In 1842, the Lake Superior and Upper Mississippi bands of Ojibwe signed a treaty with the United States government ceding their territory along the southern boundary of Lake Superior. According to the treaty, the Ojibwe maintained the right to hunt, fish, and gather on the land. Furthermore, they were promised that they could remain living upon the land for the remainder of their lifetimes. Included in the treaty, were annual payments that were to be made to the Ojibwe for twenty-five years. These payments, or annuities, were paid to the Lake Superior Ojibwe at La Pointe, Wisconsin.
Just eight years later, the La Pointe band of Ojibwe were ordered to remove from their homes and told they could no longer receive their annual payment in the ceded territory. Therefore, in 1850 payment was scheduled at Sandy Lake, Minnesota. However, payment was never appropriated from Congress and therefore never received by the Ojibwe. Then, in 1851, payment was scheduled at Fond du Lac on the St. Louis River in Minnesota Territory. This time, payment was delayed causing the Ojibwe to return to their homes without payment. It was then rescheduled at Fond du Lac and made in January 1852. The following year, payment was scheduled at Crow Wing, west of the Mississippi River. Payment was again delayed and very few members of the La Pointe band were willing to make the long trip west. Their goods were stored in the agency warehouse at Crow Wing for delivery in the spring, but in January 1853, the warehouse burned down.
It was not until October 9, 1853, that the annual payment finally returned to La Pointe. This occurred because of a change in administration in which the La Pointe agent John Watrous was replaced by Henry Gilbert. Gilbert’s arrival at La Pointe came as a surprise to the Ojibwe, many of whom had given up hope of receiving payment from the government. It became a source of celebration. In a letter to his parents, Missionary Leonard Wheeler described the scene at the 1853 payment:
“America does not contain happier company than is congregated on this island tonight. I have been out this eve to some of the lodges to rejoice with those that do rejoice. The payment has thus far been one of the best that has ever been made. They have a great many more goods than usual. This payment took us all by surprise. We knew nothing about it until the Agent came to make the payment. Some of our people were so happy and so excited that they could not sleep the first night” (White, The Regional Context, 267).
In his report of the payment, Gilbert wrote that upon his arrival to La Pointe he found many Ojibwe “reduced to the very extreme of want and poverty and without the aid furnished them many must have perished during the coming winter from cold and hunger” (White, The Regional Context, 267). Gilbert also reported that the Ojibwe expressed many grievances regarding the previous years removal efforts. Concluding his report, Gilbert suggested that it was time for a new treaty—one that would end all removal efforts and provide permanent homes for the Lake Superior Ojibwe upon their homelands.
Bruce White, “The Regional Context of the Removal Order of 1850,” in Fish in the Lakes, Wild Rice, and Game in Abundance: Testimony on Behalf of Mille Lacs Ojibwe Hunting and Fishing Rights,” Compiled by James M. McClurken, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 141–328.