Ottawa Indians

At the time of first contact with Europeans, the Ottawa (Odawa in Canada) were living on Manitoulin Island. The Ottawa homeland for at least three centuries prior to European contact was the Michigan Lower Peninsula.

The tribes of the Three Fires ConfederacyOjibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi – were once a single people living in the east according to oral tradition.

At the time of separation, the tribes were living in the area of the Straits of Mackinac, a channel connecting Lakes Michigan (west) and Huron (east) and forming an important waterway between the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan.

The Potawatomi moved south into present-day Michigan. It is estimated that the three tribes may have separated as late as 1550.

The Indian nations of the Three Fires Confederacy spoke Central Algonquian languages which are closely related to Miami, Illinois, Shawnee, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Cree, Montegnais, and Naskapi.


As with the other Indian farmers of the Northeast, they raised corn, beans, tobacco, and squash, but these crops were relied upon less than hunting and gathering due to the short growing seasons. 

Among the Ottawa, women would remain in the summer village to tend the crops while the men went off to hunt. 

Tobacco was an important ceremonial and trade plant.

Among all of the tribes of Great Lakes area, tobacco is used for all important activities.

This includes sprinkling of tobacco on the water as an offering to the underwater spirits just before getting into a canoe; offering a pinch of tobacco to the earth where other ceremonial plants are gathered; providing tobacco to someone when a special request is made.

The oldest form of tobacco which was cultivated and used in this culture area was Nicotaina rustica. This tobacco, often described as “strong-tasting”, was cultivated in small patches and was used in religious ceremonies.

Hunting territories were allocated to specific families. While these families did not own the land in the European sense of land ownership, they did have the exclusive hunting rights for a specific area.

Game taken by a hunter was generally shared freely among all in the camp or village, including strangers. 

Deer and moose were important food sources. Deer were sometimes hunted by a group of hunters using dogs to drive the deer into a V formed by chopped down trees. Sometimes deer were hunted at night when they came to the stream or lake for water. 

Fishing was a year-round occupation for the Ottawa. Fish were taken with fishhooks, nets, spears, traps, lures, and bait. One method of spearing fish involved fishing at night with a torch.

During the spring and fall, when the fish crowded into shallow water, the Ottawa Indians caught them by the thousands using gill nets.

Women worked basswood, nettle, and other natural fibers into nets.

One of the important foods in the Great Lakes area was maple sugar. This was more than something good to eat: maple sugar was a symbol of good relations and harmony between the people, the natural world, and the unseen supernatural.

The making of the maple sugar began in late March or early April with the arrival of the first crow.

The entire village would then move to the maple area where they would tap the trees, boil the sap down, and separate it into syrup, sugar, and cakes, which were then stored in birch-bark containers tied with willow.

In a good season, a family would prepare 400-500 pounds of sugar.

Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, chokecherries, and cranberries were also a staple food source.

An Ottawa infant was placed in the cradleboard shortly after birth and the cradleboard was used for the child until it was weaned from the mother, often at about three years of age.

Land Ownership and Houses

While land was not owned by individuals in the European sense of land ownership, individual families did hold the hunting and gathering rights to a particular area of land. They gave up their rights when the land was no longer used.

The Ottowa lived in palisaded villages similar to those used by the Huron. Villages were located near river banks or lake shores. Since the women did the farming, they formed the core of the year-round residents. The men would travel as far as 75-100 miles in search of game.

There were two kinds of houses. There was a permanent long house (o-na-ge-ho-g-ameg) which was constructed with an ironwood post framework and horizontal elmwood pieces. These houses were covered with birch bark.

The permanent houses were 10-20 feet wide and 20-40 feet long. The larger houses were occupied by several families and would have a fireplace at either end.

The wigwam (wig-wa-si-ga-mi) which was a round or slightly rectangular structure made with a bent pole frame and covered with birch bark or woven mats. These dome-shaped structures were about 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. Some would have two doors.

The birch bark for the wigwams was sewn in strips about 36 inches wide and 12-18 feet in length. The raw edges were bound with cedar and sewn with basswood bark to prevent breaking and tearing. The strips were then rolled for transport. It would take 10-12 sheets to cover a wigwam.

Chiefs and Leaders

Leadership power came from the Manitous or spirits and was given to individuals or to clan ancestors.

The power given to the clan was symbolized in objects in the clan bundle which related to the original vision from the Manitous. The clan chief was responsible for carrying out the ceremonies which involved the clan bundle.

Village chiefs were often the heads of the chiefly clans, but this did not mean that leadership was hereditary.

When the leading candidate from the chiefly clan was felt to be unsuitable for village leadership, the village council would meet and select a new village chief. Village chiefs could rule only by persuasion of the villagers to follow his advice. They had no power to order anyone to do anything.

War Chiefs, however, had to be obeyed during raids and battles.

Warfare consisted mainly of raids carried out by relatively small raiding parties. There were two primary reasons for these raids: (1) to avenge a slain member of the tribe, and (2) to gain personal war honors.

Warfare tended to be seasonal (war parties did not usually go out during the late fall, winter, and early spring as these were prime hunting times) and carried out at a leisurely pace. The battles were usually very short, usually only a few minutes.

The primary military strategy among the tribes in the Great Lakes area was that of surprise. War parties sought to come upon the enemy unawares. Ambushes and decoys were often a part of this stratagem.

Ottawa warriors would go into battle naked carrying a large (about 4 feet in diameter) shield made of rawhide.

It was not uncommon for women to become warriors. Women became warriors because of visions which they had received. In some instances, women also functioned as war leaders.

Tattooing and piercing

Both men and women were tattooed.

Women would have parallel lines on the cheeks and chins while the men would have more elaborate designs.

Some Ottawa men had designs of snakes, lizards, and geometrical figures which covered most of the body.

