“’Tis hard to live in a world where all look upon you as below them.”
James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer
When Wilkinson was growing up on a farm near the tall woods of central New York State, his father—affectionately called the “Socrates of Skaneateles” for his love of learning—filled their house with books that young Morton devoured in his free time. They provided his restless mind with adventurous tales and romantic images of the early frontier as depicted by James Fenimore Cooper, and of the full range of noble and villainous characters as exhibited by the Indians who encountered the writer’s white hero, images that nevertheless reinforced within the young reader the sense that they were an exotic and wholly separate species of mankind. The novels had been Wilkinson’s only exposure to these people, for since his birth, throughout his youth and adolescence, he had lived in places where Indians had just given way to white settlement, leaving only their names on lakes and rivers that whites had graciously chosen not to replace, or the lone personage of the odd uncommunicative fellow who lived on the edge of town. It would only be when Wilkinson came to Minnesota that he first felt the palpable presence of a people who outnumbered his kind. In those early days, it wasn’t so much that they were threatening, for they seemed harmless enough to white men. If they fought at all, it would be against rival tribes. Even so, their ubiquitous presence was disquieting.
Now, entering into what would be the second year of civil war that had drawn away more able-bodied men into the army, Wilkinson felt even more uncomfortable for the security of his family and their neighbors in Mankato (the town in Blue Earth County was on the edge of Dakota land where the Indians freely ventured about). At times, they seemed to him to be everywhere, like dark clouds that had silently gathered without thunder or rain, yet portended that bad weather was near, clinging to their blankets and exhibiting in their dress and manner no signs of civilized habits, no sense that they wanted to be civilized despite their proximity to white culture, no sense that they respected their own people who had adopted white ways. He believed that some of the same Indians he frequently saw roaming the streets harassed the Dakota farmers at nearby Hazelwood, killing some of the livestock, uprooting crops, and damaging farm tools.
In town, they proved to be a nuisance as they milled about the streets, loitering in front of stores and sometimes asking for hand-outs, sometimes staring too long at shoppers and passersby or touching ladies’ garments. They had learned nothing from their proximity to white culture. As a Methodist by faith and a reformer by inclination, part zealot and part naïf, Wilkinson saw it as his duty to bring the ways of civilized people to all of the tribes. He, like reformers of the day, like even the leaders of Minnesota’s old fur trade, men to various degrees he had always distrusted since the earliest days of the territory—Henry Sibley, Joseph Brown, and Henry Rice—believed quite fervently that coexistence between whites and Indians was feasible, provided the native communities were given opportunity, education, and time to acquire the “capacity . . . for all the duties and requirements of civilization.” Even once formidable chiefs, such as Wabasha, Wakute, and Mankato, were coming to realize that survival might require their people to adopt the white man’s ways. But much time had passed and valuable resources squandered by unscrupulous Indian agents had created among the Indians a new sense of desperation. As the war progressed, Wilkinson viewed these people who inhabited the Union’s rear flank with increasing concern: the vast majority of them who most clung to their primitive ways posed a threat, not just to the spread of a republican civilization, but to life and limb.
In Washington, throughout the legislative season Wilkinson had focused on the security of the Union, whether the military had the resources it needed to fight the rebels, or whether this hallowed chamber was secured from traitorous senators. But as a senator from a state with a large Indian population, he was sucked into the quagmire of Indian affairs where corruption thrived and where even the best-intentioned man lost his moorings. As a senator with close ties to President Lincoln, whom he viewed as honest but naive about his ability to identify ethical men to be appointed to sensitive jobs, Wilkinson waded into the muck of the notorious Indian system with the same degree of self-righteousness that led him to prosecute disloyal senators and call for emancipation. Thus, he kept close watch over Indian affairs and the many tribes affected by a vast federal agency that was unmonitored even more now owing to the exigencies of the war effort. In such a convulsive time, when good intentions were like lighted candles easily extinguished with a sudden gust of wind, Morton Wilkinson was out of his depth.
