‘Our land melts like a cake of ice’

Remembering what the Ojibwe lost at the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw

By Mike Mills

Deceitful fur traders, fistfights, drunken mayhem, an ambitious territorial governor with sacks of silver coins and six million acres of prime Michigan land vanishing from Indian control. Such was the experience of thousands of native Michigan Ojibwe people at the trading post of Louis Campau after two weeks of negotiations, culminating in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.

September 24, 2019 marks the bicentennial anniversary of one of the largest and most consequential land cession treaties in the Northwest Territory, land that today includes the cities of Lansing, Midland, Alpena, Bay City, Saginaw and Flint. Following the Treaty of Saginaw, Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass would spend another decade negotiating other treaties and moving native occupants off their land and onto nearby reservations, enabling sale of the land to settlers and achieving statehood for Michigan in 1837.

But Cass would fail to achieve another goal: Removing Michigan’s Indians to the west of the Mississippi River. Thanks to a legacy of creative resistance by Michigan’s indigenous people that began with Saginaw Ojibwe in 1819, among other factors, the vast majority of people from Michigan’s three major Indian tribes — the Ojibwe, the Ottawa and the Potawatomi — avoided the fate of being forcibly removed to west of the Mississippi River.

High stakes in Saginaw

The drama of September 1819 played out under a long, makeshift trellis covered with tree branches along the banks of the Saginaw River, with Cass presiding on an elevated platform. Ojibwe leaders and their families, who came from as far as 100 miles away, sat facing Cass on thick logs rolled in for the occasion. Most of the haggling would happen in the dining room and annexes of the home of Saginaw fur trader Campau, who hosted the deliberations at his own expense, expecting to be compensated afterward (more on that later).

It was Cass’ first major land cession treaty since taking over as governor of the Michigan Territory in 1813, a job he got just as he was about to testify against the previous governor, Gen. William Hull, Cass’ superior officer in the first year of the War of 1812. President Madison spared Hull the death penalty upon his conviction on charges of cowardice following Hull’s surrender of Fort Detroit, and rewarded Cass for his damning testimony of Hull’s reluctance to fully engage the British and their Indian allies under Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

As the new governor, Cass faced two major challenges. He needed to quell frequent raids by the Ojibwe against settlers around Detroit. And he had to persuade powers back east that Michigan was not, as a recent surveyor had put it, an “interminable swamp” and “uninhabitable” by settlers.

Hungry and destitute after the war, and suffering from the fast-declining fur trade and depletion of animals for food or pelts, bands of Saginaw Ojibwe (anglicized as Chippewa) took to raiding homesteads and farms to the south in Detroit, stealing cows and chickens and sometimes whiskey and household provisions as well.

Most feared was the Saginaw chief Kishkawko, whose warriors in 1814 kidnapped 11-year-old Archie McMillan and murdered his father on the commons outside of Fort Detroit. Cass led a posse that engaged in hand-to-hand combat in the woods in a failed attempt to recover the boy. Archie was adopted into an Ojibwe family, and made one unsuccessful attempt to flee. He returned home about a year later after authorities in Detroit imprisoned two Ojibwe men and exchanged them for the boy’s freedom. Kishkawko had been militantly anti-American at least since 1807, when he opposed his father’s participation relinquishing land around the Detroit area to the U.S. government in Hull’s Treaty of Detroit.

The raids added to perceptions back east that the Michigan Territory was simply too rugged and wild to be a candidate for statehood. President Monroe had earlier opined to Thomas Jefferson that the quality of the land in much of the Northwest Territory around the lakes was “miserably poor” and “will never contain a sufficient number of inhabitants to entitle them to membership in the confederacy.”

Cass knew the region of the Saginaw Bay watershed was actually rich with farmable land, timber and a vast network of river waterways to Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. On Jan. 6, 1819, he informed War Secretary John C. Calhoun that intelligence he received from fur traders “induces me to believe, that an attempt to procure from the Chippeways a cession of the Country upon the Saginaw bay in this Territory would be successful. The land in that quarter is of the first quality and would undoubtedly settle with great rapidity.” In March, President Monroe agreed to Cass’ request to pursue a land cession treaty.

