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  • Settler Colonial Strategies and Indigenous Resistance on the Great Lakes Lumber Frontier
  • Theodore J. Karamanski (bio)


The geographic and economic setting of the nineteenth century Upper Great Lakes region created unique challenges to American settler colonialism and encounters with the Indigenous people of this land of lakes and forests. Many Anishinaabeg bands responded creatively through the use of Christianity, education, and American law in an attempt to fortify their presence in the region. European Americans, who sought to appropriate the wealth of the Upper Midwest’s vast stands of hardwood and pine forests, only seldom needed to resort to guns to take control of the land. Instead of a war of conquest they entangled Anishinaabeg property owners in a bewildering legal and extralegal thicket that facilitated the plunder of the region’s most marketable resource. The initial phase of pine logging laid waste to Anishinaabeg property rights but left the Indigenous population remaining on their traditional lands. The ill treatment of Anishinaabeg landowners should have been a warning signal to policymakers in the 1880s seeking to reform national Indian policy through severalty.

In his 2012 study of Great Lakes Indian history in the colonial and early national periods, historian Michael Witgen emphasizes the transregional society shared by the Anishinaabeg while at the same time documenting the “flexibility” and autonomy of action reserved to local bands. This essay is concerned with the Indigenous response to the lumber frontier’s variation of settler colonialism in the Upper Great Lakes region—the heartland [End Page 27] of the Anishinaabeg. The bulk of the essay, however, is anchored in northern Lower Michigan with the inclusion of some examples from northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi in Lower Michigan—sometimes known as the Three Fires Confederacy and who all embraced the native name Anishinaabeg—did not respond to the intrusion of lumbering in the same way as bands in other parts of the region. Yet the impact of the logging frontier on the Indigenous people was, with rare exceptions, strikingly similar.1

In the Wake of the “Middle Ground”

What Richard White famously dubbed a “middle ground” of cooperation and cultural exchange that marked the Great Lakes frontier in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries endured after the conclusion of the second war with Great Britain. The cultural forms and economic relations of that earlier period of French and British regimes in the region only slowly waned over several decades under American suzerainty.2 The latent military power of the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes region, together with the lingering possibility of their receiving support from British Canada, inclined American officials and pioneer traders to follow for a time the previously established cultural norms. This process did not take place in the area south of Lakes Erie and Michigan. Here the old fur trade ways were swept away by a quickly rising tide of agricultural settlers. Yet during the 1820s the Anishinaabeg of the northern Great Lakes faced no such direct pressure and were allowed time in which they could take stock of their relations with the American state and to initiate strategies of resistance and accommodation.

Several Anishinaabeg bands adopted bold strategies designed to both frustrate a United States government intent on carrying out the policy of Indian removal and to reposition their bands in the changing economy and politics of the antebellum era. The United States government had a two-faced policy toward Indigenous peoples. On one hand, it was committed to the taking of Indian land in order to accommodate its swelling agricultural population, yet it also claimed to be committed to “civilizing” Indians so they could eventually be incorporated into the general population. In 1821 Lewis Cass, the governor of the Michigan Territory (which then embraced the entirety of the Upper Great Lakes region), visited the people of the region. Accompanying him was Reverend Jedidiah Morse, who encouraged [End Page 28] the Indians to accept Christian missionaries with the threat “Civilization or ruin.” Faced with this pressure, two groups of Anishinaabeg, independent of each other, elected to embrace a path to “civilization,” but in such a way that it was under their control. These were the Potawatomi...


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pp. 27-51
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