Bicentennial of Fort Saginaw: Consequences

Beginnings and Endings




July 22, 2022, marks the 200th Anniversary of the establishment of Fort Saginaw. This short-lived project had long lasting effects. To acknowledge the milestone year, the Castle Museum will share a series of historical posts this week.


The first post in the series is Bicentennial of Fort Saginaw: Establishing the Fort on the Saginaw River.


You can also visit the permanent exhibit on the lower level of the museum to learn more.


 

"Don't go to Michigan, that land of ills / The word means ague, fever, and chills." (c. 1820)

After the War of 1812, the federal government expressed even more interest in securing and populating the territory that would later become the state of Michigan. The problem: they had to overcome the low opinion of the region.


Popular opinion of Michigan during westward expansion wasn’t great. Soldiers who returned to their eastern homes from the war complained of illness and indigenous peoples, sparking negative poems and stories warning people away. Also, the official government surveyor general, Edward Tiffin, strongly warned Congress off the land, writing: “The country is, with some few exceptions, … swampy beyond description…”


Tiffin’s report only circulated among a few government officials, but it was influential enough to deem the lands unsuitable for veterans benefits and allotments in Missouri were selected instead. This added delay to the settlement of Michigan. Territorial governor, Lewis Cass, worked to undo the negative perception of Michigan. Some of his efforts were through treaties with indigenous people.


Cass already had experience negotiating treaties in the Ohio Valley, and although he strongly favored efforts to remove Native Americans from Michigan, he also understood that the Anishinabeg would never agree to complete removal. Another thing Cass was sure of, was that the watershed of the Saginaw River and its navigable tributaries were prime real estate. He brought his experience to bear on the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, and the government crafted a document that seemed reasonable on the surface yet ended up devastating the indigenous population.


The treaty’s Article 5 repeats language from another treaty Cass had negotiated, and it states:

“The stipulation contained in the treaty of Greenville, relative to the right of the Indians to hunt upon the land ceded, while it continues the property of the United States, shall apply to this treaty; and the Indians shall, for the same term, enjoy the privilege of making sugar upon the same land, committing no unnecessary waste upon the trees.”

The United States had no intention whatsoever of continuing ownership of the land. So as settlement increased, the Anishinabeg lost access to the land.


Fort Saginaw was an integral part of the effort to settle the Saginaw Valley. The land had been surveyed and made ready for sale, but the government needed to assure buyers that their investments would be protected.


It did not go according to plan. Soon after Fort Saginaw was built, the enlisted men became sick with malaria due to the mosquitos. Joseph Meigs, the head of the General Land Office, infamously claimed that only “Indians, muskrats, and bullfrogs could ever live on the Saginaw River.” Just two years after it was built, the military abandoned Fort Saginaw.


In 1825, the military reserve sold the vacated fort and surrounding land to a speculator named Samuel Dexter. Five years later, though still not much more than a paper town, Dexter registered the city of Saginaw. His timing could not have been better. The Erie Canal in New York combined with steamboat travel across the Great Lakes created a new pathway for people from New England and upstate New York to migrate to Michigan spurring a new kind of “Michigan Fever.” Michigan grew quickly from only 8,896 white inhabitants in 1820 to nearly 32,000 by 1830, making the territory eligible for statehood.


As white settlers moved into the Saginaw Valley and purchased land, the Anishinabeg lost their treaty rights to hunt, fish, and tap maple trees. To survive, they were forced to move to the reservation in Isabella County. So while Fort Saginaw represented a beginning for the City of Saginaw, we also acknowledge that Fort Saginaw represents the end of regional freedoms for the Anishinabeg.