Who is Chief Sleepy Eye? Many still come to the depot with this question, local and tourist alike. We do know Chief Sleepy Eye was not a hereditary chief. And for over half a century, he was able to live in the Swan Lake country, free to roam the countryside where ducks and geese, turtles, muskrats and wild rice were plentiful; blue, clear skies for as far as your eyes could see. But at one point in his life, this all changed.
In 1824, Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro took Sioux and four Ojibway to visit President Monroe in Washington, D.C. At that time Sleepy Eye was then appointed Chief by President Monroe and the Department of Indian Affairs. Chief Sleepy Eye became Chief of all the Sisseton Dakota from Carver to Lac qui Parle. Sleepy Eye was a leader among his people, you will find his name on four treaties - Prairies Du Chien 1825, Prairies Du Chien 1830, St Peters (Mendota) 1836, and reluctantly, Traverse des Sioux 1851.
Throughout the years the treaties were giving up more and more of their lands. It wasn’t until 1851, that they signed two treaties by which they ceded all remaining lands except a 10-mile strip on each side of the upper part of the Minnesota River. At the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851, he asked of the commissioner for the privilege of living and dying at Swan Lake; he was given the rights to have his tribe remain there... but that all changed in 1857.
In the spring of 1857, the settlers of the Minnesota Valley were thrown into a paroxysm of fear by the murder of some settlers at Spirit Lake, Iowa and Okoboji and Jackson, by Ink-Pa-Du-Ta and his followers. A company of home guards marched one day to Sleepy Eye’s Camp on Swan Lake from Judson, Courtland and Nicollet and demanded that he be removed at once to the reservation. Being a man of peace, Chief Sleepy Eye took his elders, children and band members to the reservation; but where to move them in such chaos? Sleepy Eye and his band were known to be swamp-dwellers. Which in the Dakota language - “Sisseton” means swamp-dweller. Chief Sleepy Eye knew the lands he was appointed when he became Chief (Carver to Lac qui Parle) and he knew the lands of the reservation quite well. With having little time to consider where to take his band, Chief Sleepy Eye took them where the present day City of Sleepy Eye stands.
The Sisseton people lived in or near sloughy areas and that was what our town area was made of. Chief Sleepy Eye settled on the north side of Sleepy Eye Lake. Sleepy Eye Lake was often called Minnewashte Chanhatonka to the Sisseton-Dakota or translated as- “Pretty Water by the Big Trees.” Here everything was plentiful. The fish, beaver, muskrat, forests, sloughs, hunting grounds, shelter and so forth that Chief Sleepy Eye and his band would need to survive.
Page 2 of 2 - Chief Sleepy Eye’s health and power had been failing for several years. Time had stiffened his limbs, furrowed his face and much impaired his mental faculties. By the time he was 80 years old, many changes had been happening to his world as he knew it. Chief Sleepy Eye engaged in a fierce battle along the Minnesota River with some Canadian Indians, they had taken with them a number of Sisseton-Dakota women and maidens as ransom. After considerable delay, Sleepy Eye succeeded in getting together a creditable number of horses and taking with him, a few trusty young Indians from his tribe. He went to Canada in an effort to trade these horses for the release of the captives. They were successful. On the return trip, Sleepy Eye decided to visit his friend, Red Eagle on an island in Bullhead Lake in Roberts County, S.D. While there, he was thrown from his horse. His back was severely injured and he died from that accident (1860).
When the word of Sleepy Eye’s death reached his people here in Sleepy Eye, they held a memorial dance, about 200 people took part, on a rise of land about the east shore of Sleepy Eye Lake, where the Steffen Brewery was later located. This was only a short distance of French Cap Couturier cabin - a French fur trader, early pioneer to the town of Sleepy Eye, and who married a niece of Chief Sleepy Eye, Rosalia (DeMerce) Couturier.
In 1902, Chief Sleepy Eye’s remains were removed from South Dakota and placed next to the Sleepy Eye Depot where he has been resting since.