Wisconsin Death March

The story of the “Wisconsin Death March” has no business being on the Fox Cities Murder and Mayhem podcast. However, the story is so important and almost completely unknown – I have no better platform to present this dark period of state history.

The 1848 annuity payment, called a “swindle” by newspaper reporters, was the inspiration for what was to come. The Ojibwe were paid late and thus forced to buy goods from traders at high rates on credit while waiting – 85% of the money was spent before it was even received. The traders took this lesson and began influencing ignorant frontier politicians to move the payground west, where traders could maintain their advantage during future annuities.

After the “swindle,” a group of Ojibwe representing sixteen bands in the Lake Superior region traveled to Washington to plead their case that they should not be moved west. In early 1849, they presented their petition to Congress: “Our people desire a donation of twenty-four sections of land, covering the graves of our fathers, our sugar orchards, and our rice lakes and rivers, at seven different places now occupied by us as villages.” They pointed to their villages at Lake Superior. “We do not wish to be driven north of the British line, nor West among the wandering and vicious tribes which infest the plains and the mountains stretching from the Mississippi to the Pacific.”

Iowa Senator Augustus Dodge heard the Ojibwe address and explained the message in his own words: “They come here… to ask of this and the other branch of Congress that the resting-places where the bones of their ancestors repose may be continued to them; that the Government of the United States would grant them a small portion of its vast domain among the fastnesses and marshes of Lake Superior, where their villages are situated, and where they have been enabled to obtain a precarious subsistence by gathering wild rice, cranberries, and other productions of that distant country.” Dodge said, “Everywhere their mission was approved by all who became acquainted with them, and everywhere they excited the best sympathies of the human heart.”

Indian Affairs Commissioner (and future Ohio governor) William Medill said little; when it was time to go, Dodge spoke on their behalf, raising funds for the return to Wisconsin – travel to Green Bay was slow, and from there it may take another month by snowshoes to reach Lake Superior. Dodge explained the Ojibwe were owed this courtesy because, “If you were to go into a calculation as to the millions of acres of land, the valuable lead and copper mines that you have acquired from these very tribes, specimens of which are to be seen at the War Department, and calculate the cost of these, as compared with their value, there would be a fearful balance against us.”

Dodge was from a political family on the frontier and knew the region far better than the men in Washington. Dodge was the son of Wisconsin Senator Henry Dodge, nephew of Missouri Senator Lewis F. Linn, and brother-in-law of James Clarke, the third and last Governor of Iowa Territory.

Alexander Ramsey

Alexander Ramsey, a Pennsylvania Whig, was appointed Minnesota Territorial Governor and local superintendent of Indian Affairs in March 1849. Under Ramsey was appointed subagent John Watrous – these two are the villains of our story. Watrous was a political opportunist – he had been a Democrat in Wisconsin, but switched to the Whigs to secure a position. On September 4, 1849, Ramsey urged the Territorial Legislature to ask the President to remove the Ojibwe. In his statement to the Territorial Legislature, Ramsey asserted the Ojibwe needed to be removed because white settlers in the Sauk Rapids area were complaining about the privileges given to the Ojibwe. Similarly, the Territorial Legislature urged removal of the Ojibwe “to ensure the security and tranquility of the white settlements” in the area. However, the white settlers were complaining about the Ho-Chunk, not the Ojibwe, in the Sauk Rapids area. Minnesotans also wanted Indians moved from Wisconsin and Michigan to Minnesota because a large Indian presence brought economic benefits with it. Letter from Rice to Ramsey, December 1, 1849: “Minnesota would reap the benefit [from the Chippewa’s removal] whereas now their annuities pass via Detroit and not one dollar do our inhabitants get.” Specifically, an Indian presence provided opportunities to trade with Indians in exchange for their annuity payments, and to build and operate Indian agencies, schools, and farms in exchange for money. The presence of these facilities in an area also opened opportunities for patronage jobs to staff these facilities.

They complied by passing, in October 1849, “Joint Resolutions relative to the removal of the Chippewa Indians from the ceded lands within the Territory of Minnesota.”

The Joint Resolution urged: “[T]o ensure the security and tranquility of the white settlements in an extensive and valuable district of this Territory, the Chippewa Indians should be removed from all lands within the Territory to which the Indian Title has been extinguished, and that the privileges given to them… be revoked.”

