Sandy Lake Tragedy

In October, 1842, representatives of the Ojibwe bands of Lake Superior and the Mississippi River signed a treaty with the United States Government.  According to the treaty, the Ojibwe bands ceded their territory along the southern border of Lake Superior and north of the boundary from an 1837 treaty.  Although the lands had been ceded the Ojibwe bands retained the rights to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded territory and were not required to remove.  This was an important stipulation to the Ojibwe who fought obstinately to remain within their territory.  Therefore, in order to gain the signatures of the Ojibwe representatives on the 1842 treaty, American negotiator Robert Stuart promised the Lake Superior Ojibwe that they would not be required to remove for the duration of their lifetimes, their children’s lifetimes, nor for fifty to one hundred years.  As stipulated by the treaty, removal would be required at “the pleasure of the President.”

Lands ceded by the 1837 and 1842 treaties. (Wikipedia)

The pleasure of the President came much sooner than expected for the Ojibwe.  On February 6, 1850, less than eight years following the treaty at La Pointe, President Zachary Taylor signed an executive order that required the removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe from the ceded territory.  The Removal Order was made shortly after Minnesota became a territory in 1849.  This was important because the new territory sought to spur economic growth within its boundaries.  Traders and politicians, therefore, lobbied for removal which would ensure that annuity payments to the Ojibwe were made in Minnesota and thereby increase the flow of money and jobs into the territory.  Theoretically, this would have an economic multiplier effect.

Assigned with the main role of carrying out removal were newly appointed Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey and Indian Agent at La Pointe John Watrous.  Because the Ojibwe were adamantly opposed to removal, Ramsey devised a plan in which he sought to coerce the Ojibwe to a new permanent home at Sandy Lake, Minnesota.  In order to do this, Ramsey changed the location of the Ojibwe annuity payment from La Pointe, Wisconsin, to Sandy Lake, Minnesota, a great distance which would require travel by canoe.  He then sought to intentionally delay payment until waterways had frozen thereby trapping the Ojibwe within unceded Minnesota territory.

Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey (Minnesota Historical Society)
Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey (Minnesota Historical Society)

While it was Alexander Ramsey who designed this nefarious plan, it was John Watrous who carried it out.  Watrous promised payment to the Ojibwe at Sandy Lake on October 25, 1850, and by November 10, four thousand Ojibwe had assembled there.  However, Watrous was absent.  Watrous had been in St. Louis to obtain annuity funds delivered by the federal government which never came.  He returned to St. Paul where he remained until November 14, finally arriving at Sandy Lake on November 24.

What Watrous found upon his arrival was startling.  While waiting for the agent, the Ojibwe had survived on meager rations, much of which had been spoiled.  Many Ojibwe began to die from starvation and disease.  Watrous did what he could by purchasing supplies from traders and giving it to the Ojibwe, but this did little to quell death which had befallen eight to nine Ojibwes per day.  Watrous completed handing out what payments he could on December 2 and on December 10 he estimated that the number dead had reached one hundred fifty.  On December 23, the Minnesota Chronicle and Register reported that one hundred sixty-seven Ojibwe had died at Sandy Lake.

Unfortunately, death for the Ojibwe did not end at Sandy Lake.  Because winter had set in, the streams and lakes were frozen and the Ojibwe had to throw away their canoes and set out on foot in order to return to their homes.  In doing so, it was estimated by the Ojibwe chief Psheke (Buffalo) that two hundred thirty Ojibwe died of starvation, sickness, and freezing (Clifton, 25).  In total, three hundred ninety-seven Ojibwe perished in the winter of 1850-51 because of the ill-fated plans of Alexander Ramsey and John Watrous.

Chief Buffalo (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Chief Buffalo (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Shockingly, this did not hinder attempts by Ramsey and Watrous to continue their removal efforts.  Once again, the conspirators sought to intentionally delay payment.   In a letter written September 22, 1851, Watrous stated to Ramsey that he would delay payment “until navigation closes, which is done to throw every obstacle in the way of their returning to their old homes.” (White, 215).  Furthermore, Watrous made it clear that he would not pay any Ojibwe who did not promise to remove to the unceded territory.  This despite the fact that Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea ordered the suspension of removal efforts on August 25, 1851.  Watrous ignored the order, instead declaring that removal had been successfully completed and that there was nothing to cease doing.

