Creating the Isabella Reservation

Through a series of treaties signed in the nineteenth century Michigan's Indian population surrendered their land to the United States Government. However in almost every treaty in which land was transferred the Indians signing the treaty arranged that some land would be held back, or "reserved" where their people could live. Although very small in comparison to the amount of land surrendered, nevertheless these reservations could encompass large tracts of land.

In some cases these reserved lands where those of particular importance to the Indian signatories to a treaty. In other cases, however, the federal government looked for an out-of-the-way place to put Indians, usually a distant and not particularly valuable locale that had not yet been settled by whites. The Indian reservation established in 1855 by treaty in Isabella County was such a distant place.

In 1855 Isabella county was largely uninhabited. The first road into the county had been cut only a year earlier. A handful of white settlers had arrived when, as a result of the treaty of 1855, slightly more than 98,000 acres within the county were set aside for Indian selection. Not included in this 98,000 acre reservation was the land claimed by white settlers prior to the signing of the treaty, "school sections" previously deeded by the federal government to the state of Michigan, the money raised by the sale of which was to be used to support public education, and "swamp land" which had been transferred to the state through the federal Swamp Land Act of 1850.

In accordance with the treaty signed in 1855, as well as a second treaty signed in 1864 Indians were allowed to select particular parcels of land for personal ownership and register their selection with a resident Indian agent. The 1855 treaty specified that each head of a family was entitled to eighty acres of land, each single person over twenty-one years of age was to receive forty acres. An orphan family of two or more where no one was yet twenty-one was also entitled to eighty acres while individual orphans under the age of twenty-one were to receive forty acres. In cases where two or more Indians sought the same land, the Indian agent was to resolve the dispute.

The treaty of 1855 created a five year period for Indians to select land, after which any remaining land was to revert back to the federal government. However the treaty of 1864 modified this provision, creating a second window of opportunity for individuals to select land and specifying that any unselected land was reserved for the communal use of those Indians who lived on the reservation. Ultimately, of the 98,000 acres reserved for Indians, about 33,000 acres was allocated to approximately 2,000 Indian residents and the remaining 65,000 acres was held in common until the 1890's when it was disposed of by the federal government.