Ottawa men characteristically wore their hair short and upright in front. They pierced both their nasal septum and their earlobes, ornamenting them with stone, copper, and shell ornaments.

Family structure and Social status

Ottawa family descent was patrilineal, meaning they emphasized descent through the male line. People were members of their father’s clan.

At birth, every Algonquian, by virtue of his or her descent, clearly belonged to a patrilineage and a patrilineal clan, but in daily life, that clan or lineage was not effectively composed simply of those genealogically assigned to it.

A woman’s status or social position was not dependent on her husband.

Related Links:

Famous Ottawa Indians

Ottawa Indians


Article Index:

Ottawa Indians: Dispossession and Dissolution Era (1870-1890)

Commissioner of Indian Affairs, George Mannypenny, had intended that the Reservations established for the Ottawa in the 1855 Treaty be clearly defined, protected from non-Indian intruders and that they be permanent. Unfortunately, many people, including people in government posts charged with protecting those Reservations, worked to undermine the goal of preserving the Ottawa peoples right to establish protected homelands on permanent Reservations. The 1855 treaty contained a carefully outlined 5-year timetable and process for Ottawa members to select 40-80 acre allotments within their reservations.

Squatters and Settlers Take over the Ottawa Homelands

Ottawa members would then receive a certificate that guaranteed their right to ownership and possession of the lands they had selected. The federal government would hold those lands in trust for our people for at least ten years. Ten years after Ottawa Tribal members received certificates for their lands, the President would issue patents to those individuals; however, the local Indian agent could recommend that the patents be withheld from individuals if he did not believe they were capable of managing their own affairs.

This provision was intended to permit the Indian agent to recommend continued trust protection of certain Ottawa members lands if he felt they were likely to be defrauded by non-Indians. The treaty also allowed Ottawa members the opportunity – for a five year period after the process of selecting allotments had been completed – to purchase additional lands within their reservation boundaries before any surplus lands might be made available to non-Indians.

Mannypenny expected that Grand River Band members allotment selections and purchases would use all of the lands within the Reservations. If the time lines established in the 1855 Treaty had been applied as was intended, to benefit our people, Mannypenny’s expectation may have become a reality.

Unfortunately, the time lines established in the 1855 Treaty for completing this process were much too short. It ended up taking ten years to complete the list of allotment selections, not the five years anticipated in the 1855 Treaty. Delays in selecting allotments and issuing certificates provided land speculators, lumbermen, illegal settlers (squatters) and, eventually, state and national legislators with opportunities to reinterpret treaty language to justify claims to title to Reservation lands by non- Indians. Even as the first wave of our ancestors from the Grand River Valley were making preparations in 1857 to move from the villages they had lived in for nearly more than one hundred fifty years, squatters were already moving onto their Reservation lands in Oceana and Muskegon Counties.

A succession of Indian Agents – Henry Gilbert, Andrew Fitch, DeWitt Leach, and Richard Smith – assigned to Michigan were charged with preparing the lists of lands selected by Grand River Ottawa members. After both Henry Gilbert and Andrew Fitch failed to complete the selection process, Secretary of Interior Orville Browning cancelled all of the previous selections made under Gilbert and Fitch, and instructed Agent Leach to begin the selection process all over again.

Richard Smith, who formerly served as Clerk and Recorder at the 1855 Treaty negotiations, succeeded Leach as Indian Agent in 1865. Agent Smith did not complete the process for Grand River Ottawa members to make their selections until 1869. Most of the certificates for the allotments selected by our ancestors were not issued until 1866 – six years after the date the allotment process was supposed to be completed. Under the terms of the 1855 Treaty, the federal government was supposed to hold those lands in trust for our people for at least 10 years until 1876.

Many of our ancestors (166 families) selected their allotments on lands along the Pere Marquette River in Custer Township in Mason County. Other members/families selected allotments with their relatives in Elbridge Township in Oceana County. Other members were never able to select allotments on their Tribe’s Reservation as a result of the delays and confusion associated with this process.

Instead of allotting lands to Grand River Band members, the delay assisted non-Indians in acquiring two-thirds of the Grand River Ottawa reservation lands between 1865 and 1880, the very years when the Grand River Ottawa were attempting to make the allotment selections they were promised by law in the 1855 Treaty.

Despite Mannypenny’s belief that the allotment process would result in sole Ottawa ownership of lands within the Reservations, by 1866, our Grand River people held a strong title to only one-fourth of the Reservation lands promised in the Treaty of 1855. While the United States officials paid little attention to the timetable outlined in the 1855 Treaty, land speculators and officials anxious to help their non-Indian constituents did.

They took advantage of the delay in completing the allotment process to force their way onto the Grand River Ottawa Reservations and to press federal officials to open the Reservations to claims by non-Indians. In 1865, the United States Civil War ended and returning veterans were offered military bounty warrants that allowed them to select land within the public domain as compensation for their service in the war.

The demands of these returning soldiers and misinformed readings of the treatys five-year restricted purchase provision prompted a new round of calls to open the Grand River Reservations for settlement. The treaty stated that the United States could sell or dispose of any unappropriated lands remaining in the Reservations after all Ottawa members entitled to make selections had done so and after Ottawa members five-year time exclusive time period for purchasing additional lands had expired. If the treaty had been implemented as intended, the exclusive time period for Grand River Ottawa members to make selections should have run from 1866-1871.

People interested in opening the Reservations to non-Indians claimed that the Treaty required that the Reservations be opened to sale in 1865, ten years after the five-year allotment process (1855-1860) and five year exclusive purchase period (1860-1865) had run. These same people – lumbermen and speculators – also took advantage of the five-year exclusive purchase period by using Ottawa straw men to file claims (so-called cash entries) for large quantities of Reservation lands.

