshoeing classes, historical reenactments and other activities.
“Historic sites and museums thrive on the time and dedication of volunteers. Traverse des Sioux is no exception,” said Becker. “Currently we’re in the final year of prairie restoration with work and expertise provided by the Many Rivers Chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts. These volunteers have worked with the Nicollet County and Minnesota Historical Societies for the last five years to bring the prairie back its former glory and help create sustainable upkeep plans.”
The treaty center museum is currently closed because of the Covid-19 shutdown, but the trail is an easy walk, handicapped accessible, informative and beautiful with wildflowers blooming throughout the spring, summer and fall.
For more information, visit the Minnesota Historical Society’s website at www.mnhs.org/traversedessioux.