The Minnesota Gold Rush that wasn’t and its lasting impact on Anishinaabe people

Today’s history lesson is on the Minnesota Gold Rush of 1866.

Never heard of it? That’s because 1) It fizzled, and 2) It’s a history we don’t tell because it reflects so poorly on our colonial past. While now but a historical footnote, the Minnesota Gold Rush did incredible harm to the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people living in northeastern Minnesota.

The story starts in 1848, the year before Minnesota became a territory, when Indigenous people outnumbered white settlers roughly five to one. That year, surveyors identified a copper vein along Lake Superior’s North Shore, according to the website Why Treaties Matter. The news drew eastern mining companies’ interest. They began pressuring the U.S. government to remove the Anishinaabe people who lived in what is known as the Arrowhead Region.

The process the United States used to remove Indigenous people from their homelands was called “treaty making.”

Treaty map: Image Why Treaties Matter

On this day in history, Sept. 30, 1854, Anishinaabe bands and the U.S. government “agreed” to a treaty in which the Anishinaabe gave up much more than they got. The Anishinaabe ceded the land in the Arrowhead to the United States and relocated to two new reservations, one for the Grand Portage Band and the other for the Fond du Lac Band, said MNOpedia, an online history source created by the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Anishinaabe retained hunting and fishing rights in the ceded lands (rights they always have had). The treaty also gave the Bands cash and supplies for 20 years, and promised to pay off their alleged debts to traders, MNOpedia said.

Jump ahead to 1865 and gold is discovered near Lake Vermillion. It attracted more colonists and businesses seeking get-rich-quick opportunities.

“The Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported to Congress that the ‘Indians became alarmed and excited on account of this invasion of their country,'” Why Treaties Matter said.

Gold mining companies began incorporating in Minnesota, Why Treaties Matter said. And “an armed contingent of miners had moved to Lake Vermillion in December of 1865.”

One of the new business ventures was the Minnesota Gold Mining Company, headed by Henry Sibley. It quickly sold $5 million in shares.

(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, and personally profit. (For the details, check out This American Life.))

‘Indians became alarmed and excited on account of this invasion of their country … ‘


Small problem for mining interests: Lake Vermillion was just west of the Arrowhead and not covered by the Treaty of 1854. The U.S. government strong-armed the Treaty of 1866, securing the land with the gold on it. (The treaty also established the Bois Forte Band Reservation.)

Now comes the fizzle. It turned out that what the State Geologist identified as gold was iron pyrite (fool’s gold), according to Why Treaties Matter. The Minnesota Gold Rush ended in 1867, almost before it began.

Yet the damage was done. The Anishinaabe were forced off their ancestral lands in the Arrowhead.

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.


Post Script: The Anishinaabe people of northern Minnesota continue to suffer from the impacts of extractive industries, such wild-rice-damaging mining and crude oil pipelines that threaten their opportunities to hunt, fish and gather.

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

Thanks to the Why Treaties Matter website, a wonderful resource.

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