High as the stakes were for Cass in achieving the land cession, they were even higher for the Ojibwe of the Saginaw Valley: Cass had also vowed in his letter to Calhoun seeking the treaty “to effect the removal of the Indians to the West side of the Mississippi as speedily as circumstances will permit,” in part to sever their proximity to British influence in Canada. “Or,” he reasoned, if they strongly resist removal, “by gradual cessions of Territory to confine them within reasonable limits. Favourable moments must be embraced for this purpose as they occur.”

The Ojibwe, and to a lesser extent the Ottawa and Potawatomi, lived and hunted around the Saginaw Bay since long before 1675, when a Jesuit missionary named Henri Nouvel, came through to explore the region. Ojibwe legend holds that they drove the Sauk, another Algonquian-speaking tribe, out of the region in a bloody battle at some point before the mid-1600s, but there is no solid evidence to support that theory (some scholars blame Samuel de Champlain, the founder of New France and Quebec City, who in drawing a map erroneously placed the Sauk on the western side of Lake Huron instead of Lake Michigan, where they were long known to live — the mistake that was repeated on subsequent maps). As did other tribes elsewhere in the lower peninsula, the Ojibwe abandoned the area when the Iroquois from New York waged a decades-long battle of westward expansion, then returned after those wars ended in 1701.

The Ojibwe and Ottawa of Saginaw Bay had proud reputations as fierce, relentless warriors. Ottawa leaders from Saginaw were among the chiefs who traveled to Fort William Henry in July 1757 to enlist to fight alongside General Marquis deMontcalm in the Seven Years War against Britain. And “Saguenays,” as the Ojibwe from Saginaw Bay were called at the time, attended Sir William Johnson’s 1761 peace council at Fort Niagara toward the end of that war. Ottawa Chief Pontiac persuaded Saginaw chief Wasson to bring 250 Ojibwe from Saginaw to assist his siege of Detroit. Wasson himself murdered Donald Campbell, the captain of Fort Detroit, as he was being held captive by Pontiac’s men, to revenge the killing by British soldiers of his nephew. And it was an Ojibwe leader, Madjeckewiss, who lived and hunted in the Saginaw Bay in the winters, who led the raid at Michilimackinac in June 1763.

Negotiation trouble

Fur trader Campau, a rival trader named Jacob Smith and a third trader named Whitmore Knaggs were important assets to Cass before and during negotiations. All spoke the Algonquian Ojibwe dialect and thus had served as “interpreters” (read: spies) for Cass during the recent war. For safety’s sake, Cass also had two U.S. military vessels, one captained by his brother Charles, moored nearby.

Before setting off for Saginaw on horseback from Detroit, Cass realized one other detail needed attending to: The U.S. government had not yet kept its promise, under the 1807 Treaty of Detroit, to pay the Saginaw Ojibwe $1,666.66 in annuities. He would have to help pay down that debt, but rather than wait for the government to deliver the silver, he took out a personal bank loan in coins, with the expectation that the government would reimburse him.

Detailed accounts of the treaty proceedings were captured in a statement by Campau in 1864 and by depositions of attendees given to attorney Charles P. Avery in 1866 as part of subsequent litigation relating to the treaty terms.

Under the leafy bower in the yard of Campau’s trading post, Cass opened the talks by stating he was sent by the Great Father to make a treaty. He wanted to buy their lands. He asked them to smoke and think on his intentions and discuss terms over the next few days.

Three prominent chiefs replied to Cass’ opening remarks, including Misheneanonquet, who was the Ojibwe’s delegated spokesman, and Ogemagigido, a young chief whose band lived at the fork of the Tittabawassee River. Kishkawko was present only on the first day — he is said to have remained in his tent, inebriated, for the remainder of the negotiations.

Ogemagigido, described as around 25 years old and an eloquent speaker, gave the most spirited response, since often quoted as a supreme example of native American oratory:

“You do not know our wishes. Our people wonder what has brought you so far from your homes. Your young men have invited us to come and light the council fire. We are here to smoke the pipe of peace, but not to sell our lands. Our American Father wants them. Our English Father treats us better; he has never asked for them. Your people pass upon our hunting grounds. You flock to our shores. Our waters grow warm; our land melts like a cake of ice; our possessions grow smaller and smaller; the warm wave of the white man rolls in upon us and melts us away. Our women reproach us. Our children want homes; shall we sell from under them the spot where they speared their blankets? We have not called you here. We smoke with you the pipe of peace.”

