Resisting Removal: Alexander Ramsey and the Sandy Lake Tragedy

Resisting Removal: Alexander Ramsey and the Sandy Lake Tragedy

In 1849, Alexander Ramsey was appointed Governor of the new Minnesota Territory.  At the time, the vast majority of the land was occupied by native Ojibwe, Dakota, and Ho-Chunk peoples and had a white population of less than 7,000.  Ramsey, who was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, sought to acquire the land for the United States. Also, through the payment of Indian annuities, Ramsey sought to bolster the Minnesota economy for the benefit of traders, merchants, and businesses in the territory.  Toward that goal, Ramsey sought the removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe from lands in Wisconsin and into Minnesota where their annuity payment would benefit Minnesotans.

Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey played a large role in the attempted removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe which resulted in the Sandy Lake Tragedy. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

Speaking to the Minnesota Legislative Assembly on September 4, 1849, Ramsey said, “It might be well for the Legislative Assembly, to memorialize the President of the United States, requesting him to notify the Chippeways that these privileges (of hunting, fishing, and gathering in Wisconsin) must cease and requiring them to move into their proper territory” (White, The Removal Context, 162).  This led to a Resolution of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Minnesota October 11, 1849, revoking the rights of the Lake Superior Ojibwe to remain living in Wisconsin and requiring their removal to Minnesota Territory.  The Resolution was forwarded to Washington and read by President Zachary Taylor, who, on February 6, 1850, ordered the removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe from their lands in Wisconsin, also known as the ceded territory.

As Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the region, it was Ramsey’s job to implement the Removal Order.  However, it became apparent early on that removal would be attended with insurmountable difficulties if it was to be attempted in 1850.  In a letter to Ramsey dated March 26, 1850, Indian Agent at La Pointe, John Livermore, addressed the difficulties attended with removal and warned of a great calamity if the Ojibwe gathered in Minnesota Territory without enough provisions.  He also made it clear that the Ojibwe rejected removal and would not be removed because of promises made to them by the U.S. government during treaty negotiations in 1842.  Then, on the same day as Livermore’s letter, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Orlando Brown informed Ramsey that Congressional appropriation of the funds necessary for removal would not be available until very late in the season. This had the potential to cause great problems because the Ojibwe traveled by canoe and if payment arrived too late, the waterways would freeze over and the Ojibwe would be unable to return to their homes.

Despite the warnings of a potential disaster, Ramsey pressed for the removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe in the same year the Removal Order was given.  Writing to Brown’s replacement Luke Lea on July 16, Ramsey stated his intention to make the Ojibwe annuity payment at Sandy Lake, Minnesota, and suggesting that they, “time the payment in such a way as to interpose obstacles to a return to the country they left” (White, The Regional Context, 187).  

Mikwendaagoziwag Memorial at Sandy Lake remembering the approximately 400 Ojibwe who died.

As directed by Ramsey, messengers were sent to the Lake Superior bands, telling them that if they wished to receive their promised annuity payment, they and their families must assemble at Sandy Lake, Minnesota, on October 25.  But, just as previous warnings had suggested, payment was not appropriated from Congress and provisions at Sandy Lake were insufficient to provide for the needs of the approximately 4,000 Ojibwe that assembled there. Within a matter of weeks of their arrival at Sandy Lake, the Ojibwe began dying in large numbers from sickness and starvation.  The agent did not arrive until late November and he did not disperse any goods until early December. By that time winter had set in and the Ojibwe encountered great difficulties returning home. This tragedy resulted in the death of approximately 400 Ojibwe.

Letter from Alexander Ramsey to John Watrous, August 14, 1851; Found in the Manuscript Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

After learning about the tragedy, Ramsey was undeterred in his removal efforts.  Speaking to the Minnesota Legislative Assembly in January 1851, Ramsey reiterated his plans for removal and suggested they would begin again in the spring.  A few weeks later, while meeting with the La Pointe Indian Agent John Watrous, the two men discussed their plans to continue the removal efforts beginning on May 1st when the Ojibwe sugar making would be over.  In the following months, the Lake Superior Ojibwe put up a strong resistance to removal and were determined not to return to Sandy Lake. Nevertheless, Ramsey insisted that they be removed and that their payment be made in Minnesota Territory.  Writing to Watrous on August 14, 1851, Ramsey encouraged Watrous against the resistance stating, “Be of good cheer, and try to conquer all obstacles in the way of removal” (White, The Regional Context, 225).

It was not until 1853, when Ramsey was removed from office, that removal efforts ceased and the Ojibwe were allowed to remain living upon their homelands.  

Watch a twenty-seven minute YouTube video about the Sandy Lake Tragedy published by the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission. 

See this blog post on YouTube


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.  

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