1817 : Native Americans Help Fund University of Michigan via Treaty of Fort Meigs, Article 16

September 29, 2023 all-day

Plaque Text

This plaque commemorates the grant of lands from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Bodewadimi (Potawatomi), through the Treaty of Fort Meigs, which states that “believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated , [they] do grant to the rector of the the Catholic church of St. Anne of Detroit … and to the corporation of the college at Detroit, for the use of the said college, to be retained or sold, as the said rrector and corporation may judge expedient … ” The rector was Gabriel Richard, a founder and first vice president of the corporation of the college, chartered by the territorial legislature as the University of Michigania in 1817. These lands were eventually sold to the beneift of the University of Michigan, which was relocated to Ann Arbor in 1837.

Native American Lands 1817

Totaling 1,920 acres, the land grant by three native tribes came one month after the founding of the “University of Michigania” in the riverfront trading post of Detroit. Between 1825 and 1936, university trustees sold the parcels to pay off debts and support a small school that had been erected on Bates Street in Detroit. The total return on real estate amounted to $5,880.

Although dozens of Native Americans gathered along the Maumee River in northwest Ohio in 1817 to sign a treaty brokered by territorial governor Lewis Cass, providing their simple “X” mark signatures, there is no record as to how willing the native peoples were…

In 1817 Michigan still was emerging from the chaos of the War of 1812, when it was both a battlefield and an occupied territory, poised on the eve of the great population explosion of the 1830s. Apart from military outposts, Detroit was virtually the only white settlement in the territory, but it already was a substantial community. Native Americans and settlers co-existed in the territory in a complicated relationship that was at once mutually beneficial and exploitative, often confrontational and at times intimate; intermarriage may not have been the norm, but it was not uncommon.

“There was a lot of cultural cross-fertilization,” Dowd says. “By this time, life for Native Americans had changed substantially. Most would have been using cooking implements of European origin, for example, and many wealthier families would have been eating from porcelain dishes. Only a minority were Christians, but the people as a whole had had a long exposure to Christianity. On the other side, the Native Americans’ knowledge of local plants and animals, and their well-honed survival skills, were indispensable for the newcomers.”

On Aug. 26, 1817, a new institution, named”Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania,” was incorporated under the auspices of Acting Gov. William Woodbridge and Judges of the Territory Augustus B. Woodward and John Griffin. It would not be known as the University of Michigan until 1821. Thomas Jefferson strongly supported the formation of the college (two years before the founding of the University of Virginia), as did prominent local figures such as Gov. Lewis Cass, the Rev. John Monteith (a Presbyterian minister who would be the first president of the University) and the Rev. Gabriel Richard (Catholic priest and vice president of the University from 1817 until his death in the cholera epidemic of 1832).

Richard had excellent relationships with the leaders of the local Native American tribes, and those relationships soon paid off when the Treaty of Fort Meigs was formulated. The treaty, signed on Sept. 29, 1817, was formed to transfer large tracts of land to the United States in return for various fees or for other parcels of land granted to the tribes or to individuals. Richard played a major role in the negotiations, and Article 16 of the treaty specifically granted about 640 acres of land to Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church and another 640 acres to the “corporation of the college at Detroit”which was legally the brand-new University of Michigania. The error in the name was corrected by President James Monroe in 1824.

This gift, which was proposed by Chief Tontagini and supported by the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwa (Chippewa) and Bodewadimi (Potawatomi) tribes, was a considerable one in proportion to the lands the Native Americans retained for their own use. In fact, Michigan’s most distinguished jurist, Justice Thomas Cooley, later said it actually was equal in positive value and prospectively superior to the land gifts of John Harvard and Elihu Yale.

But Chief Tontagini and his associates did not realize any direct benefit from their gift. Although it was given “believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated,” according to Article 16 of the treaty, and although the fledgling university soon established a primary and secondary school in Detroit, there is no record of any American Indian children actually attending either school. “Actually, that’s not strange,” says U-M historian Margaret Steneck. “The schools were based on the English/European model, with every child sitting behind a desk learning by rote. It wasn’t a very appropriate method for Native Americans and probably wouldn’t have been successful.”

Nor were Native Americans much in evidence at the University throughout the next 130 years. “No one has ever been able to pinpoint exactly when the first Native American student came to the U-M,” Steneck says. “We can be pretty sure there were some students through the years, but probably not many, and those who came probably kept a low profile.”

It wasn’t until the social upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s that Native American students, along with others, began to assert their identity and demand some recognition of their status. A lawsuit filed in 1971 asserted that, based on the Treaty of Fort Meigs, the state should be compelled to grant free tuition to American Indians. The courts found that the state was under no such legal obligation, but the case kindled a sense of moral obligation that led to the passage of Public Act 174, the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver Program, in 1976.

The Native American Student Association was formed in 1972 to promote the interests of Native American students and awareness of their presence and contributions to the life of the University. The first two faculty members in Native American Studies were hired in 1983. But still, the presence and contributions of Native Americans on campus largely were invisible.

“When I came to Ann Arbor in 1992, I was shocked to find a number of markers around campus recognizing people who had been ‘playing Indian,’ but not a single thing to commemorate Native Americans’ historical contributions to this schoolthe premier educational institution in the state,” says Ph.D. candidate Andrew Adams III. Together with a number of like-minded students, he initiated a campaign to erect a memorial to the tribes that provided the land to give the University its start. Not only has the group achieved the recognition it sought, but the Native American Studies program has been strengthened dramatically in the last five years. “I’m not implying that the University has done all this only in response to student demands,” Adams says. “But I think that the recognition and the improvements would have come a lot more slowly if we hadn’t decided to be proactive and bring some awareness to them.”

Oil painting of the old U of M campus

The University of Michigan by Jasper Cropsey, 1855

Sources :

Judy Steeh, “Plaque honors land gift from three Native American tribes“, University of Michigan University Record Online. November 18, 2002.

Kim Clarke, “The Gift of Vision“, University of Michigan Heritage Project.