The Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron Treaties of 1850


During the spring of 1850, Robinson made an exploratory trip through the proposed surrender lands around Lakes Huron and Superior. Robinson returned to the upper lakes in late August 1850 to negotiate a treaty.

Prior to the 1850s, the majority of treaty making in what is now Ontario focused exclusively on the lands of the Southern Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River as the primary driver was opening new lands for agricultural settlement. A

s the colony developed, new interest and industries began to develop requiring new resources. The lands of the Upper Great Lakes began drawing the attention of those seeking those resources.

Beginning in the 1840s, mining companies sent prospectors and surveyors into the unceded Aboriginal lands bordering on Lake Huron and Lake Superior to identify possible deposits.

They applied and acquired licenses from the colonial government to mine in the region regardless of the lack of treaty surrendering the lands.

The Abishnawbe of the Upper Great Lakes had grave concerns with this practice as they firmly believed the colony had no rights to the lands.

In 1847, they petitioned the Governor General requesting compensation for the lands they had lost to mining. An 1848 investigation into their complaints resulted in a recommendation to undertake treaty negotiations for the lands of the Lakes Superior and Huron watershed.

Colonial officials moved quickly to address the claim after a violent clash erupted between the First Nations warriors and miners at Batchawana Bay in 1849.

After an expedition by Indian agents Vidal and Anderson throughout the area to inform the Abishnawbe of the upcoming treaty negotiations over the summer of 1849, a treaty meeting was scheduled for late summer 1850.

The Executive Council instructed William Benjamin Robinson, former fur trader in the Muskokas and member of the colonial legislature, to negotiate a treaty.

Robinson was issued a budget of £7,500 to buy as much land as possible. The Council expected Robinson to obtain the rights to a considerable amount of land in the upper lakes watershed and to settle for no less than “the north shore of Lake Huron and the mining sites along the eastern shore of Lake Superior.”

He visited the various Aboriginal communities in the Sault Ste. Marie area where representatives of nations living along the north shores of Lakes Superior and the Huron had gathered.

Treaty discussions began on September 4th at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s warehouse in Sault Ste. Marie.

Robinson told the gathered Aboriginal leaders that he was prepared to offer a onetime payment of £4,000 and a £1,000 per annum thereafter for the territory around the lakes. The leaders of Aboriginal nations living north of Lake Superior agreed to these terms.

However, those living around Lake Huron requested a £10 per person annuity and also a large reserve tract. Robinson said that he could not agree to those terms.

Since the Lake Huron nations could not be persuaded to change their position, Robinson negotiated a separate treaty with the Lake Superior nations.

The surrender included land along the north shore of Lake Superior, from Batchawana Bay west to Pigeon River and north to the height of the land, in consideration of a one-time payment of £2 000 and a £500 annum. The region’s Aboriginal inhabitants retained hunting and fishing rights in the territory until the lands were taken up for development or settlement and the lands would be set aside for each group as a reserve.

The Lake Superior chiefs agreed to the terms and the Robinson-Superior Treaty was signed on September 7th, 1850.

Robinson leveraged the fact that he had negotiated a treaty with the Lake Superior nations to reopen negotiations with the Lake Huron nations.

Robinson told the Lake Huron leaders that he would give the money he offered, a one-time payment of £2,000 and a £600 annum, to those nations that signed a treaty while he would leave the other nations empty-handed.

On September 9th, 1850,  the Lake Huron Aboriginal leaders acquiesced and a second treaty, now referred to as the Robinson-Huron Treaty, was signed at Sault Ste. Marie.

The Ojibwa Chiefs inhabiting the shore of Batchawan Bay on Lake Superior and the Canadian shores of Lake Huron signed the Robinson-Huron Treaty.

The surrender covered land along the shore of Lake Superior between Batchawana Bay and Sault Ste. Marie and the Lake Huron shore between Sault Ste. Marie and Penetanguishene, back from the lakeshore to the height of the land.

Like the Superior treaty, the Aboriginal peoples involved in the Huron treaty retained hunting and fishing rights in the territory until lands were taken up for development or settlement, and lands would be set aside for each group as a reserve.

While Robinson stated in his report that the Superior and Huron treaties were “based on the same conditions as all preceding ones”, in reality they are rather different.

The Robinson treaties differ in content from preceding land cessions in Upper Canada. Instead of negotiating for relatively small and compact parcels of land, the 1850 agreements surrender huge tracks of land with different and disparate groups.

Also, the Robinson Treaties changed the way annuity monies, obligatory yearly payments, were issued with payments in cash going to individual band members instead of yearly lump sums paid to the band in either goods or cash payments.

As had become the practice in the land cessions in Upper Canada since the 1820s, these two treaties formalised the setting aside of reserve lands for each individual signing group, although it does not clearly indicate the size of the reserve lands.

The Robinson Superior and Huron Treaties maintain an ongoing right to hunt and fish throughout the treaty territory so long as those lands are not “taken up” – set aside for mining and resource development, or for settlement.

While some earlier Upper Canada Land Surrender treaties did include some of these elements, the Robinson treaties were the first to bundle them all together. This model was deemed to be so effective that the Robinson treaties became the model for subsequent treaties conducted in the post-Confederation period.