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The Ancient History of the Ojibwe People to the Nineteenth Century

According to Anishinaabe history, the people known variously as Chippewa, Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe began their history in the Great Lakes region. They were exiled east to the Atlantic coast for a time, and then, at the direction of a white shell that rose from the sea, they were directed to head west, traveling until they found a land where "food grows on water." The great migration westward proceeded along the St. Lawrence River, with important periods of rest and settlement at particular points still remembered in Ojibwe oral and sacred history. It was at the confluence of Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron at Sault Ste. Marie that the alliance of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa peoples—the "Council of the Three Fires"—ended, with each group migrating from the area to the lands they came to occurpy to the north, south, and west. The Ojibwe broke further into two groups, one migrating along the northern shore of Lake Superior, the other following the southern shore. Today, Ojibwe people live in a vast area within the Canadian provinces of Québec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and the US states of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, with further outpost communities in Kansas and Oklahoma.


Map of areas of Ojibwe reservations in Canada and USA

(Map released into the public domain by CJLippert; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe_language#mediaviewer/File:Anishinaabewaki.jpg)


The southern branch of the Ojibwe, the group that came to be known as the "Lake Superior Chippewa," migrated across northern Wisconsin and eventually reached the island known today as Madeline Island, Wisconsin, where they found in the waters of Chequamegon Bay manomin, wild rice, the food that grows on the water. Scholars have suggested that this migration reached the island some four centuries ago. From the trading post and settlement at La Pointe, Madeline Island became the spiritual as well as economic center of Ojibwe life in the region for many centuries. In 1665, the Jesuit Claude Allouez established the Saint Esprit mission there, establishing another in 1671 in eastern Wisconsin to missionize Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Meswaukie, and Potawatomi peoples. In 1745, an Ojibwe band migrated from the area of Madeline Island to Lac du Flambeau under the leadership of Chief Keeshkemun of the Crane clan. They named the area Waswaagon (from waaswaagan, torch) in reference to the practice of torch fishing that the Ojibwe learned in the area from an old man, a practice signalled as well by the French name Lac du Flambeau ("lake of the torch"). Ojibwe people tended to live in small bands, with leaders consulting extensively with community members when making decisions. This decentralized governance system would prove irritating and confusing for US government authorities, who wanted to make treaties with "chiefs" or "kings" that could command and control entire populations, something which simply did not exist in Ojibwe culture.

Ojibwe people lived traditionally on a combination of fishing, hunting, and gathering and eventually became close allies and trading partners with the French, who made forays into Wisconsin beginning in the early 1600s. French contact gave the Ojibwe access to metal tools, rifles, and trading partnerships, and many Ojibwe communities readily intermarried with French traders and trappers. Metal implements allowed for more effective production of birchbark canoes, which in turn allowed the Ojibwe as well as the French traders (the "Voyageurs") to ply the waters of the region in pursuit of pelts to sell to collect and send back to France, where they were a valuable commodity. The area of northern Wisconsin is crossed by the St. Croix, Rush, Chippewa, Trempeleau, Black, and Wisconsin rivers, all of which lead into the Mississippi. In eastern Wisconsin, the Wolf, Menominee, and Fox rivers flow ultimately into Lake Michigan. Lightweight and durable, birchbark canoes could be portaged across land masses from river to river or lake to lake. Since they were made from readily available natural materials, they could be easily repaired whenever needed. Canoes, trade, wild rice, and the plentiful fish and game of northern Wisconsin made Ojibwe life singularly secure and prosperous, despite intermittent warfare between the Ojibwe and neighboring peoples, particularly the Dakota Sioux.

English incroachment into Ojibwe lands began to become a concern during the eighteenth century. In the French and Indian War (1753-59), the Ojibwe remained officially neutral, although many individual Ojibwe fought as volunteers against the English. In 1763, the warrior-leader Pontiac, son of an Odawa chief and an Ojibwe mother, led a fierce war of resistance against the English. Although Pontiac was defeated, his uprising led the English to call a halt to white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. During the American Revolution (1775-83) and the War of 1812, most Wisconsin tribes sided with the English against the American revolutionaries, whose aim in part was to expand white settlement westward.


Johnston, Basil. 1976. Ojibway Heritage. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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

Schenck, Theresa M. 2007. William W. Warren. The Life, Letters and Times of an Ojibwe Leader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Warren, William W. 1885 [1984]. History of the Ojibway People. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Continue Reading about Ojibwe History and the History of Other Wisconsin Tribes on the

East Quadrant.


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