Isabella Reservation - Land Distribution and Ownership

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.

Loss of Reservation Land

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" Indian's deed.

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, reprinted below.

"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.

Issac FancherIn 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 Ionia.

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 group.

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.


There is no single, authoritative source that discusses the ways through which Indian reservation land passed from the control of tribes and tribal members to whites. However, various documents describe parts of this unhappy story. See, for example, Isaac A. Fancher, Past and Present of Isabella County Michigan (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Co., 1911), John Cumming, This Place Mount Pleasant (Mount Pleasant, MI: np, 1989), and the United States Indian Claims Commission, Commission Findings on the Chippewa Indians (New York; Garland Publishing Inc., 1974). The quotations cited comes from Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan... v. United States of America, Docket no. 13-H, decided May 14, 1953. It should be noted that while the Commission found that "devious ways" were used to swindle Indians out of their timber rights, nevertheless the commission went on to find that "the record is devoid of any facts sufficient to determine whether the plaintiff [the Saginaw Chippewa tribe] has a right to recover therefor" and thus did not make any award to rectify this past wrong. See also the Ella V. Powers Collection, Box 2, "The Saginaw Chippewa Indians," housed in the Clarke Historical Library. The long quotation regarding the role of Saginaw lumbermen in the exploitation of the Isabella Reservation's timber resources comes from James Cooke Mills, History of Saginaw County... (Saginaw: Seemans & Peters, 1918), pp. 423-424.