On April 5, 1852, a small delegation of Ojibwe led by chiefs Buffalo and Oshoga, departed their island home at La Pointe in route for Washington DC. The delegation sought a meeting with the President in order to express their grievances related to the conduct of their agent, John Watrous, and the disastrous removal efforts that caused the Sandy Lake Tragedy less than two years earlier.
At the time of the journey, the La Pointe Ojibwe were under increasing pressure from government officials to remove from their ancient homeland on Madeline Island, and resettle in Minnesota Territory. The Ojibwe were adamantly opposed to removal, citing promises made during a treaty in 1842 that they could remain living upon their homeland for fifty to one hundred years. After several petitions failed to end removal efforts, the Ojibwe decided the only way to save their home was to visit their “Great Father” in Washington. Several times the Ojibwe asked for permission from their agent John Watrous, and from Minnesota Territorial Governor, Alexander Ramsey, to travel to Washington, but every time their request was either ignored or declined.
With the help of interpreter Benjamin Armstrong, the delegation set off for Washington by canoe, having never received permission. Along the way, the delegation made many stops in order to raise funds and obtain signatures on a petition urging the end of removal efforts. After reaching Sault Ste. Marie the delegation traveled by steamship to Detroit, then by sail to Buffalo. From Buffalo to Albany the delegation traveled by train and then by steamer down the Hudson River to New York. While in New York, the delegation performed traditional Ojibwe dances in front of white audiences to earn enough money for the last leg of their trip. Finally, they traveled overland to Washington DC where they arrived on June 22, 1852.
While in Washington, the group was declined a meeting with the President by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea who told them to turn around and go home. However, a fortuitous encounter with two Congressmen at their hotel led to the arrangement of a meeting with President Millard Fillmore. During their meeting, Chief Oshoga gave a detailed account of all the wrongs done to the Lake Superior Ojibwe dating back to the Treaty of 1837. Moved to action by the sorrowful tale, Fillmore agreed to end the removal efforts and resume annuity payments at La Pointe. The following year payment was made a La Pointe and in 1854 a new treaty was signed which provided the Ojibwe with permanent reservation homes within their homeland.
A complete account of the delegation’s trip to Washington is available through the memoir of interpreter Benjamin Armstrong. However, it should be noted that the veracity of Armstrong’s account has been called into question. According to historian Bruce White, there is conflicting evidence regarding the meeting with the President. Several reports would lead one to conclude that the delegation was simply intercepted by Luke Lea and handed off to Agent John Watrous for a return trip home. But, there is also proof that the petitions were handed to the President by someone other than the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, which would have likely been the delegation itself. Whether or not the delegation met with the President is still a matter of question.
Ultimately, the decision regarding removal was left with Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey. In a letter written by chiefs Buffalo and Oshoga shortly after their return from Washington, they acknowledged this fact writing: “My father I have just returned from Washington. I learned that you were the one that had to say that we had to go or stay. If that is the case do as you agreed that you would do, last winter when I visited you, you told me that if it was left for you to say you would do all that was in your power to have us stay at La Pointe. It is left to you to say whether we will be permitted to remain or not” (White, 253).
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.
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).