Review of William W. Warren: The Life, Letters, and Times of an Ojibwe Leader by Theresa M. Schenck

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[The following review is published in the summer 2008 issue of Ramsey County History, the journal of the Ramsey County [Saint Paul] Historical Society.]

William W. Warren: The Life, Letters, and Times of an Ojibwe Leader
By Theresa M. Schenck
University of Nebraska Press, 2007, 204 pages

Reviewed by David Thorstad

Theresa Schenck has written more than a biography of one of Minnesota’s most interesting nineteenth-century figures, as the title suggests. It is “rather a study of the man in relation to the times and the events that touched him or in which he played a role.” By frequent and lengthy citation of Warren’s letters, “I intend the reader to enter into the mind and heart of William Whipple Warren.”

She has succeeded. She documents events in Minnesota history that are not well known and that rarely turn up in school curriculums, including the repeated forced removals of Ojibwe westward in response to white encroachment, accomplished with duplicity on the part of territorial governor Alexander Ramsey and other authorities, as well as traders, both white and mixed blood. Ramsey repeatedly lied by claiming that the whites had no designs on Ojibwe lands, but in fact the treaty period was a land grab by whites. Native inhabitants occasionally resisted, but generally responded peacefully to the cultural and territorial assault. Warren collaborated in the removal process, but Schenck reveals the contradictory nature of his efforts to convince Ojibwe elders to agree to removal. Warren did not consider himself an “Indian” (he was three-eighths Ojibwe), even though he looks more “Indian” than many Ojibwe today. In letters to Ramsey, he refers to the Ojibwe as “our Indians,” suggesting an identification with the white authorities. Yet at the same time, during the removal of 1851, he claimed that his goal was to unite the Ojibwe bands into one tribe that could negotiate from a position of strength.

While serving as an interpreter, Warren collected oral histories from elders and chiefs, with a view to publishing a storehouse of knowledge about a way of life that was disappearing. His History of the Ojibway People (written in the 1850s, but not published till more than thirty years after his untimely death in 1853 at the age of twenty-eight) is his legacy, but many notes for other works, including on the colorful Mississippi band chiefs Hole-in-the-Day the Elder and Younger, and other chiefs, as well as one on Ojibwe religious and medicinal practices, are mostly lost.

One is struck by how peripatetic the Ojibwe were, traveling long distances at great hardship and loss of life, to accommodate the authorities’ stipulated locations for payment of annuities (which amounted to around five dollars) and removal from their ancestral lands. Hole-in-the-Day the Younger alone made six trips to Washington, D.C., between 1855 and 1867—reflecting the widespread belief that the “Great Father” located there would mediate favorably disputes with state authorities.

Striking too is the air of ambition, self-confidence, precociousness, and intelligence that Warren displays from a young age. At age twelve, for example, while beginning studies at Clarkson Academy in New York, his first letter to his father describes how he reached the head of his class after a mere two weeks, and although his spelling is not perfect, and he claims to have already forgotten his French, he confidently predicts that he will surpass his classmates in Latin: “The master says who will beat will have a premium and my Grand father says he will make me a pair of pumps if I shall beat them and there is no question but I will beat them.” He concludes: “I wrote this letter without any help but excuse me for bad writing. Do not expect such bad writing next time.” Indeed, by his mid-twenties, some of his letters to the editor were written in eloquent English.

In 1850, Warren was elected to the second Minnesota territorial legislature from the Sixth District, which included Crow Wing and Sauk Rapids. Even today it is hard to imagine a Native American as dark-skinned as Warren being elected to the state legislature. Warren promptly resigned his position as a farmer at Gull Lake (the authorities sought to turn woodland Indians into yeoman farmers, an effort that Warren aided) and moved his family to St. Paul, where they resided at a comfortable boardinghouse-hotel owned by Henry M. Rice at the corner of Exchange and St. Anthony. He served on the Committee on Territorial Affairs and the Committee on the Militia.

Schenck, who also wrote The Voice of the Crane Echoes Afar, which includes a discussion of traditional Ojibwe leadership, has organized her book chronologically. In addition to thoroughly documented notes, it has appendices of Warren’s letters and published works, a Selected Bibliography, and an index. Illustrations include a Warren family tree, photos of Warren and some of his relatives, a view of St. Paul, Hole-in-the-Day the Younger, and one of Warren’s letters. Two maps, while helpful, are far from adequate: the map of Minnesota Territory (1849–51) does not show Cass County, and the map of Ojibwe country of Wisconsin and Minnesota lacks more than a dozen place-names frequently mentioned, which makes following the narrative frustrating. Occasional errors include the date given for Warren’s last letter: 19 May 1853 on page 169, but 29 May on page 178. No list of abbreviations is provided, though one would have been desirable with the notes and the appendix of Warren’s letters. Characters are not always adequately identified (e.g., the missionary Rev. Sherman Hall’s Presbyterian denomination is not given). But these shortcomings are minor distractions in a compelling account of a mostly forgotten period of Minnesota Ojibwe history.]]

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