While much scholarship has been directed toward the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, much less has been directed toward the conflict and near outbreak with the Ojibwe that occurred at the same time. While the Dakota of southern Minnesota retaliated against oppression, corruption, and impoverishment, the Ojibwe of central and northern Minnesota threatened the same retaliation for many of the same reasons. In his book, The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, historian Anton Treuer considers these lesser known events which he calls the U.S. – Ojibwe Conflict of 1862.
By 1862, the Ojibwe had become accustom to the reservation system forced upon them through a series of treaties. This system alienated the Ojibwe from their traditional culture and was fraught with corruption and fraud by avarice traders, businessmen, and Indian agents. These poor conditions led to unrest among the Ojibwe and Dakota alike. While there were many reasons for unrest, there were two in particular that precipitated the U.S. – Ojibwe Conflict of 1862.
Firstly, in August of 1862, the United States began to recruit soldiers for the Union army which included many Ojibwe. However, the Ojibwe were manipulated by traders who received payment from the government for each Ojibwe they convinced to enlist. The traders accomplished this by first intoxicating the Ojibwe with alcohol. The second major grievance, was the corrupt actions of Indian agent Lucius C. Walker who had embezzled thousands of dollars of Ojibwe annuity funds and sold Ojibwe treaty goods to white traders for his personal profit. It was also believed that Indian agent David B. Herriman was stealing annuity goods and selling them for his own gain. In addition, by 1860 the United States government owed the Ojibwe eighty-one thousand dollars in past-due annuity payments (Treuer, 127).
While these grievances upset Ojibwe leaders, the Gull Lake leader Hole-in-the-Day (Bagone-giizhig) was particularly incensed. Up until that time, Hole-in-the-Day was known to have collaborated with the Dakota Chief Little Crow on a plan to attack all whites in Minnesota while also seeking support from other Ojibwe leaders. But, Hole-in-the-Day had limited success among his Ojibwe counterparts. Nevertheless, following a major altercation at Otter Tail Lake, Hole-in-the-Day sent out a call for action on August 17, 1862, and proceeded to kill the cattle at Gull Lake and take several white prisoners. Also, the Pillager band of Ojibwe gutted the mission school and trading post at Walker, Minnesota, and Ottertail City. In response, agent Lucius Walker sent troops to arrest Hole-in-the-Day, but the troops were unable to apprehend the Ojibwe leader.
Panic spread throughout the nearby settlements as terror-stricken families fled their homes. Two hundred refugees sought safety at Fort Ripley while others went further south to St. Paul. The Ojibwe gathered at Gull Lake where three hundred warriors were ready for war. While Indian Agent Lucius Walker fled and eventually killed himself, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole sent a carpenter named George Sweet to negotiate with the Gull Lake Ojibwe and determine what they wanted.
Upon meeting Hole-in-the-Day at Gull Lake, the Ojibwe leader expressed his grievances over the government officials that had been stealing Ojibwe monies. Furthermore, he told Mr. Sweet that he did not want war, but only his rights, but that he could not get his rights through peaceable means. After some discussion, Hole-in-the-Day agreed to a four day truce and to release his prisoners. During such time, Mr. Sweet promised that the soldiers would not arrest any Ojibwe and that he would return to Gull Lake with a response from the Commissioner.
True to his word, Mr. Sweet returned to Gull Lake within the four days with a response from the Commissioner. Mr. Sweet informed the Ojibwe that the Commissioner was pleased that they desired peace and that they had released the captives. He also informed them that the Commissioner planned to council with the Ojibwe just as soon as he had a contingent of soldiers to protect him. The Ojibwe were pleased, shook hands with Mr. Sweet, and departed for their various homes.
The Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole met with Ojibwe at Crow Wing on September 10, 1862. This was nearly the scene of an outbreak as both the Commissioner and Hole-in-the-Day were prepared for a battle. However, Hole-in-the-Day outmaneuvered the Commissioner by placing one hundred warriors behind the U.S. forces and out of sight. Upon being threatened by the Commissioner, Hole-in-the-Day exposed his forces which surrounded and outnumbered the U.S. soldiers. This led to a change of tone with the Commissioner who was now ready to listen to the Ojibwe grievances.
Tensions were high as Hole-in-the-Day gave a lengthy address in which he was “insolent, defiant, and disrespectful” (Treuer, 138). But tensions calmed when other Ojibwe leaders apologized for the earlier incidents of violence which they blamed upon their young warriors. They stated that their warriors were influenced by the bad advice of Hole-in-the-Day. At the same time, they reiterated that fact that they had been wronged by the traders and agents and that they were still owed much money. The council ended peacefully, but without a solution.
The next day tensions rose once more as two white residents of Crow Wing burned down the house of Hole-in-the-Day. Retaliation was threatened and Hole-in-the-Day demanded to be repaid for his losses. Fearing an outbreak was imminent, Governor Alexander Ramsey and Senator Henry M. Rice met with Hole-in-the-Day and the Ojibwe on September 15. For this council, Commissioner Dole authorized the governor to cooperate with Hole-in-the-Day “in any measures calculated to secure peace.” (Annual Report 1862, 20). This is exactly what Ramsey and Rice did, negotiating a peace treaty with the Ojibwe which acquiesced to all of the demands of Hole-in-the-Day. According to the treaty the United States government promised payment of overdue annuities within thirty days (which was delivered on October 27), official exoneration from all crimes for the Ojibwe leaders, and it promised an investigation of corruption by Indian agents. This treaty effectively ended the U.S. – Ojibwe Conflict of 1862.
Anton Treuer, The Assassination of Hole in the Day, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).
George W. Sweet, “Incidents of the Threatened Outbreak of Hole-in-the-Day and Other Ojibways at Time of Sioux Massacre of 1862,” in Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 6, p. 401-408, (St. Paul: The Pioneer Press Company, 1894).
Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Year 1862, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1863).