Governor Cass and the Indians

On the banks of the Maumee

As summer waned in 1817, Lewis Cass, the young governor of the Michigan Territory, arrived at a wooden bastion on Ohio’s Maumee River to talk with chiefs of the Wyandot, Seneca, Delaware, Shawnee, Bodewadami, Odawa, and Ojibwe tribes.

He had come to Fort Meigs to put an end to the long series of bloody clashes that arose from Americans’ thirst for lands occupied by the first peoples of the Great Lakes.

That was what mattered to Cass — to get the Indians, as his generation called them, to accept peace terms, acknowledge American sovereignty, and hand over land. Somewhere in the talks, an afterthought helped establish the University of Michigan.

Sitting down with the Native American leaders, Cass had the upper hand.

The Indians had lost their epic struggle to resist white settlement of the vast region Americans called the Northwest Territory. In the 1790s, the tribes had formed a loose confederacy to wage war on the encroaching Americans. But that ended in defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Ohio.

Ten years later, the Indians tried again under a spiritual leader named Tenskwatawa, known as the Shawnee Prophet, and his older brother, the brilliant statesman and military strategist Tecumseh. The brothers assembled a loose Native confederation stretching from the Great Lakes to southern Appalachia. And they allied themselves with the British, whose bid to retake their old colonies would flare into the War of 1812.

But the Americans defeated the Prophet and Tecumseh, too. In 1813, at a village on the Thames River in southwestern Ontario, Tecumseh was killed in a decisive battle. (Lead image: New York Public Library)

Lewis Cass was at the Thames as an adjutant U.S. general; some said he identified Tecumseh’s body. As a reward for his services and in recognition of his abilities as a frontier up-and-comer, President James Madison appointed him governor of the Michigan Territory. Cass was 31.

An ambitious young man

Vintage portrait of Lewis Cass in three-quarter profile. High collar, arched eyebrows, holding a book. Waist up, black and white.

Lewis Cass as governor of the Michigan Territory. (Image courtesy of U-M’s William Clements Library.)

As a young man of vaulting ambition, Cass eagerly accepted the governorship of such a vast territory. But he knew the territory, anchored by the century-old settlement at Detroit, was no prize.

Its principal inhabitants were 30,000 to 40,000 resentful Indians who knew the tide of white people from the East was rolling toward their ancestral lands. Of the 4,000 or so inhabitants of European ancestry, most were the French descendants of Detroit’s first settlers, and they were hardly the cream of French society.

Detroit had been rebuilding from a catastrophic fire in 1805. Then, war with the Indians and a British occupation left the place in tatters. The British and Indians had torn down barns and stolen livestock. The fur trade had stalled. Indians still menaced the outskirts of the town.

On this troubled ground, Cass meant to build the foundation of a new American state. But to do so, he needed settlers from New England and the Middle Atlantic states. He would have to bring order, keep the peace with the Indians, build roads for migration and commerce, set up mechanisms for self-government, and build schools to educate settlers’ children.

Cass developed a reputation as a great friend of the Indians. “I never broke my word to an Indian,” he would say in later years, when he was Michigan’s governor, then U.S. senator, “and no Indian ever broke his word to me.” But as the historian John T. Fierst points out, even if one credits Cass on that point, “avoiding lies and gaining the Indians’ trust did not necessarily mean having their best interests at heart.”

When the British conceded to the Americans at the end of the War of 1812, they gave up on controlling the Northwest Territory. But the Indian nations had their own claims to the region’s actual lands. That was what Cass meant to bring to an end.

He had a complex task at Fort Meigs. Various tribes claimed various tracts. In the end, to simplify, Cass pledged cash and annuities in exchange for a broad swath of northwest Ohio, with small tracts reserved for the tribes. (These, too, were eventually settled by Americans.)

Amid negotiations, Cass received a communication from his territorial aides up in Detroit.

Woodward’s plan for schools

A color-coded map of the Northwest Territory and the Native nations in what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois.

Native nations of the Northwest Territory (Creative Commons)

Whenever Cass was gone from Detroit, William Woodbridge, his chief aide and secretary of the Michigan Territory, filled in for him.

Leaving for Fort Meigs, Cass may have told Woodbridge, in effect: “Say, while I’m gone, write up something to set up schools.” But whether Cass said that or not, Secretary Woodbridge apparently turned to another territorial administrator, Augustus Woodward, and asked him to put together a plan.

Woodward leaped at the assignment.

As an eccentric young man with intellectual aspirations, Woodward had chanced to meet President Thomas Jefferson, who sent him west as a “justice” of the Michigan Territory, a grand title for making and executing territorial laws.

Alone in his bachelor quarters, he had written an impenetrable tract titled A System of Universal Science. Now, he put his ideas into legislation for something he called a “Catholepistemiad” — his word for a university at the apex of a beginner-to-advanced state-run system of schools like the one the emperor Napoleon had established in France.