The Territorial Legislature directed its resolution to Congress, but it eventually made its way to President Zachary Taylor. It is unclear why the Territorial Legislature directed this resolution to Congress and not to the President. One possible explanation is that, although the 1842 Treaty gave the President authority to remove the Chippewa from that land area, the 1837 Treaty did not confer such authority on the President. Therefore, any action to remove the Ojibwe would require congressional approval.

At the recommendation of Indian Commissioner Orlando Brown (1801-1867), President Taylor issued an Executive Order on February 6, 1850. The order provided:

“The privileges granted temporarily to the Chippewa Indians of the Mississippi, by the Fifth Article of the Treaty made with them on July 29, 1837, ‘of hunting, fishing and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded’ by that treaty to the United States; and the right granted to the Chippewa Indians of the Mississippi and Lake Superior, by the Second Article of the treaty with them of October 4, 1842, of hunting on the territory which they ceded by that treaty, ‘with the other usual privileges of occupancy until required to remove by the President of the United States,’ are hereby revoked; and all of the said Indians remaining on the lands ceded as aforesaid, are required to remove to their unceded lands.”

As a fur trader and a fisherman with friends among the Ojibwe, along with being an associate of the Methodist Episcopal Mission Society, Cyrus Mendenhall was present at the Treaty of LaPointe negotiations in 1842. The 1850 presidential order was met with uproar from both the Ojibwe and the whites in the regions. Mendenhall, too, was outraged, and he rallied local officials, merchants, businessmen, doctors, loggers, and even mining officials, from La Pointe to Sault Ste. Marie, and circulated a petition in June 1850 to bring a stop to the order. Mendenhall, like nearly everyone else in the Great Lakes region, understood full well the degree to which the Ojibwe and the whites were dependent upon each other, socially, culturally, and economically. So did the Wisconsin Legislature, which fought back against the order. Mendenhall was joined in his pro-Ojibwe sentiment by Rev. S.B. Treat, secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. These two and their allies kept the pressure up for two years.

The frontier ministers were not universally pro-Ojibwe, however. Rev. Sherman Hall at LaPointe was swayed by Watrous when Hall was promised an important position at the new boarding school that would be built in Minnesota. Hall wrote to his superiors, “Whatever we may think of this policy, if we wish to continue our missionary efforts for the Ojibwas, we had better conform to it.” If the boarding school was being moved, the mission would have to go, too.

The Ojibwe were understandably not happy about the order. The treaties they signed said they would be giving up nothing but copper rights – land rights were theirs unless they made war or otherwise caused trouble. That same year (1850), Daniel H. Johnson of Prairie du Chien was in the LaPointe area to conduct the census – he found the natives to not only be no nuisance, but actually completely integrated. The 500 whites Johnson found were almost entirely French who spoke the Ojibwe language. No one locally was clamoring for their removal – they were family!

Mendenhall’s petition arrived at the worst time – after the unexpected death of President Taylor in July 1850. Public support for the Ojibwe was strong – even eastern newspapers called out Watrous’ “iniquitous scheme” and pointed out that fishers, sailors, hunters, mine owners and more on Lake Superior wanted them to stay. But a new administration meant a new Indian Commissioner – Luke Lea. He received the petition, but did not act immediately in all the commotion of getting situated.

Watrous hoped to entice the Ojibwe to remove to Minnesota by changing the location where the annuity payments for the land cessions would be made. The Ojibwe were to be told that their annuity payments would no longer be made at LaPointe, Wisconsin, but, rather, would be made at Sandy Lake in the Minnesota Territory. The Government’s first annuity payment under this plan, however, ended in disaster.

The Ojibwe were told they had to be at Sandy Lake by October 25 to receive their 1850 annuity payment. This was no small inconvenience – some of the men traveled 450 miles by canoe to the paygrounds, wasting time and resources. October was the time to prepare crops for the winter. The first group arrived mid-October and found Watrous absent. Nobody around was authorized to parcel out any goods on site. They were told Watrous was in St. Louis collecting the annuity money. Watrous was, in fact, on his way to St. Louis, but was making no effort to be on time – he reached St. Louis on October 21, knowing full well the journey back could take two weeks.

