Land History

The University of Michigan has its origins in land coercively purchased by the United States Federal Government from the Anishinaabeg (including Odawa, Ojibwe, and Boodewadomi) and Wyandot nations. While this project documents ongoing cases of land expropriation and dispossession outside of the United States, we are also based in a university that stands, like almost all property in the United States, on lands obtained from Indigenous Peoples, generally through violence, intimidation, and dishonesty. Knowing and acknowledging where we live and work does not change this, but a thorough understanding of the ongoing consequences of these histories must shape our research, teaching, and outreach to create a future that supports human flourishing and justice for all individuals.

Anishinaabeg Communities and the University of Michigan

Anishinaabe (plural, Anishinaabeg) is a term used to refer to a group of culturally and linguistically similar peoples. Within the Anishinaabe family, there are a number of distinct nations, including the Chippewa, Odawa, Potawatomi, Algonquin, Saulteaux, Nipissing and Mississauga peoples, and some Oji-Cree and Métis (Hele 2020).  For the purposes of this text, Anishinaabe will primarily refer to the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples upon whose ancestral lands the University resides.

Anishinaabeg Homelands

Known as the “People of the Three Fires,” the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi are a group of loosely related nations who migrated to the Great Lakes region from the northeast shore of what is now Canada about six to nine hundred years ago (Ramirez-Shkwegnaabi 2003). Each of the three fires refers to a time and place within Anishinaabe history, beginning with their origins on the Atlantic seaboard. The second fire denotes their stint in the region around modern-day Montreal, and the third fire marks the time spent on the shores of Lake Huron near what is now Detroit. After arriving in southeastern Michigan, the Anishinaabe splintered into the three distinct nations they are today, whose homelands span throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, and southern Canada. Several generations later, they reunited as the Three Fires Confederacy, a cultural and economic alliance which “enabled the Anishinaabeg to remain a major power in the Great Lakes region well into the nineteenth century” (Ramirez-Shkwegnaabi 2003) and persists to this day (Kimmerer 2013, 365–66).

When Europeans arrived in the early 17th century, there were approximately 100,000 people already living in the Great Lakes Region. In addition to the Anishinaabe, “other significant tribes in this region included the Huron (sometimes known as the Wyandot), who came to the southeastern area of Michigan from the Ontario side of Lake Huron; the Sauk, who resided in the Saginaw River valley; the Miami, who lived along the St. Joseph River before migrating to western Ohio; and the Menominee, who lived in northern Wisconsin and parts of the Upper Peninsula” (Michigan Legislature 2001).

The Detroit Treaty and Cession 66

A historical map of land cessions in Michigan. Cession 66 is illustrated in green and includes most of the lower-right thumb of Michigan.
Source: Royce, Charles C. Library of Congress.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the land that makes up the modern state of Michigan, including where the University of Michigan now resides, was gradually ceded to the federal government in a series of treaties. Each treaty yielded thousands of square miles of indigenous territory to the United States and pushed native groups increasingly westward. Most of Southeast Michigan, which includes Ann Arbor, was acquired through Cession 66 of the 1807 Treaty of Detroit (Royce 1899). The Ottawa, Chippewa (Ojibwe), Potawatomi, and Wyandot (Huron) were all parties to this treaty, as they controlled lands within this region. The Wyandot were later forcibly relocated to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears (Hartig 2020) and have no federally recognized presence in Michigan. From this cession, a total of 13 square miles across three separate tracts was reserved for native use. By 1833, these lands, too, had been ceded to the federal government (Royce 1899). Of the 97,990 square miles that make up the state of Michigan, less than 350 square miles, or about 0.3 percent of that area, is sovereign tribal soil. 

Included in Cession 66 (illustrated above in green) was the 640 acres purchased from the federal government by John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey for $800 in 1824 that would become the village of Annarbour (Cocks 1974). The burgeoning town would not host what is now the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor until 1837, 13 years later. 

