It is reasonably plausible that some of the earliest western Ojibwe groups were inhabiting areas within the interior regions of what is now Ontario—and even parts of Minnesota and Manitoba—during the late Woodlands period (A.D. 1100-1600) prior to first contact with Europeans. While no written records exist for this time period, the cultural similarity between the Ojibwe and Cree, coupled with the Ojibwe oral tradition about their migration from the east, lends credence to the concept that the Ojibwe were inhabiting portions of this area by at least the late 1500s. Even so it isn’t until the 1640s, when Europeans start involving themselves in the region through early trading efforts and attempts to convert the local Indian populations, that we start seeing written records with details involving Ojibwa expansion and settlement.
By the late seventeenth century the fur trade in the Upper Great Lakes region was expanding and following the Iroquois wars, more and more Ojibwe were reported to be moving westward — often acting as middlemen for the Europeans during the 1640s and 1650s. During this time, the Ojibwe were rapidly expanding around both the northern and southern shores of Lake Superior and were starting to displace the Cree and Assiniboine in many places where they had previously co-existed. Much of this expansion happened because the eastern bands that were moving into the region west of Lake Superior had access to trade goods and guns which they were able to trade to their fellow Ojibwe already present in the region. This provided the Ojibwe momentum to stretch their power even more and created a system that saw the absorption of some of the Cree groups into their network by the early 1700s, and by the 1730s, the main portion of the Cree population was moving westward while the Ojibwe were infilling into former Cree territories around places like Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Red Lake, Lake Winnipeg, and other large lakes in the region.
By the middle to late 1700s, Ojibwe groups were firmly established in what is now Manitoba, Minnesota, northern and eastern North Dakota, and beyond. European traders felt safe enough to begin their own westward expansion with new posts established in the Red River and other western locations starting in the late 1700s. In addition to the expansion of the Europeans into the region, the rise of the Metis Nation — resulting from the long association of the Ojibwe, Cree, and Assiniboine with the European traders — saw a rapid expansion in population as well, helping the Ojibwe expand even further west as many of these Metis descendants remained close with their maternal Indian communities, hunting and warring alongside them.
Starting around 1850, Ojibwe communities began to diverge due to increased pressure from European settlers intent on occupying their lands in Manitoba, Ontario, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Some groups moved north to escape this pressure, becoming aligned with the Cree and continuing a subsistence hunting lifestyle. Communities in Ontario signed treaties and were fast relegated to reserves. In Minnesota, much of the Ojibwe lands were swindled and the bands were forced to accept reservations and rely on government issued annuities for survival. In North Dakota and Manitoba the Ojibwe were able to remain more independent for a time — hunting west into what is now Montana and Saskatchewan with their Metis relatives before finally being forced to cede their lands and move to reservations during the late 1800s.
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Bishop, Charles A. 1974. “Northern Ojibwa and the Fur Trade: An Historical and Ecological Study.” Cultures and Communities, a Series of Monographs : Native Peoples. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada.
Benton-Banai, Edward. 1979. “Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway.” [St. Paul, Minn.: Indian Country Press].
Hickerson, Harold. 1974. “Ethnohistory of Chippewa of Lake Superior.” American Indian Ethnohistory : North Central and Northeastern Indians. New York: Garland Pub. Inc.
Hickerson, Harold. 1988. “Chippewa and Their Neighbors: A Study in Ethnohistory.” Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities