Resisting Removal – The Sandy Lake Tragedy

Resisting Removal – The Sandy Lake Tragedy

On February 6, 1850, President Zachary Taylor signed an executive order for the removal of all Ojibwe living within the lands ceded by the treaties of 1837 and 1842.  This was done in response to a Resolution of the Minnesota Legislative Assembly issuing the same order.

The Lake Superior Ojibwe who were affected by the order, refused to remove from their homeland, citing promises made by the United States government during the treaty negotiations in 1842.  The treaty gave timber and mineral rights to the U.S., but the Ojibwe maintained the right to hunt, fish, and gather upon the lands. Furthermore, they were told that they would not be asked to remove for fifty to one hundred years.  

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. Image from the Minnesota Historical Society Collections.

Because of their reluctance, Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey devised a plan to force the Ojibwe removal which would be instituted by Indian Agent John Watrous.  Ramsey changed the location of the annual payment, which the Ojibwe received as a part of the 1842 treaty agreement, from La Pointe, Wisconsin, to Sandy Lake, Minnesota. He then had Watrous advise the Ojibwe that if they wished to receive payment, they had to travel to Sandy Lake along with their families to receive it.  Ramsey’s intention, which he stated outright in letters to John Watrous, was to lure the Ojibwe into Minnesota Territory, and then intentionally delay payment so that winter would set in and the Ojibwe would be unable to return to their homes.

The Ojibwe were told by their agent that they would receive payment at Sandy Lake on October 25, 1850.  More than four thousand gathered from all parts of the region. However, the agent was not there to greet them.  They waited many weeks while at the same time, the rations they were fed were spoiled. Hundreds became sick with dysentery and died.  The agent did not arrive until November 24, and when he did he did not have the annual payment because it was never appropriated by Congress. 

After negotiating with traders who greatly inflated their prices, Watrous gave the Ojibwe what he could in order to sustain them.  But, by the time the goods had been distributed, winter had set in and the waterways had frozen over, forcing the Ojibwe to throw away their canoes and begin the long trek home on foot.  On the way, many suffered and perished from sickness and starvation.

On December 17, The Minnesota Chronicle and Register gave a report of the conditions at Sandy Lake titled, “Dreadful Sufferings of the Indians.”  It stated:

“The Chippewa payment has just come off.  A more miserable set of Indians I never saw – most of them half dead for want of food – not less than eighty-five dead at Sandy Lake – and since the payment, some five or six die every night.  I cannot describe the distress of this poor people, and should I, it could not be believed, for it is incredible.”

A week later, the Minnesota Chronicle and Register estimated that no fewer than 167 Ojibwe died at Sandy Lake.  It was estimated that another 230 died on the way home.  Despite this tragedy, removal efforts continued the following year and neither Ramsey or Watrous were punished for their involvement in the Sandy Lake Tragedy.      

Read “Wisconsin Death March” by James A. Clifton.

See this 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.  

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.  

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