Ojibway stuck with unwanted business partners

It is difficult to understand the current relationship between the Ojibway in the Lake Superior copper district and the whites in the region without having something of an understanding of the fur trade, which began with the French in the 1600s. The fur trade was the cause of what white history refers to as the “French and Indian War” (which, in reality, was started by the British, was indirectly one of the causes of the American Revolution, and was the cause of the War of 1812.

With the collapse of the fur trade in 1835, the American Fur Company’s (AFC) president, Ramsay Crooks, along with AFC co-owners Henry Sibley and Hercules Dousman, along with a number of others, were quick to discover a new way to exploit the region in which the AFC operated: fleecing the Native Americans through treaties.

As a junior partner to the AFC founder John Jacob Astor, Crooks had gained political friends in the U.S. government, along with some political influence. He used that influence, as well as his friends, to place AFC employees in the positions of agents of the War Department in treaty negotiations.

Like Crooks, Henry L. Dodge was an avid Democrat, and seemed to be committed to the destruction of all Native Americans. He had gained some level of prominence in the Black Hawk War, then commanded a contingent of U.S. Dragoons on the Plains. A slaveholder, Dodge settled his family and his slaves on lands owned by the Winnebago People, and began to amass a fortune in illegal lead mining. His democratic stance gained him the support of lead mining interests in southwest Wisconsin, and even Missouri Democrats in St. Louis, where the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was located. As a result of all this, Dodge was made the territorial governor of Wisconsin in 1836, which placed him in the position to act as agent for the War Department in the treaty negotiations between the government and the Ojibway, and the Dakota People in 1837.

The treaty was originally intended to establish boundary lines between the western Ojibway and the Santee Dakota, who had been warring off and on for a long time. It was during these negotiations, conducted at Fon du Lac, in Minnesota Territory, that Crooks first asserted himself in robbing the Native Americans.

Crooks claimed the Native Americans on both sides of the argument owed large debts to traders in his company.

In the treaty, the Dakota received $16,000 in cash, goods and services, and and $40,000 to be divided into annual payments — and $90,000 for payment for “fur trade debts,” in exchange for ceded lands in Minnesota Territory.

The Ojibway were hit harder by the treaty. At the same time, they were betrayed by their former fur trading partners, as well as by people they claimed as kinsmen.

The Ojibway of Wisconsin were pressured into ceding a large portion of their lands in northern Wisconsin, primarily for its timber. Although the Ojibway along the south shores of Lake Superior ceded no land in the 1837 treaty, they too were expected to sign the treaty, giving away their timber rights, as well.

For this, the Ojibway were given $24,000 in cash, and right to fish, hunt, and gather wild rice on the lands negotiated over in the treaty. The “mixed-bloods,” those who were of Ojibway and European races, mostly French and referred to as “Metis” by the Ojibway, received $100,000, which included those Metis who actually signed the treaty for the government. Again, the traders also received compensation for trumped up “trade debts,” totaling $70,000. William Aitkin, Lyman Warren, and Hercules Dousman received the debt payment. They also received the timber rights.

Dodge didn’t care about timber rights or borders between warring Indians. What he cared about were minerals and mineral rights, and the Ojibway owned land on Lake Superior that was rich in copper, and land in Wisconsin rich in lead. Copper was the reason he wanted the Ojibway along Lake Superior to attend the treaty negotiations. Let Crooks and his cronies have the timber; it would clear the land for mining.

The Ojibway of the Lake Superior shores did not cede their lands to Dodge. But the American Fur Company accused them, like the Dakota and the Wisconsin Ojibway, of owing thousands of dollars in trade debt, which the treaty settlement was supposed to have addressed. Crooks saw to that it wasn’t. Dodge also saw to it that the Ojibway of Lake Superior could not collect their share of the annuities guaranteed them in the treaty.

Thanks to Henry L. Dodge, these Ojibway lost severely by the treaty. They received no compensation for the timber rights they were forced to sign away to Crooks and his partners. They still faced a fraudulent debt claimed by the AFC. What they did receive was the retention of their rights to hunt, fish, and gather rice on lands still owned by them.

The other thing Dodge did was to set the stage for the Treaty of La Pointe five years later. To him, Ramsay Crooks, and his partners in the American Fur Company, the Ojibway were just one more natural resource in a rich region to be exploited.


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