Conflict and Concession – The Sandy Lake Tragedy – 1854 Treaty of La Pointe

Chippewa family -1820s - Time and the River - no artist listed

Nations, Tribes, Bands – think human tectonic plates. Where these forces of human nature meet you  experience open warfare, sporadic conflict, simmering hostility, negotiated peace, friendship, alliances or, any and all of these over time. Look at the westward expansion of the Chippewa along the southern shores of Lake Superior that led to the conflict with the Fox. The Fox were driven from what we now call Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin in the seventeenth century.

“Their arrival in what is now Wisconsin brought them into collision with the Eastern Sioux. Chippewa oral tradition holds that for a brief time the Fox actually occupied the upper Saint Croix valley and the region around Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The Dakota and the Chippewa began their relationship, which would later stain the waters of the Saint Croix with much blood, as allies against the Fox.” (Time and the RiverMcMahon and Karamaski’s)

Include the French, English and later, the American presence and the dynamics of this human landscape seems constantly moving under foot. A tectonic plate of sorts with guns, money, modernity, and overwhelming numbers seeking wealth and territory. Dominating the 18th and first half of the 19th century, the ongoing Chippewa /Dakota territorial conflict became the fault-line along which Europeans and Americans negotiated with and exploited Native American leaders.

Present day Minnesota and Wisconsin characterised by the co-existence of the United States government with sovereign Native American nations defies the notion of a “short history” Good luck, can’t be done. I’m suggesting some publications a bit further down the post if you are interested.  Here’s a snap-shot of one half decade, 1850 to 1855, with a central event that was shameful and criminal, the results of which may have disrupted U.S government plans to re-locate the Chippewa bands somewhere west of the Mississippi.

The Sandy Lake Tragedy

(also known as Wisconsin’s Trail of Tears or the Wisconsin Death March)

In late November, about 3,000 Ojibwe traveled the 500 miles to Sandy Lake only to find no payment and no provisions for their return trip: 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 entire nation). Wisconsin Historical Society


Sandy Lake Tragedy - Marker .

What events led to this?

“Most Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Ojibwe bands which negotiated the 1837 and 1842 Treaties received their annuities by early autumn at La Pointe on Madeline Island – a cultural and spiritual center for the Objibwe (Chippewa) people. Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Minnesota, Alexander Ramsey, worked with other officials to remove the Ojibwe from their homes in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to Sandy Lake. The flow of annuity money and government aid to build Indian schools and farms would create wealth for Ramsey and his supporters in Minnesota. President Zachary Taylor issued an executive order in February 1850 that sought to move Ojibwe Indians living east of the Mississippi River to their unceded lands. Initially stunned by the breach of the 1837 and 1842 Treaty terms Ojibwe leaders recognized that the removal order clearly violated their agreement with the U.S. A broad coalition of supporters-missionary groups, newspapers, businessmen, and Wisconsin state legislators – rallied to oppose the removal effort and band members refused to abandon their homes… Ramsey later denied that removal was part of the plan… Instead the location for the distribution of annuities was simply changed from Madeline Island to Sandy Lake. The scheme was straightforward enough-Annuity goods and money would only be paid to those Chippewa (Ojibwe) who traveled to Sandy Lake accompanied by their families.” (Allen Asian Heart, 2007 – Dream Catchers – unfortunately no source cited ? but consistent with the Wisconsin Historical Dictionary description above)

In the aftermath of the tragedy, amid the public outcry in support of Native peoples, the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe was negotiated between the U.S and tribal leaders.  “The treaty ceded all of the Lake Superior Ojibwe lands to the United States in the Arrowhead Region of Northeastern Minnesota, in exchange for reservations for the Lake Superior Ojibwe in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. The signatory tribes retain hunting, fishing and gathering right within this region.” (Wikipedia)

Land in trade for sovereign status, reservation, and the right to a subsistence lifestyle within their traditional lands. Good deal? Bad deal? Best deal possible? Regardless of your perspective, fact is the Mole Lake and the St. Croix Bands were never included in the negotiations. What was that all about? What were the consequences? Future post.

Friday is “Photo Friday” If you have any to include, art work too, send it along. Thanks, Corey

Books and Sites of Interest


Here’s some recommended sites presenting varied perspectives. My introduction to the history of the St. Croix Valley was James Taylor Dunne’s The St. Croix – Midwest Border River Early chapters describe the Native Americans who lived in the valley prior to and during early (1600s)contact with Europeans up to the treaties with The U. S government in the 1830s through the 1850s. An excellent, more thorough and well-cited publication is McMahon and Karamaski’s, Time and the River – A History of the Saint Croix , a National Scenic River publication. You’ll find the interwoven threads of Sioux, Cree, Fox, Chippewa, French, English, and American presence in the valley much easier to understand. Wikipedia does a nice job explaining the various Treaties of St. Peters.  The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe has a page on their site with the actual Treaty of St. Peters 1837 with the Native American and American signatories included. Danziger’s 1979 book,  The Chippewas of Lake Superior looks like a comprehensive guide to the norther bands of Chippewa. Also, check out William W Warren’s 1885 History of the Ojibway People re-printed with new material by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. You can find the Native American perspective on the shameful Sandy Lake Tragedy, also known as Wisconsin’s Trail of Tears and Wisconsin’s Death March, at three sites,  News from Indian Country and Native American Minnesota I and II, and Dream-Catchers. Another link to the Wisconsin Historical Society provides a brief account of the tragedy and explains how plans to re-locate all Chippewa west of the Mississippi were subsequently dropped in negotiated treaties prompted by the public outcry over the needless death of so many at Sandy Lake.

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1 Response to Conflict and Concession – The Sandy Lake Tragedy – 1854 Treaty of La Pointe

  1. J.Geezer says:

    Thanks for the more objective portrayal of the St Croix and Native histories along your proposed canoe route. Reminders about how the history of this area developed are sobering but really worthy of our contemplation. I like where you are traveling with this thread! Paddle on, Cory!

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