Three men, in particular, Joseph Ba Ba Me, an Ottawa Metis, named John B. Parisien, and John R. Robinson (son of former American Fur Company operative Rix Robinson and an Ottawa mother) purchased 10.8% of the lands within the Grand River Reservations in Mason, Oceana and Muskegon Counties on behalf of land speculators.

They began this assault on land title of Grand River Ottawa reservations in 1866. An old family friend of John Robinson, Congressman Thomas Ferry, assisted him in his efforts to secure lands in the Muskegon County (Holton Township) Reservation. Congressman Ferry helped John Robinson press his case before James Harlan, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, to get Harlan to recognize Robinson’s claims to lands.

Congressman Ferry argued that since the five-year period specified in the 1855 treaty for completing allotments to Grand River Band Ottawas had passed that sale of un-allotted reservation land to John Robinson was legal. During the time Richard Smith served as Indian Agent for the Michigan Agency, he voiced opposition to every plan devised to separate the Grand River Ottawa from our reserved lands.

Having served as the Clerk and Recorder of the 1855 Treaty negotiations, Smith knew that the treaty negotiators intended to create Reservations that were exclusively occupied by Ottawa people. Smith also knew that the time lines and land selection/purchase procedures established in the Treaty were intended to be applied for the benefit of the Ottawa people, not as deadlines that allowed non-Indians to preempt our Grand River ancestors ability to obtain lands in their own Reservation.

Michigan Congressman Thomas Ferry had very different ideas. Congressman Ferry sought to please his landhungry supporters by urging the Interior Department to end the existence of reservations. He requested an investigation of the situation on the Grand River Band Reservations – not to learn if our Ottawa ancestors had received the lands they were promised under the Treaty – but to determine which unoccupied lands he had available to open for sale to non-Indians.

In September of 1866, new Commission of Indian Affairs Dennis Cooley appointed Henry Alvord to conduct the inquiry that Congressman Ferry had requested. Dr. Alvord filed his report with new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, L.V. Bogy, in November of 1866. In that report, Dr. Alvord reported that the Grand River Ottawas on the Oceana and Mason County Reservations wished to assure that lands be made available to their children who had reached the age of 21 since the 1855 Treaty had been negotiated, even though the Treaty did not specifically grant them the right to select allotments.

Although Dr. Alvord wanted to open the Grand River Reservations to non-Indians, he believed that a new treaty was necessary to accomplish that. Dr. Alvord’s opinion was drawn from experience. Similar problems with the allotment process on the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe’s Reservation had required negotiation of a new treaty.

Dr. Alvord served as negotiator of the 1864 Treaty with the Chippewa of Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River in which those Bands ceded a portion of the lands that had been reserved for them in their 1855 Treaty back to the United States in exchange for a promise by the United States that all the remaining land on the Isabella Reservation be set aside for the exclusive use, ownership, and occupancy by those Bands.

Ottawa Push for a New Treaty to Protect Their Homelands

Grand River Ottawa on the Mason and Oceana County Reservations wanted to negotiate a new treaty with the United States with similar provisions. The Grand River Ottawa also wanted the United States to protect the remaining unclaimed lands within their Reservations so that children who had turned 21 could receive lands.

Under the terms of the 1855 Treaty, allotments had only been granted to those members who were 21 at the time of the Treaty. Now more than 10 years later, a number of our members had reached the age of 21 and found themselves living landless on their own Reservation. Efforts to negotiate a new treaty were pressed by both Ottawa leaders, Indian Agents and Congressman Ferry, amongst others.

Our leaders sought new commitments to protect their Reservations in Mason and Oceana Counties, including provisions that would invalidate all of the claims to Reservation lands made by non-Indians. Ottawa leaders also asked that patents be issued for the allotments by members.

Leaders made this request to prevent the federal government from again canceling the allotment certificates that had been issued to members. Ottawa leaders believed that the issuance of patents would prevent the United States from canceling certificates and granting claims to squatters at their people’s expense.

Ottawa leaders also wanted assurances that their young people who had turned 21 since 1855 could also select lands within their Reservations. Finally, Ottawa leaders wanted the United States to speed up certain financial commitments so that they could develop their economies on their Reservations.

The Grand River Ottawa Lose Their Homelands

Commissioner Parker and Agent Long were convinced that the United States should issue unrestricted fee patents to all of the Grand River Ottawa people who had received allotments. However, neither Long nor Parker seemed concerned with whether the Grand River Ottawa people receiving these patents understood the ease with which our people could lose lands they held in fee.

Private property was a concept that was fairly new to our people. For generations, our Ottawa people had held our lands in common and no individual had the right – let alone authority – to own and sell this land. Our people had thought that their Reservation lands would be protected and they were not prepared for the various frauds and schemes that would be perpetrated by non-Indi ans anxious to acquire title to lands in the Reservations.

While federal officials, and even our own Grand River Ottawa leaders, believed that issuance of patents would solve many of the problems with the allotment process, they quickly learned that this was not the case. Despite the fact that the 1855 Treaty seemed to clearly require protection of Reservation lands allotted to individuals and Ottawa Tribal members until at least 1876, most Grand River people lost title to their lands within two years after receiving their patents.

Federal officials also learned that many Ottawa who had selected allotments had already lost the lands they had selected to non-Indians even before patents had been issued. Grand River leaders also continued to press federal officials to permit their young people, who had reach the age of 21 since 1855, to receive lands on their Reservations.

Ottawa leaders also asked that they be given the opportunity to purchase additional lands within their Reservations under the exclusive five-year period they were promised; however, as mentioned earlier, influential federal officials were arguing that that right ended in 1865. Ottawa leaders also asked federal officials to make good on their promise to require non-Indian squatters to leave their Reservations.

