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Land, Lumber and Money

Realistically, to merge a culture in ten years into a white settlers' culture and a business world of money, was beyond any hope of success. Also, keep in mind the cultural blending was mostly one way. Little of the Indian ways were transferred to the settlers.

Many writers, past and present, have commented on the shortcomings of settlers and the United States Governments in dealing with Indians. I wish to direct attention to comments made by a settler, a lumberman, a missionary and an Indian Chief who were involved in the reservation during the decade or so of operation in Isabella County.

Mrs. Cass Mosher was a teacher on the Reservation and the daughter of A.F. Albright who was in charge of the mill at Indian Mills. She lived well into her nineties and was interviewed a number of times in the 1930's by reporters from the Isabella County Times News.

Mrs. Mosher in reflecting remembered a certain amount of jealousy over the Indians' assistance and lands they were able to acquire and keep under the treaty. "The white settlers crowded the Indians on every side. Efforts to reduce government assistance and put the Indian on his own as soon as the treaty conditions were completed were pushed. The settlement of Indians largely sold out and moved elsewhere in a few years." Isabella County was full of settlers coming from the east and Canada looking for land in the 1870's and 1880's.

The market for standing timber and the lumber boom in the Saginaw Valley in the 1870's created another pressure on Indian Lands. It served to detract from the goals set forth in the original treaty. Third parties would put up money and send locals out to purchase timber rights on lands before the Indians had patents from the government. Frederick Hall of Ionia, H.W. Sage of Bay City and Arthur Hill of Saginaw were some of the well known personages who worked at schemes to acquire timber lands.

Arthur Hill
Arthur Hill

One of the best documented cases of subterfuge involves lumberman Arthur Hill who bragged in later years of how he was able to get the inside track on Indian Land patents to enable him to acquire timber stands. A Mt. Pleasant attorney, John Leaton, knew Arthur Hill from working as a lawyer in Saginaw before coming to Mt. Pleasant in 1871. Leaton was the key to the success of the scheme that was well documented.

In January 1872, George Betts and John Knox came to Isabella City as representatives of the U.S. government Department of Indian Affairs. The purpose of the visit was to take selections from the Indians on lands available according to the treaty of 1864. This was done at the Indian Council House in Isabella City, the entire process taking seven days. The two recorded on plats and forms the names and selections of lands by native Americans. The materials were then to be returned to the Indian Affairs Office and patents issued. Hill and Leaton were present in Isabella City during the entire proceedings.

On the 17th of January, the two government agents finished their business and left for Detroit via Clare, as this was the closest railroad. When the stage arrived, the last train for the day had already left so they spent the night at the Sterns Hotel in Clare. They left the trunk containing the plats and selection at the depot. Leaton and Hill took a cutter to Clare and quickly noted the trunk at the depot. During the night at another hotel they had the trunk brought to their room where they succeeded in breaking it open and copied all the information on the week's business at Isabella City. The tampering was noted and Hill and Leaton were prosecuted in April 1872 in a case which was eventually dismissed.

In the History of Saginaw County by Mills (1918), details are given on how they next sent land lookers to find the best timbered forties on the lists. The account goes on to say:

"Then the shrewd lawyer (Leaton) with this information and the official list of reserves, checked up with it, did the rest. He knew many of the Indians personally, and it was not a difficult matter to get them "feeling good", and then by offering them the necessities of savage life they craved, to induce them to sign away their timber rights."


aton went on to be village president in Mt. Pleasant and along with his partner, W.N. Brown, owned 30,000 acres of valuable forest lands in Isabella County. Arthur Hill became one of Saginaw's leading personages and today a Saginaw city high school bears his name.

Henry Sage of New York, owner of one of the biggest sawmills on the river in Bay City, had a large holding of timber in Isabella County. In the book Biography of A Businessman, Henry Sage, the author, Goodstein, states the following:

Henry Sage
Henry Sage

"In 1871 Sage was lumbering on Indian Lands in the Isabella Reservation in Michigan, lands which had not yet been patented." A special agent from the government was sent some years later to investigate frauds perpetrated on the Isabella Indian Reservation. Among other things, he stated the various parties, one of which was Sage, paid a "mere tithe" of the actual value of the timber. According to author Goodstein it was I.E. Arnold of Mt. Pleasant who was Sage's "man on the scene, selecting and purchasing timber rights to about 250 forty acre parcels, near 17 square miles of land within the Reservation. He further stated Arnold worked with Indian Agent Major Long in this endeavor."

The Bay City Herald in an October 1872 article, referred to the goings on as the "Isabella Land Ring" and mentioned the Rusts, Jerome and Company as another group that had been active for several years to cut timber and or acquire land by unscrupulous means.

Indians were many times tricked out of lands because they did not understand the land ownership system or the financial value the timber held for them. Yet there were a small few who did understand and sold out, pocketed the money, and moved on.

Reverend George Bradley of the Methodist Mission commented in his 1870 journal on the central problem of reservation failures.

"The love of money has infused others to act for their own employment even at the destruction of the Indians and no measure was considered too unjust or fraudulent to engage in to accomplish their aims. This leaves the poor Indians in doubt as to who are their friends."

Bradley went on to say that the general feeling which prevails in all Christian organizations, that it does little good to expend more money towards the Indians as long as present policy prevails. This would be part of the thinking that would lead to large blocks of land being set aside for tribal use in the western United States.

Reverend George Bradley was appointed the Indian Agent in early 1871. He went to New York City in April to receive his instructions on his official duties. While there he fell dead on the street. One wonders what differences might have occurred in those last days when the land patents were issued if he had been present. The same could have been said of Agent Richard Smith mentioned earlier who drowned in a Lake Huron storm a few years before Bradley's death. Both of these men were acknowledged guardians of Indian rights.

