Resisting Removal: The Suspension of Removal Efforts
On August 25, 1851, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea sent a telegram to La Pointe, Wisconsin, instructing the Indian agent there, John Watrous, to “suspend action with reference to the removal of the Lake Superior Chippewas for further orders” (White, The Removal Context, 210). The telegram was received by missionary William Boutwell and then delivered by messenger to John Watrous at Sandy Lake on or around September 11. Watrous, however, ignored the order, making no mention of it to his superiors or the Ojibwe.
When the Lake Superior Ojibwe arrived at Fond du Lac that fall, Watrous refused to make their annuity payment. Watrous set off to Sandy Lake to make payment to the Mississippi and Pillager Ojibwe, promising to return to Fond du Lac later. But this was a part of Watrous’ plan to delay payment and force the removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe after orders had been received to suspend removal. In a letter to Superintendent of Indian Affairs Alexander Ramsey dated October 25, Watrous stated that payment would be “so late in the fall that little fear may be entertained of their being able to return to their old home” (White, The Removal Context, 216). This was the same plan that resulted in the death of four hundred Ojibwe at Sandy Lake the previous year.
In addition to continuing his plan, Watrous also argued that removal of the Lake Superior Ojibwe had already been accomplished and therefore there was no action to suspend. In his annual report written September 20, 1851, Watrous stated that, “it affords me much satisfaction to inform Your Excellency that the entire removal has been accomplished” (White, The Removal Context, 213). Watrous went on to report that 3,000 Ojibwe had been removed in 1851 when in reality only a few hundred had removed.
A few months later, when the Ojibwe gathered for their rescheduled payment, Watrous presented them with a document which was an agreement for them to remove from their homes next spring. The Ojibwe protested and the missionary Leonard Wheeler asked Watrous about the order to suspend removal that had been delivered in September. According to Wheeler, “I asked him also what authority he had to ask the Indians to remove, when the removal had been suspended? He denied the fact . . . but said he had received an order to suspend active operations” (White, The Removal Context, 232). Wheeler also reminded the agent of the many promises he made that had not been delivered—promises to provide health, comfort, and well being for the Ojibwe and their families. According to Wheeler, the agent admitted to him that “he intended to do just as little for the Indians there as possible, his object being to get them beyond the Mississippi as soon as he could” (White, The Removal Context, 232).
It is clear then, that despite the tragedy at Sandy Lake and despite orders to suspend removal, Indian agent John Watrous continued efforts to remove, against their will, the Lake Superior Ojibwe from their homes.
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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.