Apr 282009


This photo was taken last November 29 from the Marantette Bridge just outside of Mendon, Michigan. I often stop here for photos and a rest break when riding my bicycle through Mendon, but this time I had come by car, so it’s not really appropriate for The Spokesrider, where I’ve already posted several articles about this place.

I think of this place every time I read about South Carolina’s governor, Mark Sanford. He does not want to accept stimulus money — there are strings attached — but the left is threatening to make life very difficult for him if he doesn’t take it.

Maybe they’ve broken him by now. I have paid attention only to the headlines and haven’t kept up.

I also think of this place when I read about the Obama administration exerting enormous pressure on banks to accept bailouts, or when I read about how the Bush administration forced CEO Ken Lewis to accept government money to buy out Merrill Lynch (and forced him to keep quiet about some aspects of it).

Back in November 1833 the U.S. government was using similar tactics to finish the conquest of the Potawatomi Indians in Michigan, take their land, and evict them from Michigan. Some of the pressure tactics took place across the river, in the vicinity of the house behind the trees. That house was not built until a year or two later. In November 1833 this was part of the Nottawasepe Indian Reservation, and there was a log-cabin trading post here. It was a good place for a treaty meeting.

In September of that year there had been a treaty meeting in Chicago, by which the Potawatomi people of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan had succumbed to pressure to accept money from the government to pay off their debts, and to agree to move to the west side of the Mississippi River. The Potawatomi people tried to resist and started out by saying they would be glad to accept the hospitality of the U.S. government but had no intention of selling land and moving west. It took several days to break them down. James Clifton describes what happened in his book, “The Prairie People” (2nd ed., page 239):

…Two days later, confusion was generated by many of the assembled okamek, who declared they were ignorant of just exactly which lands the government wanted. The good Democrat Porter, President Jackson’s personal appointee, then had sternly to remind the assembled Potawatomi that what Old Hickory wanted badly enough he was prone to take by force. Thereafter there was a suspect five-day gap in the journal of what transpired, of the sort that encourages attorneys to raise the issue of collusion and conspiracy. When the official record again begins on September 26, the treaty was already written and ready to be marked and certified. During the interim, Commissioners Porter and Owens … apparently had introduced their own secret weapons, Subagent Ardent Spirits, Colonel John Silver, and the Reverend Utmost Chicanery….

But the Commissioners apparently felt they had not sufficiently bought out the Nottawasepe Indians from Michigan. They came to the Marantette trading post a month later to conclude a supplemental agreement with the people here, and to make a payment that would go directly to them without going through the Illinois and Wisconsin leaders.

By that time, the Nottawasepe people were having second thoughts. They decided among themselves to keep their land and to refuse to accept the money. But the Commissioners eventually got one of the okamek to break and to sign. Once he signed, the others had to sign, too, or they would be left out of the treaty payments, which meant they would be marginalized and lose influence even among their own people.

In 1839, the year before they were finally evicted from Michigan, the man who had first broke and signed was murdered by one of those who had resented what he had done. But by then it was too late.

(The treaty documents about this affair are online here. Some of the information above is from the 1877 history of St. Joseph County. That publication says the supplemental treaty meeting took place in December 1833. But that account is based on what people remembered 40-some years later. I’m basing the early November date on court records from a lawsuit that resulted from a dispute over whiskey and brandy on the treaty grounds. I presume the information in the court documents was given under oath, and anyway, it’s a record much closer to the time of the actual event.)

Then as now, the government can tighten the screws really hard when it wants someone to take the money. Yesterday’s WSJ had an editorial (“Busting Bank of America“) that summarized how Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson did it to Ken Lewis. If Mark Sanford or any of the Bank CEOs succeed in resisting similar pressure from the Obama administration, it can only be at the cost of becoming broken and ruined men, shunned by both friends and enemies for having behaved courageously.

  • Justin

    I think to compare the crooked dealings the U.S. government had with the Potawatomi to our present state of affairs is not only ludicrious but marginalizes the genecide purpitrated on native people throughout North America. The Potawatomi signed over 40 treaties with the US government, a couple with France and also England. The glaring difference here was the money was just a cover up for what was really wanted and that was to get the indian out of the way of “progress”. If the bank of America officials refused to take bailout out money were they corralled like cattle at gun point and marched thousands of miles from their homes. Hardly stopping long enough to bury those members of their family along the way. I think not. Were they forced to start life over in a different place completely foreign to them. Yes some of my relatives were on this trail of death. The Potawatomi tribe is one of perhaps the most treatied tribes in US history. Why you might ask the question? Because they were a valuable alley early on and later because the government wanted what they had. The US government didnt live up to one treaty obliglation. Perhaps the only thing that they did which they agreed was this. They agreed to take the land from the Potawatomi and they certainly took it.

  • Reticulator

    Hi, Justin. Thanks for commenting. I hope you’ll continue to hear me out on these points of similarity, because I have lots more points of comparison to make. Throughout human history there have been many cases of one culture conquering another one and/or pushing it aside, and it wasn’t done in a new and unique way each time. Humans tend to do the same nasty things to each other over and over again. But as you point out, there are also points of difference in these affairs. It’s good to understand both.