The Treaty of the Foot of the Rapids (Fort Meigs)

The University of Michigan had existed in some capacity in Detroit for 20 years prior to its move to Ann Arbor in 1837. The land the school was initially built upon was not ceded through the same Treaty of Detroit that had yielded Ann Arbor, but instead through an 1817 agreement called the Treaty of the Foot of the Rapids. Otherwise known as the Treaty of Fort Meigs, this document contains the article in which the Anishinaabe ceded lands to the government for the specific purpose of establishing a college where their people could be educated. The treaty was part of a greater push by the U.S. War Department to secure territories in the Upper Midwest and offer fee-simple titles to Native groups instead of allowing them to retain sovereign lands (Lakomäki 2014). Though it documents a number of land grants, the cession of interest occurs in Article 16, which reads as follows:

ART. 16. Some of the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomy tribes, being attached to the Catholic religion, and believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated, do grant to the rector of the Catholic church of St. Anne of Detroit, for the use of the said church, and to the corporation of the college at Detroit, for the use of the said college, to be retained or sold, as the said rector and corporation may judge expedient… (United States 1817).

The college established following this treaty was first known as the Catholepistemiad, then the University of Michigania, and finally, as the University of Michigan. It was intended to be a preparatory school that would qualify students to attend university elsewhere. Unfortunately, the school floundered in still-rural Detroit and had stopped offering classes by the time Michigan became a state in 1837 (Austin 2015)

At this time, the new state legislature moved to establish a state university. The Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of Michigan was authorized to sell the gifted land in Detroit in pursuit of a new location. The proceeds of that sale became part of the University’s endowment (Sourine 2018). “The Ann Arbor Land Company promptly offered forty acres of land in the thriving town of Ann Arbor, seat of Washtenaw County, as a site for the University…On March 20th, the offer was approved by the legislature. The town…now contained about 2000 people” (Peckham 1967). It was on this land that the University of Michigan would develop into the institution that stands to this day.

As for its promise to educate Anishinaabeg peoples, the University failed to uphold its end of the bargain. There are no records of Native students attending the University for the next 130 years (Sourine 2018)

The Burt Lake Burnout

In addition to its properties in southeast Michigan, the University also maintains the UM Biological Station (UMBS) in the village of Pellston, MI along Burt Lake. Located in northern Michigan, the 13,000 acres managed by the UMBS form the core of the Obtawaing UNESCO biosphere region, which derives its name from the Anishinaabemowin word for “at the halfway place” (Sherburne 2021). Today, students and faculty at the University across disciplines study the land within the beautifully forested Biological Station, and it continues to yield both educational and economic value far exceeding the original purchase price. 

The land was never, however, ceded by the Cheboyganing Band of Indians, who resided in the territory. On October 15, 1900, the community was forced to leave the lands when the Cheboygan County sheriff “burned to the ground every home in the area of that county near Burt Lake known as Indian Village” (PACOUH 2018).

The Band (now known as the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians) had maintained the Indian Village area (otherwise known as Indian Point or Colonial Point) as a reservation following the Washington Treaty which yielded 40 percent of Michigan to the federal government. Fearing the government would eventually dispossess them of the reservation as well, the tribe bought the land outright in 1835 and placed it in trust with the Governor of Michigan (PACOUH 2018).

As the tribe was a government entity, its property shouldn’t have been subject to taxation. County officials assessed the land for taxation anyway, and when the Band didn’t pay, their properties went into foreclosure (Dwyer 2018). Beginning in 1882, Speculators began purchasing deeds to the foreclosed Cheboyganing land at tax auctions, and by 1899, a man named John McGinn possessed deeds to 400 acres of Burt Lake Band territory (PACOUH 2018).

Over the course of three years, McGinn proceeded to serve eviction notices to members of the tribe, who refused to leave the land they were legally entitled to. After receiving a “writ of possession” from a Cheboygan circuit court, McGinn asked the sheriff to carry out the evictions on October 15, 1900 (Wiles 2013)

The sheriff and his deputies removed the household goods from the homes. They offered the Indians the windows and doors of the houses, but the people refused. The Band members just sat patiently on their goods in the road, waiting for the deputies to leave so they could move back into their homes. But late in the afternoon McGinn systematically moved from house to house, dousing each with kerosene, and as the Indians and the posse watched, set them on fire. He spared only the church. (White 1978)

Following the arson, Cheboyganing villagers were forced to settle in other areas of Northern Michigan. To this day, the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians still have not been granted federally recognized status, in part due to a lack of land when they applied. Without this status, the Band is denied critical services, resources, funding, and sovereignty.  Their legal battle for recognition, which began in 1935, is still ongoing (Dwyer 2018)

The University of Michigan’s relationship with this land developed much later, long after the burnout and the establishment of the Biological Station in an adjacent tract in 1909. In the late 1980s, the University collaborated with the Little Traverse Conservancy to acquire Indian Point (the former home of the Burt Lake Band) from a logging company, with the intent to repurpose it for public use. “Through gift and purchase arrangements the Conservancy and the University received all of the lands involved in or implicated in the burnout” (PACOUH 2018). Other areas once owned by the Band have been broken up into multimillion-dollar waterfront properties (Dwyer 2018). None of it currently belongs to the tribe. 

