As with any tragic tale, the burnout of 1900 isn’t where this story begins. It opens much earlier—historians guess at least two centuries earlier—when a small band of Algonquin Nation Indians, thought to have been fleeing a battle with the Iroquois on the Manitoulin Islands in Canada, paddled along the shores of Lake Huron and, finding the mouth of the Cheboygan River, paddled up the inland waterway, ultimately pulling their canoes ashore along a modest piece of land that jutted out into today’s Burt Lake. In time, this band would come to be known as the Burt Lake Band of Indians, and the land they occupied, Indian Point.
Fast forward to 1836, the year Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft wrote a treaty between the Ottawas of Michigan and the United States Government. The treaty ceded to the United States a huge tract of land—about 13 million acres—doling out the few chunks of land that remained for Indian reservations. According to the map Schoolcraft drew that year, the land at Indian Point would be reserved for the 117 Indians who already lived there.
Nevertheless, a decade later, the band pooled their money and, over the course of the next three years, purchased six parcels of land on and around Indian Point. Why did the Indians feel compelled to buy land that was, by treaty, already theirs? Perhaps the very fact that the government permitted them to buy the land—reserved land, which the treaty had bound the government from selling—was reason enough.
On one hand, the Indians made a wise choice. In fact, the “reserved” land never was formally surveyed or set aside for them. And the treaty of 1855—which essentially revised the treaty of 1836 by granting the government more land and Michigan Indians even less—underscored the reality that a treaty guaranteed nothing. (The 1855 treaty did, however, maintain the 1836 treaty’s consideration of Indian Point—reserving it for the Indians, and forbidding the government from selling it.)
But by buying their own land, the Indians had set themselves up for a fall. Later state documents investigating the ownership claims of Indian Point report that, beginning in 1860, township officials levied tax assessments on the Indians’ land—albeit “intermittently, irregularly and sometimes not at all.” Likewise, the documents report, some years the Indians didn’t pay, some years they did, and occasionally their payment was refused and returned to them on the grounds that reservation land was not subject to taxation.