Cut Head Sioux Reservation
Ramsey County was organized on this date in 1883, with Devils Lake serving as the county seat. The first non-Indian residents were fur traders, who established themselves in the area as early as 1815. Capt. Duncan Graham from Scotland is believed to have been the first of these. He built a trading post named for himself – Graham’s Island – right after the end of the War of 1812.
South of Devils Lake, the Fort Totten Indian Reservation was set up in a treaty between the U.S. Government and the Sisseton, Wahpeton and Cut-head Sioux in 1867. At the time the military fort, itself, was built, no Indians were yet living there, but the following winter, two traders and an interpreter traveled to the Mouse River and encouraged members of the Sioux tribes to go to Fort Totten. Many Indians were near starvation that year. It’s reported that a small force of warriors helped convince the people to move into the fort, possibly as a way to survive.
The reservation was without an Indian agent until three years later; then, when one was assigned to serve both the Turtle Mt. Chippewa and the Devils Lake Sioux, which lasted until 1910. A year after Ramsey County was formed, Alfred Andreas wrote the Historical Atlas of Dakota in which he described the county and what he called the “Cut Head Sioux Indian Reservation,” which covered nearly 400 square miles on the south side of Devils Lake.
“In August, 1867, Little Fish and 250 warriors came into the reservation,” Andreas wrote. “He is chief of the Wahpetons and fifty years of age. Iron Heart is a subordinate chief of the Sissetons, and about the same age. Wanata is chief of the Cut Head Sioux and about sixty years of age. The Cut Heads form the principal portion of the Indians in this reservation.” (The Cuthead were a band of the Yankonai Dakotas.)
“The Indians, generally, on this reservation, have given up many of their old customs and habits and donned the apparel of the whites,” he continued. “A few of the older chiefs are loath to give up their Indian finery and the trappings of rank. Wanata, the hereditary chief, still dresses in the ancient garb of his race. The young men and maidens are gradually adopting the dress and the manners of the whites. The older (women) wear beads, tinsel jewelry and moccasins.
“Among the Indians are about 300 farmers, each occupying with his family a home of his own, generally a log cabin, which the women keep in very neat order,” Andreas continued. “Many of them are furnished with carpets, chairs and upholstered furniture, and there is as much outward appearance of prosperity as can be seen around the average pioneer home of the white settler.
“In the place of the Indian marriage ceremonies they have adopted that of the white people, and the priest generally officiates at their weddings. They have adopted the burial system of the whites, and a huge wooden cross marks the cemetery devoted to the burial of their dead. (Chief Iron Heart) keeps a hotel at the southeastern extremity of Devils Lake, in the reservation.”
Six years after Andreas wrote this description, the Indian wars came to an end, the soldiers left, and the entire fort was turned over the Department of the Interior. The Fort Totten buildings were turned into a boarding school for both the Devils Lake Sioux and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa until the system was abolished in 1959. Fort Totten is now a state historic site administered by the State Historical Society of ND. Some of the original brick buildings are open to the public; others await renovation. The reservation is now known as the Spirit Lake Nation, occupying portions of Benson, Eddy, Ramsey and Nelson Counties.