John Watrous was the La Pointe Indian Agent during and after the Sandy Lake Tragedy of 1850, an event that left four hundred Ojibwe dead in northern Minnesota. The year after the tragedy, official charges were made by the Lake Superior Ojibwe against the agent for his repeated attempts to remove them from their homeland. The charges included broken promises, daily deception, personal self-interest, bribery, and a general lack of interest in the Indian welfare. The charges were sent to Minnesota Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs Alexander Ramsey for investigation.
Ramsey’s immediate response was to deny the charges, which he believed were politically motivated and he argued that in pursuing removal efforts Watrous was only following orders. Then, rather than meet with members of the L’Anse band of Ojibwe where the charges originated, Ramsey sought statements from Reverends William Boutwell and Sherman Hall and from Minnesota Territorial Delegate Henry Sibley.
Once informed of the charges, Watrous called them “ridiculous” and stated that he would hold himself “in readiness to repel and prove the falsity of every charge made against” him. Watrous also criticized the Ojibwe arguing that any statement coming from the Indians had little weight “as a barrel of Pork and Flour or a glass of Whiskey” (White, The Removal Context, 228).
While Ramsey investigated the charges, more charges were made by other Ojibwe bands. But Ramsey ignored them, arguing that they all came from the same source. Then, while writing to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea, Ramsey overlooked all charges against John Watrous stating that the charges were difficult to investigate because they lacked specificity, that he believed Watrous and others who refuted the charges, and that the charges had little credence because they were probably manufactured by white men. Ramsey closed his letter to Lea by writing that Watrous had acted “faithfully to the Govt. and with kindness and honesty to the Indians. He deserved the commendation, not the censure of the government” (White, The Removal Context, 240).
Ramsey’s letter was forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior who forwarded them to the President. The President, Millard Fillmore, agreed with Ramsey’s judgement and therefore the charges against John Watrous were not sustained. It would appear then, as argued by historian Bruce White, that Ramsey viewed the investigation against Watrous’ behavior as “a matter of politics, in which the welfare of the Ojibwe was a secondary concern” (White, The Regional Context, 243). And, ultimately, for his role in the Sandy Lake Tragedy, John Watrous was never held accountable.
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.
Colin Mustful is a Minnesota author and historian with a unique story-telling style that tells History Through Fiction. His work focuses on Minnesota and surrounding regions during the complex transitional period as land was transferred from Native peoples to American hands. Mustful strives to create compelling stories about the real-life people and events of a tumultuous and forgotten past.