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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Hail to the Chiefs

An unusual delegation set off from LaPointe, on Madeline Island, on April 5th, 1852. Four Ojibwe warriors paddled a canoe with a white interpreter and their two principal chiefs, Ke-Che-Waish-Ke (better known as Chief Buffalo) and O-Sho-Ga, eastward along Lake Superior. The aged Buffalo had long been the most respected chief in the Lake Superior region; young O-Sho-Ga was well-regarded and considered as a possible worthy successor. The pair were headed for Washington, D.C., by birch bark canoe, to lay their case before the Great Father in Washington.

Unlike most other tribes, the Ojibwe had not ceded their lands to the U.S. government. At treaties in 1837 and 1842 they had been told that the government only wanted the right to mine copper and harvest lumber on their lands, not to displace them entirely. "The timber you make but little use of is the pine," explained U.S. negotiators in 1842. "Your Great Father wants to build many steamboats to bring your goods to you, and to take you to Washington bye-and-bye to see your Great Father and meet him face to face. He does not want your lands; it is too cold up here for farming. He wants just enough of it to build little towns where soldiers stop, mining camps for miners, saw mill sites and logging camps. The timber that is best for you the Great Father does not care about. The maple tree that you make your sugar from, the birch tree that you get bark from for your canoes and from which you make pails for your sugar sap, the cedar from which you get material for making canoes, oars, and paddles your Great Father cares nothing for. It is the pine and minerals that he wants, and he has sent us here to make a bargain with you for it."

The Ojibwe had agreed to give white miners and loggers access to Northern Wisconsin, but did not give up their land. They were consequently astonished when in 1849 they were told they had to leave Wisconsin and cross west of the Mississippi. They investigated, found they had done nothing to negate the earlier treaties, and refused to go. The next year, in one of the region's most shameful events, their Indian agent required them to go to Sandy Lake, Minn., to pick up their annuity payment. About 3,000 people made the 500-mile, late-autumn trip only to find no payment and no provisions at Sandy Lake, because officials had hoped to strand them on the west side of the Mississippi. 400 men, women and children -- 12% of the tribe -- died en route (see Turning Points in Wisconsin History for more information).

Tensions grew, as U.S. officials tried to make Wisconsin uncomfortable for the tribe, and young Ojibwe warriors argued that military action was required. Finally, over the winter of 1853-54, Armstrong agreed to lead a delegation (pictured here) to Washington to lay their case before officials.

The seven voyagers were stopped by red tape at Mackinaw and Detroit, where Armstrong had to threaten petty bureaucrats with facilitating an Indian war if they weren't allowed to pass. At Buffalo they boarded the first railroad train that any of them, Armstrong included, had ever seen. They disembarked at Albany and took a steamer down the Hudson River to Manhattan, where they arrived almost penniless: Armstrong had only ten cents in his possession when he found a generous hotel-keeper to put them up.

Before leaving, he had circulated petitions among the white settlers at Lake Superior, virtually all of whom supported the Indians against the government. Several signers had given him names of people to contact in New York, as well as claiming to know the President. When he called on some of these New York contacts, Armstrong was able to arrange "exhibits" of the Indians at which funds were collected in support of their cause. They became instant celebrities, sometimes surrounded by crowds so thick they couldn't get to their engagements, and often kept to their rooms to avoid the turmoil outside.

They arrived in Washington on June 22nd, where Armstrong was immediately rebuffed by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and his boss, the Secretary of the Interior. Not knowing where to turn, he was lunching in the hotel dining room with Chief Buffalo when a senator and a member of President Fillmore's cabinet introduced themselves. Within two days they had an appointment with President Millard Fillmore.

"When we were assembled," Armstrong recalled, "Buffalo's first request was that all be seated, as he had the pipe of peace to present and hoped that all who were present would partake of smoke from the peace pipe. The pipe, a new one brought for the purpose, was filled and lighted by Buffalo and passed to the President, who took two or three draughts from it and smiling said, 'Who is the next?' ... O-sha-ga began and spoke for nearly an hour. He began with the treaty of 1837 and showed plainly what the Indians understood the treaty to be. He next took up the treaty of 1842 and when O-Sha-Ga had finished his speech, I presented the petition I had brought and quickly discovered that the President did recognize some names upon it, which gave me new courage. When the reading and examination of it had been concluded, the meeting was adjourned, the President directing the Indian Commissioner to say to the landlord at the hotel that our hotel bills would be paid by the government...

"The second day following this, Senator Briggs informed me that the President desired another interview that day, in accordance with which request we went to the White House soon after dinner and, meeting the President, he told the delegation in a brief speech that he would countermand the removal order and that the annuity payments would be made at LaPointe as before, and hoped that in the future there would be no further cause for complaint... The reader can imagine the great load that was then removed from my shoulders, for it was a pleasing termination of the long and tedious struggle I had made in behalf of the untutored but trustworthy savage."

The delegation returned from Washington by rail as far as LaCrosse, then went by steamboat up to St. Paul before returning to their homes through the forest. Messengers were immediately sent out to all parts of the territory and "about October 15th the remainder of the Indians had congregated at LaPointe... The jubilee that was held to express their gratitude to the delegation that had secured a countermanding order in the removal matter was almost extravagantly profuse. The letter of the Great Father was explained to them all... and Chief Buffalo explained to the convention what he had seen, how the pipe of peace had been smoked in the Great Father's wigwam, and as that pipe was the only emblem and reminder of their duties yet to come in keeping peace with his white children, he requested that the pipe be retained by me. He then went on and said that there was yet one more treaty to be made with the Great Father and he hoped in making it they would be more careful and wise than they had heretofore been."

That treaty was negotiated in 1854 with Armstrong as interpreter for the Indians. It established the reservations where the Lake Superior Ojibwe still live today, as well as reserving in perpetuity their rights to hunt and fish on their lands.

Chief O-Sho-Ga, unfortunately, died of small pox at LaPointe in February of 1854, and was unable to sign the treaty. Chief Buffalo died at LaPointe, aged about 100, on Sept. 9, 1855; his obituary is online at Wisconsin Historical Collections. Benjamin Armstrong lived until the year 1900, and penned his memoirs of these events a few years before his death. His entire book has recently been added to our Turning Points in Wisconsin History digital collection.

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 1, 2006

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