Section 2: The Dakota Trade Empire

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Dakotas had become the most powerful alliance of tribes on the northern Great Plains. The Teton Dakotas faced challenges to their dominance with great determination. They rattled the calm courage of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis so much that the explorers referred to the Tetons as “the pirates of the Missouri [River].” 

The seven tribes of the Teton Dakotas and the Middle Dakotas (the Yanktons and Yanktonais) had slowly expanded into the Great Plains for more than 100 years. (See Document 1.) They pieced together a strong, flexible economy and planned to resist any intrusion into their territory. The Dakotas’ economy had two parts that suited their nomadic life. In summer, they hunted bison which was their primary source of food and other materials needed for their nomadic lifestyle. In late winter, they trapped beaver for the fur trade.

Document 1. History of the Dakotas

The Western Dakotas (also known as Sioux, Lakotas, or Teton Dakotas) came to dominate trade and tribal relations on the northern Great Plains in three stages. This chart organizes the rise of Dakota military and economic power before 1860. 

1675-1770

1770-1803

1803-1860

  • Dakotas (Western Tetons, Middle Dakotas, and Santee Dakotas) engaged in bison hunting, and beaver trapping.
  • Western Dakotas and Middle Dakotas expand westward toward the Missouri River
  • Dakotas excel at beaver trapping
  • Dakotas begin to acquire horses
  • Dakotas have guns
  • Dakotas are not strong enough to subdue fortified Mandan and Hidatsa villages
  • Dakotas control regional trade through trade fairs in Minnesota and James River
  • Bison and beaver resources are reduced by hunting
  • Dakotas expand westward and southward looking for better bison hunting.  Western Dakotas cross the Missouri River
  • Spanish and French merchants from St. Louis try to open trade with Sioux
  • Sioux see better markets for bison products and give up beaver hunting
  • Sioux need more horses for bison hunting, so they increase raids on Mandan and Hidatsa villages.
  • Arikaras (in South Dakota) worked with Western Dakotas but at a disadvantage.
  • Disease struck the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras in 1780s and 1801 seriously weakening these tribes
  • With horses, control of trade, Western Dakotas dominate trade and control Missouri River tribes through both trade and warfare.
  • Dakotas discourage traders from St. Louis
  • Dakotas try to prevent Lewis and Clark from proceeding up the Missouri River
  • Dakotas protect both their trade system and their hunting grounds through warfare and diplomacy
  • Dakotas (known as Sioux) become the most powerful tribe on the northern Great Plains.
  • Dakotas present strong resistance to U. S. expansion into the northern Great Plains.

The Dakotas exchanged furs for manufactured goods at the Dakota trade fairs. The fairs were great gatherings of all branches of the Dakotas on the Minnesota River (in modern day central Minnesota) and later on the southern James River. At the fairs, the Tetons traded bison robes and beaver pelts for manufactured goods. They could then take goods west to trade with Missouri River tribes that did not attend the Dakota Fair. Most of the manufactured goods had been traded through British fur companies. (See Image 1.)

Harpers Vol84p497
Image 1: The Dakotas traded with other Indian tribes, but got manufactured goods from trade with English fur trading companies. Though the nomadic, bison-hunting Dakotas obtained most of their needs from bison hunting, they could get guns and other manufactured goods by trading beaver pelts, bison robes, and pemmican at British trading posts. SHSND Harpers vol84p497.
0086-0482
Image 2: According to the Battiste Good winter count, the Teton Dakotas had a few horses by 1700. By the middle of the 18th century, horses had made it possible for the Teton Dakotas to become nomadic, hunting bison in the summer and beaver in late winter. They probably acquired most of their horses by raiding other tribes’ herds. Their nomadic lifestyle helped the Teton Dakotas avoid the worst effects of the many smallpox epidemics that raged through the Great Plains between 1780 and 1856. SHSND 0086-0482.

When the Tetons began to acquire horses, they found them very useful for bison hunting. They raided other tribes to steal horses. In the late 18th century, they found markets for bison robes and pemmican (dried bison meat mixed with fruit), so they gave up beaver trapping to concentrate on bison hunting. However, continual hunting of bison made it necessary for the Tetons to look farther for hunting opportunities. They began to expand into the country west of the Missouri and south toward the Black Hills. (See Image 2.)

High Dog W.C.#40
Image 3:  High Dog, a Teton Dakota winter count keeper drew a picture of the serious outbreak of smallpox in 1837. Aaron Beede wrote about this image: “Small pox carried off to “Wanagi-yakonpi” many of the suffering people. I have heard tales of this terrible winter too pitiable to record.” Smallpox took a heavy toll among the Lakotas, but it was even harder on the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. The smallpox outbreaks of 1781, 1801, and 1837 weakened the earthlodge villages so much that the Dakotas were able to assert complete control over trade. SHSND Museum High Dog Winter Count.

Though the Tetons were growing in strength and controlled the exchange of furs and manufactured goods during the 18th century, Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras also remained powerful until about 1780. The Arikaras and Tetons tried to forge alliances during those years. One Teton band, the Oglalas, even settled near an Arikara village and took up farming for a few years.

However, the smallpox epidemics of the 1780s brought about a great change in the economies of all tribes of the northern Great Plains. (See Image 3.) The Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas lost more than half of their population to smallpox. The Teton Dakotas, nomadic people who could avoid the Missouri River disease corridor, did not suffer as much from the epidemic. Their population expanded while the populations of the earthlodge villages decreased dramatically.

After the epidemic of 1780, the Tetons seized the advantage. The Teton Dakotas attacked and destroyed some of the earthlodge villages. The Mandans and Hidatsas moved from their villages at the mouth of the Heart River north to the Knife River to avoid conflict with the Dakotas. The Dakotas, however, did not want to destroy the Mandans and Hidatsas. The Mandans and Hidatsas had valuable corn and horses that the Tetons could obtain either through trade or war. For many decades, the Mandans and Hidatsas had an uneasy relationship with the Tetons and Yanktonais.

After 1780, French and Spanish traders from St. Louis (which was a Spanish colony) tried to reach the Mandan villages. TheTetons, however, wanted to keep the trade with the earthlodge villages to themselves. The Dakotas traded with St. Louis traders from time to time, but prevented them from establishing a permanent trading system with the Mandans and Hidatsas.

By 1804, the Tetons completely dominated trade and tribal relations on the Upper Missouri. They protected their economies with fierce military power that was widely respected. In 1804, a new threat to their economic advantage appeared when the Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered the Upper Missouri region. The Tetons would not back down. The tribe continued to expand in population, hunting territory, and trade throughout the first half of the 19th century.

Why is this important?  The Dakotas had an extensive, sophisticated system of trade that depended on both exchange of valuable goods and threats of war. With the wealth generated by the trade system, the population of the Tetons expanded. They claimed territory west of the Missouri River and south to the Black Hills. As the Tetons established control over the economies of the upper Missouri River country, they became determined to protect their system from St. Louis traders who might look for ways to avoid Teton Dakota middlemen.