Prospects for convincing federal officials to honor the new promises they had made improved when former Indian Agent Richard Smith, who had worked to secure the land for the Ottawa as intended by the Treaty, returned in 1870 as head of the Michigan Agency.

Unfortunately, Agent Smith did not live to see federal protection properly extended to the Grand River Reservations. As Smith and his wife traveled to northern Michigan to make annuity payments in Fall of 1871, their ship sank in Lake Huron. This took Smith’s knowledge about the meaning and intent of the 1855 Treaty, as well as other important papers, to the bottom of Saginaw Bay.

Remedial Measures Taken – Some Good, Some Bad Between 1872 and 1876

,At the constant urging of Congressman Thomas Ferry, Congress took action that was presented as remedial legislation to resolve the conflicts over lands on Grand River Reservations. The legislation did address some problems raised by Grand River Ottawa leaders, by providing a mechanism for members who had not been allowed select allotments, to select homestead allotments within the Reservations.

The legislation mandated that patents be delivered for a specified number of parcels within the Reservations. The legislation also included language to extend the trust protection for certain lands allotted to Ottawa tribal members. However, these laws were primarily aimed at protecting non-Indian squatters who had illegally claimed lands on the Reservations and speeding up the process of opening additional lands on the Reservation.

That purpose was evident in the 1872 Acts title: An Act for the Restoration to Market of Certain Lands in Michigan. Many of the parcels of land for which patents were required, were lands that Ottawa straw men had purchased for non- Indian lumber companies and speculators. The law also ordered the opening of the Reservations to non-Indian homesteaders within six months after its passage even if the Ottawa tribal members it was supposed to benefit had been able to make homestead selections or receive patents.

The law also did nothing for the hundreds of Ottawa who had selected allotments under the 1855 Treaty but whose lands were not claimed by non-Indians. This problem was addressed, in part, by an amendment to the 1872 Act that was passed by Congress in 1875; however, by that time, there were few unappropriated lands remaining in the Reservations that had not already been claimed by non-Indians.

The legislation adopted in 1872 and 1875, and the issuance of patents to the Ottawa, only seemed to worsen the problems on the Grand River Reservations. As was discussed earlier, the issuance of unrestricted fee patents opened the door for dishonest non-Indians to defraud Ottawa members into schemes that resulted in the loss of lands.

Despite the assurances from Commissioner Mannypenny during the negotiations of the 1855 Treaty, local governments also began assessing property taxes against Ottawa lands. Finally, non- Indians initiated abandonment proceedings against lands that Ottawa families had obtained under the 1872 or 1875 homestead laws.

As the problems worsened, a new Indian Agent, George Lee, attempted to revive Agent Smith’s policy of protecting the remaining lands held by the Grand River Ottawas within their Reservations. During 1876 and 1877, Agent Lee investigated Reservation land transactions and recommended that the Secretary of the Interior protect the remaining Ottawa homesteads with trust patents.

The Secretary of Interior authorized Special Federal Agent Edwin Brooks to examine homestead fraud on the Grand River Reservations. Agents Brooks and Lee examined homestead frauds on a number of Reservations. Although Brooks’ report was to focus on homestead frauds, the investigation conducted by he and Agent Lee uncovered frauds and other unethical practices used by non-Indians to take Ottawa lands.

Brooks’ report also called for federal protection of Ottawa landholdings from attempts by the state and local governments to assess property taxes against Ottawa held lands on their Reservations. Brooks also recommended that the government go beyond initiation of lawsuits to protect Ottawa lands and reinstate complete trust status for all Ottawa land for at least 20 years.

Even though Brooks noted that his report listed on a portion of the legitimate claims that Ottawa tribal members had and asked that action be taken to protect Ottawa lands, few, if any, actions were taken. Most federal officials viewed the Grand River Ottawa continued presence on the Reservations as an impediment to development and civilization of the state.

Federal officials were also increasingly adopting the incorrect interpretation of the 1855 Treaty voiced by Senator Howard over ten years earlier, that the 1855 Treaty had dissolved the tribal status of the Grand River Ottawa and that the Ottawa and their lands were now subject to the jurisdiction of the State of Michigan.

Congress did enact a final amendment to the 1872 homestead law in 1884, which allowed Ottawas to obtain homesteads under the authority of the 1862 homestead act. Despite the enactment of four separate pieces of federal legislation (1872, 1875, 1876 and 1884) designed to remedy the problems that had denied Grand River Ottawa people their right to lands within their Reservations. Only sixty-four Grand River Ottawas received patents to homesteads between 1872 and 1888, representing only 6,972 acres, or 6% of the 111,793 acres within the boundaries of the Grand River Ottawas Reservations.

All told, with the help of many officials representing the United States government which had entered into the very Treaty intended to provide the Grand River Ottawa with a permanent Reservation homeland and who promised to protect that homeland, non-Indians had acquired title to nearly two-thirds of the land within the Grand River Ottawa Reservations by 1880. Before 1890, federal officials would, with few exceptions, completely abandon their responsibilities to our Grand River Ottawa relatives.

Federal officials would adopt, as official policy, an interpretation of the 1855 Treaty that considered the tribal status of the Ottawas governments as dissolved – meaning, we were no longer sovereigns but simply Indian citizens of Michigan. Consistent with this view, the federal government closed the Michigan Indian Agency in 1889. This left the Ottawas to the mercy of those who wished to exploit them or their remaining property. As many current Little River Tribal members know, our Grandparents and Great-grandparents did not leave the Grand River Reservations.

They simply crowded on the few remaining parcels with other families. Other lived in settlements on homestead lands just outside the Reservation that had been obtained under one of the remedial homestead laws. Still other families joined relatives who still lived in settlements on the 1836 Manistee Reservation.

