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Tribal Historical Overview - Early Reservation Life

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Treaties 2 | Early Reservation Life | Early 1900s |
Self Determination | Trenton Indian Service Area

Early Reservation Life

The Turtle Mountain Reservation is Established, 1882

It was not until December of 1882 that Congress designated a 24 by 32-mile tract in Rolette County as the Turtle Mountain Reservation for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. The government thought they were dealing with about 200 full-blooded Chippewas, but there were more than 1,000 mixed-bloods that they had not counted. The government wanted to allot the members 160 acres as they had done for the non-Indians in the area. However, the Chippewas were against this arrangement and preferred to hold the land in common with all tribal members.

In 1882, President Chester Arthur established the Turtle Mountain Reservation with 22 townships of land. By March of 1884, the original 22 townships were reduced to two townships. All of the best farm land was now open to the public domain.

The Railroad

Between 1858 and 1862, the railroad appeared in parts of Red River country. The man who was responsible for driving the first spike in the first railroad west of St. Paul was William Crooks in 1862. The railroad followed the Red River trails, accelerated the growth of agriculture, and led many settlers to the northwest. It is believed that the railroad colonized much of the west. Grace Flandrau explains:

In all that country west from the Red River, the
railroad truly was the pioneer, blazing the way and
furnishing the conveyance for colonizing the land.
That country never was in any true sense a “covered
wagon” country, but was settled from the immigrant
train drawn by the locomotive.

Dawes Act of 1887

In 1887, the General Allotment Act, commonly referred as “the Dawes Act,” was passed by Congress. They named it for the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Henry L. Dawes. The government believed the Dawes Act to be a final solution to the “Indian problem.” “Congress was convinced that the allotment of land to tribal members would do the following: (1) destroy tribalism and reservations by individualizing Indians on allotments, (2) confer citizenship on all Indians, and (3) educate Indian youth to assure continuation of reforms. . .” (Prucha, 1975, pp. 171–174) The Act resulted in the allotment of lands to individual tribal members. Since there were many more members than lands available, the government allotted lands to tribal members on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, at Trenton, North Dakota, in Montana, and elsewhere in the Dakotas.

Throughout the late 1800s the Turtle Mountain Chippewa endured many hardships. The buffalo, a main source of food for the people, was now reaching extinction. The people throughout certain seasons would experience suffering and starvation. As early as the 1870s, poor conditions were reported in the Turtle Mountains.

Not only had the food supply diminished, there was encroachment of white settlers. On June 25, 1882, a group of white settlers decided to settle in the Turtle Mountains near what is the present-day town of St. John. Under the leadership of Little Shell, 200 Indians rode over to the settlement and informed them they must leave their land. The settlers did move, however. Two of them were U.S. citizens who petitioned Washington to protect them from the Indians. On August 30, 1882, Major Conrad from Fort Totten traveled to the Turtle Mountains with more than forty soldiers. He met with Little Shell and told him that he would kill him if he harmed any of the white settlers. The settlers, after hearing the news from Conrad, moved back onto the reservation on September 3, 1882.

In the mid 1880s, there were severe winter storms and summer droughts. This harsh weather caused many pioneer farms to fail in the Great Plains areas. The influx of Métis from Canada following the second Riel Rebellion caused an overcrowding of the two townships. These circumstances took their toll and in the winter of 1887–1888, and 151 members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa starved to death.

Harassment of the Chippewa Continues

In 1889 some Turtle Mountain people were raising cattle received from the U.S. government. County officials tried to collect taxes on the cattle. The Chippewas refused to pay. When they refused, they took several head of cattle from them creating a hostile situation between the Chippewa and local officials. The Sheriff of Dunseith, Thomas Flynn, requested assistance from Major McKay of the National Guard. Major McKay and his 1st Battalion headed for the mountains. Because of the quick action of Mr. Salt and E.W. Brenner, they stopped the troop. They had received a telegram from Governor John Miller calling the troops back.

This situation heightened with the encroachment of white settlers. Few choices were left for the Turtle Mountain people. In 1888 Little Shell, Red Thunder, and Henry Poitras sent a letter to Father Genin at Bathgate, North Dakota. The letter was a request for his help and advice. They needed assistance with the illegal taking of lands, and the hunger of their people. Father Genin was a well-known man in the northwest. He devoted more than thirty years as a missionary and priest to the Chippewa and the Dakota of Minnesota and North Dakota. In 1897 he wrote a letter in response to an article printed in the Duluth Journal. The article dealt with the underlying causes of the problem:

I pledge to you my word as a priest who has
known these people for over thirty years, that your
informant is right, and there can always be found
degraded white men who surround and follow the
Indians even as wolves used to follow the buffalo
herd in our old times, to make them their prey . . .
The condition of these people is truly beyond all
endurance. I can and will if necessary, furnish you
proof of all I say.
(Letter from Father Genin to U.S.
Commisioner of Indian Affairs, 1897)

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