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1850: Indians & Whites Respond to the Sandy Lake Tragedy

Introduction: Starting in the 1830s, U.S. officials tried to remove all eastern Indian nations onto lands west of the Mississippi. In 1850, the government decided to apply this policy to the Lake Superior Ojibwe. To induce them to leave their Wisconsin homeland, agent J. S. Watrous and other officials moved the 1850 Ojibwe annuity payment, required by the Treaty of 1842, to Sandy Lake, Minn., rather than holding it at La Pointe, Wisconsin, as usual. In late November, about 3,000 Ojibwe traveled the 500 miles to Sandy Lake only to find no payment and no provisions: the government had hoped to strand them west of the Mississippi. By the time they were able to make it home, about 400 people had died of hunger, disease, or exposure (more than 10% of the nation).

These government actions set the Ojibwe and many nonnative citizens firmly against the policy of removal. Following the uproar, aged Ojibwe Chief Buffalo traveled to Washington in June of 1852, met with President Millard Fillmore, and persuaded him to drop the removal order. The subsequent 1854 ʹReservation Treatyʹ of La Pointe guaranteed the Ojibwe homelands and hunting and fishing rights in Wisconsin forever. Ten years later, when the U.S. wanted more lands, the Ojibwe submitted a lengthy bilingual document to Washington detailing their mistreatment by government representatives from 1826 on.

Background Reading: ʺTreaty Councils, from Prairie du Chien to Madeline Islandʺ http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp013/?action=more_essay

Document to Analyze: Letters & Manuscripts Related to Sandy Lake, 1850, from the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=380

Who, What, Where, When, Why: These contemporary handwritten manuscripts relating to the Sandy Lake Tragedy include protests against removal by Ojibwe leaders and sympathetic white neighbors, descriptions of the journey and conditions at Sandy Lake by Ojibwe chiefs, and petitions in which Ojibwe leaders request the reassignment of Indian agent J. W. Watrous. We are grateful to the Lac Courte Oreilles Historic Preservation Office for helping us make transcripts of these documents available.

Related Documents: Julia Spearsʹ memoir of Sandy Lake, on pages 114122 of Bartlett, William W. History, Tradition and Adventure in the Chippewa Valley. (Eau Claire, Wis.: The author, 1929). http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1030 and Chief Buffaloʹs Petition to the President http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=75 and


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