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

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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.