Trail of Tears to Sandy Lake


Sandy Lake burned a resolve into our people never to relinquish hunting, fishing and gathering traditions on ceded territories. Nation-wide, only the Ojibwe retained their traditions on ceded land.

The Indian Scout left town, so a new Indian Scout stepped in as a replacement. The new Scout suggested that we view the Ojibwe trail of tears that ended horribly at Sandy Lake.

With little reflection, I agreed.

What was unclear then and became sorrowfully clear was this. Last month’s Off-Rez Adventure to Madeline Island in Lake Superior presented a historical jumping off place for the Sandy Lake tragedy.

It’s so darn easy to turn blind eyes to the past when all you see is today’s beautiful lake view of blue sky, tall pine trees and water. The Indian replacement Scout led the way west to McGregor where history delivers a kick in the backside. I scurried home afterward, reading words from a historian for comfort.

But the story gets ahead of itself.

The Scout and I left the Rez the morning of Aug. 8 via University Road and then Hwy. 210 toward McGregor. The subject turned to hunting, as it often does with Ojibwe men of a certain age. The Scout spoke affectionately of deer sausage as the truck ambled through Cromwell.

He turned north on Hwy. 65 past McGregor. We stopped at an area on Sandy Lake with displays explaining the 1850-’51 tragedy. More miles of exploration led to Mikwendaagoziwag (“We remember them”), the glacial mound memorial overlooking the lake.

Twelve Ojibwe bands helped to design and pay for the memorial including Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Bad River, LCO, Lac du Flambeau and Red Cliff.

The history

According to the 1837 and 1842 treaties, the Ojibwe were to receive annuities for 25 years as payment for relinquished land. The annuities were made to the people in the fall months on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey and others believed that the Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Ojibwe should be removed to Sandy Lake, freeing up more land for economic gain to non-Indians. In 1850, President Zachary Taylor ordered the Ojibwe people living east of the Mississippi River to move to unceded land. The order was met by public outcry throughout Wisconsin by state legislators, businessmen and, of course, Ojibwe leaders who knew the order violated the treaty.

The order failed, so Ramsey informed the Ojibwe that in order to get their annuities, they would have to travel from Madeline Island to Sandy Lake, 285 miles by canoe to the west. The intent was to trap the Ojibwe at Sandy Lake over the winter.

More than 5,500 Ojibwe set out for Sandy Lake. They arrived exhausted. There was no food. Living conditions deteriorated.

A harsh winter and disease took hold; more than 150 Ojibwe people died. The government sent a three-day food supply early in December. In response, many people headed home on foot. An additional 250 Ojibwe died on the reverse trail; those that reached their homelands vowed that they would never leave again.

Sandy Lake burned a resolve into our people never to relinquish hunting, fishing and gathering traditions on ceded territories. Nation-wide, only the Ojibwe retained their traditions on ceded land.

Grief redux

Once that history is known, the Sandy Lake memorial site assumes a depth that’s hard to describe. Reflection on the people who came before leads to a heaviness of spirit. The Scout and I went our separate ways that morning, climbing the small mound to the memorial, walking the lake shore, imagining the frustration and agony of the winter of 1850. We didn’t talk much on the way home.

Renewable grief, however, doesn’t take a people forward. A continual reflection on victimhood paralyzes. Anger harms the angered far more than it harms the source of anger.

In his book “A People’s History of the United States,” Howard Zinn wrote that tears and anger cast into the past deplete our moral energy for the present. His chapter on Columbus states that historians could choose to emphasize new possibilities from the past, rather than present an endless cycle of defeat. That’s because people have always shown an ability to resist, join together, and even to win.

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare,” he wrote.

The Lake Superior Ojibwe, with fresh memories of Sandy Lake, ceded more land in exchange for permanent reservations in Upper Michigan and Wisconsin through the 1854 Treaty.

They wanted a place where their grandchildren many generations into the future could live, join together, and maybe even win.

Deborah Locke can be reached at