Watchful of fraud involving federal dollars, he reviewed reports of the secretary of the interior for contracts made to transport goods to tribes, checking to see if they were given to the lowest bidder “or by special contract”; banning the sale of liquor; and sponsoring resolutions for funding to relieve tribes of the adversities of war, providing for “the immediate necessities of the loyal portion of these several nations [of Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw Indians] who have been driven from their homes [to Kansas] in consequence of their loyalty.” On February 19, the day he called to expel Lazarus Powell from the Senate, Wilkinson submitted a resolution instructing the secretary of the interior to inquire into the expediency of purchasing land within the bounds of Minnesota in an effort to defray costs for holding a council to negotiate a treaty, in the likelihood of expediting the state’s plan to build a railroad connecting St. Paul to the head of Lake Superior. He soon submitted to the Senate a memorial from the Minnesota legislature’s request for land and money to support the project.
As a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Wilkinson introduced a bill to protect the property of Indians who had adopted the habits of civilized life. During the debate Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine asked Wilkinson to define what constituted a “civilized life,” a phrase that had appeared in many of his resolutions. Wilkinson, seemingly perturbed by a question for which the answer was for him all too obvious, responded, “I mean simply this: to induce the Indians to labor. Labor is a great civilizer-up in our country; and as the white men are pretty well civilized, because they all labor, so we think if we can induce the Indians to labor and earn their own living by cultivating farms, that will be one of the highest evidences of civilization.” If given the opportunity, Wilkinson was saying, Indians, in short, could live and be as productive as white men. The very act of industrious labor as the proprietor of one’s own land not only would have a civilizing influence but would forever remove from the Indian’s makeup the infirming qualities of his aboriginal character. In this Wilkinson felt that his intentions were good. Willard Hughes Rollings’s comment about the expectation of well-meaning white men who supported Indian suffrage equally applies to their expectation of Indian acculturation and survivability: “Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, well-intentioned white people sought to protect the Indians; however, they believed that Indian people could only survive if they abandoned their culture and embraced the white European way of life. These so-called friends of the Indians rallied for the assimilation and inclusion of Indian people into the American fabric, but not as Indians, rather, as assimilated ‘white Indians.’ ” For Wilkinson, this was a point of departure that had made for him an uneasy relationship with his Republican brethren who were divided enough on whether their ideology should or could include foreigners and blacks. But for now, the Indian should be given more tools to be civilized. There was no alternative.
This for Wilkinson was the crux of the matter, and it was emblazoned on the state seal of Minnesota—a farmer working the soil in the foreground and an Indian fleeing westward away from fields that he did not cultivate. Characteristic of the times, the inheritor of the earth was one who worked it. It was a classic Jeffersonian notion of the inherent virtue of farming, and it was, felt Wilkinson, in the Indians’ best interest to adopt the lifestyle that could provide an opportunity for further advancement. It had been the lesson of his family legacy. His father, Alfred, lived on the same farm where he was born and was buried in the year of his son’s election to the United States Senate. From the same homestead would come his uncle John, Alfred’s younger brother, who became a lawyer, founding resident of Syracuse, New York, prominent businessman, and abolitionist. It all had been the result of hard work, for which there was no substitute. The Negro understood this as he labored on his master’s land. Through freedom, he would acquire industry. The Indian could achieve the same if offered, and he accepted, the opportunity Wilkinson was determined to provide. Race and culture, insisted Minnesota’s Yankee Protestant from central New York State, need not be a problem for advancement. It was only one’s commitment to hard work that mattered.
