In October 1855, trader and government interpreter William Johnston wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, George Manypenny, in which he stated, “Since the money payments have commenced to the Indians, the present Indian traders are not human; they grasp and cheat him of his all and mock at his degradation and silent despair.” Johnston went on to name the traders Charles Borup, Charles Oakes, Clement Beaulieu, and George Nettleton among those who took advantage of the Indian annuities. He also accused Indian Agent John Watrous of exploiting the system illegally for his own personal profit (Johnston to Manypenny, October 20, 1855).
These same traders took full advantage of the dire circumstances of the Ojibwe during the Sandy Lake Tragedy. When agent John Watrous arrived at Sandy Lake in November 1850, he found that dozens of Ojibwe had died from spoiled rations and more were dying daily. Also, Watrous had no money to make the promised annuity payment. Seeking help, Watrous asked the traders to supply the Ojibwe with food and supplies. The traders, seeing their advantage, greatly inflated their prices. According to Watrous, he “negotiated the most reasonable terms possible” to supply the Ojibwe, but still the prices were three to six times higher than normal (Clifton, Wisconsin Death March, 25). This greatly indebted the Ojibwe to the traders.
A few years later, during the 1854 treaty and 1855 payment that followed, the traders sought to further exploit the Ojibwe through threats of violence and manipulation. According to interpreter Benjamin Armstrong, the traders put up much opposition during the 1854 treaty negotiations and he wrote that they “were at the council heavily armed for the purpose of enforcing their claim by intimidation” (Armstrong, Early Life, 42). When the time came to pay the claims, William Johnston reported that the traders, “in Midnight counseled with the chiefs of La Pointe . . . [and] induced them to sign a stipulation, giving them the whole of the $90,000 provided by treaty for the payment of debts.”
Many Ojibwe objected to paying the traders directly out of annuities, because it went against the wording of the treaty and failed to allow for a review of the claims. In a speech to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and those gathered for the 1855 payment, the Ojibwe leader Blackbird said, “Now I will tell you how it is with our traders. When they first came among us they were very poor, but by and by they became very fat and rich, and wear rich clothing and had their watches and gold chains such as I see you wear. But they got their things out of us. They were made rich at our expense” (Chequamegon History, “Blackbird’s Speech at the 1855 Payment”).
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/.
James A. Clifton, “Wisconsin Death March: Explaining the Extremes in Old Northwest Indian Removal,” in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Vol. 75, (1987): 1–40.
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.
William Johnston to George W. Manypenny, October 20, 1855, Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880, Mackinac Agency, Minnesota Historical Society, Manuscript Collections, M175, R404.
Benjamin Green Armstrong, 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).