Born on 28 February 1794, Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) can truly be regarded as one of Minnesota’s founding fathers. Taliaferro was here before Minnesota became a state and served the area and country for 19 years as a United States Indian Agent. Taliaferro is rarely mentioned in Minnesota history books, but he did extremely important work and should be remembered as one of the state’s leading historical figures.
Major Taliaferro was appointed as the United States Indian Agent for the St. Peter’s area in 1819 (this would soon be the site of Fort Snelling). He had been serving as an ensign in the 1st Infantry and resigned to accept the Indian Agency post. Taliaferro assumed his duties shortly after the arrival of the 5th Regiment of the U.S.Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth. The Taliaferro--Leavenworth relationship was strained from the start as each had different ideas on how to deal with frontier issues. But that relationship was short-lived as Colonel Josiah Snelling soon replaced Leavenworth. Snelling and Taliaferro—who may have served together on the Niagara frontier during the War of 1812—interacted famously. Their amicable military/civilian bond during the next decade helped to make Fort Snelling one of the most successful and efficient posts on the western frontier.
Under the direction of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Taliaferro was ordered to establish an Indian Agency among the local Dakota and Ojibwe nations. In fact, Calhoun’s instructions serve to illustrate Washington’s goals at the time. He stressed three objectives:
1. Enlargement and protection of the fur trade;
2. Permanent peace on the frontier by securing control of the tribes;
3. Keep foreign nations out of the area.
Major Taliaferro’s primary responsibility was to serve as the government representative on the frontier while building and maintaining positive relationships with the Dakota and Ojibwe Indians. Then there was the other task--regulating the fur traders. That is where Taliaferro’s job became frustrating, to say the least. The American Fur Company was a powerful presence in the area and Alexis Bailly operated the local factory. Taliaferro tried to enforce federal laws as required, but ran into problems with Bailly and the American Fur Company on a regular basis. Most of the difficulties centered on the smuggling of illegal liquor into Indian trading posts.
Unlike many other federal Indian Agents, however, Taliaferro was never employed by a fur company, never succumbed to the economic pressures and bribes from the fur traders, and surprisingly remained loyal to both the government and the American Indians he represented. The constant conflicts between the AFC and Taliaferro lasted until he resigned.
Records show that Taliaferro had a very positive relationship with the Dakota and Ojibwe Indians whom he worked with. Little Crow called Taliaferro "No-Sugar-in-Your-Mouth" for his skills in dealing candidly with the tribesmen, and his ability of not making promises which he couldn't keep. Taliaferro even built a council house just west of Ft. Snelling in 1823 where he received Indian visitors and mediated in local affairs. Both the Dakota and the Ojibwe would travel along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers to the fort to seek advice and to ask for charity and favors. The Ojibwe continued to visit Taliaferro even after they were assigned a different agent—that’s how much he was respected.
Taliaferro was also able to exert his influence by carefully distributing supplies like food, gunpowder, tobacco, and whiskey. The Indian Agency employed a blacksmith and armorer, John Treaty, who would repair Indian guns and traps. Since the Indians relied heavily on these supplies and services, and since those services could be stopped at any time, this helped promote peaceful relations between all involved parties. In addition to employing an armorer, Taliaferro also had a translator, Mr. Scott Campbell, who was essential to conducting the day-to-day business of the agency—as Taliaferro didn’t speak Dakota, Ojibwe, or French. Having a translator on site demonstrated Taliaferro’s respect for the Indians which he served.
In 1828 Taliaferro married Elizabeth Dillon. But like many whites on the frontier, he also fathered a child with a Dakota woman. That child, Mary, was born in the summer of 1828. Records indicate that she was raised in Minnesota, attended the Lake Harriet Mission School, and was represented by Taliaferro himself when asserting for “Half-Breed” rights. Mary held claims in an 1837 treaty, and was married in 1863 to a soldier from Fort Snelling.
Taliaferro was also, notably, the owner of a slave named Harriet Robinson, who would later marry famed freedom suit plaintiff Dred Scott. It is unknown exactly how Taliaferro came into ownership of Harriet, but what is known is that she worked as a servant in his home. As Justice of the Peace in the territories, Taliferro would have officiated at the marriage ceremony of Dred and Harriet—a marriage which many historians believe gave additional credence to the Scott's claim to freedom.
Major Lawrence Taliaferro faithfully represented the American government to the Indian tribes in the region—working tirelessly on behalf of the Dakota and Ojibwe. After being reappointed six times and working through four presidential administrations, Taliaferro finally resigned in 1839. His reasons for leaving included his continuing strained relationship with the fur traders, ineffective Federal Indian policy, and recurring illness. After leaving the area, Taliaferro and Elizabeth returned to her home in Bedford, Pennsylvania. He served in the Quartermaster Corps from 1857 to 1863 and died in 1871.