To that, Cass gently reproached Ogemagigido. The Great American Father, Cass said, had defeated the English king, and the Indians as well, which meant their lands were forfeited by the rules of war. However, Cass added, he was not proposing to take the lands outright: He intended to compensate them, “not-withstanding their late acts of hostility.” Sensing voluntary removal to the west would not be in the cards, Cass told them their women and children “should have secured to them ample tribal reserves on which they could live, unmolested by their white neighbors, where they could spread their blankets and be aided and instructed in agriculture.”

The first day of the council closed with the traders retiring to their lodges “disappointed and anxious,” Avery wrote, and “the Chiefs and head-men of the natives retired to their wigwams in sullen dignity, unapproachable and unappeased.”

By the third day, with an estimated 2,000 Ojibwe and some Ottawa now camped in wigwams around the grounds, Cass and his staff were still at an impasse — and harsh words suggested the U.S. negotiating team might be in danger. Fur trader James Ryley claimed he prevented Kishkawko from killing pro-U.S. Ottawa chief Ningweegon (The Wing).

Enter Jacob Smith, Cass’ secret agent and Campau’s business nemesis. An established trader with a post further south along the Flint River, he had a brotherly relationship with an Ojibwe Chief named Neome, had fathered one child with an Ojibwe woman and had several other white children by his wife in Detroit. Smith won Neome’s support by ensuring his family, along with those of other chiefs, would receive plots of land along a portage of the Flint River. But, in slipping the names of the recipients to Knaggs in the negotiating tent, Smith also made sure his white children got parcels of land as well.

Cass suspected Smith was trying to pull a fast one on him and inserted language limiting individual reserves to persons of Indian descent. But Smith simply made sure his white children were adopted into Neome’s tribe, and thus were given Ojibwe names that Cass failed to identify as belonging to Smith’s family (Cass in 1831 claimed he had been unaware of the name changes). A legal battle ensued over the rightful owners to Smith’s lots until 1860, when a court issued a final rule stating that the lots should remain with Smith’s heirs.

After another eight days of negotiations, the terms and boundaries for the treaty were finalized on September 24, with the names of Saginaw chiefs Ogemagigido, Kishkawko and Okemos, Neome of the Flint River band and Wasso of the Shiawassee River band joining the 114 native signatories.

The Ojibwe ultimately ceded more than six million acres, roughly 23 percent of the lower peninsula. In exchange, the Ojibwe would receive $1,000 in silver “annually, for ever” and the right to hunt upon the ceded land until the U.S. government sold any of it to settlers. Tracts of land totaling more than 100,000 acres, scattered along the rivers and tributaries of the Saginaw Bay watershed, were set aside as reservations for the Ojibwe, divided into lots ranging from 640 to 40,000 acres. The government also agreed to provide a blacksmith at Saginaw as well as farming utensils, agricultural training and cattle.

Once the signatures of chiefs and headmen were obtained, Cass immediately began to disburse the Indian’s first payment, stacking half-dollar silver coins on the council table.

Then all hell broke loose.

The trouble started when Campau sought compensation by the Indian chiefs for 12 days of provisions during the negotiations. Campau demanded Cass pay him around $1,500 (about $28,350 in today’s dollars) before the Indians got their annuity and treaty money. Cass asked the chiefs whether they wanted him to pay Campau first, or hand over the money and let them settle their debts as they pleased.

Smith, with two other traders supporting him, urged Kiskhawko to object to Campau being paid first. Cass relented and paid the Indians — and Campau never got paid. Campau then described a scene of fighting and drunkenness that would have been at home in a cowboy movie.

“I jumped from the platform and struck Smith two heavy blows in the face. He was smart as steel, and I was not slow,” Campau recounted. Other traders then intervened.” So I lost my money and they cheated me out of a good fight besides.”

