In the years following the creation of the Isabella reservation, most
of the reservation land, as well as the valuable timber originally
growing on it, was lost by the Indians, who received little in return.
In the words of a 1953 finding by the United States Indian Claims
Commission, "The evidence shows that whites, in devious ways, obtained
timber from Indian lands in the Isabella Reservation."
Local historian Ella Powers, in an unpublished manuscript completed
in 1945, describes in some detail how land transactions involving
Indians occurred. Powers names several men she describes as "cut-throat
lawyers" who came to Isabella County in the late 1860's and early
1870's. These men became rich, she asserts, largely by the use of the
"devious ways" alluded to by the Claims Commission. Chief among these
ways was the liberal use of alcohol. "...Whiskey was their strongest
ally. It was always easy to get an Indian's mark on a deed when he was
drunk and the speculators had tools among the chiefs and head men of the
tribe so it was simple to get five signers on a "not so competent"
These "tools," were critical. The treaty of 1864 had
restricted land sales by "not so competent" Indians, generally any
Indian who could neither read nor write English. The land owned by such
Indians could be sold only upon the recommendation of several Indian
leaders and with the approval of the county's probate judge. Powers
contends that because of the political power of the "cut-throat lawyers"
the elected probate judge could generally be counted upon to approve
any land transaction placed before him, but to be sure that all the
legal niceties had been attended to, several Indian leaders, also under
the influence of the lawyers, were needed to endorse each transaction.
By way of example, Powers cites the Mount Pleasant firm of
Brown and Leaton, which "founded on little more than a few bottles of
poor whiskey," in 1873, by 1881 owned over 33,000 acres of reservation
land. Powers notes that the men who cheated Indians of their land were
often as unscrupulous in dealing with whites. After having stripped the
land of its valuable timber, the speculators usually sold it to white
settlers. Powers claims that these men were not above showing trusting
settlers prime agricultural land but, the settlers money in hand,
actually deeding to the settler worthless swamp land.
Although Powers history relies heavily on the perhaps biased
accounts of her grandfather, an early settler of Isabella county who was
frequently at odds with the men she criticizes, Powers story gains
credence both from the conclusions of the U.S. Indian Claims Commission
and from an account published in the 1918 History of Saginaw County,
"When the cutting of timber on the [Isabella county]
reservation lands actually began, it was observed that one company,
headed by a leading citizen of Saginaw City, had title to the very
choicest timber in the reservation, and in such an aggregate amount as
to cause much comment and concern by their rivals in the business.
Section after section of the best timber had been deeded by the Indians
to the head of the company' and no hint or trace could be found as to
when or how the deals with the red-skins had been made. The old
lumbermen spent many sleepless nights figuring out how the trick had
been turned, and they had been check-mated in the game.
One thing they learned too, that increased their amazement
and chagrin. It was the fact that insignificant consideration had been
given for most of the choicest timber. In talking with the former owners
of a valuable tract, the land lookers or agents would invariably ask,
"What did you get for this fine clump of trees?"
'Huh! Me get pint fire-water, gun, powder, blanket, all good.' the Indian grunted.
Another said, 'Me get big pipe, much heap smoke, fire-water, red sash.'
'Us get pale face canoe (batteaux), hook 'em fish, axe, knife,' others said.
It was apparent that little or no coin had been given, and
the value of the stuff which attracted the Indians was very small and
insufficient. With all their searching and questioning nothing which
threw any light on the subject was ever discovered.
Years afterward, when lumbering operations in this section had been brought to a close, the secret was told.
There was an old lawyer and politician, named John Eaton,
who lived in the forest settlements, and later settled at Clare. He had
somehow 'got wind' of the time and place of holding of the council, when
the reservation lands were to be given over to the red-skins
individually. Here was an opportunity, he believed, for some shrewd
lumberman with means to get a decided advantage over his competitors.
