The Treaty of Washington (1855) is a milestone in the history of Ojibwe people in Minnesota. The agreement ceded a large portion of Ojibwe land to the U.S. government and created the Leech Lake and Mille Lacs reservations.
The U.S. government acquired most Ojibwe land in eastern Minnesota in the Treaties of St. Peters (1837) and La Pointe (1854). In early 1855, it began planning a new treaty to buy most of the remaining Ojibwe land in the territory’s north-central woods.
Traders like Henry Rice supported a new treaty because it would help pay off the debts they claimed the Ojibwe owed. Rice had invested in the lumber industry and stood to profit from logging on Ojibwe land. He claimed, however, that the treaty would mostly benefit the Ojibwe. According to Rice, they were “starving” as hunters and gatherers and needed government aid to become farmers.
Thousands of Ojibwe, from different bands and with different interests, had attended the 1854 negotiations at La Pointe, making it difficult for U.S. representatives to get what they wanted. Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny did not want to repeat this situation in 1855. He instructed agent David Herriman to invite only a handful of Ojibwe leaders to Washington, DC, including Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day the Younger) and Eshkibagikoonzh (Flat Mouth). They were not told the purpose of the visit—only that the government wished to discuss their lands in Minnesota.
The Mille Lacs band were upset about not being invited to the negotiations and sent their own delegation. Though it is unclear if they arrived in time, the terms of the final treaty applied to them.
Negotiations took place during three meetings held February 17–20. The U.S. government named Bagone-giizhig and Eshkibagikoonzh “head chiefs” and negotiators for the Ojibwe as a whole. Despite this, the delegations met separately and defended unique interests.
Manypenny argued that when the Ojibwe became farmers, they would have more land than they needed — land that the government wanted to buy. Bagone-giizhig and Eshkibagikoonzh replied that the Ojibwe would need support to transition to a farming economy and tried to negotiate a higher price.
They finally agreed that the Mississippi bands (including the Mille Lacs Ojibwe) would be paid $20,000 for twenty years. They would also receive $50,000 to pay debts and $10,000 in goods. The Pillager and Lake Winnibigoshish bands agreed to similar terms. Both parties assumed that the Ojibwe would continue to hunt and fish in the ceded territory.
Although the Mille Lacs band already lived on land ceded in 1837, they wanted their own permanent reservation, like those set aside in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. The 1855 treaty created this reservation on the southern side of Lake Mille Lacs. It set aside a second reservation at Leech Lake for the Pillager band.
To the Ojibwe negotiators, the treaty may have seemed the best of a limited number of options. Treaty payments had become crucial for the Ojibwe economy. Reservations reduced Ojibwe land but came with a promise that the people would not have to abandon their homes. Some Ojibwe leaders saw the reservation system as a way to protect a small part of their land from whiskey sellers, immigrants, and lumber companies.
Not all Ojibwe were happy with the treaty, which had been signed far away by a handful of leaders. Because it promised payments and land to these few, some Ojibwe felt the leaders had put personal gain ahead of their people. A group of Pillager warriors became so angry with Eshkibagikoonzh that they killed the horse he had ridden to the negotiations.
The 1855 treaty marked a turning point for the Ojibwe in Minnesota. Afterwards, having lost the majority of their land, they lived mostly on reservations. They relied more than ever on treaty payments that were often late or even stolen by Indian agents. More land was opened to logging, making it harder to survive by hunting and fishing alone.
The treaty divided reservations into individual plots that were supposed to become family farms. Many Ojibwe, however, were forced to sell their land to survive, or lost it to dishonest traders and officials. The Leech Lake and Mille Lacs bands faced an ongoing struggle to hold onto their lands that continued into the twentieth century.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.