He also knew the many challenges to achieving this goal. Unlike the slave whose desire for freedom was denied by a vengeful master, the Indian clung to his “savage” traditions like the blanket he clutched around him. The more money that was spent to change Indians’ hearts and minds, the more opportunities there were for Indian officials to enrich themselves. In other words, Wilkinson had come to believe that Indians’ resistance, which seemed encouraged by certain religious leaders, enabled Indian ways, thwarted Indian development, the expansion of civilization, and the security of the Union. He doubled his effort. On March 6, to induce “civil life” for Indians, Wilkinson introduced a bill to pay them, as well as whites, for any damage to property done by “wild Indians.” But the bill did little to induce more Indians to become “civil.” An exasperated Wilkinson shifted the burden to the Indians, believing they were “idle barbarians” incapable of being civilized. He and Cyrus Aldrich, Minnesota representative in the House, would soon openly express their doubt that the Indians would profit much from any attention.
He was convinced that his work was being thwarted primarily by the Reverend Henry Whipple, the new Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, who had become incensed at the corruption he found in the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and, by extension, congressmen who had a hand in its operations. Wilkinson was annoyed with the bishop, who could have been a strong ally but chose instead, in Wilkinson’s view, to interfere in his senatorial efforts, placing the burden of transforming Indians on the government instead of on the Indians. Earlier, on March 6, 1862, Whipple addressed an open letter to President Lincoln in which he summarized the inequities of the Indian system and insisted on the supreme importance of placing the Indians under a government of law, administered by honest and capable men selected for their merit and fitness and not as a reward for political services.
He had by then become a seasoned and, in Wilkinson’s view, most irritating lobbyist to reform the Indian system. On April 16, Whipple explained to Lincoln that Indians had no protection against theft and murder—no legal framework for protection or self-government. Whipple’s contention was that the entire system was rife with thievery and corruption. On another occasion, Whipple repeated this insight to Alexander Ramsey: “It is based on a falsehood that these heathens are an [independent] nation and not our wards. We leave them really without any government—then after nurturing every mad passion, standing unconcerned to witness Indian wars with each other looking on their deeds of blood, and permitting every evil influence to degrade them we turn them over to be robbed and plundered and at last wonder if we have reaped what we sewed [sic].”
Throughout that spring the bishop managed to engage the president and the secretary of the interior in discussions on reform. He reinforced this small beachhead by obtaining endorsements from Washington friends, including general and former secretary of the treasury John Dix. Dix praised Whipple to the president: “I know him as a most able, indefatigable man, and am satisfied that any confidence the administration may repose in him will be faithfully responded to.”
Whipple next asked for help from his old friend, Senator Rice. Rice told the bishop, “I will do all in my power to carry out your views.” The senator complained that he had little power. He was a Democrat, and the Republicans had taken the places on the Indian Committee, with Morton Wilkinson assuming his seat. Minnesota’s Cyrus Aldrich, another Republican, served on the Committee on Indian Affairs in the House. Rice’s view of Lincoln’s Washington was cynical: “All, everything country, Constitution, right—sacrificed upon the altar of party.” The Republican congressmen controlled the Indian patronage in Minnesota and “the secretary of the interior and the commissioner of Indian affairs give much attention to their suggestions.” Rice believed that making Whipple’s plan into law would mean nothing “so long as Agents and Superintendent, even commissioners are appointed as regards for political services.” Rice told Whipple he would try, “but I fear the demagogue, the politician and those pecuniarally [sic] interested [shall win out].” Whipple refused to be discouraged. He asked Rice to see Lincoln and urge “the appointment of a commission—simply to devise a plan.” Whipple believed Lincoln to be “an honest man.” “I believe he is not afraid to do his duty. If he could hear the cries which ring in my ears, if he could see what I have seen, if [he] had prayed as I have ‘how long, how long O lord!’—he would act.” At the time Lincoln was following the reports from the Peninsula Campaign and soon Shiloh.
On April 13, Whipple lobbied both Wilkinson and Aldrich. Aldrich had already experienced Whipple’s reach of influence that came from another direction. His House Indian affairs committee had been asked by the secretary of the interior to “give very special attention” to Whipple’s proposals. Aldrich, however, intended to sidetrack the reform plan. The congressman, not interested in contributing to the destruction of a portion of his own power base, denied the need for change. He accused the bishop of making “general allegations and indefinite charges.” Aldrich said he knew the Indian agents were honest because he helped select them. In fact, he insisted, the real problem was not the system but the Indians. Reform would mean nothing because of “the capacity of the Indian race.”
