Treaties Signed at the Head of the Lakes

A watercolor depicting the gathering for the signing of the 1826 Treaty of Fond du lac by James Otto Lewis. (Image: Duluth Public Library)


When the first white men came this country was held by Crees and Assiniboine Indians, but by the time the whites were ready to possess it the Chippewas were recognized inhabitants of the shore of Lake Superior, separated from their Sioux enemies by a neutral strip. As the cessions of land were made to the United States they were virtually quit claim deeds from one tribe after another, till all aboriginal claims or claimants were extinguished.

The first treaty in which the Chippewas of this country figured was that of Prairie du Chien in 1825, engineered by Governors Cass of Michigan and Clark of Missouri. They were to see if they could not get the Indians to agree among themselves on their own boundaries. So there were Sioux, Chippewas, Sacs, Foxes, Menominees, Ottoways, Winnebagoes and Pottawatomies at the conference. And these were persuaded to make definite borders for the teritory each tribe claimed, which had always overlapped. And while the United States after that from time to time bought the same land two or three times over from tribes claiming some hold on it, the business of getting the land from the Indians proceeded thereafter on some definite basis.

In 1826 the negotiation was continued at Fond du Lac, seeing not all the Chippewa bands had been represented at Prairie du Chien, notwithstanding thirty-six chiefs and headmen had signed.

A watercolor depicting Native Americans arriving at the American Fur Post in Fond du Lac for the signing of the 1826 Treaty of Fond du lac by James Otto Lewis. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

At Fond du Lac in August, 1826, every one was satisfied, and not only were the articles of Prairie du Chien confirmed, but a clause was put in the treaty giving the United States the right to take any metals or minerals from the country.
By the treaty of 1837 the country claimed by the Chippewas back from Lake Superior in Wisconsin was ceded and in 1842 the 67 south shore of the lake, running to the St. Louis river and Fond du Lac.

A stretch of their country on the west bank of the Mississippi was ceded in 1847 at Fond du Lac, where Hole in the Day was spokesman for the Chippewas. “It belongs to me,” he said. “My father by his bravery took it from the Sioux, and when he died it became mine.” By that treaty the payment of annuities was moved from La Pointe to Gull lake. In 1850 the agency was moved from La Pointe to Leech Lake.

The treaty by which Duluth was ceded to the United States was negotiated at La Pointe, near Ashland, where Allouez established the mission of the Holy Spirit nearly two hundred years before. Ten bands were represented at this confab, from L’Anse in Michigan to the Pillagers of Leech lake, and several hundred Indians must have taken part in the council, since eighty-five chiefs and headmen signed the articles, and every signature meant among the Indians the assent of a lodge that had been fed and warmed during the proceedings, with its wives and its dogs and its ponies and its camp followers.

The principal parties to this treaty were the Chippewas of Lake Superior. The first difficulty of their lands overlapping those of the Mississippi river Indians was overcome by the agreement that they should take all the proceeds of this cession and relinquish to the river bands any claim to lands west of the boundary line adopted at this meeting. As the Indians themselves had neither title nor boundaries, and only vague occupation, that was a reasonable way of getting at it.

A painting, artist unknown, depicting the1854 gathering that lead to the second Treaty of LaPointe. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

That boundary was fixed as the Snake river, the Savannah and St. Louis, the Vermillion and Rainy river. All the territory east of that line was handled under this treaty, including most of St. Louis county, all of Lake and Cook, part of Carlton and the northern edge of Pine. The treaty apparently proceeded on the theory that the Indians further east had already parted with their lands, but had rights of settlement in the Chippewa country which they yielded in consideration of receiving certain reservations.

So reservations were made for the L’Anse and Vieux de Sert bands in Michigan. And the La Pointe band reserved a tract on the south shore at the mouth of Ke-che-se-be-we-she creek, including Shag-waw-me-quon point, more commonly known as Chequamegon, also fishing ground on Madelaine island.

The Fond du Lac band held their camping site, 100,000 acres on the St. Louis river, starting from the island of Paw-paw-scome- me-tig, above Knife Portage. That was opened to settlement in 1907.

The Grand Portage Indians held the strip between the mouth of Pigeon river and the Maw-ske-gwaw-caw-maw-se-be. And there were reservations for the Bois Forte and others that the commissioners had not time to designate, and so provided that they could choose them at leisure, corresponding in size to those already granted other bands.

In the treaty was one clause that afterwards occasioned Duluth considerable embarrassment. Chief Buffalo, of the Ontonagon band, got a special reservation of four sections to be picked out at his leisure anywhere in this ceded territory and conveyed, under the direction of the President, by the United States to such person or persons as he might direct. The grant was made to Buffalo, the latter “being desirous to provide for some of his connections who have rendered his people important services.” His willingness to oblige was the basis of the Prentice claim, which bothered Duluth for a number of years.