By November 10, almost 4,000 Ojibwe had assembled at Sandy Lake to receive the payment, but Watrous did not arrive until November 24 (a month late), and the annuity goods were not completely distributed until December 3. In the meantime, around 150-170 Ojibwe died in an outbreak of measles and dysentery. Witness John Pitezal, an Episcopal missionary, saw “evidences of a terrible calamity everywhere.. All over the cleared land graves were to be seen in every direction, for miles distant, from Sandy Lake; they were to be found in the woods… So alarming was the mortality, that the Indians complained that they could not bury their dead.” As many as 9 Ojibwe died each day; Pitezal feared a cholera outbreak. There was no shelter to protect from the cold, the water was unsanitary, and what little food was at the government station was spoiled.

To make matters worse, Watrous had not brought any of the owed money from St. Louis. Trying to make the best of the situation, he negotiated between the Ojibwe and local traders for food and ammunition so the men could hunt on their way home. These supplies would be given on credit and later be paid from the owed money. Watrous assured the Ojibwe he was giving them “the most reasonable terms possible.” Perhaps true considering the isolated location, but the prices were three to six times the rate of the same goods in St. Paul. Governor Ramsey estimated the food provided would last the Ojibwe three days – not nearly enough to get back home.

Packing up camp on December 3, approximately 200 sick men were left behind, with a handful of healthy men to care for them. Streams were already frozen over, making canoes impossible to use, and they were instead broken up for firewood rather than carried. The snow was a foot deep in many places, making the journey back far more challenging than the journey there. During this trek (now called the “Wisconsin Death March”), another 230 Chippewas died.

In attempting to control federal affairs, Watrous and Ramsey had violated federal law. Ramsey wrote to Commissioner Lea, “Far from famine or starvation ensuing from any negligence on the part of Government officers, the Chippewa received all that Government was under treaty obligations to furnish to them, except their money; and this, as every one is aware, who is at all familiar with the thriftless habits of the Indians, and the fatal facility with which they incur debts whenever opportunity presents, is usually all of it due to their traders.” They received no punishment, and the following year, they continued their forced removal policies. They relied on the same plan to intentionally delay payment. The so-called “death march” did not break the Ojibwe, but actually made their resistance even stronger – they were not moving.

On August 25, 1851, the Indian Affairs Secretary reversed the 1850 removal order. News spread quickly by telegraph and local newspapers were favorable to the Ojibwe. The various bands met up at Sault St. Marie and had a “jubilee” celebrating their victory, but it was too soon – Watrous was going to ignore the instructions and continue attempts to dislodge them from Wisconsin.

Knowing full well the mass death from only one year sooner, Watrous wrote to Governor Ramsey on September 22, “It is my intention to delay (unless otherwise instructed) making the moneyed payment of the present year to the Chippewa of Lake Superior until after navigation ceases, which is done to throw every obstacle in the way of their returning to their old homes.” Ramsey did not instruct otherwise. The Ojibwe sidestepped this by going to the outpost of Crow Wing, which was west enough for Watrous to relent, but not so isolated that they would face a repeat if they were lied to. The payment was made, and the men went home – back to Wisconsin – without incident.

The Lake Superior Ojibwe continued to resist removal with written petitions and sent a delegation to Washington, including Chief Buffalo, in June 1852. The Secretary of the Interior said he did not want to see the Ojibwe, but they hung around for two days determined to see the president. They succeeded. The meeting left a positive impression on Millard Fillmore – he not only cancelled the removal order entirely, but approved the payment of back, current and future annuities to be paid at their preferred location of LaPointe. Particularly convincing seems to be a petition they brought along signed by Wisconsin politicians of Fillmore’s own party!

It was not until 1853, when a new administration replaced Ramsey and Watrous, that removal efforts ended. The new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, George Washington Manypenny, put a halt to the removal policy of the US and transitioned to a policy of reservations. The Ojibwe, as well as other Indian nations, would now get to stay where they were. (There are lots of drawbacks to reservations and this is far from the last attempt by the federal government to harm the natives, but for the purpose of this write-up, we have to conclude a reservation was better than removal.)

The second treaty of LaPointe was signed by Henry Gilbert and David Herriman for the United States and representatives of the Ojibwe on September 30, 1854. The treaty ceded all of the Ojibwe lands to the United States in the Arrowhead Region of Northeastern Minnesota, in exchange for reservations for the Ojibwe in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. The signatory tribes retain hunting, fishing and gathering right within this region.

John Watrous became the first (Democratic) speaker of the assembly when Minnesota achieved statehood. Ramsey became mayor of Saint Paul, followed by governor, senator and then Secretary of War. This mass murder was a mere blip on his way up the ladder.

Scroll to Top