Other people were also advocating for a new treaty at this time; however, those individuals had very different agendas. Agent DeWitt Leach, for example, recommended that the United States negotiate a treaty which would require the Grand River Ottawa to relinquish their Reservations in Mason, Oceana and Muskegon Counties in exchange for lands on an expanded Reservation at Little Traverse.

President Abraham Lincoln even entered an Order withdrawing nine additional townships and adding those lands to the Little Traverse Reservation in anticipation of the Grand River Ottawas being relocated to that Reservation. Thomas Ferry, on the other hand, was simply interested in protecting the claims of non-Indians who had made claims to lands within the Grand River Reservations. Ferry also wanted a new treaty so that all of the unoccupied lands within the Reservations could be opened to non-Indian settlers.

Despite repeated requests from Grand River Ottawa leaders, Indian Agents and state and federal legislators, officials in Washington, D.C. failed to take action to authorize negotiation of a new treaty with the Grand River Ottawa. Finally, in June of 1868, the members of the Grand River Ottawa communities on both the Mason County Reservation (known as Indian Town or Pere Marquette Village) and the Oceana County Reservation (Pentwater or Elbridge) formally authorized a delegation of Chiefs and Headmen to travel to Washington, D.C. to take efforts to protect their Reservations for their people.

Those leaders departed for Washington, D.C. on June 9th, 1868. Unfortunately, the efforts of our leaders to protect our Reservations would fall on deaf ears in Washington. Michigan’s Congressmen opposed any effort that would delay the issuance of patents to non-Indians claiming lands on the Grand River Reservations. In addition, since the time the Saginaw Chippewas had been able to negotiate a new treaty in 1864, Congress had passed a law which prevented the President from negotiating any new treaties.

Any new treaty with the Grand River Ottawa could only be enacted as federal legislation. Most disturbingly, federal officials (Michigan Senator John Howard) would begin mis-stating a provision in the 1855 Treaty that would come to haunt our people until 1994. In essence, Senator Howard responded to pleas by Grand River Ottawa leaders for protection of their Reservation lands by arguing that no protection was due. Senator Howard argued that the tribal relations [of the Grand River Ottawa] were dissolved by that treaty and they are now Citizens of the State [Michigan].

During this same time, Grand River Ottawa leaders in Mason and Oceana Counties hired W.T. Howell, who had served as a Prosecuting Attorney in Oceana County, to file a lawsuit against the federal government.

Howell noted that while the Grand River Ottawa leaders had made several requests for a new treaty several thousand acres of the choicest and most valuable lands reserved under the provisions of the Treaty had been sold and patented under circumstances of fraud and criminality, which in ordinary transactions would amount to a felony including lands for which individual Indians hold the Government certificates for patents as selections made by them under the Treaty.

In what may have been the final blow to the Ottawas efforts to negotiate a new treaty, Michigan Indian Agent Richard Smith was replaced by a former military officer, Major James W. Long. Long abandoned Agent Smith’s efforts to protect the Grand River reservations. Agent Long met with Grand River Ottawa leaders to convince them to drop their plan to sue the federal government. Ottawa leaders believed that the only way to obtain the strong title that would protect their people’s lands was to receive patents.

They had seen too many of their people lose the lands they thought they had selected to non-Indians when their certificates were cancelled and new allotment lists required. Grand River Ottawa leaders agreed to delay their plans to visit Washington and pursue their lawsuit if Agent Long kept a promise to stop settlers from moving onto the Reservations and to ask that patents be issued for the allotments selected by their people.

Agent Long kept those promises in part. Unfortunately, Agent Long requested that unrestricted, fee patents be issued, not restricted patents that clearly protected Ottawa lands from taxation and other schemes that non-Indians would use to defraud our people of their lands. The first batch of patents reached our people in Muskegon, Oceana and Mason Counties in October 1870. Unfortunately, a number of Grand River Ottawa would not receive patents for a number of years – some not at all.

Ottawa Indians: The 1836 Manistee Reservation Era (1821-1836)

The 1820s and 1830s were years of great change for Ottawa communities. Fur trade hunting practices had depleted most animal species. The American Fur Company which bought furs that Ottawa hunters and trappers collected, was a major economic and political power in the Michigan Territory. The Company was losing money. Company owners and operatives wanted Ottawa leaders to sell their lands to pay off debts to the Company.

The Michigan Territory

At the same time, large numbers of settlers began to arrive in the Michigan Territory from the East. So many came to Michigan, that the Michigan Territory soon had a population large enough to qualify for statehood. Territorial leaders wanted the Ottawa to give up their claims to Michigan land so that they could assume government of the new state free of Indian claims.

Land speculators pressed the Ottawa and other Tribal communities to sell their lands. They, along with mission territorial officials and federal agents wanted the Ottawas to sell their Michigan lands, clearing the way for lumbering, settlement, and statehood. The combined pressures exherted by territorial officials, settlers, speculators, and the political/economic clout of the American Fur Company finally prompted the federal government to seek cessions (sales) of lands from the Ottawa/Potawatomi/Chippewa bands in the Michigan Territory.

In addition to the political changes around them, the 1820s and 1830s were some of the most difficult years for Ottawa communities for other reasons. Settlers brought small pox which ravaged Ottawa communities. For the Ottawa, food was becoming more scarce. Many of the wild plants, animals and fish they relied on for food and cash were becoming scarce. Despite intense political pressures and difficult obstacles, Ottawa leaders always insisted on protecting their people’s homeland in Michigan – both by reserving lands and reserving access to natural resources.

Losing Ground – The 1821 Treaty of Chicago

As early as 1820, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass wanted the Ottawas to sell all of their land within the area that is now the State of Michigan. Federal officials asked Potawatomi and Grand River Ottawa leaders to go to Chicago to negotiate a Treaty to cede lands south of the Grand River. The majority of Ottawa refused to participate in these negotiations. Only the leader Kewaycooshkum and his followers attended the negotiations. The Ottawa granted this leader no authority to sell any portion of the Ottawa’s territory.

