Thence to Plover Portage

Thomas F. Reitz
from Pinery PCHS Aug. 1978

The Plover River is not talked about very often these days. When a conversation is struck it usually covers swimming, fishing, irrigation or pollution. In years past the Plover River was a canoe route used by the Chippewa Indians to traverse the expanse of their wilderness land. It was a forest highway connecting this part of the country with the Wisconsin River and the rest of the world. Because of this connection the Plover Portage was a well-known landmark and thus established itself in Portage County history.

Many names are familiar to area residents, names such as Marquette, Nicolet, DuBay, and Stevens. Lawrence Taliaferro (Toliver), little known and unheralded in Wisconsin history nonetheless had an important influence on Wisconsin and Portage County. His ancestors were Italian, he was a Virginian and when we meet him in 1836 he was the United States Indian Agent at the St. Peter's Agency. Taliaferro was hard working and dedicated to fulfilling his duties to the United States and to the tribes assigned to his agency.

The St. Peter's Agency was located near Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peter's (now Minnesota) Rivers. It is now part of the city of Minneapolis. Taliaferro’s original duty included both the Sioux and Chippewa tribes but the immense distances (central Wisconsin to the Dakotas) and the protracted war between the two tribes resulted in the Chippewa being assigned to the Saulte St. Marie Agency under Henry Schoolcraft. This arrangement was never approved by the western Chippewa because of distance and conveniences so they never did stop visiting Taliaferro at the St. Peter's Agency.

The election of 1828 provided a new President and a new Indian policy. No longer was mere displacement satisfactory. Official force now threw its weight behind removal of the Native Americans to safety "beyond the Mississippi”. Southwestern Wisconsin felt the effect of this policy as early as 1829 when the lead region was acquired. Northern Wisconsin had to wait another eight years for the slow wheels of progress to reach the forests and farmlands familiar to us. Eastern migration, by the mid -1830’ s was spreading into Wisconsin and Lawrence Taliaferro saw a opportunity to do his duty to government policy.

Early in May, 1836, Taliaferro notified the War Department that the Medawakanton Sioux were ready to sell their land on the east side of the Mississippi River. The sale would suit federal policy and if the government moved quickly it could be had at a good price. Shortly thereafter Wisconsin was organized as a territory and the Territorial Governor Henry Dodge, became the ex officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs to whom Taliaferro would report, his agency being part of the new territory. Taliaferro wrote to Dodge in September 1836, informing of his earlier report to the War Department. Taliaferro's concern was mainly with the Sioux land, approximately 2.8 million acres, along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. He describes the area as:

“extensive and from the great quantity of lumber which it contains for building and other purposes---would become an important acquisition to Wisconsin and greatly promote the sales of public lands and finally put an end to the vexations consequent from the frequent removals of our citizens from the Pineries.”

Dodge was a frontier entrepreneur and needed little such encouragement to promote such a plan. The idea was not only accepted but was extended to include the Chippewa, Winnebago and Sacs and Foxes. White encroachment was common and as the white population grew many people believed the only protection for the Native Americans was removal away from whites and, coincidentally, from their natural resources.

Taliaferro had always taken his duties as protector of the tribes he was assigned to seriously and this attitude came into conflict with the American Fur Company and its agents The fur trade had been declining since the early '30's until by 1837 the American Fur Company's Western Outfit showed only one-tenth its usual profit. A return this small would normally portend hard times, even dissolution of the Company. Officials of the American Fur Company forestalled disaster by exercising their great power over the tribes and in Washington by the simple expedient of having "unpaid debt" claims included in land cession treaties. They also worked very hard and with not a little success to have lump sum payments and annuities paid in specie rather than goods, the tribes could then spend the money at Company stores. The Company was so successful that they collected $360,000 in four 1837 treaties for debts and paid dividends to the stockholders.

Individual agents of the Company also had to expand their activities to meet conditions. One of the most natural areas of expansion for these men was into timber and lumber production. Henry H. Sibley (later Governor of Minnesota), William Aitkens, Lyman Warren and Hercules Douseman all had made agreements with the Chippewa and Sioux for sawmills in the Indian Country. These agreements were clearly in violation of at least two articles of the Trade and Intercourse Acts.

Another area the Company and its agents could expand into was land speculation. The process for this was to have half-breed claims included in land cession treaties. It was argued that since the half bloods were half-Indian they had a claim to part of the ceded land as a birthright. The Company, or individuals, could then buy up claims at a bargain and speculate when the land opened for the whites. Traders found this an easy argument because many were married to Indian women and had several half-blood children, all with a claim.

