The three government officials most involved in the Sandy Lake Tragedy of 1850 were the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs Alexander Ramsey, and the Indian Sub-Agent John Watrous. Together, Lea, Ramsey, and Watrous promoted a policy of removal, forcing the Ojibwe from ceded lands in Wisconsin and Michigan to unceded lands in Minnesota Territory. In 1853, these officials were replaced when a new political administration appointed new officials. The new appointees were Henry Gilbert as Indian Agent, Willis Gorman as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and George Manypenny as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
The change in administration also represented a change in policy. Rather than promote removal, the new policy promoted concentration and assimilation. At the time, this was seen as favorable by the Ojibwe living in the ceded territory because it ended removal efforts and provided permanent homes within their homeland. However, it could also be viewed as another way to control and eradicate Native peoples and culture.
At the head of the new Indian policy was Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny. Manypenny believed that the Indians should be concentrated on reservations within their homelands and there made to learn the ways of “civilized life” which included farming, ownership of private property, Christianity, and the speaking of the English language. In the making of treaties, Manypenny was very businesslike and showed little knowledge or appreciation of Native people or culture. When negotiating a treaty with the Ojibwe in 1855, Manypenny showed a “shocking insensitivity” toward the Ojibwe and “displayed not the slightest understanding for, or appreciation of, Indian culture” (Cleland, Preliminary Report, 90).
Later in life, Manypenny wrote a book about his views on Indian policy titled, “Our Indian Wards.” In it, Manypenny expressed the belief that the Indians should be given “such aid, instruction, and sympathy as will win them from their wild life, and induce them to accept the comforts of civilization and a settled home” (Manypenny, “Our Indian Wards,” xxvi). Manypenny admitted that removal was detrimental to the Indians, but he only did so to further promote his policy of assimilation.
In 1854, though the Ojibwe were relieved and anxious to sign a treaty ending removal efforts and promising permanent homes, it did little to improve their position or condition. Rather, it represented a change in policy championed by the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny who, as argued by historian Leo Filipczak, “despised Indian culture.” Rather than remove the Ojibwe, the new policy in 1854 was to concentrate and assimilate them.
Charles E. Cleland, “Preliminary Report of the Ethnohistorical Basis of the Hunting, Fishing, and Gathering Rights of the Mille Lacs Chippewa,” 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), 1–140.
Chequamegon History (blog), “Blackbird’s Speech at the 1855 Payment,” Published January 20, 2014, https://chequamegonhistory.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/blackbirds-speech-at-the-1855-payment/.