This Day in History, Feb. 6, 1850, a broken treaty sets in motion the Sandy Lake Atrocity

Minnesota leaders still disregarding treaties today

The Red Lake and White Earth nations are suing in the Minnesota Court of Appeals to stop the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline, arguing it violates their long-standing treaties with the U.S. government. The treaties of 1854 and 1855 guaranteed them the right to hunt, fish, and gather in lands they ceded, they say. Line 3 construction and future oil spills threaten those rights.

The state of Minnesota has turned a blind eye, approving Line 3 permits and allowing Enbridge to begin construction before courts resolve the treaty rights dispute. The failure goes all way up the ladder to Gov. Tim Walz.

It should come as no surprise. Minnesota was born of broken treaties.

On this day in history, Feb. 6, 1850, President Zachery Taylor signed an executive order that broke several treaties with the Chippewa. Taylor took that action at the behest of Minnesota’s Territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey and other Minnesota leaders.

This executive order — and a corrupt scheme by Ramsey to advance his own financial and political fortunes — would lead to the deaths of 400 Chippewa people.

Minnesota Territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey. Photo Minnesota Historical Society

The event has been called the “Sandy Lake Tragedy,” as if it was some freak accident that couldn’t be avoided. It’s more appropriately called the Sandy Lake Atrocity because those deaths were willful.

In 1850, Ramsey sought federal intervention to break a treaty in order to get Chippewa Indians living in Wisconsin to move into the Minnesota Territory. (A decade later, Ramsey and other Minnesota leaders would be doing everything they could to get the Anishinaabe people (also known as Chippewa and Ojibwe) to move as far west in the state as possible, and exile the Dakota people altogether.)

In this particular moment in time, however, Minnesota was still eight years away from statehood. Indians meant money. Ramsey wanted the Chippewa to move west into the Minnesota Territory, as they would bring with them the economic boost of their government annuities.

Red marker designates Big Sandy Lake. Google Maps

An article in the Chippewa Herald sets the scene.

Every year, these annuity-payment distributions attracted a lot of activity, as Ojibwe people, fur traders, merchants, government officials, and settlers gathered. These payments had been held on Madeline Island for years.

Minnesota, newly forming, wanted this activity. The flow of government funds would create projects and salaried positions for the supporters of Alexander Ramsey.

Chippewa Herald

The Chippewa resisted efforts to push them off their lands.

Ramsey was not only the state’s Territorial Governor, he also served as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the federal government. Ramsey conspired with John Watrous, an Indian sub-agent with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, to force the relocation. They told the Chippewa if they wanted their annuity payments, they would have to come Sandy Lake in the Minnesota Territory by Oct. 25, 1850.

Ramsey wanted to make sure they stayed in Minnesota. His plan was to delay the payments until the rivers froze and the Chippewa couldn’t canoe home, according to a TPT story.

President Taylor’s death in July should have derailed the plan. The annuity payments from Washington weren’t going to make it in time. Ramsey and Watrous could have called off their plan, knowing they couldn’t deliver the goods. They went ahead anyway, with disastrous results.

Marker remembering the Anishinaabe who died at Sandy Lake in 1850.

A brochure by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission picks up the story.

… more than 5,500 Ojibwe journeyed to Sandy Lake that autumn. They arrived fatigued and hungry after the arduous journey, only to find no one there to distribute the supplies. Wild game was scarce, fishing was poor, and high water had wiped out the local wild rice crop for the second consecutive year. …

Over a six-week period as harsh winter conditions set in, bandmembers waited near the newly established Indian sub–agency. Without adequate food or shelter, disease and exposure ravaged Ojibwe families.

Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

Some 167 Chippewa died that autumn. The annuity payments wouldn’t arrive until mid-December, MNOpedia said. It was too late. The bandmembers marched home, with another 230 people dying along the way.

Ramsey’s plan ultimately failed.

The Lake Superior Ojibwe continued to resist removal with written petitions and sent a delegation to Washington City (Washington, DC) in 1852. It was not until 1853, when a new administration replaced Ramsey and Watrous, that removal efforts ended. Then, in 1854, the Lake Superior Ojibwe signed a new treaty at La Pointe that promised permanent reservations and on-site annual payments in their homeland.


Returning to Line 3, it bears repeating that in 2019, Gov. Walz issued an executive order affirming a government-to-government relationship with Indian nations in Minnesota. In its first sentence, he states:

It is important to recognize that the United States and the State of Minnesota have a unique legal relationship with federally recognized Tribal Nations, as affirmed by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, statutes, and case law.

Gov. Walz Executive Order 19-24

The executive order makes a lot of promises.

Photo of Line 3 construction from court filing by Laura Triplett

Neither Walz nor his state agency heads have made public statements about how they square Line 3’s approval and ongoing construction with the executive order, and the fact that Red Lake, White Earth and Mille Lacs oppose the project. .

Minnesota does not have the authority to interpret treaties. It does have the authority to delay projects until disputed treaty rights issues are resolved.

Gov. Walz has tried to walk a tightrope, not really taking a side. His silence makes him complicit with Line 3’s ongoing construction and likely treaty violations. It represents on more broken promise, and one more broken treaty in a line of broken treaties.

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