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  • Planning to StayNative Strategies to Remain in the Great Lakes, Post-War of 1812
  • Rebecca Kugel (bio)

In late September 1817, barely two and a half years since the signing of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, Lewis Cass and Duncan McArthur, United States treaty commissioners sent to negotiate with the Native nations of northwestern Ohio, wrote to their superiors in the War Department with auspicious news. They had purchased a large and strategically located tract of land with the assent of almost all of the tribal nations of the region. Only the Miamis had not attended the treaty, and the commissioners optimistically predicted that, had the Miamis been present, “the whole Indian title in the State of Ohio would have been extinguished.” As it was, over four million acres of northwest Ohio, the last large region of the state to remain in Native hands, had been sold to the United States. The treaty by which this feat was accomplished has been known by several names. Contemporaneously it was called the Treaty of Fort Meigs or the Treaty with the Wyandot; at present, it is named the Treaty of Maumee Rapids.1 With considerably less fanfare, Cass and McArthur also noted that significant numbers of Native people had reserved lands under the treaty. Although some, such as the Ojibwes and Potawatomis had sold their northwest Ohio lands “forever,” other nations had opted to retain lands at existing village sites within the newly ceded territory. The Shawnees, Wyandots, Senecas, and Delawares reserved tracts in fee simple, as individually-held “life estates.”2 Thousands of acres would remain in Native hands and several thousand Native people would remain in Ohio after the state had ostensibly alienated nearly all Native title and paved the way for the removal of its now largely landless Indigenous inhabitants. [End Page 1]

Neither commissioner appeared concerned by this contradiction at the heart of the treaty. Instead, both Cass, the territorial governor of Michigan, and McArthur, a member of the Ohio state legislature and War of 1812 military commander with considerable previous experience negotiating with the region’s Native peoples, seemed to regard the land grants as a predictable cost of doing business. They referred discreetly to the private agreements made with unnamed persons that had been necessary to allow the treaty to come to fruition. “We have been compelled,” they wrote, “to admit the claims of a number of individuals, and to stipulate that patents shall be granted to them.” Of the people to be placated, they assured their superiors, “[a]lmost all” were “half-blood” Indians or white captives taken “in early life,” who had “married Indian women” and “identified themselves” with Native communities. Only “a few instances” involved individuals who could not claim to be “Indians by blood.”3 The view that treaties were corrupt bargains between unscrupulous American negotiators and dissolute tribal individuals (often of multiracial ancestry) has long dominated popular American understandings of early nineteenth-century treaty making in the Lower Great Lakes region. Cass regularly articulated this view and it has been echoed in scholarly assessments dating back to the 1840s.4 Such evaluations also linked the corruption inherent in the treaty negotiation process to an irreversible descent into Native disappearance. Demoralized and debauched, Native peoples had no choice but to sell land until they ran out of land to sell. At that point, their patrimony exhausted, they moved west. Although scholars such as R. David Edmunds and Stewart Rafert have described a more complicated history in which Native peoples continued to reside across the Lower Great Lakes states, the tale of gradual Native disappearance has retained considerable explanatory authority, especially at the level of popular discourse and public memory. Its narrative of Native dissolution and disappearance both explained and naturalized an Indigenous erasure from midwestern states such as Ohio and Indiana, the subjects of this essay. The enduring power of this narrative to shape the dominant American society’s perceptions of Native peoples as absent from the contemporary Midwest remains both considerable and deeply problematic, as recent works by Larry Nesper on Ojibwe treaty rights and Laurie Hovell Mc-Millin on Trempealeau, Wisconsin, each reveal.5...


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