Wilkinson’s response to Whipple was so similar to Aldrich’s that they must have discussed it. He too accused the bishop of making “general [and insubstantial] charges.” As he had said in a debate on May 13, he contended that Lincoln’s appointments had eliminated the problem of corrupt agents, thus ignoring the bishop’s fundamental point concerning the political premises of the appointment system. Later that year, following the outbreak of the Dakota War in Minnesota, in the company of his friend and cousin General Henry Halleck, Whipple visited Lincoln and found the president sympathetic to his point of view. Lincoln is said to have told a friend that Bishop Whipple “came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots.” He later pledged, “If we get through this war and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed.” Whipple got the commitment he sought.
In the meantime, old practices continued. On May 13 Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs sponsored an appropriations bill that included $20,000 for treaty making between the government and tribes in the Red River valley, in the upper western corner of Minnesota. During debate, it surprised lawmakers, who were accustomed to officials inflating allocations directed to their states, when the senator from Minnesota proposed that the amount be reduced to $15,000; the bill as amended, insisted Wilkinson, would be of “significant diplomatic and economic benefit to the country and the State.” The two thousand or so Indians who lived along the Red River made navigation difficult, extracting tribute from boats and “annoying [the boat owners] in various ways.” Wilkinson proposed to buy them off with a small sum “so that the channel of communication shall be unobstructed.” No extra sums would be available for plunder.
Wilkinson had in mind what had happened eleven years earlier in Minnesota when the government negotiated the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux with Dakota tribes that resulted in thousands of dollars ending up, not with the Indians, but in the pockets of fur traders, not to mention into those of Minnesota’s first and (he believed) second governors. Before the Senate, however, Wilkinson refrained from naming names. But did the “small sum” guarantee against corruption? asked Ohio senator John Sherman, thinking of the similar appropriation the year before by the “incompetent man” Goddard Bailey, who later squandered “the whole of it” and the money disappeared. The unscrupulous Bailey, who had passed himself off as a “dealer in government bonds,” was in fact a Department of the Interior clerk who had embezzled funds, in another scheme, from the department’s Indian trust fund. On December 22, 1860, he sent a letter of confession directly to President Buchanan, who had appointed him. Subsequently he was arrested for taking $870,000 in bonds out of the safe at the Interior Department.
To Sherman’s question Wilkinson responded that he had faith in the president and the “worthy officers at the head of this Government” and that he trusted that the secretary of the interior “will not allow this money to go to the hands of dishonest agents as the late Administration did. . . . If we cannot trust our officers, if because under the late Administration there were thefts here, we must stop all appropriations, we might as well abandon the Government at once.” Then tellingly he said, “I believe there is integrity somewhere, although occasionally corrupt men get into high places.”
As to Senator Fessenden’s question of why Indians should be paid off at all to enter into a treaty, Wilkinson pointed out that no treaty with Indians could be made “without some presents.” He added, “You must give them blankets; you must give them medals; you must subsist them while the negotiations are going on, and the Indians will not make a treaty in a day, nor in two days, nor a week. You must have beef there to feed them, and blankets and trinkets to pay them: It is utterly impossible to make a treaty with them unless you make them presents.” He attested to the honesty of the new regime of Indian officers in Minnesota who would negotiate the treaty: “I know if they have anything to do with it they will render an honest and correct account of every dollar of money that goes into their hands. . . . I feel confident that every dollar will be accounted for. I would not vote for it if I did not think so.”