The University addressed the history of the land on which the burnout occurred in a 2018 report by the President’s Advisory Committee on University History. The report is frequently cited throughout this article. The Committee recommended that “the complicated history…should be posted on the website of the Biological Station and known by every student who attends sessions at the Biological Station.” (PACOUH 2018).

The University and Native American Communities Today

The University of Michigan offers a Native American Studies minor, available through the Department of American Culture, as well as a four-semester sequence in the Ojibwe language. Plaques acknowledging the history of the land can be found around campus, and there is a multicultural lounge dedicated to Vicky Barner, a notable alumna of Nisga’a descent. Through the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver, a program authorized at the state level, the University offers extensive tuition assistance to Indigenous students. 

While great progress has been made, the University of Michigan has never truly fulfilled its promise to the Anishinaabe. In the Fall of 2021, there were more than 50,000 students enrolled at the Ann Arbor campus; of those, just 83, or about 0.1 percent, were of Native descent. 

Though the University of Michigan owes a specific debt to the original stewards of this land, its failure to repay that debt is in no way unique. Throughout America and around the world, the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers is one marred by displacement, injustice, and broken promises. Violations Against Indigenous Africans seeks to document cases in Africa in which these abuses are still occurring and provide a detailed database of information to those interested in learning more. As with this land acknowledgment, documentation cannot right any wrongs; nonetheless, we hope it can provide a roadmap of how to move forward. 


Austin, Dan. 2015. “The Day Detroit Lost U-M to Ann Arbor.” Detroit Free Press. March 18, 2015.

Cocks, James Fraser. 1974. The Pictorial History of Ann Arbor, 1824-1974. Ann Arbor: Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library.

Dwyer, Dustin. 2018. “They Were Forced off Their Land. Their Homes Burned. 118 Years Later, Their Descendants Fight On.” Michigan Radio. October 18, 2018.

Hartig, John. 2020. “Great Lakes Moment: Sacred Land of the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation.” Great Lakes Now. November 2, 2020.

Hele, Karl S. 2020. “Anishinaabe.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. July 16, 2020.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Lakomäki, Sami. 2014. “‘Our Line’: The Shawnees, the United States, and Competing Borders on the Great Lakes ‘Borderlands,’ 1795–1832.” Journal of the Early Republic 34 (4): 597–624.

Michigan Legislature. 2001. “Michigan Manual 2001-2002: A Brief History of Michigan.” The Legislative Service Bureau.

PACOUH, President’s Advisory Committee on University History. 2018. “Report and Recommendations on Possible Relationship between the Burt Lake ‘Burnout’ and the University of Michigan Biological Station.” University of Michigan.

Peckham, Howard H. 1967. The Making of the University of Michigan, 1817-1967. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Ramirez-Shkwegnaabi, Benjamin. 2003. “The Dynamics of American Indian Diplomacy in the Great Lakes Region.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 27 (4): 53–77.

Royce, Charles C. 1899. Indian Land Cessions in the United States, 1784-1894. 4015. Washington: 56th Congress.

Sherburne, Morgan. 2021. “Designation Puts U-M Biological Station ‘at the Halfway Place’ | The University Record.” October 14, 2021.

Sourine, Katherina. 2018. “Native Americans at the University Lament a Contract Unfulfilled.” The Michigan Daily. October 9, 2018.

United States, Senate. 1817. “Treaty of the Foot of the Rapids (Fort Meigs).” Central Michigan University.,-1817.aspx.

White, Richard. 1978. “The Burt Lake Band: An Ethnohistorical Report on the Trust Lands of Indian Village,.”
Wiles, Richard. 2013. “‘A Bitter Memory’-The Burt Lake Burn-out of 1900.” Mackinac Journal, November 2013.