Most signatories to the 1821 Treaty of Chicago were Potawatomis. Kewaycooshkum was the only Ottawa leader who signed the document which sold (ceded) all of the Grand River Bands’ territory south of the Grand River. Other Grand River Ottawa leaders refused to recognize the Treaty of Chicago as a valid agreement. That position, however, has never been accepted by federal officials. Grand River Ottawas were so upset with Kewaycooshkum’s conduct that he was killed to set an example for any future chiefs who might be faced with a similar situation.

Following ratification of the 1821 Treaty of Chicago, federal and state officials quickly surveyed and sold the lands ceded by that treaty to non-Indians. Settlers quickly occupied those lands, in some cases, moving into Ottawa houses and taking over gardens.

The Threat of Removal – The 1836 Treaty of Washington

In 1834, as territorial and federal officials, settlers and the American Fur Company increased the pressure on the Ottawa to sell more of their land, Grand River Ottawa leaders met with Little Traverse Ottawas in a solemn council to discuss whether or not to sell all of their remaining Michigan land. Michigan settlers increasingly called on the federal government for removal of the Ottawa from Michigan to new reservations in the territories west of the Mississippi. Ottawa fears that they and their families might be physically forced to move west were not over-exaggerated.

President Andrew Jackson had already rounded up Tribes in the southeastern United States (Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw) and forced them to walk to Oklahoma Territory on the “Trail of Tears.”

Ottawa leaders steadfastly refused to leave their traditional Michigan lands. Leaders from the Grand River Ottawa, including ancestors of present day Little River Ottawa, determined that they would not sell any of their lands to the United States. These leaders sent a strongly worded petition to President Andrew Jackson refusing to sell the graves of the fathers.

Former Michigan Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass, who was now the Secretary of War, and Michigan Indian Agent Henry Schoolcraft refused to accept the Ottawa leaders’ position. Ottawa leaders were escorted from their homes in Michigan to Washington, D.C, to negotiate a new treaty. Cass and Schoolcraft wanted these negotiations to take place in Washington, D.C. to put more pressure on Ottawa leaders to get the cessions of land they wanted. That strategy worked.

Faced with the prospect of the threat of removal to lands west of the Mississippi, and away from their support of their families and Band members, the Chiefs and Headmen of the various Ottawa communities negotiated the best deal they could under the circumstances.

Only after unrelenting pressure from federal negotiators, and upon self-serving advice from American Fur Company representatives, Ottawa and Chippewa Chiefs reluctantly agreed to sell most of their Michigan lands to the United States. In exchange, the Ottawa/Chippewa leaders retained (or “reserved”) a portion of their traditional territories as land Reservations.

Ottawa/Chippewa leaders also reserved, in Article 13 of that treaty, the right to continue to use the lands they had sold to the United States for “hunting and the other usual privileges of occupancy” until those lands were “required for settlement.” The continuation of this reservation of rights by the previous leaders – the treaty right to hunt, fish, trap and gather on the lands that were sold – are currently being defended by Tribal leaders and attorneys in a lawsuit brought by the State of Michigan in federal court.

Ottawa leaders thought they had negotiated the best arrangement they could – one that allowed their people to remain on a portion of their traditional lands. Unfortunately, upon returning to their villages, Ottawa leaders learned that members of the United States Senate had amended the 1836 Treaty to limit their right to remain on the lands they had reserved for their people. The Senate had proposed to limit the Ottawa’s right to remain on their Reservations to only five years unless the United States allowed them to remain beyond that time.

Ottawa leaders were strongly opposed to the change the Senate proposed to the 1836 Treaty. Only after Agent Schoolcraft assured them that the move west of the Mississippi was voluntary and that right of hunting and fishing guaranteed to them Article 13 would not go away did the Ottawa leaders agree to this amendment.

Uncertain Tenure on their Reservations

The United States expected Grand River Ottawas from Pere Marquette, Muskegon and other southern river communities to move to the 70,000 acre Manistee Reservation despite the fact that they were not guaranteed the right to remain on that Reservation for more than five years. The federal government sent surveyors to mark the boundaries of the Reservation. They built blacksmith shops and other improvements to assist the Grand River Ottawa families who were expected to move to the Reservation to join their relatives already living in the Manistee area.

However, because the treaty left the future of the Manistee Reservation, and the people’s right to remain living there, in an uncertain situation, very few of the Grand River Ottawa agreed to leave their homeland and traditional gardens to move north to “temporary homes” on the Manistee Reservation. During this time, land speculators and lumber companies continued to press federal officials to remove Ottawa people entirely from the State of Michigan.

The effect of the amendment to the 1836 Treaty inserted by the Senate was to make Ottawa people “tenants” on their own homelands. They could live on their own lands only until the United States told them to leave. In fact, efforts to survey the boundaries of the Manistee Reservation were pushed primarily to prevent lumber companies and other trespassers from removing the timber from the Reservation before it was properly surveyed.

Most Grand River Ottawa people recognized the fragile tenure of the Manistee Reservation and began to buy land at or near their traditional, summer village homes near Muskegon, Grand Haven and Grand Rapids. They did so while state and federal officials continued to threaten to remove all of the Ottawa to the west. While Ottawa leaders continued to lobby federal officials to end the threat of removal, lumber companies were lobbying federal officials to get access to the timber resources on the few lands remaining under Ottawa control.

In 1848, after meeting with a Michigan Congressman close to lumber interests, President James Polk signed an executive order opening the Manistee Reservation for sale. Most of the lands in the Manistee Reservation were quickly purchased by lumber companies or persons acting on their behalf. The opening of the Manistee Reservation lands to sale left the Grand River Ottawa even more vulnerable.