To “Catholepistemiad,” the words “…or University of Michigania” were appended.

Woodward’s concoction was grandiose, impractical, and out of touch with Detroit’s actual needs. But the plan did include three essential principles that would stand the test of time: 1) schools would be supported by taxation; 2) the system would be secular, not religious; and 3) it would teach students from the lowest grades to the highest level.

Cass’ idea

Rendering of The Bodewadami chief Me-Te-A, a signatory to the Treaty of Fort Meigs. In profile. Wearing tribal earring, feathers.

The Bodewadami chief, Me-Te-A, was a signatory to the Treaty of Fort Meigs.

It’s hard to be sure of the timing, but it appears that Woodbridge and Woodward went ahead and appointed officers for a “college of Detroit” before Cass returned from Ohio.

The teetotaling Cass was no fan of the hard-drinking Woodward, whom he considered a decidedly odd duck. But schools were certainly on Cass’ to-do list. If he wanted settlers, he would have to provide for their children’s education. The problem was how to pay for it.

Down at Fort Meigs, it appears Cass had an idea.

Among the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadami tribes, there was a wish for some of their children to be educated in Detroit. So when Cass heard about Woodward’s plan for a “college of Detroit,” he inserted a clause in his draft of the Treaty of Fort Meigs by which the tribes would reserve six sections of Ohio land — roughly 2,000 acres — to be sold to support education. Half the land would go to the new “college” and half to St. Anne’s Church, where Father Gabriel Richard had taught the children of local Indians and other families for years.

The sections, indeed, were eventually sold, raising nearly $6,000. That formed the endowment of the University of Michigan.

The “college” never became more than a small academy for local children. But as a legal entity, the University dates to August 26, 1817, when Woodward and his fellow “judges” enacted the plan for a corporate entity devoted to higher education.

In 1821, Cass had that entity renamed “the University of Michigan.” But 16 more years would pass before such an institution was actually established — not in Detroit, but in Ann Arbor. In 1843, Governor  John Barry appointed Cass to its board of regents.

Many decades after the Treaty of the Fort Meigs, Native Americans secured the state’s agreement to establish the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver program, by which Michigan’s public universities and community colleges waive tuition for eligible Native American students.
(Sources included Benjamin F. Comfort, Lewis Cass and the Indian Treaties (1923); John T. Fierst, “Rationalizing Removal: Anti-Indianism in Lewis Cass’s North American Review Essays (Michigan Historical Review, fall 2010); Pekka Hamalainen, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America (2022); Willard Carl Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (1996); Robert M. Owens, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy (2007); Howard Peckham (edited and updated by Margaret L. Steneck and Nicholas H. Steneck), The Making of the University of Michigan, 1817-1992 (1994); Kent Sagendorph, Michigan: The Story of the University (1948); and Frank B. Woodford, Lewis Cass: The Last Jeffersonian (1950).)


  1. Jennifer Symanns - 1994

    The Battle of Fallen Timbers was fought in Maumee, Ohio just outside of Toledo. The National Park Service maintains the Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis National Historic site and Fort Meigs is nearby. Worth a visit!


  2. Ron Lincoln - 1974/76

    If you believe Cass was a “friend of the Indian”, you need to check out his words posted in the Ziibiwing Cultural Center in Mt. Pleasant.


    • James Tobin - 1978, 1986

      Surely you saw the immediate context of those words in the story, which makes it clear that Cass should NOT be seen as a friend of the Indians.


  3. David Burhenn - 1975, 1982 (Law)

    So the proceeds of the sale of Buckeye State land formed the basis for Michigan’s endowment. That’s almost as rich as the Marching Band teaching “script Ohio” to our Scarlet and Gray friends. Great story, as always, Jim!


  4. Chris Campbell - Rackham, '72; Law, '75

    I’ve been reading articles and regional histories mentioning Cass for years and he has always appeared to be a person of quite mixed qualities. What are the best biographical sources on him?


    • James Tobin - 1978, 1986

      Chris — I’m no expert on Cass, but the book I found most useful for this story was Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (1996). For a dated interpretation, see Woodford, Lewis Cass: The Last Jeffersonian (1950).


  5. Gary Schlueter - 1978

    I thought it was Pere Richard’s dream to create that Catholepistemiad. I have him Woodward and Monteith as the ‘fathers’ of the University of Michigan. I see Cass as a tool to that end. Also, our educ-forefathers looked to Bavaria, I think it was, for the comprehensive model we later enjoyed for our school system.
    BTW, are all UofM students essentially Catholepistemiacs?


  6. Jaime Colmenero - 1978

    Based on the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver program that you mentioned, am I to assume that all Native Americans get free tuition at UM or is it just the three tribes that gave up the 2,000 acres? If it is true then why doesn’t UM have a higher percentage of native students enrolled than just a paltry >2%? This type of information should be disseminated throughout all the Native American schools in the country!


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