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'The Heavens Became Black': The Curse of Wisconsin Point

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“In the Fall of 1916,” he relates, “I was about my office when suddenly the door opened and a tall stern faced Indian entered. He asked if I was interested in the Indian claims to Wisconsin Point and I told him I was. With no further preamble he begins to tell me what his ancestry was.” “My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather, the mightiest chief that ever ruled the Chippewas, and their fathers before them lie buried on Wisconsin Point,” he concluded. “Their bones must not be disturbed. I tell you now that the day the white man enters the Point to dig up the remains of our ancestors will see this nation visit the most terrible fire in its history, swept by the most devastating plague and plunged into the bloodiest war the world has ever known.” — As told by John A. Cadigan, an attorney who took part in the litigation of Indian claimants against the Steel Corporation, to Timm Severud reporter for the Milwaukee Journal February 6, 1925.

Wisconsin Point is a peninsula off the shore of Superior, Wisconsin. It is here that my ancestors, the Ojibway people, have made their home. Chief Joseph Osaugie was born in April of 1802 at Lac Vieux Desert, Michigan. He moved to Wisconsin Point as a young man and was made a Chief by President Franklin Pierce. As a headman of the Fond du Lac Band, Chief Osaugie was a signer of the 1854 Treaty. The Treaty conveyed the land on Wisconsin Point to the government.

In 1915, the United States Steel Corporation, through subsidiaries, planned to create loading docks for the Lake Freighters or Lakers as they are currently called on 300 acres of land the federal government obtained through an 1842 Treaty. The descendants of Chief Osaugie refused to give up occupation of a portion of the peninsula. Litigation was launched on behalf of the Indian litigants by the attorney, John A. Cadigan, who related the story as told above.

On October 8, 1918 the United States Steel Company found it necessary to move the graveyard of my ancestors even in the face of strong opposition by the family members still entrenched on the land.

Cadigan describes the process of removal “An undertaker was given $2,500 as an advance payment under a contract and with a force of men went out to the Point and started to move the graveyard.” It was further described as “two hundred Indians were dug up from their graves from Lake Superior’s Wisconsin Point, put on a garbage scow, and relocated to St Francis Cemetery then reburied near the edge of a hill.”

Cadigan continued the story, "That day about noon the heavens became black for a time with a peculiar cloud. It was explained when we picked up the evening papers to read of the devastating Cloquet (MN) fire, truly the worst that this part of the country, if not the entire nation has ever seen. The same paper conveyed news of the sweeping wave of influenza, which inundated our nation and took so many lives. And to make the triple prophecy of the Indian complete America and the rest of world was in the midst of the world war, in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne drive, an offensive, which dwarf all other marital [martial] engagement in the world’s history."

Today, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has been in negotiation to acquire 14 acres of Wisconsin Point home to the original gravesite. There are plans to create a “living history center” on the land that was once the home of my ancestors.

St Francis cemetery still exists but erosion has slowly eaten away at the site of the Indian burial leaving the graves contents exposed. A few very old headstones remain but most of the bones of my ancestors have fallen into the nearby Nemadji River where they will ride the current back to Wisconsin Point.

Donna Ennis is employed in the Behavioral Health Program and is a Tribal Elder at Fond du Lac Reservation. She is on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Board of Social Work. She is also on the Approved Continuing Education Committee for the Association of Social Work Boards.