Many of you may be familiar with the “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of American Indian nations (Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole among them) from their ancestral homelands to Oklahoma, conducted under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Some 4,000 Cherokee and as many as 6,000 Choctaw died. Thousands of other Indians, too.
Northern Wisconsin had its own version of the Trail of Tears. But it’s had much less attention, so you might not know about it. The numbers of deaths were smaller, but the impact on the Lake Superior Ojibwe was profound: almost one-tenth of the Lake Superior Ojibwe died in the late autumn of 1850, 167 years ago. Here’s the story.
Ojibwe people had signed treaties with the U.S., making cessions to the government in exchange for yearly payments (called annuities). So, money paid over time, just like a land contract or a timber lease.
Every year, these annuity-payment distributions attracted a lot of activity, as Ojibwe people, fur traders, merchants, government officials, and settlers gathered. These payments had been held on Madeline Island for years.
Minnesota, newly forming, wanted this activity. The flow of government funds would create projects and salaried positions for the supporters of Alexander Ramsey, who was both territorial governor and State Superintendent of Indian Affairs. It would also move the Ojibwe westward and uncomplicate white settlement in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Office of Indian Affairs directed tribal members from across the region to gather for the distribution at Sandy Lake, Minn., in October of 1850 — at what was to become the new distribution site. The hope was that Ojibwe people would travel there, stay for the winter, and by spring, they would see northern Minnesota as home.
About 5,500 Ojibwe journeyed to Sandy Lake. They arrived in waves, only to find that the Indian Sub-Agent John Watrous was gone to St. Louis, and that payments would be delayed. No food or other supplies had been sent. No shelter was available. Game was scarce, fishing was poor, and floods had wiped out the wild rice crop.
Over the next six weeks, conditions grew hellish. The local Indian agency only had meager stocks of flood-soaked and rotten flour and pork. Winter set in. Disease, starvation, and exposure ravaged the Ojibwe at Sandy Lake. Some 150 died in camp.
When a partial annuity distribution arrived on Dec. 2, it provided only a three-day supply of food per person, and no cash to buy provisions at trading posts on the way home. The following day, the Ojibwe broke camp. Some stayed at Sandy Lake to attend to about 200 people too desperately ill to travel.
Those traveling home found a foot of snow on the ground and the waterways frozen, disabling canoe travel. Some faced a walk of hundreds of miles in the Great Lakes winter. More than 250 Ojibwe people died on the path home. Many parents carried the corpses of their children on the last legs of their journeys.
Ojibwe people vowed to never again travel to Minnesota for annuity payments. Newspapers throughout the region condemned the disaster at Sandy Lake. Numerous petitions flowed to Washington D.C. from missionaries, businessmen, members of the Wisconsin legislature, and the region’s white citizens.
This public pressure, along with tenacious diplomacy from Kechewaiske (Great Buffalo) of La Pointe (Madeline Island), helped create the reservations of Northern Wisconsin, so that the Ojibwe would never be “removed,” as had happened elsewhere in America. Ojibwe annuity-payment distributions returned to La Pointe.