The first recorded person to discover gold in the Black Hills later became the first and possibly only woman to sign a treaty with the U.S. Government. Matilda Picotte Galpin was one of the bravest and most honorable people to ever live in the Upper Plains.
On one occasion, a large group of angry Native Americans bent on revenge surrounded the agency where she lived. She went outside and confronted the warriors, saying, “Shame on you, cowardly dogs! You are not brave to come here to kill a half-dozen white men. Now, I demand that you break up this council, and leave here, and if you will do as I tell you, I will make you a big feast.” The Indians left.
On at least three other occasions, Matilda confronted warriors intent on killing whites. Her boldness, bravery and intelligence saved the lives of the white men. In 1876, she also successfully defied unethical orders from the War Department and Orvil Grant, the brother of the U.S. president.
Wambdi Autepewin (Eagle-Woman-That-All-Look-At) was born in 1820 near the Little Missouri River, in what is now South Dakota. Her father, Two Lance, was a chief of the Two Kettles band of Teton Sioux, and her mother, “The-Rosy-Light-of-Dawn,” was the daughter of a Hunkpapa chief. Eagle Woman spent much of her youth exploring the Black Hills around the Little Missouri River.
One day, the girl noticed something shiny in the water. Excitedly, she picked up the dime-sized yellow rock and brought it home. She showed it to her father and other elder members of the tribe, but no one could tell her what it was. Later, the missionary Father DeSmet visited and Eagle Woman showed it to him. DeSmet cautioned her, “You must never tell anyone where you found this; if you do, the white man will want this land.”
Another white man who frequently interacted with the Two Kettles near Fort Pierre (now Pierre, S.D.) was a transplanted Canadian trader from St. Louis, Honore Picotte. As a sign of friendship on the part of Two Lance to the trader, he offered his 17-year-old daughter as a bride to the 41-year old Picotte, despite the fact that he already had two wives. Because Picotte was a Catholic, he had Eagle Woman baptized and renamed Matilda.
With Picotte, Matilda had two daughters, Louise and Lulu. She also helped raise a stepson, Charles, whom Picotte had with one of his other wives. In 1848, Picotte returned to one of his wives in St. Louis and placed Matilda and his children under the care of one of his employees, Charles Galpin. In 1850, Charles and Matilda were married.
Galpin had been an active trader in the upper Plains since 1839, and continued his profession after acquiring a family. In 1862, the Galpins made a trip by boat up the Missouri River to Fort Benton in Montana to trade supplies with the Black Feet Native Americans in the area. On their return trip, just a few miles from Fort Pierre, they were confronted by a group of a hostile Santee, many yelling, “Kill them! Kill them!”
Charles Galpin got out of the boat, but Matilda defiantly remained in it. She scolded the hostiles, “I have traveled a long distance; and now, when almost home, I am surprised to be treated in this unfriendly manner.”
One of the braves came up to her and said, “Sister, I have been among them a long time, and have never asked for anything, but I will try and save you.” He went back to the other Indians and said, “If you do kill her, you will have to kill me first!”
Because of this brave action, the Galpins’ lives were spared. Matilda later learned that these warriors were part of the Santee group that were involved in the Minnesota Uprising and that they were holding white captives. When the Galpins returned to Fort Pierre, they had a rescue party sent out to free the captives.
After the hostilities of the Santee Sioux in Minnesota, many of the Native Americans fled into Dakota Territory. Gen. Alfred Sully was sent up the Missouri River to cut off the escape of the Sioux. One of the people Sully considered his “most valuable asset” was Charles Galpin, and this was mainly because he was married to Matilda.
On Sept. 14, 1863, Sully had a fort built six miles south of Pierre, which was named Fort Sully. The general then appointed Galpin as the post trader. On July 7, 1864, Sully had Fort Rice built north of the Cannonball River in present-day Morton County.
Again, Sully named Galpin as the post trader. Before settling into Fort Rice, the Galpins were asked to undertake an important and very risky assignment. They agreed to accompany their good friend, Father DeSmet, in an attempt to persuade Sitting Bull and his warriors to come to Fort Rice and sign a peace treaty and agree to live on a reservation.
After traveling for 16 days into Montana, they were met by 50 Native Americans from Sitting Bull’s camp. Orders had been sent to kill any whites making this trip, which would include DeSmet and Charles Galpin. The Indians seized the two white men and ordered Matilda to go back. She refused. With her was Matilda’s nephew, Thunder Hawk, who told her to hand him the best gun, which he quickly loaded and moved to his aunt’s side. They then all rode into Sitting Bull’s camp.
The chiefs were so impressed with Matilda’s bravery that they all smoked a peace pipe and invited her to a feast. Also, DeSmet and Charles Galpin’s lives were spared. Sitting Bull would not go back to Fort Rice with Matilda, but Chief Gall was sent in his place. In all, 17 chiefs and 40 headmen agreed to take part in peace talks at Fort Rice.
While at Fort Rice, Matilda witnessed a small group of Native Americans ambush Lt. Benjamin Wilson. He was shot with three arrows and fell from his horse. Immediately, Matilda rushed over to the wounded soldier and shielded him with her shawl as the hostiles rode up to take his scalp. She yelled at them, “This man belongs to me now! You cannot mutilate him nor touch him!”
She then called out the cavalry, who chased off the Native Americans. The wounded soldier later died, but before he did, he called for Matilda and they held hands as he breathed his last breath.
On Nov. 30, 1869, Charles Galpin died, and Matilda took over running the post store. In 1872, the U.S. government chose Matilda to personally select and accompany a delegation of 13 chiefs to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Grant, General Sherman and Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano.
In the meantime, Matilda began trading with the Native Americans at Standing Rock. Orvil Grant, the brother of the president, was demanding payment from the post traders for permission to have exclusive trading rights on the reservations in Dakota Territory.
He ordered Matilda, who had not been granted that right, to stop trading, but she refused. Matilda said that while she was in Washington, she saw women selling goods and if they could, so should she. In November 1882, she traveled to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska to sign a reservation authorization treaty, becoming the only woman to sign a treaty with the U.S. government.
Matilda’s oldest daughter, Louise Picotte DeGrey Van Solen, became the first schoolteacher on Standing Rock. The city of Solen is named after her. Matilda Picotte Galpin/Eagle Woman died on Dec. 10, 1888.