It was not until January, 1852, that Watrous delivered the 1850 and 1851 annuity payments to the Lake Superior Ojibwe.  This payment was made at Fond du Lac rather than Sandy Lake or La Pointe.  Because payment had been extensively delayed, and

Clement Beaulieu around 1890 (Minnesota Historical Society)
Clement Beaulieu around 1890 (Minnesota Historical Society)

because of their poor and starving conditions, many of the Ojibwes relied on the credit of traders to survive.  Therefore, even when payment was made it was handed over almost immediately to the traders.  As trader Vincent Roy, Jr. described the 1852 payment, traders George Nettleton and Clement Beaulieu, “got most of the money.  One stood at one door and one at the other of the pay room and no Indian was allowed to go out until he had paid most of his money to one or the other of them.  The chiefs and head men were bribed to consent to it.”  (White, 234).

Because of his conduct during removal efforts, a petition of complaint was sent to Ramsey on November 8, 1851, from eight Ojibwe chiefs and headmen.  This was not the only of its kind.  A petition written at La Pointe on November 6, 1851, and addressed to Luke Lea found a great deal at fault with Watrous.  This was signed by twenty-eight chiefs.  Furthermore, the Ojibwe mixed-blood William Warren published a scathing letter against Watrous in the Minnesotian on December 10, 1851, in which he accused the agent of arranging the payment so that it would benefit the fur traders who were friends of his.  Another letter appeared in the Minnesotian on December 13, written by the missionary William Boutwell who charged Watrous with being a man “devoid either of truth or moral honesty.”

Official charges against John Watrous were received by Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey early in 1852.  Five charges were levied against the agent and were brought forth by the L’Anse band of Ojibwe.  Among the charges, the L’Anse band accused Watrous of repeatedly breaking promises and taking no interest in the welfare of the Ojibwe.  Watrous, of course, denied the charges, claiming that the charges did not originate from the L’Anse band, but rather from men like William Warren and the missionary Leonard Wheeler.  Watrous also blamed much of the problems brought about by the removal effort on Robert Stuart, the American negotiator of the 1842 treaty.

After receiving the charges against Watrous, Alexander Ramsey sent a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea defending the agent’s conduct and refuting the charges.  Ramsey argued that the charges were probably manufactured by White men who had intermarried with the Ojibwe and had influenced their opposition to removal.  Ramsey further argued that it was only natural that such ill-will had developed toward the removal agent since removal was so unpopular.  Lea seemed to agree with Ramsey, thus he forwarded Ramsey’s letter along with another letter by the Secretary of the Interior A.H.H. Stuart which also defended Watrous.  Lea noted to the President, “it will be perceived that, in the judgement of Governor Ramsey, the charges have not been sustained.”  Therefore, on May 6, 1852, President Millard Fillmore replied with the note:  “I have read the report and concur in the result.”  (White, 242).  Watrous had been absolved of all charges against him.

Governor Willis A. Gorman (Minnesota Historical Society)
Governor Willis A. Gorman (Minnesota Historical Society)

The 1852 annuity payment to the Lake Superior Ojibwe was again delayed, this time being made at Crow Wing.  However, things finally changed in March 1853 when Willis Gorman replaced Alexander Ramsey as Governor of Minnesota Territory.  Watrous was also removed from office as Gorman made it clear that he was not pleased with the manner in which the previous administration carried out Indian policy toward the Ojibwe.  Gorman immediately abandoned all removal efforts and on October 9, 1853, payment to the Lake Superior Ojibwe was made at La Pointe.  Leonard Wheeler, missionary at La Pointe, reported that upon receiving payment, “some of our people were so happy and so excited that they could not sleep at all the first night.”  (White, 267).

Treaties made with the Ojibwe in 1854 and 1855 officially ended all ambiguity regarding removal.  The treaties provided for reservations within ceded territory while specifying that all annuity payments would be made at La Pointe, L’Anse, Grand Portage, and on the St. Louis River.  Furthermore, the treaties specified that the Ojibwe should not be required to remove from their homes and that they shall have the right to hunt and fish therein.

The Sandy Lake Tragedy was a disaster of immense proportions.  It resulted in the death of hundreds of peaceful and innocent Ojibwe while causing great displeasure, discomfort, and grief for those who survived.  It was calculated and implemented by Alexander Ramsey and John Watrous.  It sought not the benefit of the Ojibwe people, but the economic prosperity of the traders, merchants, and regions within the newly created Minnesota Territory.  Despite all the negative impacts on the Ojibwe people, Ramsey and Watrous continued to push for removal and for their actions, which resulted in death, they were never convicted or punished.  The removal efforts of 1850 and 1851 were a complete disaster and a horrific tragedy that should not be ignored.


Bruce M. White, “The Regional Context of the Removal Order of 1850,” in Fish in the Lakes, Wild Rice, and Game in Abundance, (East Lansing, MI:  Michigan State University Press, 2000), 141-328.

James A. Clifton, “Wisconsin Death March:  Explaining the Extremes in Old Northwest Indian Removal,” in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Vol. 75 (1987):  1-40.