August 3, 2015

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Gilbert proposed that Reservations be created so that the Ottawa people could “be withdrawn to a great extent from the bad influences to which they are now exposed, and brought together in situations where educational enterprise and missionary labor”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
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