One of Minnesota’s new Indian officials to whom Wilkinson referred was Clark Thompson, a campaigner and presidential elector as well as a banker, railroad speculator, and state senator in 1861. Clark had been placed into heading the Northern superintendency, whose territory included Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. This position was considered a great patronage prize, not just for the man who filled it but especially for Wilkinson, who, in winning this presidential appointment for “his man” over candidates sponsored by powerful men in Washington, displayed the considerable influence he had acquired within a relatively short period of time in office, owing in large part to his connection within the executive branch. William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, had come to Minnesota the year before to canvass for Lincoln. Wilkinson, who invited Seward, had known him for some time, in particular through ties with the Underground Railroad that ran across central New York State into Skaneateles (where Wilkinson’s father worked) and Syracuse (where Wilkinson’s uncle worked). But now as secretary of state, Seward had become the second most powerful man in the Union. But in recent months, as Union defeats mounted, he was accused by Wilkinson’s Radical cohorts of having “an improper and evil influence” on the administration and the military. Nevertheless, the two men maintained their useful ties.
Thompson did not end his business practices when he began his superintendent duties. He continued to speculate in railroads and retained his interest in his St. Paul banking firm, Thompson Brothers. In July 1862, his brother Edward was assigned to the Sioux Agency, where he complained about the sluggish delivery of annuities, supervised by his brother, the superintendent. “I have been here sometime waiting for the payments seeing the sights.” He lobbied on behalf of his friend for patronage jobs under his jurisdiction, reminded frequently of his duties to the party faithful. Congressman Cyrus Aldrich: “Clark, keep your ears open and your eyes peeled. . . . Write us occasionally, & give us the ‘points.’ ” His first annual report suggested he cared less about the welfare of the Indians under his supervision, and more about business transactions and the disbursements of Indian funds that benefited Thompson and his associates. Nonetheless, the senate took Wilkinson at his word when his appropriation amendment was called and approved.
Even though Wilkinson had let the serpent into the tent, he continued to insist that all money that belonged to the Indians should be paid to them. Indeed, the government, he said, was “duty bound to pay what belongs to the Indian whether the agents steal it or keep it, or not.” There was a circumstance in which the federal government should not be responsible, however, and that was when the welfare of the Union was at stake.
In acquiring Indian land, the government agreed to place payments in the form of interest-paying bonds through federal government bonds. But in 1850, it was instead decided to place the payments in state bonds. About $3 million due to Indians was invested in stocks of different states—most of it in Southern states, and in some instances, Southern cities. In 1855, George Manypenny, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, directed $390,970 to Northern securities, reserving about $150,000 of Ohio stocks for himself. “I believe,” noted Wilkinson, “he was an Ohio man.” In 1860 securities held in Northern states totaled $316,000, in contrast with Southern states, where the sum was $2,828,911.82.
Wilkinson found that the securities directed to Southern states were going to Southern tribes who organized regiments to fight federal troops. “The sum [owed in interest through the present appropriation bill] it strikes me, ought not to be paid any more than you would pay interest to Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs. . . . This portion of the appropriation, it is very clear to me, ought not to be paid. These Indians, as I stated before . . . had a full regiment . . . organized at home to resist the Government forces if [federal troops] should come through [their region]. It strikes me that we might as well set the precedent here and now of refusing to pay these Indians . . . until the question of their allegiance and fidelity to the Government is fully settled.” To Wilkinson the arrangement abetted treason. “By referring to the fact of the case it appears very evident now and no Senator can look at the record without becoming convinced, that from 1855 to the present time, there has been a fixed plan to run all the money that has arisen from treaties with the Indians, and from the sale of Indian lands, over into the southern States.”
The year 1855 was a harbinger of the fate of Southern interest, for, one year earlier, the North formally mobilized against the spread of slavery, starting with the founding of the Republican Party. From that moment on, Southerners anticipated the day of armed conflict. Wilkinson reported, “Enormous amounts of money have undoubtedly been made by the officers who have negotiated these transactions, in the purchase of these stocks. . . . While all these purchases were being made during the time to which I have referred, in stocks of southern states, there was not, after Mr. Manypenny was in the Indian office [as commissioner], a single dollar bought of the stocks of any northern state. . . . In no event do I think we are bound by any principle of law or morals to pay his money to the Indians who have taken up arms against the Government; and, at all events, I would not do it now.”
