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Indian Relationships

Joseph R. Brown’s first contact with Native Americans came when he was a soldier on the western frontier—in the 1820s Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. He soon became friendly with the local bands and fur traders, many of whom had Indian wives. He learned to bargain for Indian artifacts, and began learning their tongues as well as French, the language of the fur trade.

Kinship Ties Are Important

An effective fur trader needed a wife with tribal connections. Brown married Helen Dickson at Prairie du Chien, while he was still in the army. Helen Dickson was a daughter of an influential British trader and a Sisseton woman. His second wife, Margaret McCoy, was part Ojibwe. His third, Susan Frenier, was related to the bands near Lake Traverse and to the Lower Sioux, including Little Crow. Her half-brother was Gabriel Renville, who became Brown’s ward in 1841, his fur trade partner in 1842, a military scout under Brown’s command in 1863, and later chief of the Sisseton-Wahpeton bands. See Brown family genealogy>>>>

Trading Posts Lead to Many Cultural Connections

Brown’s first post was with the Winnebago on Rock River in Illinois. He traded with the Sac and Fox at Davenport and Flint Hills, then moved to Minnesota and the Dakotas. His first post in Minnesota was working for Alexis Bailly, a part-Ottawa Indian, who oversaw the Upper Mississippi River trade. Over thirty years Brown operated posts at the Mouth of the Chippewa River (Wisconsin), Two Rocks, Olivers Grove, Pokegama, Lake Traverse, Traverse des Sioux, Butte Pelee, Sica Hollow, Buffalo Lakes, and Hole in the Mountain, steadily moving west as the country became settled. Brown’s partner in the fur trade in the Dakotas was the Wahpeton chief Akipa, also known as Joseph Akipa Renville, his wife’s step-father.

Joseph R. Brown (left) and Nathaniel Brown (right) with traders and Indian delegation at the 1858 treaty.

An Agent of Change in Merging Cultures

When Brown came west in 1820, most people in the US were farmers. Brown believed that the only way the lot of Native Americans could be improved was to change their nomadic habits and merge them into the white culture. He began by helping the Sac and Fox open farms in Iowa. He encouraged the Snake River Ojibwe to grow produce, some of which they could sell. He made deals for logs with the Ojibwe near Yellow Lake and Pine River and hired some as loggers. He helped the Dakota build houses, cut fence rails and learn to plow. When Brown moved to Grey Cloud Island in 1838 his father-in-law Akipa opened a farm next to him, setting an example for other Dakota.

Brown was appointed Dakota Indian Agent in 1858. As representative of the US government, he was charged with getting the Dakota to become farmers and give up their traditional lifestyle. One way to do this was to move them onto reservations too small to support game and give them homes and agricultural tools. Because of this policy, traditionalists became estranged from farmer Indians. Little Crow, Chief of the Kaposia Dakota band, worked with Brown to convince other chiefs to sign the 1858 treaty, but later joined the militants in the 1862 US-Dakota War. Although a leader in the war, Crow took the captured Brown family into his own house for protection. After the US-Dakota War, Brown worked hard to save those bands who had not taken part, eventually getting their annuities reinstated and a new reservation in South Dakota.