I’ve wondered how many “This Day in History” entries could be written just about broken treaties. Wikipedia says: “From 1778 to 1871, the United States government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; all of these treaties have since been violated in some way or outright broken by the US government.” I guess that means you could fill an entire calendar and have plenty left over.
Today’s entry concerns a treaty between the Chippewa of the Mississippi and the U.S. government on March 19, 1867 that effectively stole valuable timber lands from Chippewa people in northern Minnesota. This was the last treaty the U.S. government negotiated with Native nations in Minnesota.
It’s part of state history that most of us who live here never learned. We need to. It’s an important correction to our history books. The wealth of early business leaders had its roots not in sweat and toil, but in deceit and outright theft of Indigenous lands and resources.
Note: The Chippewa also are known as Ojibwe and Anishinaabe.
According to the Why Treaties Matter website, the treaty of 1867: “was engineered to concentrate the Ojibwe population in a single place, encourage them to farm through the allotment of land to individuals, and open valuable pine forests to logging.”
While individual band members got vouchers for 160 acres each on the new reservation lands, it was a very unfavorable deal. In return for ceding about 2,000,000 acres, the Ojibwe got $145,000 over 10 years.
That comes to less than eight cents an acre.
Further, the Chippewa didn’t get money to use as they saw fit. The treaty proscribed its uses as a form of assimilation: $5,000 to build schools; $5,000 to buy cattle, horses, and farming utensils; $6,000 a year for ten years to promote an agricultural lifestyle, and so on.
One of the U.S. government’s three treaty signers was Joel Bassett, He wore two hats, one as a U.S. Indian Agent, the other as owner of a large Minneapolis lumber mill. (He’s also the namesake of Bassett’s Creek. He “built the area’s first steam-powered sawmill at the mouth of the creek near what’s now Theodore Wirth Park,” a City Pages article said.)
Bassett personally benefited from the treaty he helped negotiate. Such self dealing was common in U.S. treaty making. The Why Treaties Matter website explains the timber and milling interests that drove many treaties.
Many of the treaties signed by the U.S. with Dakota and Ojibwe people focused on timber rights. The Ojibwe, and to a lesser extent the Dakota, controlled forests from which American businesses could make vast fortunes. So these business interests took an active role in treaty making …
The Ojibwe people were careful in treaties to retain timber rights whenever they could. They kept those ownership rights not only on reservation land, but on the land they ceded to the US. And despite the transfer of millions of acres of forest to the U.S., American businesses targeted the timber rights that Ojibwe and Dakota people retained in treaties. Treaty rights were ignored off-reservation. Fraudulent schemes involving some of the highest-ranking members of the U.S. Indian Affairs bureaucracy were created to harvest timber even on reservation land.
Bassett was one of those violators.
His obituary in the Duluth Herald in 1912 tells one story, a favorite American chestnut about an early pioneer. (It was reprinted in the Bassett Family Association blog.) It begins:
Mr. Bassett came to Minnesota in 1851, first to St. Anthony, and took one of the first claims on the west side of the river, just north of Bassett’s creek, which bears his name. He settled on this claim in 1852, and that fall was elected the first probate judge of Hennepin county. In after years he was always known as Judge Bassett.
He was one of the pioneer lumbermen of Minnesota, and his name is closely woven in to the history of early Minneapolis, in business and in politics.
The blog also reprinted a news story from The Duluth Evening Herald, Friday, June 28, 1895, which tells a different side of Bassett’s story. Bassett and other prominent businessmen of the time had been “devastating the northern part of the state, denuding the territory of its timber,” including cutting down timber on reservation lands.
Bassett and others were taken to court over their illegal activity. The court ruled they had to pay $467,474.34 — the lumber’s full market value — plus interest. Along with Bassett, another notable defendant was John C. Pillsbury. They and two others were charged with “conversion,” meaning they unlawfully entered reservation lands of the Mississippi and Winnebegoshish bands and “systematically cut the timber and converted the same to their own uses.”
This story has resonance today. Several Ojibwe bands have been fighting to protect their off-reservation treaty rights, rights threatened by the proposed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. Pipeline construction would damage many waterways and wetlands. A spill could damage wild rice. State officials have been ignoring treaty rights on ceded lands, approving pipeline permits without making sure legitimate treaty issues get resolved first.
Click on the links above for more details. In particular, check out the Why Treaties Matter website; it’s a fantastic resource.