Three weeks earlier, on April 21, 1862, Senator George Collamore of Kansas wrote a letter to Commissioner Dole providing an account of his “recent visit to the Loyal Indians who were obliged to flee from their pursuers (the rebel Indians and Texans) in the dead of Winter . . . [now] encamped on the Neosho River” in southern Kansas. Collamore stated that these Indians—numbering about eight thousand men, women, and children—had suffered and many have died from guerrilla warfare, exposure and lack of food. Appropriations to “rebel” Indians would only be used to persecute other “loyal” Indians. Wilkinson’s amendment to exclude appropriations to tribes fighting on the side of the rebels was approved.
In all, he insisted on accountability. “If there was a commission appointed, Congress should provide that that commission should make a report, and that report should be submitted to Congress for its action hereafter. I would not consent to leave a roving Commission to settle claims in this way.” Yet, even as he took pains to secure a degree of oversight, the integrity of the commissioner prompted him to interject an amendment to add to the official’s contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses that he might incur during the course of his duties. “In the management of Indian affairs a great deal must necessarily depend upon the discretion of the Department,” Wilkinson said. “There are many things that frequently arise requiring an expenditure of money.” Wilkinson’s gauge of rectitude was now in full effect when he again endorsed the integrity of the commissioner though there had been problems in the past that had remained in the present. “I believe that the Commissioner . . . is a strictly honest and intelligent officer. That he may have made some mistakes when first entering upon the duties of his office . . . but that he has discharged his duties as faithfully and as economically as any officer in this Government, I have not the least doubt.”
In light of how thoroughly corrupt the Indian Bureau was, it is hard to conclude that Wilkinson actually believed what he said, or the alternative, that he could be so naive. In the best light, he may have been blinded by his growing regard for Lincoln, who, like Bishop Whipple, he believed to be an honest man. The president’s Indian policy, with which Wilkinson fully agreed, never seemed to question the proposition that Native Americans should give way to white settlement, though Lincoln did, on a few occasions, act mercifully toward individual Natives who had been on the losing side against the government, as would seem to be the case at the end of the year. Upon his inauguration he joined a federal government that had long provided Native Americans with shoddy, and often malicious, care. Senator James Nesmith of Oregon argued, “If there is any one department of our Government worse managed than another it is that which relates to our Indian affairs. Mismanagement, bad faith, fraud, speculation, and downright robbery had been its great distinguishing features.”
Lincoln appointed a man from Illinois named William P. Dole as commissioner of Indian Affairs. Dole and the president proved unable to undo the bureau’s system of what one observer called “institutional corruption,” for the annuities that were dispersed became an irresistible magnet for corrupt officials and opportunists intent upon separating Native Americans from their treaty monies. Fraudulent claims by white men drained tribal annuities. Congressmen used their influence to direct construction to political friends and licenses to sell food to the Indians at exorbitant prices. Dishonest bookkeeping was geared to keep Indians in perpetual debt, and the Indians had no machinery for processing their claims against whites. Corruption was rewarded and whistle-blowers were attacked. As one agent told Lincoln, so many people wanted these jobs because shrewd agents could “in four years lay up a fortune more than your Excellency’s salary.” Another observer told Lincoln how these positions were used “to plunder both the Indians and the government,” and the Lincoln administration seemed impotent to clean up the mess. Such widespread practices to pillage Indian funds could only exist within a climate created by corruption among the higher officials in the Lincoln administration, who included Commissioner Dole, John P. Usher, secretary of the interior, Hugh McCulloch, comptroller of the currency, and John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s personal secretary.
