HENRY HASTINGS SIBLEY was born February 20, 1811 in Detroit Michigan. His parents were Solomon Sibley, who would become a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, and Sarah (Sprout) Sibley. He was a direct descendant of John Sibley, who was one of 700 colonists who sailed from England in 1629 and settled at Salem, Massachusetts.
Henry attended private schools and spent two years studying the law. He was barely 18 years old when the lure of the west drew him to Sault Ste Marie, where he worked as a trader. A year later he took a job as a purchasing agent with the American Fur Company. By 1834 he was a partner in that company and accepted responsibility for trade with the Dakota Indians. On November 7, 1834, Sibley arrived at the tiny trading post at St. Peter's (now Mendota Heights MN) in what was then still Michigan Territory.
Sibley learned the Dakota language and was given the name Wah-pe-ton Houska (the tall trader). He was the key figure in negotiations with the Sioux and Ojibway in 1837. In 1838, Iowa Territory was formed and its territorial governor appointed Henry Sibley the first Justice of the Peace west of the Mississippi. This began his long and successful public career.
At the "Stillwater Convention" in 1848, Sibley was elected to Congress representing what was then still a part of the Territory of Wisconsin. He succeeded, against entrenched opposition, in securing passage of the legislation that created the Territory of Minnesota in 1849. Emphasizing the importance of the Mississippi River, Congressmen preferred Itasca (from the Latin veritas caput, or "true head") as the name of the new territory, but Sibley insisted on Minnesota, "cloudy water" in the Dakota language. He was reelected to the US Congress in 1849 and 1850.
In 1851 Sibley represented the fur traders on a treaty commission that negotiated with the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands of Dakota Sioux. The Indians agreed to sell nearly all of their lands to the government. Once the government gained the legal right to issue land grants, settlement of the Minnesota Territory began in earnest.
In 1855 Sibley was elected to the territorial legislature from Dakota County. By the narrowest of margins, Henry Hastings Sibley was elected the first governor of the state of Minnesota in 1858 over Alexander Ramsey. Sibley chose not to run for re-election in 1860, and Mr. Ramsey succeeded him.
The Dakota Indians were starving because of a crop failure in 1861. Delays in their annuity payments, caused at least in part by the fiscal demands of the Civil War and exacerbated by the ineptitude and corruption of the Indian Affairs bureaucracy, placed the tribes in desperate straits. This led to the Dakota Uprising of 1862. When news of the conflict reached Governor Ramsey, he commissioned Sibley and placed him in command of the government response. Two days later, on August 20, 1862, Colonel Sibley and four volunteer companies were headed west on a Minnesota River steamboat. After a number of skirmishes, the uprising was put down in a battle at Wood Lake on September 23rd. On September 29th he was elevated to the rank of Brigadier General of Volunteers for "gallantry in the field." Upon his return to St. Paul, President Lincoln asked him to establish and administer a federal military district. Under his leadership, a network of forts and garrisons was developed in the states of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakota Territory. In 1865 he was again promoted, this time to the rank of Major General of Volunteers. He retired from military service in 1866.
Because he understood the language and was widely respected among the leaders of the Dakota Sioux and the Ojibway, Sibley would continue to play a role in negotiating other Indian treaties in Minnesota, the Dakota Territory, and elsewhere. He was active in the St. Paul business community until his death at the age of 80 on February 18, 1891.