Treaties and Reservations (1826–1854)

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

Before its demise, the Fond du Lac fur post was the region’s center of trade and consequently a natural location for large gatherings. In 1826 Michigan territorial governor William Cass and Col. Thomas L. McKenney, the head of the newly formed United States Indian Department (USID), gathered native leaders from throughout the region to the post to sign the first Treaty of Fond du Lac. Leaders of many northern Ojibwe bands agreed to the lines that had been drawn between Native nations as the result of an earlier treaty, and they granted the United States rights to mineral exploration and mining within Ojibwe lands in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the northern halves of Wisconsin and Minnesota. In exchange, the Ojibwe at Sault Ste. Marie received a small annuity and the promise of a school. They did not surrender territory.

Michigan dispatched geologist Douglass Houghton to Lake Superior’s south shore to find the copper everyone already knew was there. The French had long noted the existence of copper deposits, and the Ojibwe believed that Lake Superior’s Isle Royale—which they called Minong—and other islands were made of pure copper. Some explorers had actually seen the Ontonagan Boulder, 3700 pounds of pure copper lying half-buried in the west branch of the Ontonagan River at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula on what is now Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). Houghton mapped the peninsula in the 1830s and verified everyone’s suspicions: the Keweenaw held vast copper deposits.

While the 1826 treaty allowed Americans to mine the copper, it did not allow them to take possession of the land. Following Houghton’s report, the United States decided it wanted not simply to hold the mineral rights to the lands outlined in the 1826 treaty but to own them outright. And so in 1842 the USID invited representatives of the Lake Superior and Mississippi River Ojibwe to Madeline Island to discuss another treaty. By then, Treuer explains, the fur trade’s decline had significantly diminished the Ojibwe’s finances, and they were “willing to entertain any ideas that might buoy their economy.” The meeting resulted in the first Treaty of La Pointe, in which the Ojibwe ceded the western half of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northwestern Wisconsin, retaining reservations in their homelands.

Two months before the 1842 treaty signing, the United States and Britain finally settled their dispute over today’s northeastern Minnesota, making the Grand Portage Ojibwe—who controlled Isle Royale—residents of what was then Michigan Territory, rather than British Canada. Government officials at La Pointe were not aware of this development until after the 1842 treaty was signed, so the Grand Portage Band was not involved in that agreement. In an 1844 amendment to the treaty, the Grand Portage Band ceded Isle Royale to the United States, and it became part of Michigan.

The mining began almost immediately, and from 1845 to 1887 the UP was the largest copper producer in the United States. The 1842 agreement also opened Lake Superior’s south shore to whites; the Ojibwe were to continue living there, retaining “the right of hunting on the ceded territory, with the other usual privileges of occupancy, until required to remove by the President of the United States”—that is, until a reservation was set up for them.

At the lake’s eastern end, the rapids of the St. Marys River between Lake Huron and Lake Superior had made it nearly impossible for large vessels to reach Lake Superior, as anything bigger than a canoe had to be hauled over land. Michigan had been unsuccessfully lobbying Congress for a canal-and-lock system to circumvent the rapids since the 1830s, but the copper trade put pressure on Washington to approve it. Finally, in 1852, Congress appropriated funds for the project, and in June 1855 the Soo Locks opened Lake Superior to shipping traffic.

The lake’s north shore between today’s Duluth and the Pigeon River at the US-Canada border was thought to hold as much, if not more, copper than Michigan’s UP, and an 1847 government geologist’s report indicated the shore held plenty of copper and likely a lot of iron as well.

Benjamin Armstrong, standing at right, and the ve Ojibwe elders who traveled to Washington, DC, in 1852 to negotiate permanent homes for the Ojibwe once treaties forced them from their homes. Among them is Kechewaishe of La Pointe, also known as Chief Bu alo, Armstrong’s father-in-law. [IMAGE: Public Domain]

In 1854 the USID again met with Ojibwe leaders at La Pointe to sign a treaty. Among those representing the Ojibwe was Kechewaishe of La Pointe, also known as Bizhiki, or Chief Buffalo. Bizhiki had been part of an excursion to Washington, D.C., in 1852. The group did not like the earlier treaties, which would eventually force them to leave the region, and their protest of that provision lead to the 1854 agreement. The treaty ceded to the United States land west of Lake Superior now making up Cook, Lake, St. Louis, and Carlton counties. In exchange, the Ojibwe received some cash and equipment and, instead of being forced westward, established reservations within Ojibwe territory; they also retained hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. They included the Grand Portage Reservation (Gichionigamiing) at the Canadian border and the Fond du Lac Reservation (Nagaajiwanaang), located not at Wayekwaagichigamiing but farther up the St. Louis River in Carlton County, home to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The ceded land included all of what would become Duluth except for a reserve of 682 acres—just over a square mile—negotiated by Bizhiki. Bizhiki chose land that would become the heart of Duluth, known later as the Buffalo Tract. The exact borders of this property have never been defined, though most accounts agree it was centered at Point of Rocks and included portions of today’s Lincoln Park, Rice’s Point, downtown and Canal Park business districts, and Central Hillside.

Bizhiki’s descendants, however, were not to live on that land. Following his death in 1855, Bizhiki’s son-in-law—trader Benjamin Armstrong—inherited the property. Armstrong is thought to have sold the land to a group of men in Ontonagon, Michigan, possibly to settle a debt. It was then subdivided and sold time and again. In the 1880s Frederick Prentice claimed he had purchased the land from Armstrong in the 1850s and began a series of lawsuits against those who owned parcels in the tract, demanding the return of his property. Prentice never won a single suit but he did profit, as historian Dwight Woodbridge explained: “[Duluthians] proved before the Supreme Court that this perennial nuisance was the hollowest of all ‘fake’ claims and effectually laid the Prentice bogy forever, not before, however, many lot owners had given up good sums of money to Mr. Prentice for quit claim deeds.”

The Native American population in what is now Duluth began to decline once local Ojibwe began relocating to the Fond du Lac Reservation, roughly thirty-five miles west of Bizhiki’s promised reserve. They would not enjoy sovereign land within the Buffalo Tract until the 1980s, and that would be limited to a casino in a former department store.

Learn more about the Ojibwe of Western Lake Superior by visiting the website of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa or Onigamiinsing Dibaajimowinan (Duluth’s Stories).