The treaty granted in general terms eighty acres to each head of family or single person over 21 of Chippewa mixed blood, provided for allotment in severalty by the President as fast as the occupants became capable of transacting their own affairs, gave the President authority to assign tracts in exchange for mineral lands, and allowed right of way, upon compensation, to all necessary roads, highways and railroads.

The Indians made what was not such a rotten bargain, rather better than the Algonquins made when they sold Manhattan island for $24 in trinkets. To be sure, the iron in this Chippewa country was worth above half a billion dollars, and the forests as much more. But they were not worth that to the Indians, who sold only their hunting and fishing usufruct, to which they had not exclusive nor undisputed right, and which in measure they still kept, since one of the after thoughts of the treaty reserved to them the right to hunt and fish in the ceded portions.

For this kingdom the United States paid the Lake Superior Chippewas about one million dollars.

The Indians were to receive $5,000 a year for twenty years in money, $8,000 in goods, household furniture and cooking utensils, $3,000 a year in agricultural implements, cattle, carpenter and other tools and building material, and $3,000 a year for moral and educational purposes, of which the Grand Portage band, having a special thirst for learning, was to receive $300.

To pay old debts $90,000 was placed at the disposal of the chiefs. There the Indians got off better than in earlier treaties.
At Traverse de Sioux the fur traders were present with their old accounts equipped to absorb nearly everything paid the Indians; in one treaty their bills were rendered for $250,000, in another for $156,000, and about all the Indians got was the pleasure of seeing the money counted past them. It was also provided that the annuities thereafter should not be subject. to the debts of individual Indians, but that satisfaction should be made for depredations committed by them. That is, the band was held responsible for any member running amuck, but not for private debts.

The Indians thought of the mixed bloods. Very good-give them $6,000 in farm implements and cooking utensils, and it was so done.
Next came a tickler which probably did more to get the treaty signed than the $3,000 a year for educational and moral purposes. Also, went on the treaty, 200 guns, 100 rifles, 500 beaver traps, $300 in ammunition, $1,000 in ready made clothing for the young men of the nation. That clause was reserved by the commissioners till they were ready to nail down the contract, and it was effective. To please the friends of the Indians it was provided that a blacksmith and assistant should be maintained at each reservation for twenty years, and as much longer as the President should approve. To please the missionaries it was provided that they and others residing in the territory should be allowed to enter at the minimum price the land they already occupied, whenever survey was made.

Last of all came a clause that illustrates happily the Indian sense of justice, for old traders say there was such a thing. The Bois Forte Indians, off the main trail and a withered sort of tribe, were specially remembered. “Because of their poverty and past neglect,” as the treaty ran, they were to have $10,000 additional to pay their debts-which suggests how they came to have a friend at court-and also $10,000 for blankets, cloths, nets, guns and so on, a suitable reservation to be selected afterward.
Thereupon, with a few final debates and orations, the treaty was signed September 30, 1854. The commissioners for the United States were Henry C. Gilbert and David B. Herriman.

The witnesses were Henry M. Rice, one of the most influential men in Minnesota among the Indians; J. WA. Lynde, G. D. Williams, B. H. Connor, E. W. Muldough, Richard Godfrey, D. S. Cash, H. HA. McCullough, E. Smith Lee, ‘W. E. Van Tassel and I. HI. WAhite.

The Indians signed-fourteen from La Pointe, chief, subchief and headmen, two from Vieux de Sert, three of Ontonagon, four of Grand Portage, five of L’Anse, fourteen from Fond du Lac, headed by Shing-gope or Balsam, Mawn-go-sit, or Loon’s Foot, and Naw-gaw-nub, or Forest Sitter. Then came fourteen from the Court Oreille band, three of the Bois Forte, eleven of the Flambeau and fifteen of the Mississippi bands, headed by Hole in the Day himself.

The treaty was ratified by the senate January 10, 1855, and proclaimed the same day by President Pierce. So that Duluth joined the United States fully and sufficiently January 10, 18555 In February the Indians of the Mississippi, Pillager and Lake Winnebigoshish bands made a treaty in Washington conveying to the United States their lands on similar terms, extending west from the boundary fixed in the former treaty and confirming to Minnesota its title to everything east of the White Earth and Red Lake reservations. This second treaty was confirmed by the senate and proclaimed by the President March 3, 1855.

Thus was northern Minnesota at last acquired when the territory was half-way to statehood.

From Dwight Woodbridge & John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company. Chicago: 1910.

Click on “2” for Walter Van Brunt’s 1922 history of treaties signed at the head of the lakes….


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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