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

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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.