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Sandy Lake Tragedy

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Mikwendaagoziwaag (memorial) at Sandy Lake

Mikwendaagoziwaag (memorial) to the Ojibwe who died during the Sandy Lake Tragedy. Photograph by Colin Mustful, October 18, 2017.

In the fall and early winter of 1850, the US government forced thousands of Lake Superior Ojibwe to leave their homeland in Wisconsin and gather at Sandy Lake, in Minnesota Territory, to receive an annual treaty payment. When the money never arrived and the government provided spoiled rations, many tried to return to Wisconsin. As a result, about 400 Ojibwe people died from starvation, disease, and exposure in what is known as the Sandy Lake Tragedy.

On October 11, 1849, the Minnesota Territorial Assembly approved an agreement for the removal of the Ojibwe people living along the southern shores of Lake Superior. The agreement was based on the desire to pay out annuities due under two treaties of La Pointe (1842 and 1837) at a site inside Minnesota Territory. There, the Ojibwe would use their money to buy goods from local agents and traders, providing much-needed hard currency to territorial businessmen and others in the capital city of St. Paul. Until that point, payments to the Lake Superior Ojibwe had been made at La Pointe, Wisconsin.

The agreement was sent to Congress, which then forwarded it to President Zachary Taylor. As a result, on February 6, 1850, Taylor signed an executive order cancelling the land usage rights of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. It also ordered the Ojibwe to remove from lands in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Citing promises made by US officials at the 1842 Treaty of La Pointe, the Lake Superior Ojibwe refused to remove from their lands. This led Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey to create a plan that would force them to leave. Ramsey and John Watrous, a sub-agent at La Pointe, agreed to tell the Ojibwe that if they did not remove to Sandy Lake along with their families, they would not receive their promised annual payment. Once they arrived at Sandy Lake, Ramsey would delay the payment until so late in the year that the waterways would freeze over. This would prevent the Ojibwe from returning to their homes.

The Ojibwe were told to expect payment at Sandy Lake on October 25, 1850. Thousands gathered from the Mississippi and Lake Superior Bands. Watrous, however, did not arrive until November 24. Upon arrival he found many Ojibwe suffering and dying from meager and spoiled rations provided by the government.

Because payment had not been authorized by Congress, Watrous was unable to pay the Ojibwe the annuities himself. Instead, he contracted with local traders at high prices to provide them with a small amount of provisions. Once he had completed handing out provisions it was early December and winter had set in. Because the waterways had frozen over, the Ojibwe had to abandon their canoes and return home to Wisconsin on foot.

Watrous again visited the Sandy Lake encampment on December 10 and compiled a report for Ramsey. He wrote that the Ojibwe were suffering from both measles and dysentery and as many as 150 people had died. Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day) of the Mille Lacs band also spent time in the camp. He later testified at a public meeting in St. Paul that between four and six people died every twenty-four hours. The rations were rotten as well as inadequate, “the portion for an adult not being sufficient to fill my two hands.”

The annuity payment finally arrived in mid-December—too late for many of those who had waited for it. On December 23, the Minnesota Chronicle and Register reported that 167 Ojibwe had died at Sandy Lake from starvation and disease. According to estimates of Ojibwe leaders, another 230 died during the long, cold march home.

As agents of a territorial legislature attempting to control federal affairs, Watrous and Ramsey had violated federal law. They received no punishment, however, and the following year, they continued their forced removal policies. They relied on the same plan to intentionally delay payment.

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.

Editor’s note: The Lake Superior Ojibwe involved in the Sandy Lake Tragedy are not to be confused with the Sandy Lake Band of Mississippi Chippewa, which is a distinct group.

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Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, 1824–1880
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Letters exchanged between Indian agents, traders, Superintendents, and Commissioners. Collection is separated by Agency.

Cleland, Charles E. “Preliminary Report on the Ethnohistorical Basis of the Hunting, Fishing, and Gathering Rights of the Mille Lacs Chippewa.” In Fish in the Lakes, Wild Rice, and Game in Abundance: Testimony on Behalf of Mille Lacs Ojibwe Hunting and Fishing Rights, compiled by James M. McClurken, 1–140. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2000.

Clifton, James A. “Wisconsin Death March: Explaining the Extremes in Old Northwest Indian Removal.” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 75 (1987): 1–39.

McClurken, James M., comp. Fishing Rights. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2000.

White, Bruce M. “The Regional Context of the Removal Order of 1850.” In Fish in the Lakes, Wild Rice, and Game in Abundance: Testimony on Behalf of Mille Lacs Ojibwe Hunting and Fishing Rights, comp. James M. McClurken (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 141-328.

Wisconsin Historical Society. “United States Bureau of Indian Affairs Documents.”

Related Images

Mikwendaagoziwaag (memorial) at Sandy Lake
Mikwendaagoziwaag (memorial) at Sandy Lake
Engraving of Alexander Ramsey, 1850
Engraving of Alexander Ramsey, 1850

Turning Point

In a letter to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea dated July 16, 1850, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey expresses his knowledge that the payment to the Lake Superior Ojibwe has not yet been appropriated by Congress. At the same time, he articulates a plan to delay payment “in such way, as to interpose obstacles to a return to the country they left.”



On October 4 at La Pointe, the Mississippi and Lake Superior Ojibwe cede their territory along the southern shore of Lake Superior to the US, while maintaining hunting and gathering rights.


On October 11, the Minnesota Territorial Assembly passes a resolution for the removal of the Ojibwe from the ceded territory.


On February 6, President Zachary Taylor signs an executive order cancelling the usufruct rights of the Lake Superior Ojibwe under the treaties of 1837 and 1842 and ordering their removal from the ceded territory.


On June 17, Ramsey, along with Watrous, Sherman Hall, and William Warren, set out to investigate potential sites for a new Indian agency in Minnesota Territory.


Commissioner of Indian Affairs Orlando Brown resigns and is replaced by Luke Lea on July 1.


President Taylor dies on July 9. The ensuing disarray and continuing deadlock over territorial slavery make swift authorization of treaty payments by Congress all but impossible. Ramsey and Watrous proceed regardless.


By October 25, thousands of Lake Superior Ojibwe have gathered at Sandy Lake for their annual fall payment.


On November 24, Watrous arrives at Sandy Lake without the annuity monies and discovers that many of the Ojibwe there are sick or dying from spoiled rations.


Watrous completes the payment of goods at Sandy Lake on December 3. The Ojibwe begin their trek home to Wisconsin without the use of their canoes because the waterways are frozen over.


On December 23, the Minnesota Chronicle and Register reports an estimated 167 Ojibwe have died at Sandy Lake.


In a November 6 petition to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea, numerous Ojibwe leaders estimate that 230 Ojibwe died on the return home from Sandy Lake.

April 1852

A small delegation of La Pointe Ojibwe travels to Washington, DC, to express their grievances and secure the government’s promise to provide permanent homes within their homeland.


A treaty is signed at La Pointe between the United States and the Lake Superior Ojibwe on September 30 that provides the Ojibwe permanent reservation homes within their homeland.