This day in history, Sept. 30, 1854: Ojibwe people in the Arrowhead region forced into treaty to open land to mining interests

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Henry Sibley as one of the treaty negotiators. It also failed to correctly distinguish between the Treaty of 1854 and the Treaty of 1855. Those errors have been corrected.

History offers several examples of white settlers’ greed for gold and how it led to violence, disease, land theft, and genocide of Indigenous peoples, the California and Black Hills gold rushes being prime examples.

Less well know is that it happened in Minnesota, too. It started in 1848, when surveyors found a copper vein in the Arrowhead region of the Minnesota Territory, on Lake Superior’s north shore, the Why Treaties Matter website said. In the 1860s, the Minnesota State Geologist identified gold just west of the Arrowhead region. 

Mining interests wanted in. They pressured the federal government to force treaties with the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people to get access to their land and minerals.

What the Anishinaabe saw as sacred, the colonists saw as profit.

The Anishinaabe ceded their land in the Arrowhead region in the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe. In return for the land, the treaty established the Grand Portage and Fond du Lac band reservations, MNOpedia said. The Anishinaabe retained hunting and fishing rights in the lands that they ceded. The treaty also promised to give the Anishinaabe cash and supplies for 20 years, and to pay off their alleged debts to traders.

Treaty map: Image Why Treaties Matter (Courtesy of the MN Historical Society)

The discovery of “gold” happened near Lake Vermillion, just outside the territory the Anishinaabe ceded in 1854. That required another treaty, signed in 1866. It treaty established the Bois Forte Reservation.

According to Why Treaties Matter:

Gold mining companies had been incorporated in Minnesota months prior to the treaty, and an armed contingent of miners had moved to Lake Vermillion in December of 1865. … Speculative mining companies were quickly formed, attracting capital from throughout the U.S. “One of the most secure, both financially and politically,” according to historian David Walker, was the Minnesota Gold Mining Company, headed by president Henry Sibley, which rapidly sold $5,000,000 in shares.

Why Treaties Matter

Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor (1858-1860), was no stranger to profiting at the expense of Native Americans. In 1851, he used his position as a key negotiator in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux to cheat the Dakota people out of land and money. In that instance, he was able to secure for himself thousands of dollars of treaty money to get his fur company out of debt. (For the details, check out This American Life.)

One of the signers of the Treaty of 1866 on behalf of the U.S. government was Justus C. Ramsey, Alexander’s brother.

The Minnesota Gold Rush quickly fizzled. It turned out what the State Geologist identified as gold was iron pyrite, or fool’s gold. “By 1867, only about 70 white people remained in the ceded territory,” Why Treaties Matter said.

Still, the treaties did their damage. Anishinaabe were pushed off their ancestral lands. As MNOpedia says:

The U.S. government sought to use treaties like the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe to change the lifestyle and culture of American Indians. It wanted them to learn English, convert to Christianity, and become individual farmers. …

Ojibwe living on the new reservations often struggled in the years after the treaty [of 1854]. Timber companies cut down forests. Mining companies dug up the land, making it even harder to earn a living from hunting and trapping. Many were forced to go into deeper debt and to rely on the small treaty payments to survive.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website on the history of mining in Minnesota offers an example of how we still turn a blind eye to this history. Here is the DNR’s sanitized version, with no mention of the Ojibwe people or Bois Forte:

The discovery of gold in northern Minnesota led to the Vermilion Lake gold rush of 1865-66. However, hardly any gold was found. Tiny amounts of gold were found embedded in quartz. Mining the gold out of this hard rock was not profitable. The gold prospectors abandoned the area by 1867. …

For more, read Lake Vermillion Gold Rush published in Minnesota History magazine in 1974.

The U.S. government agents who signed the Treaty of 1866 also included Benjamin Thompson, a man who just three years earlier chose Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory as the Dakota people’s home in exile. (The Dakota were exiled following the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862). Thompson became the Indian agent at Crow Creek, and under his directions, “rations were given on Saturday, eaten up by Sunday and the Indians starved for the rest of the week,” Why Treaties Matter said.

The California and Black Hills gold rushes

Most people know about the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855, but fewer know about its devastating impact on Indigenous peoples. According to the Kumeyaay Tribe website: California had an indigenous population of approximately 150,000 prior to the Gold Rush. They outnumbered whites 10 to one. An estimated 300,000 white settlers arrived in seven years. Estimates are that white miners took $10 billion in gold from tribal lands during that period. “By 1900 it was estimated that less than 16,000 California Indians had survived the invasion of their homelands.”

Original boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation and the “treaties” that reduced it. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of the Black Hills Gold Rush, the Black Hills were fully part of the Great Sioux Reservation and had been so since the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. A George Custer-led 1874 expedition to the Black Hills confirmed gold in the area, triggering an invasion of white miners. Following the inevitable fighting, the United States eventually claimed 900,000 of Lakota land in the Black Hills under an 1877 Congressional Act known as the Manypenny Agreement.

The Lakota never considered the law legitimate and the land is still in dispute today.

More than a century after the Black Hills Gold Rush, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 in United States vs. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980) that the Sioux were due compensation, with interest, for the loss of the Black Hills and other treaty violations, such as the gold theft.

The Supreme Court set compensation $105 million at the time, according to a story in the Native Sun News Today. The Great Sioux Nation has not accepted the money, which continues to accumulate with interest. It wants the Black Hills back.

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