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The History of Ojibwe and Other Wisconsin Tribes in the Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, with the arrival of American settlers and lawmakers in the area of Wisconsin, conditions turned worse for Ojibwe and other Wisconsin tribes. Government representatives forced eastern tribes like the Menominee to declare the borders of their lands and to cede territory in 1827 and 1831, and the 1832 Black Hawk War aimed at destroying Native resistance in southern Wisconsin to forced removal into Iowa. In 1825 US government officials invited Ojibwe, Dakota, and other Native groups to Prairie du Chien for a meeting in which they, too, were obliged to declare their borders and begin negotiations for ceding territory. The 1830 Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson declared that all Indians must be removed to areas west of the Mississippi River, with the Chocktaw and Cherokee subjected to deportation already in 1831. The Potawatomi of Illinois were removed to Kansas in 1833. By 1890, some thirty nations had been removed to Oklahoma Territory. Two present-day Wisconsin tribes arrived in Wisconsin as a product of removal and relocation processes: the Oneida and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, both of which came to Wisconsin from farther east, chiefly New York state.

In the coercive negotiations that aimed at securing lands for white settlement, Ojibwe were forced to cede lands in 1837 and 1843. Ho-Chunk people were removed to Nebraska in 1874 but repeatedly returned to Wisconsin, until eventually, in 1881, the government allotted them scattered forty-acre homesteads in the state. While surrendering ownership of vast tracts of lands in northern Wisconsin, Ojibwe bands reserved the right to continue to fish, hunt, and gather on ceded territory, a guarantee that was again stated in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe.

Removal policies reached the Ojibwe of northern Wisconsin in 1850, when President Zachary Taylor signed an order to remove Wisconsin Ojibwe to Minnesota Territory. In order to force Ojibwe to relocate, the government announced that annuity payments would no longer be paid at La Pointe, Madeline Island, but instead in a distant Sandy Lake, Minnesota. When some 3000 Ojibwe men, women, and children made the journey to Sandy Lake in the fall of 1850, they found no provisions for their new life there. A government representative notified them that their payments had not been appropriated by the government. Starvation, disease, and inadequate conditions led many Ojibwe to grow sick and die, and others perished in their desperate mid-winter attempt to return to Wisconsin. All in all, some 400 Ojibwe died as a result of the bungled policy, which has been known as the "Sandy Lake Tragedy."

In 1852, in the aftermath of this tragedy, an aged La Pointe Chief Buffalo (Kechewaishke) undertook a bold but brilliant act of statesmanship. Setting out by foot, wagon, train, and boat with some fellow Ojibwe leaders and an able interpreter (his adopted son Benjamin Armstrong), Kechewaishke reached Washington D.C., where he personally met with President Millard Fillmore and convinced the president to rescind his predecessor's removal order. In the Treaty of La Pointe of 1854, the Lake Superior Chippewa were able to negotiate four separate reservations at Red Cliff, Bad River, Lac du Flambeau, and Lac Court Oreilles. They also wisely insisted that Ojibwe rights to fish, hunt, and gather on all ceded lands would continue to be respected. Although in this process the Ojibwe lost a tremendous amount of land and waters, they remained on their sacred ancestral grounds, a dignity denied most other tribes during the era.

In 1887, US government officials decided that the reservation system had proved a barrier to assimilation of Indians into American society. The General Allotment Act (or "Dawes Act") of that year privatized reservation lands, awarding small 80-acred allotments of land to individual tribal members and selling off other tribal lands to white settlers. Indians who could not make a living with the diminished resources of the region often sold their land allotments off when leaving the area, leading to a further erosion of lands possessed by the tribal members. By the 1930s, some forty percent of reservation lands had been lost to Indian communities in these ways. On the Lac du Flambeau reservation, for instance, a key sacred place: the island known as Strawberry Island, in the very center of the reservation, passed into private ownership in 1910 as a result of the Dawes Act and remained private property until the tribe was able to reacquire it in 2014. The island holds tremendous importance for Ojibwe, as it was the site of the final battle in the eighteenth-century struggle between the Ojibwe and the Dakota-Sioux for the lands of northern Wisconsin. The island is a burial ground for numerous warriors killed in that important battle. Being able to reacquire the island and guarantee that it would not be inappropriately developed was both an historical and a spiritual victory for Ojibwe people.

Loew, Patty. 2001. Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Mason, Carol I. 1988. Introduction to Wisconsin Indians: Prehistory to Statehood. Salem, WI: Shefflied Publishing Company.

Continue reading about Ojibwe history and the history of other Wisconsin tribes on the

South Quadrant.


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