So he wrote to Arthur Hill, whom he knew quite well as one
of the rising lumbermen of Saginaw Valley, to come up and meet him in
the village at the appointed time. Without knowing what had been 'cooked
up' by the crafty lawyer, Mr. Hill went to the place of meeting in the
woods, and put up at the little tavern which was the only lodging place
in the wilderness for miles around.
The following day the Indian Commissioners with their
luggage arrived at the tavern, ready for the final council with the
Chippewas. One piece of baggage in particular attracted the attention of
the lumberman, and the lawyer guessed that it contained the official
papers in the big deal. So they kept an eye on this valise and took note
where it was stowed away behind the bar, which also served as the
office counter of the border tavern.
Late at night, when all was quiet in the place, the
schemers lighted a candle, crept out softly in their bare feet, and
slipping below lifted the valise from behind the counter and took it to
their room. It was the work of only a moment to find the official list
of Indian reserves, with the description of the land each was to
receive. A longer time, however, was required to make a hurried copy of
the list, when the original paper was replaced in the valise and it was
put carefully back in its place. So stealthily had this been done that
on one dreamed of the trick that had been put over the commissioners.
To send competent and trustworthy land lookers through the
reservation and pick out the choicest timber was the next move. Then
the shrewd lawyer, with this information and the official list of
reserves, checked up with it, [ie a list noting which Indians owned the
choicest timber land] 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.
When the truth was known and the story told, the whole
affair was regarded as a huge joke on the other lumbermen, who were thus
compelled to take the 'leavings.'"
Although Indians lost the most in the many quasi-legal land
transactions that surrounded the Isabella Reservation, the tactics
employed by the lumbermen often created difficulties for themselves when
they sought to obtain clear title to the land they desired. Agents of
various timber speculators actively vied with one another to obtain
title from Indians. The Indians, whether without a full understanding of
what was transpiring or knowingly in an effort to maximize their own
very modest gain, frequently signed numerous deeds for the same tract of
land with different agents. A Detroit reporter who visited Mount
Pleasant cited the case of one piece of land that had been sold to a
dozen different people, all of whom claimed to own it and none of whom
really knew who held the good title.
| Isaac Fancher
In a similar vein, Isaac Fancher, one of the "cut-throats"
criticized by Powers, recorded in his published history of Isabella
County an early fraud that had upset the plans of he and others. After
the signing of the 1855 treaty, two of the Indians involved in the
negotiations, Andrew J. Compau and Charles H. Rodd laid claim to over
twelve thousand acres on the reservation; all of it prime timber land.
Compau and Rodd, in turn, quickly transferred title to this land to
Frederick Hall of Ioni
Fancher expresses some frustration that, ten years later when
this massive land transaction was discovered, the Indians themselves
seemed unwilling to attempt to change matters. Eventually Mount
Pleasant's leading citizens prevailed upon the Rev. George Bradley,
missionary to the Indians, who along with four Indians, traveled to
Washington and requested the Secretary of the Interior to annul Hall's
holdings due to various irregularities. Money was raised to pay Bradley
and his colleagues transportation and other expenses and their mission
was ultimately successful. Clearly, however, this was a case of one
group of timber speculators seeking gain at the expense of another
Whether from Mount Pleasant, Ionia, or Saginaw, unscrupulous
whites unfairly obtained title to much of the land reserved for Indians
in Isabella County. Although their practices were unprincipled by
today's standards, among the most interesting questions to be asked is
not whether whites swindled Indians but whether the business ethics
applied to transactions with Indians were significantly different than
the business practices these same men perpetrated on white settlers or
upon each other. Regardless of whether whites singled out Indians for
particularly unethical dealings or if their dealings with Indians simply
represented one example of an unregulated nineteenth century business
environment in which every individual, white or Indian, needed to be
constantly vigilant over the possibility of sharp practices, the impact
on Indians was devastating. Powers records that in 1945 only about 450
Indians continued to reside in the county, most living in poverty.