To avoid some of these pitfalls Taliaferro had managed to have the Sioux negotiations moved to the city of Washington, far, he hoped, from the influence of the traders. When word went out for a council it went to the Chippewa who were told to meet at Fort Snelling at the end of July 1837.

The Chippewa started gathering in mid-July and when the negotiations began July 20, 1837 about 1000 Chippewa men, women and children were camped around the Fort. The situation was not without danger. The Sioux and Chippewa had been mortal enemies for many years and this large group of Chippewa in Sioux territory naturally made the Sioux wary. Taliaferro was responsible for maintaining peace and he was careful to keep the two tribes as separate as possible.

Governor Henry Dodge was appointed Treaty Commissioner to represent the United States. The Chippewa were represented by the chiefs and warriors from the Leech Lake, Gull Lake and Swan River, Mille Lac, Snake River, Sandy Lake, Red Cedar Lake, Fond du Lac, Yellow River, Lac Court Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau bands. Two of the most notable men were Flat Mouth and Hole-in-the-Day. Wisconsin River bands were not present and their land was sold without their direct approval. The federal government later recognized the omission by including these bands in annuity payments. The result of this omission was that none of the treaty signers had occupancy of the eastern end of the cession.

The negotiations were opened on July 20, 1837 with an address delivered by Governor Dodge. He stated he was sent to purchase land from them and that the land "... as I am informed is not valuable to you for its game, and not suited to the culture of corn, and other Agricultural (sic) purposes. Dodge hoped to proceed quickly with the negotiations but was immediately delayed by the absence of the Wisconsin bands from the La Pointe sub-agency. These bands arrived July 24, 1837 with their sub-agent Daniel Bushnell and their trader Lyman Warren but deferred business another day.

In the meantime Dodge had listened to requests for better provisions, whiskey, presents and generosity for the half bloods and traders. Shortly after his arrival Warren, worried about the timber - deal in which he was involved, stirred up a group of Pillager Chippewa and headed for the council area. They forced their way into the council with shouts and demanded that Dodge recognize, in the treaty, exemption for his agreement with the Chippewa or a cash settlement to cover his losses. This display was successful. Article 4 of the treaty allocated $25,000 to Warren, $28,000 to William Aitkens and incredibly $5,000 to Hercules Douseman for a sawmill that served the Sioux.

Serious negotiation began on Wednesday July 26, 1837 with Dodge outlining the boundaries on a map and asking the Chippewa if they wished to sell and if so to return with a price and terms on Thursday. Dodge had received direct assurances the sale would be completed but was not certain of Chippewa terms.

The terms the Chippewa returned with on July 27, 1837 mainly reflected their concern with retaining their right to hunt, fish, and gather rice and maple sugar on the ceded land. They further asked for a sixty-year annuity and land for their half-blood relatives. The Chippewa then agreed to sell their land but could not decide on a price. Dodge replied by telling them to ask their “two Fathers”, sub-agents Bushnell and Miles Vineyard, for advice on a price for their land. He then stated they could hunt and fish on the land as long as the President allowed but it would no longer be their land. He continued by saying the half bloods would get money not land and that half the sale price should be in goods. The meeting was then adjourned and the Chippewa withdrew to confer.

The council proceeded on July 28, 1837 with the Chippewa reiterating their wish to retain foraging rights and to remain in the country to live. They still had not decided on a sale price. Commissioner Dodge responded by saying he would ask the President about collecting maple sugar and rice but he was sure they could hunt and fish on the cede land “during his (the President’s) pleasure”. That is not the sense meaning understood from the Chippewa statement but that is how the treaty was written. Dodge then presented the government’s offer of $700,000 to be paid in a down payment and a twenty-year annuity with specific amounts listed for payment in specie, goods, provisions, smiths, teachers, and millers. The traders would receive $70,000 for “unpaid debts” and the half bloods would receive from the Chippewa nation a donation of $100,000. The full cost to the United States with the special sawmill claims, amounted to $828,000.

Flat Mouth angrily denied the “unpaid debts” since many of the debtors might be dead, many had been killed while trapping furs. He argued that the traders had lived on Chippewa land, had eaten their animals and fish and had used their wood and thus had no claim against the Chippewa. He also argued the annuity should be forever. Since the land supplies their living what will they live on when the annuity runs out? Dodge replied he had made his offer and they must either accept or reject it and the meeting was adjourned.

The Chippewa returned and accepted the terms the next day, Saturday July 29, 1837. The United States added all or part of twenty-six counties to present day Wisconsin including about one-third of Portage County. The eastern boundary of the ceded land followed the line that separated the Chippewa and Menominee tribes in a southerly direction “thence to the Plover Portage."


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