Resisting Removal: Willis Gorman and Henry Gilbert

Resisting Removal: Willis Gorman and Henry Gilbert

Minnesota Territorial Governor Willis A. Gorman reversed the Ojibwe removal policies of his predecessor Alexander Ramsey. Portrait from the MNHS Collections, 1861.

In March 1853, Democrat Franklin Pierce replaced Whig Millard Fillmore as President of the United States.  This led to the removal from office of Alexander Ramsey and John Watrous. Willis Gorman replaced Ramsey as Minnesota’s Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs while Henry Gilbert replaced Watrous as Indian Agent assigned to the Lake Superior Ojibwe.  

Immediately upon taking office, Gorman and Gilbert recognized the negative effects of Indian policy and politics among the Ojibwe of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The situation they encountered was a direct result of the failed removal efforts of the previous administration. Therefore, Gorman put an immediate and effective end to the Removal Order of 1850 and all its attendant policies.  For this reason, Gorman ordered the annuity payment as early in the year as possible to avoid causing the Ojibwe to travel during winter, a circumstance that led to the death of many Ojibwe in previous years.

Agent Gilbert arrived at La Pointe to make payment on October 9,1853  much to the surprise of the Ojibwe who were overjoyed at the change in policy.  After meeting with the chiefs and elders Gilbert called the previous years removal efforts “the great terror of their lives” and said the Lake Superior Ojibwe “would as soon submit to extermination than to comply with it.”  Commenting on their condition, Gilbert said that he found many Ojibwe “reduced to the very extreme of want and poverty” (White, The Removal Context, 267).   

Gorman also recognized the poor condition of the Ojibwe throughout the region.  After being visited by a delegation of St. Croix Ojibwe, Gorman paid $550 out of his own pocket for goods to be provided to them.  As Gorman stated in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs explaining his actions, “They present such a squalid appearance I took pity on them” (White, The Removal Context, 269).  As Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Gorman participated in the Congressional investigation against his predecessor, Alexander Ramsey.  After his review of Ramsey’s conduct Gorman wrote, “there is or has been more fraud and cheating in the Indian trade in this Territory than it has been my lot to see or know of anywhere else on this earth” (White, The Removal Context, 273).

Gorman and Gilbert worked hard and faced some opposition while they reversed the failed removal policies of Ramsey and Watrous.  By 1854, they arranged for a new treaty that officially put down on paper the end of removal efforts and provided permanent homes for the Ojibwe upon their homeland. However, they also instituted a new policy of concentration and assimilation.    

Read more about Willis A. Gorman on the website The Minnesota Territorial Pioneers. 

See this blog 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.  

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