“But,” Campau continued. “I had my satisfaction that night. Five barrels of whiskey were opened by the United States Quarter Master for the Indians. I ordered ten of mine to be opened, and two men to stand with dippers at the opened barrels. The Indians drank to fearful excess. At ten o’clock the General sent Robert Forsyth to me, to say: ‘The Indians are getting dangerous;’ General Cass says, ‘stop the liquor.’ I sent word back to him, ‘General, you commenced it.’”

That much was true. The Saginaw cession was the earliest example of Cass using alcohol as a tool of treaty negotiation. In a Sept. 30 letter informing Calhoun on the successful treaty, Cass wrote that promises of educating their young on reservations was insufficient to win support of the treaty, and that “some considerations more obvious in its effects & more congeneal to their habits was necessary to insure a successful termination to their negotiations.”

An Aug. 31 order for provisions for the treaty to the storekeeper for the Detroit Military District called for, among other items, the equivalent of 12 barrels of whiskey.


Cass negotiated more than 20 land cession treaties during his 18-year tenure, but the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw was one of the largest puzzle pieces of land that Cass needed to attract enough settlers to meet population requirements for statehood (the first was the 1807 Treaty of Detroit, negotiated by Hull).

Michigan was finally admitted into the union in 1837, six years after Cass had left his governor’s role to become Secretary of War under President Jackson, where he would carry out Jackson’s policy of removing eastern Indians to the west. In 1836, Jackson named Cass ambassador to France, prior to the tragic forced removal of the Cherokee that would be known as the Trail of Tears. Though the political tide would turn against removal after 1838, Cass suffered no political consequences for his pro-removal stance: He would go on to serve as a senator from Michigan and would lose two bids for the presidency, in 1844 and 1848.

Most of the reservations set aside for the Saginaw Ojibwe in the 1819 treaty were again ceded to the United States in 1837. Many Saginaw Ojibwe ended up moving to Canada to avoid the prospect of removal. But others stayed on, some on reservations and some gaining title to their own land. Kishkawko continued to terrorize settlers around the Detroit area, and was imprisoned in 1826 after murdering one of his men during a night of drinking. Sentenced to be hanged, Kishkawko instead chose to die by his own hand, drinking poison provided by his wives while visiting him in prison.

The Ojibwe of Saginaw would endure new challenges in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as land speculators drove them from their homes and Saginaw Ojibwe children were taken from their tribal villages and sent to an Indian boarding school. Today the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan maintains the Isabella Indian Reservation in Mount Pleasant and the Saganang reservation near Standish, with about 3,300 members — compared with a population of around 850,000 in the two dozen counties that comprise the area of the treaty.

But settlement around the Saginaw Bay region lagged for nearly two decades following the 1819 treaty. Lingering fear of Indians north of Detroit kept most settlers from venturing much further than the village of Pontiac. When Alexis de Tocqueville ventured through Michigan in 1831, an inn-keeper in Pontiac warned him and a companion not to travel through the Saginaw Valley, which he said was a forest “full of Indians and mosquitoes.” Tocqueville later wrote in praise of the land and waterways he saw.

“In a few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen; the sons of civilization and industry will break the silence of the Saginaw…More than one hundred miles sever this solitude from the great European settlements; and we were, perhaps, the last travelers to see its primitive grandeur.”

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Mike Mills is a journalist based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Sources for this article include:

Cass, Lewis. Lewis Cass to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Jan. 6, 1819. Letter. The Territorial Papers of the United States, 1805–1820: the Territory of Michigan, Vol. 10, 1836–1848, p. 808–809, (a Microfilm Supplement). Washington: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1971. Washington, DC: .

Klunder, W. (1996). Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Crawford, Kim (2012). The Daring Trader: Jacob Smith in the Michigan Territory, 1802–1825. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.

Dustin, Fred. The Saginaw treaty of 1819 between General Lewis Cass and the Chippewa Indians : Written for the centennial celebration of the treaty, September 19th, 1919. Saginaw, MI: Saginaw Publishing Co.], 1919.

Catlin, George B., De La Vergne, Earl W. The Story of Detroit.Detroit, MI: Detroit News, 1923.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. A Fortnight in the Wilderness. Delray Beach, FL: Levenger Press, 2003.

Featured photo credit: Saginaw Forest, University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability.

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