The Call of the Wood as a
Prelude to Treaty
IN THE 1830S, great primal forests of tall white pine timber situated along Lake Superior’s southern coast in Wisconsin territory were an even more significant natural resource to the nation than lead or furs. These white pine forests no longer exist, but in the 1830s the fate of national expansion depended on them and their fate was to be decided by a treaty at St. Peter’s.
Wood was as necessary for building the frontier as it was rare. At that time, all lumber destined for St. Louis and other upper Mississippi towns had to be shipped in from mills located in the East. This shortage was felt even at the agency.1 Westward expansion had reached the continent’s central river, but west of the Mississippi the lands were mostly treeless prairie. Those trees, running along creek beds and river valley pockets, were the shorter, scrubbier softwood varieties, unsuitable as building materials. But south of Lake Superior there were tall straight pine forests. These northern Wisconsin forest lands were the richest source of good timber anywhere within range of water shipment. The lands belonged to the Ojibwa, and the Northwest Territory Ordinance required the Indians’ consent if they were asked to cede their lands, so the U.S. government had to make a treaty with them to get them to relinquish their forest lands.2
The American Fur Company saw the occasion of an Indian treaty as an opportunity to acquire cash, something always valuable and in short supply. To make the most of this financial opportunity, the company’s objective was to get between the government and the Indians. The federal government was willing to pay the Indians substantial amounts of monies for the land, but, because the fur company had advanced them traps and other Western goods, the fur company held debts against the tribes. If the company could leverage the Indians’ dependency properly, it could slice off shares of the largest, most important and expensive real estate deals of the century, and be paid promptly in cash. The fur company intended to collect the Indians’ debts against the moneys allotted to them for sale of their lands. Some government officials supported the maneuver. Territorial Governor Cass favored the idea of using the Indians’ debt load as a way to persuade them to relinquish their land.