The home village of the Dakota Chief Cloud Man was on the shores of Mde Ma-Ka-Ska. Cloud Man probably came from Black Dog’s village on the lower Mi-Ni So-ta river (as did the great Mankato, and Sha Kpe). It is said that Cloud Man was the descendant of an “under the blanket” relationship of one of the Frenchmen, a baron, who had come down the rivers more than a hundred years earlier.
From his home village, Cloud Man’s band and the other Eastern Dakota bands hunted the region around the lake, north into the pine woods, south into the hunting paradise of northern Iowa along the Red Cedar river and west onto the prairies for buffalo, elk and other grassland game.
In the winter of 1829, Cloud Man and his party were trapped in a violent, freezing blizzard out on the western prairie. Born in this country, Cloud Man knew what they had to do. They dug themselves into a snowdrift, rolled themselves in blankets, and allowed the snow to drift over them. Many hours later they emerged, half-frozen but alive, only to discover they were close to the Dakota village they’d been looking for.
Cloud Man thought farming might help his people. They would still hunt. But if they could raise more corn and other crops, they would be able to still feed themselves in times when game was scarce. No longer would they be completely dependent upon the traders. No more famines in the spring.
Lawrence Taliaferro, the new American Indian agent at what would become Fort Snelling, agreed. A practical man, he thought there would be a space of time, many years, before the flood of immigrants would roll over these shores. They named the new village Eatonville, after the Secretary of War John Eaton, perhaps thinking this might encourage support. It was established in the summer of 1829 next to Cloud Man’s village.
They needed a little cash to start.
Taliaferro’s and Cloud Man’s notion was to utilize the Civilization Fund. There was money. The annual allocation originally had been $20,000, but it was cut $10,000. Taliaferro didn’t get any of this. The land west of the upper Misi Zibi wasn’t even a territory yet in 1830. Politicians in the east got the money.
Yet Eatonville was, by any standard of the day, a resounding success. Some of the Dakota, particularly the women, were good farmers. From almost nothing, the little community grew to around 100 souls with 100 acres cultivated. In a couple of years, they were producing 1,000 bushels of corn along with potatoes, squash, pumpkins, melons and more than 300 bushels of potatoes. In a couple more years, they were selling their surplus corn to the Ojibwa.
As the success of Eatonville became known, other Dakota chiefs asked for assistance in learning these new ways of farming. Early in 1834, Big Thunder, the chief of the Dakota village at Ka-Po-Za, saw how things were going at Cloud Man’s village, and was ready to try farming. He asked Major Bliss, then commander at Fort Snelling, for help. Others were interested. Wapasha, the real chief of these Dakota, was on a trip up river to St. Peter’s, and also asked Taliaferro for plows and a blacksmith — benefits that were supposed to be provided under the treaty of 1837.
The Dakota had survived for hundreds of years in a harsh land. They were astute. Cloud Man and Taliaferro thought there would be time to learn new ways, time to hunt in their old way as well as farm. Time to define themselves and their people in a different, hopefully better way.
But there wasn’t time.
Support for Eatonville waned. Raids by the Ojibwa continued and Eatonville was vulnerable. Neither the new commander at Fort Snelling, nor the U.S. government in general, had any interest. Eatonville broke up and faded away. Game was diminishing fast. The pressure on the so-called Eastern Dakota, which had been building for a long time, would suddenly become intolerable.
Cotton and slavery in the South were swallowing land down river at incredible rates never contemplated by Jefferson and Washington. The Otoes, Omaha, Cheyenne, Winnebago and other tribes who had lived east of the Great River, had all been forced west. The Ojibwa were stronger than ever. The fierce Sac and Fox, formerly farther south, were encroaching on Dakota hunting lands in Iowa.
A flood of Americans were coming up the Great River.
Henry Hastings Sibley would come up that same river in 1834. And later Mde Ma-Ka Ska would become Lake Calhoun, named for a slaver politician from South Carolina who had advocated the removal of all Indians from their native lands.
Maybe it would be better named Cloud Man Lake.
Michael N. Felix is a writer in Grand Rapids, Minn. His website: michaelnfelix.com