The Indian system seemed to bring out the corrupted streak in everyone who came near it, and Wilkinson understood the powerful allure of pilfering, especially when funds passed without accountability through many sets of hands. Thus, he argued against the government insuring goods through private companies, which he felt would only enrich middlemen. “I think,” reported Senator Pomeroy, an ally on this matter, speaking from his experience trading on the upper Missouri River, “the Government had never yet collected a dollar of insurance in that country, and I do not believe they will for years to come; and yet every agent will insure, for the reason that there are so many applicants for the insurance.” Wilkinson’s amendment to drop the insurance provision was agreed to.
And yet he seemed to feel that with the right men in key positions, at least that part of the system was likelier to shape Indians into “adopting the habits of civilization,” and that Dole was the right man to lead the effort. Wilkinson was determined to help Dole in that work. When news reached Wilkinson of the deprivations suffered by the Indians in southern Kansas, “who were entirely destitute in the middle of winter, frozen, and starving to death,” he reminded the Senate that it was “obliged” to appropriate contingency funds to the commissioner, “this faithful officer,” who had been “prompted by the highest considerations of Christianity and humanity” to now tend to their needs. That amendment was also agreed to.
But he viewed efforts that directed resources to those determined to hold on to their savage ways to be foolish, for it wasted funds as well as fostered corruption. The sincerity of Indians to be civilized, Wilkinson felt, filtered out the prospect for corruption. “The efforts to improve and civilize the Indians are misdirected,” he wrote to Bishop Whipple. “So long as an Indian feels that his mode of savage life is preferable to the civilization of his neighbor, just so long as your efforts to educate him will prove abortive because education in no wise aids him in the gratification of savage ambition.” Rather, the funds would be better directed to those men whose proven effectiveness was reflected in the quality of the lives they led. He could see promising impressions of the progress of the Indians in his own neck of the woods, the county he and his family called home—Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota—and of the dynamic young leader in Indian Affairs working as the Sioux agent:
[In Blue Earth County] some of the best fields of corn we have seen were on the Sioux reserve cultivated by the Indians. We were surprised to see the amount of land they were cultivating, compared with the amount of previous years and also the manner in which it is cultivated. That may be attributed the superior management of Major [Thomas] Galbraith. The Major has made a great improvement in the condition of affairs during the past year. Many of the Indians who, until the present year, have done nothing, now have the best-cultivated farms on the reserve. Many new farms have been opened up, and for miles along the river there is every indication of civilization and (if you can see the people) no one would suppose he was seeing a nation of savages.
Thus, in one of the final actions of the session, Wilkinson offered a joint resolution that authorized a portion of the Winnebago funds held in the treasury, at the request of the tribe, to be used for improvement on their land, located within the same county as his hometown, Mankato. With approval from his Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he said, “It appropriates nothing out of the Treasury, the money belongs to the Indians; it is their fund.” The joint resolution was ordered to a third reading, read the third time, and passed. The funds would benefit all involved. In a letter to his protégé Clark Thompson, “[The appropriations] will give [fellow protégé St. Andre Durand] Balcombe a chance to employ our friends this fall.” If men were to benefit, Wilkinson would not be one of them, for despite his associations, naïveté, and poor judgment, at no time during or afterward did he reap financial benefit. He did, however, overestimate the extent of Indian docility.
The next day, July 17, the president pro tempore proclaimed the work of the Senate of the Thirty-Seventh Congress to be concluded: “And now, Senators, wishing you all a safe and welcome return to your constituencies, and to your homes, I have only to perform the last act of a long and laborious session, in declaring the Senate of the United States adjourned without delay.”
Four weeks later, Senator Morton Wilkinson led a delegation including Commissioner Dole, Superintendent Thompson, and Nicolay on a mission to negotiate a treaty with the Red Lake Chippewa Indians, when they were told that it was too dangerous to proceed: “The Sioux were in open warfare and had commenced murdering, burning, and destroying, and that the party to make the treaty must not go out without a strong guard of troops!”