Benjamin Green Armstrong was a trader, store owner, logger, farmer, and interpreter who lived among the Lake Superior Ojibwe for many years. He is most well known for his memoir, Early Life Among the Indians, which was published in 1892. In it, Armstrong gave a detailed account of the Ojibwe expedition to Washington DC in 1852 to meet with President Millard Fillmore. The delegation sought the support of the president in their efforts to countermand the Removal Order of 1850 which resulted in the Sandy Lake Tragedy. Armstrong’s memoir also recounted important treaties, described the arrival of settlers, miners, and loggers, and described Ojibwe law, customs, religion, culture, language, and history.
Armstrong was born in Alabama in 1820. As a boy he was “decoyed away” from his home by the owner of a horse-racing show (Armstrong, Early Life, 261). According to Armstrong he became a very accomplished horse racer before he had taken ill and could no longer race. Still just a teenager, Armstrong headed north at the advice of his doctors. By the 1840s, he moved to La Pointe in Wisconsin Territory and he married an Ojibwe woman.
For many years Armstrong acted as a trader and interpreter among the Ojibwe at La Pointe. He quickly earned their trust and helped defend their right to remain living at La Pointe against the wishes of the U.S. government. In 1852, he traveled with an Ojibwe delegation to Washington DC and acted as interpreter for the La Pointe Ojibwe during treaty negotiations in 1854. He was so well-liked he was adopted as the son of Chief Buffalo, the foremost elder among the Ojibwe at that time, and he was given the name Shaw-Bwaw-Skung, meaning, the man who goes through. He was also rewarded with a plot of land as a result of the 1854 treaty.
However, there is still much that is unknown about Armstrong. His memoir, which has been cited numerous times over the years, is a personal account in which he openly admits that there are errors in his recollection. He was also a defendant in two Supreme Court cases regarding his rights to the land he was awarded in 1854. One historian has questioned Armstrong’s right to that land and his intentions toward the Ojibwe writing, “There is no doubt that Benjamin Armstrong was a shady character.” The same historian claims that Armstrong “swindled (Chief) Buffalo’s children out of the land on September 17, 1855 for the sum of one dollar” (An Ethnographic Study, 104, 99). In most cases, Armstrong is remembered as a friend to the Ojibwe who worked hard on their behalf, but it also possible that he used his position and influence for personal profit.
“An Ethnographic Study of Indigenous Contributions to the City of Duluth,” Turnstone Historical Research, Published July 2015, http://www.duluthmn.gov/media/461501/Duluth-Ethnographic-Study-Final-July-2015.pdf.
Armstrong, Benjamin Green. Early Life Among the Indians: Reminiscences From the Life of Benj. G. Armstrong. Dictated to and Written by Thomas P. Wentworth. Ashland, Wisconsin: A.W. Bowron, 1892).
Travis Armstrong, “Chief Buffalo and Benjamin Armstrong,” accessed June 2, 2018, http://www.chiefbuffalo.com/buffalo/Their_lives.html.