Bradley Gills, professor of History at Grand Valley State University, researching the archives of the Commissioner of Indiana Affairs in Washington D.C. recently located a report on Indian land patents and fraudulent activities on the Isabella Reservation.

In 1877 US Commissioner of Indian Affairs, E.A. Hoyt directed Special Agent E.J. Brooks to come to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan and investigate first hand the reported wrong doings. Agent Brooks report to Commissioner Hoyt is most revealing. It is doubtful it ever saw the light of day again after arriving on the Commissioners desk.

Special Agent Brooks was not wanted in Mt. Pleasant by individuals who had high political connections. They acted quickly after his arrival. Here is an excerpt from Agent Brook's Report;


------"It is proper for one to state at the outset that, owing to my recall as per your telegram of October 20th, 1877, I was unable to make the searching examination into the matter that the case deserved, and the many facts which I learned with regard to this and former schedules and the outrageous frauds connected therewith, led me to desire.

I arrived at Mount Pleasant within the reservation at about 4 o'clock P.M., October 23, 1877, and immediately commenced work. At about 7 o'clocck I received your telegram directing my immediate return, having prior to its receipt, arranged to hold a council with the Indians on the following day, and being satisfied from the facts in my possession, that by so doing I could make such a report in the matter as to enable the Department to act"------

During this day or sor prior to his mandated departure Agent Brooks found enough information suggesting legal proceeding showing fraud and criminal activity should be instigated. Brooks, in concluding his report, stated that the parties who are involved in these wrongs are wealthy and more than ordinarily influential in civil, religious and political circles and will doubtless suppress an investigation if possible. As it turned out they suceeded.

The number of devious land activities had gone on for so many years that the area had gotten a bad reputation. This caused many to avoid settling in Isabella County and especially in lands set aside in the original six townships. The reason was fear of not getting a good title. Even as late as 1889 the Catholic Church in Mt. Pleasant formed a Land Purchase Protective Association to assure settlers they would get good titles, examining their proposed purchases so as not to be "victimized".

With some of the key persons from the 1870's still in the community, the whole topic of reservation land problems does not appear in local histories or newspapers of the time.

The issue of considering the Isabella Indian Reservation a general failure may be true but almost too simplistic. The other side of the coin is that if the Isabella Reservation concept, flawed as it might have been, had not occurred would an alternative of no program been worse? The answer is probably yes. Michigan was not going to remain a wilderness. Change and population growth was occurring and the status quo would no longer prevail. Many Indians did get a fresh start and were better equipped to become a part of the wave of change all around them. However, this in no way can excuse those whom Reverend Bradley so aptly described as being "unjust or fraudulent".

With the passage of time, the missionaries found a diminished and scattered flock in the 1880's. Still many Indians were in the county and mission church under the direction of Rev. J. R. Robinson was most active. It was during this time that the Camp Meetings began drawing Indians from all over the lower peninsula back to Isabella County.

Combining religious revival, camaraderie, and tribal business, these Camp Meetings took place late each summer. For instance in the early 1880's the Camp Meetings were held two miles northeast of Mt. Pleasant along the narrow gauge railroad in what was described as a beautiful hemlock grove. With favorable weather and special trains to and from the campground, the 1881 camp attendance soared. Many whites came to witness the pageantry and listen to singing and services each day. The Mt. Pleasant Daily Bulletin reported on August 27, 1894 that a thousand people attended the Indian Camp meeting at Leaton yesterday. The railroad ran cheap excursions from Coleman and Mt. Pleasant to the location. The paper stated; "The smoke and dust were almost unbearable but the speaking was excellent and the singing by the Indian choir particularly fine." An admission of ten cents was charged at the gate. Over forty years later Indian Camp Meetings and Council Meetings were being held just a few miles away near Delwin in Denver Township, Isabella County.

The injustices of the Isabella Reservation days, now decades in the past, were not easily forgotten. An article in the Central Michigan Times in April 1909 tells of Joe Bradley going to Washington to talk to the "Indian Department" about how the Indians were short changed by the Government some 25% on the last two stipends in 1866 and 1867. The summer camp meetings were times of remembering good and bad.

Chief Elijah Elk in the late 1920's knew of the past and some of the failed or fraudulent items that came out of the treaties of 1855 and 1864. Attending a summer Camp Meeting at Delwin he started to once again organize the band to achieve some equity of past injustices. It would be 1937 before many Indian grievances were seriously addressed by the United States government. In the spring of that year, options were taken on 410 acres three miles east of Mt. Pleasant. The present reservation program was initiated along with establishment of a Tribal Council.

Elijah Elk explained the injustices to the tribe but also was successful in getting his story before the general public. In a 1932 newspaper story he stated; "Federal agents worked in league with persons interested in obtaining lumber concessions and thereby tricked the tribe out of thousands of dollars. Many of the lands awarded by the government to Indians were to Indians that never existed or long had been dead so that lumber rights could be obtained," was one charge he leveled. The Chief supported this with "tombstone records". Further claims were set forth, concerning patents that were issued to persons dead many years before the award was made, along with other grants that were made to Indians that never lived in this part of the state.

The remarks of Mrs. Mosher, Rev. Bradley, and Chief Elijah Elk serve to our present-day citizens a not too pleasant point of reflection. The higher values, such as concern for the well being of others and the environment, was in the minds of those who drafted the treaty of 1855. In retrospect, the results left much to be desired. In this author's mind a phrase from Rev. Bradley keeps coming back: "The love of money has infused others to act in their own employment even at the destruction of the Indians." We would wish those who carry out decisions to see themselves as servants of the group and entrusted with responsibility. If this had been the case the success of the early Indian Treaties of Isabella County would have been greatly enhanced.