A 19th Century Voting Rights Story

Posted by ractrose on 28 Aug 2019 in Nonfiction

Oil pastel drawing of falling figures



Excerpted from The History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians…  Andrew J. Blackbird, The Ypsilanti Job Printing House, 1887


So after one payment of the treaty of 1855, late in the fall of 1856, I went up to Mr. Gilbert, who was then Indian agent, and made known to him my intention, and asked him if he would aid me towards completing my education, by arranging for me to receive the benefit of our educational fund, which was set apart at the last council for the education of the Indians in this state. But he would not. He bluffed me off by saying he was sorry I had voted the “black republican ticket”, at the general election, which took place in the fall of 1856. This was the first time that the Indians ever voted on general election. Mr. Gilbert was at North Port, Grand Traverse, on election day, managing the Indian votes there, and he sent a young man to Little Traverse to manage the voting there, and sit as one of the board at the Little Traverse election. He sent the message to Indians to vote no other ticket than the democratic ticket. At this election there were only two republican votes in Little Traverse, one of which was cast by myself. As I was depositing my ballot, this young man was so furiously enraged at me he fairly gnashed his teeth, at which I was very much surprised, and from my companion they tried to take away the ticket. We went out quickly, as we did not wish to stay in this excitement. At that time I felt almost sorry for my people, the Indians, for ever being citizens of the state, as I thought they were much happier without these elections.

[In an earlier chapter, Blackbird recounts how white settlers had told the Indians, that as they received treaty payments from the government, they were not entitled to be U.S. citizens.]

After payment of our annuities, as the vessel was about starting off to take the Indian agent to Mackinac, they had already hoisted the sails, although there was not much wind, and I thought, this was the last chance to get to Mackinac. As I looked toward the vessel I wept, for I felt terribly downcast. As they were going very slowly toward the harbor point, I asked one of the Indian youngsters to take me and my trunk in a canoe to the vessel out there. I had now determined to go, in defiance of every opposition, to seek my education.*

I hurried to our house with the boy to get my trunk and bid good bye to my aged father, and told him I was going again, to some school outside, and if God permitted I hoped to return again to Little Traverse. All my father said was, “Well, son, if you think it is best, go.” And away we went. We overtook the vessel somewhere opposite Little Portage, and as I came aboard the agent’s face turned red. He said, “Are you going?” I said, “Yes, sir, I am going.” So nothing more was said. The greater part of the night was spent by the agent and the captain gambling with cards, by which the agent lost considerable money. We arrived the next day at Mackinac, and again I approached the Indian agent with request if he could possibly arrange for me to have the benefit of our Indian educational fund, set apart for that purpose at the council of Detroit, 1855; and again he brought up the subject of my voting. Then I was beginning to feel out of humor, and I spoke rather abruptly to him, saying, “Well, sir, I now see clearly that you don’t care about doing anything for my welfare because I voted for the republican party. But politics have nothing to do with my education; for the Government of the United States owes us that amount of money, not politics. I was one of the councilors when the treaty was being made, and I will see some other men about this matter, sir.” His face turned all purple, and as I was turning about to keep away from him, he called me back, saying, “Mr. Blackbird, how far do you intend to go to get your education?” I said, “I intend to go to Ann Arbor University, sir.” “Well, I will do this much for you; I will pay your fare to Detroit. I am going by way of Chicago, but you can go down by the next boat, which will be here soon from Chicago.” I thanked him, and he handed me money enough to pay my fare to Detroit.


*Indians are now forbidden to leave their reservations without permission from the agent, so no ambitious and determined youth can now escape from the Indian Bureau machine. [Editor comment, 1887]


Published through the Ypsilanti Auxiliary of the Women’s National Indian Association.





The above, aside from showing differences between America’s chief political parties as they were in the 1850s, and are now, shows also how the concept of the secret ballot has come full circle. Blackbird and his friend were intimidated and punished for voting contrary to orders; their choice being either to vote as they chose, accepting the fear of retaliation, or to help elect a candidate they did not support. Today we may well have the opposite concern. We have the secret ballot; we’re taught again and again how sacred this is. Yet what secrecy protects, it also conceals. When electronic voting machines are hackable, and parties in control of the electoral process are slow, if not openly inimical to, fixing the problem; and when other dodges are practiced, such as gerrymandering and “irregularities” in mail-in balloting, the voter’s best defense against cheating may be an open ballot.

Not, of course, literally. Thuggery still takes place. But, voluntarily, for those willing to shoulder it, a polling station selfie, with the tag, “I just voted for———!”, might help provide backup numbers, especially in small precincts, where the truth is harder to hide.




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