Although the United States continued to acknowledge that they had permitted the Ottawa to remain on their Reservations beyond the five year time period, the Ottawa were under the constant threat of removal. Accordingly, Grand River Ottawa leaders, along with other Ottawa/Chippewa leaders pressed the federal government to negotiate a new treaty that would guarantee them permanent Reservations and permanent homes in their traditional territories in Michigan.

Ottawa Indians: The 1855 -1870 Reservation Era

The problems created for our Grand River Ottawa ancestors and relatives by the 1821 Treaty of Chicago and the 1836 Treaty of Washington continued to grow during the 1840s and early 1850s. The Senate hoped that by limiting the Ottawa’s right to remain on their Reservations, they would be influenced to relocate to Kansas.

Creating Protected Colonies, the 1855 Treaty of Detroit

They were under constant threat of removal. Throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s, our people from the Manistee area and other Grand River Band area members who traveled to this area seasonally, continued to live on and use our 1836 Reservation lands. Meanwhile, their Reservation land was being sold off to lumber companies, land speculators and settlers.

The threat of removal from Michigan ended when United States President Franklin Pierce was elected, who appointed a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, George Mannypenny, along with Henry Gilbert, a new Superintendent for Indian Affairs in Michigan. Commissioner Mannypenny believed that Indian Tribes should be settled on Reservations, whose boundaries would be protected to insulate Indian people from the corrupting influences of non-Indians, such as liquor and dishonest traders and land speculators.

This would also permit the introduction of more “civilized” influences to assimilate Indians and persuade them to adopt the “American” ways. Ottawa people, like other Native populations, had not been exposed to liquor before the coming of nonnon-Indians, and the introduction of liquor had already proven detrimental in many Native communities. Superintendent Henry Gilbert was asked to come up with solutions to the problems created by the 1836 Treaty. Gilbert recognized that the Ottawa would “never consent to remove west of the Mississippi [to Kansas]… from the home of their fathers.”

Gilbert proposed that Reservations be created so that the Ottawa people could “be withdrawn to a great extent from the bad influences to which they are now exposed, and brought together in situations where educational enterprise and missionary labor” could more efficiently assimilate them. Gilbert also recommended that the Reservations be “held for them in trust … and only conveyed to them in fee as they become capable of taking charge of it themselves.” Holding land in trust would protect Tribal members from being defrauded by non-Indians and assure that land remained in Indian ownership.

Commissioner Mannypenny accepted Gilbert’s recommendation and, between 1853 and the summer of 1855, began preparing to negotiate a new treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa. The goals of the United States negotiators were to: further concentrate the various Ottawa and Chippewa bands on a few Reservations, settle financial obligations (annuity payments to Bands and Band members) of the United States created under prior treaties; and to provide Indians with tools they thought would speed up the “civilization” and adoption of American ways.

The primary goal of our leaders, however, was to end the threat that our people might have to leave Michigan and to secure permanent homelands for their people. This sentiment was stated most strongly in a petition to the United States signed by a number of our leaders which stated: “We love the spot where our Forefathers bones are laid, and we desire that our bones may rest beside theirs also.” Ottawa and Chippewa leaders negotiated the 1855 Treaty in Detroit between July 25, 1855 and July 31, 1855.

The discussions that took place at those negotiations were recorded in a journal, which was maintained by Richard Smith, who would later play an important role in attempts to protect the Reservations created by the 1855 Treaty. The treaty journal confirms that Ottawa leaders went into those negotiations with the goal of maintaining permanent reservations, which they expected the United States to protect by holding those lands in trust and protected from taxation.

In the words of the Ottawa negotiators, they wanted lands that they held by “strong title.” Ottawa leaders wanted Reservations in locations that protected their existing villages and traditional gardens, which provided Band members with access to the natural resources that sustained them both physically and culturally.

In contrast, Commissioner Mannypenny and Agent Gilbert wanted to move the various Bands onto just a few Reservations. For most of our Grand River ancestors, that would mean moving from their existing villages on the Grand, Thornapple and other rivers, to new Reservation lands not yet selected.

Besides concentrating Ottawa Bands onto a small number of reservations, Mannypenny also wanted to promote the “civilization” of the Ottawa by “allotting” or dividing the Reservations into family farms. This idea of “civilizing” Indian people by trying to turn them into “family farmers” was a process that would later be tried with many Indian Tribes.

Most Indian people, were not interested in becoming farmers but simply wanted secure homelands in which to continue their traditional ways and have access to traditional hunting, fishing and gathering areas. The 1855 Treaty was one of the first treaties in which the allotment process was utilized. The basic idea was that heads of household or single adults would receive 40 or 80 acres of land.

The federal government would also provide farm implements, oxen and blacksmiths to promote agricultural efforts. They assumed this would speed up the process by which Indians adopted the “civilized” habits of the new settlers in Michigan, teach Indians “the value of private property,” reduce individual Indian’s dependence upon communal Tribal lands, and reduce the seasonal “wanderings” of Indians for hunting and other subsistence activities.

Ottawa negotiators did not object to Mannypenny’s plan to create farms on their new reservations, but they wanted to hold the land by a strong title. Ottawa negotiators requested 160 acre allotments for every man, woman and child. Ottawa leaders also wanted to make sure that Reservation lands would be available for their children and future generations.

A number of Ottawa negotiators also wanted assurances that the United States would continue its administration of funds held in trust for the Bands and assurances that their lands would be protected from taxation by the State. Commissioner Mannypenny addressed most of the concerns raised by Ottawa negotiators.

Mannypenny assured them that it was the United States’ intent to create “permanent homes” for the Ottawa and there would be “a restriction upon the individuals power of alienation” to provide assurances that “the land will [not] be pulled from under” the Ottawa Tribal members. Mannypenny also provided assurances on the issue of taxation by stating that “in connection with … the question of taxes … I am disposed to manage it for your benefit.”

After decades of uncertainty and having the threat of removal hanging over their heads, Ottawa leaders looked forward to the security of having permanent homelands within the new Reservation lands of their Michigan homeland since it was obvious that their traditional riverside homes would not be secure. They agreed to Commissioner Mannypenny’s reservation plan.

When details about annuities and services were complete, they agreed to sign the new treaty on July 31,1855. Final ratification of the 1855 Treaty for the Grand River Ottawa was delayed while they tried to locate an area of land that was large enough and where claims hadn’t already been made by non-Indians. Original plans were for a Reservation consisting of five contiguous townships in Mecosta County; however, lumber companies had already bought most of the land there.

Ottawa leaders next proposed a Reservation consisting of five townships on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Muskegon County. The Michigan Indian Agent, however, opposed this request. He believed that easy access to the Lake Michigan Shoreline would encourage whiskey traders to sell their liquor to reservation inhabitants.

Finally, in December of 1855, four contiguous townships in Mason and Oceana Counties were located by Ottawa leaders, which were believed to be free of claims by non-Indians. One additional township in Muskegon County was also selected by the Grand River Ottawa.

Both Ottawa leaders and federal officials traveled to the Ionia Land Office to make sure that no one had made claims for the land. The lands were vacant. Federal officials recorded the Ottawa’s reservation selection in the 1855 Treaty.

The 1855 Treaty was amended to include the final selection of lands that were reserved for the Grand River Bands, township 12 north, range 15 west [Holton Township in Muskegon County] and townships 15 [Elbridge Township], 16 [Crystal Township], 17 [Eden Township], and 18 [CusterTownship] north, range 16 west.

The United States ratified the treaty on April 15, 1856 including the new Reservations selected by the Grand River Ottawa.

This was the second Treaty in which Ottawa leaders were forced to accept small areas of land within their traditional territories in order to remain in their homelands and continue their way of life. These reservation boundaries were established by the Treaty and protected by Federal Law. This should have given the Ottawa people the “permanent homes” and “strong title” they had been promised and demanded during treaty negotiations but it did not.

Good Intentions Gone Bad – Allotting the Grand River Reservation

Commissioner Mannypenny intended that the Reservations recognized in the 1855 Treaty be clearly defined, protected from non-Indian intruders and that they be permanent. Mannypenny stated that Michigan residents must be made to understand the United States government’s policy “that the tribes are to be protected and remain undisturbed within the limits of their reservations, and that policy will be inflexibly adhered to by the government.”

Unfortunately, many people in the government posts charged with adhering to the policy defined by Mannypenny would work to undermine the goal of the treaty to create a permanent reservation for the Grand River Ottawa. Even before the 1855 Treaty was amended and ratified in April of 1856, non-Indian lumbermen and land speculators were already dispossessing the Ottawa of their Reservation lands.

Despite requests that the Reservation land be withdrawn from market, the Ionia Land Office quickly sold 3,059 acres of reservation land between December 1855 and April 15, 1856, the date the 1855 Treaty was ratified.

The 1855 Treaty contained a carefully outlined 5-year timetable and process for Ottawa members to select their 40 or 80 acre allotments within their reservations. After the allotment selections were made, the treaty allowed them to purchase any additional land within their reservations boundaries before any surplus lands might be made available to non-Indians.

Mannypenny expected that Grand River Band members’ selections and purchases would include all of the lands within the Reservations. Indeed, Mannypenny rejected Ottawa requests that allotments be 160 acres in size because he did not believe there would be sufficient lands within the Reservation boundaries for all the Grand River Ottawa to have allotments of that size.

Unfortunately, the timelines established in the 1855 Treaty for completing this process were much too short. Government Agents charged with preparing the lists of lands selected by Grand River Ottawa’s were unable to complete the selection process for allotments within the specified time. There were several delays and each delay encouraged squatters to move on the Reservation.

They believed that their elected officials would eventually give them title to the Ottawa Reservation lands. Lumbermen also found ways to exploit the delays. They illegally entered the Reservation, claimed ownership of Ottawa land, and cut timber with or without permission of federal officials. Federal officials made only weak efforts to stop this robbery from Ottawa property.

As a result of continuous delays, the Indian agents were unable to even produce an approved selection list of allotments chosen by Tribal members within the 5 year time period within which the entire allotment process was supposed to be completed.

It would end up taking Indian agents fifteen years to complete the process of issuing patents – the “strong title” promised – to Grand River Band members. Had the allotment provisions been carried out as specified in the treaty – first by allotting the land to Grand River Band members, followed by a period where the Ottawa’s could acquire the remaining available land within the Reservation – our ancestors would have likely held “strong title” to almost all the land within our Reservation.

Instead, due to fraudulent actions and continuous delays in carrying out the allotment process, non-Indians ended up acquiring two thirds of the Grand River Ottawa’s reservation lands between 1865 and 1880, the very years when the Grand River Ottawa’s were attempting to make the allotment selections they were promised by law in the 1855 Treaty.

Commissioner Mannypenny clearly meant to protect the Reservation lands in Mason, Oceana and Muskegon Counties for the Grand River Ottawa’s, including those lands reserved for the branch of the Grand River Bands that now comprise the Little River Band; however, a succession of Michigan Indian agents failed to carry out the allotment process for the Ottawa’s between 1856 and 1870. Problems included poor record keeping, incomplete boundary surveys and, in some cases, outright neglect by government officials.

Ottawa Indians: The Restoration Era (1889 – 1994)