Return to Mooningwanekaaning

Last October, my wife and I decided to make trip back to Madeline Island to celebrate our anniversary. We had been there several years ago and really enjoyed our time there. I also wanted to go back because the Madeline Island Museum was closed last time and I wanted to see if they had any information about my ancestors.

We stayed in Bayfield and took the ferry out to LaPointe. The museum was open this time. I told a staffer at the front desk that my great-great-great grandparents were married there. She offered to make photocopies of pages from the marriage register, which had been compiled and typed from the original register. I got a copy of the page listing the marriage of Pierre Trotochaud to Angelique Masset (or Massey) by Father Baraga in 1843. Interestingly, Angelique was listed by her mother’s maiden name and not Blair.

While touring the museum, I stopped to talk with an elder from the nearby Red Cliff Reservation named Rob who worked there. I told Rob about the marriage record. He said the names sounded familiar to him. Then he showed me a photo of a book on his phone, “All Our Relations”. Rob suggested I check it out to see if I could learn more about my family.

Rob went on to tell me about the importance of the island (called Mooningwanekaaning in Ojibwe, referring to home of the yellow-shafted flicker) to the Ojibwe. He told me that many of the people who migrated from the island to Sandy Lake, where Angelique was from, were of the Loon Clan. Rob explained that, although the Ojibwe had dispersed from Mooningwanekaaning to reservations established by the treaties, they still considered the island their spiritual home. Rob pointed out that many of Catholic Indians continued to return to the island to have their children baptized and to be married. He mentioned two children buried at the Catholic church who perished at Sandy Lake and their parents buried them at LaPointe. (These were Clem Beaulieu’s two daughters who died in 1845.) I enjoyed my visit with Rob and told him I hoped to see him again.

When I got home I immediately reserved a copy of “All Our Relations” from the local library. Rob was right: the book had information about our family. The book includes records of interviews conducted at LaPointe after the Treaty of 1837. The government was trying to determine who was eligible for a payment to mixed bloods that was provided for in the treaty.

One of the interviewees was Margaret Bles (Blai or Blais), who was born at Pine River in Iowa Territory, which at that time included most of what is now Minnesota. She had resided at Sandy Lake “until within the last 2 months.” The entry went on to say that she married a man named Alexis Bles “13 or 14 years since”, which would be about 1825. The marriage produced 5 children: Angelique, 11 yrs old; Antoine 10; Joseph 8; Edouard 6; and Alexander 4. Antoine had been born at Mille Lacs and Joseph at Leech Lake; the other three children were born at or near Sandy Lake. This record matches the names and approximate ages of the Blairs in our family tree. The record also mentions that Alexis had died “4 years since.” This would be about 1835.

The book also includes information about a man named Alexis Blais who appeared before the Indian agent in 1828. He was one of three men who were ordered out of Indian country the previous year because they did not have licenses to trade in Indian country. The men were summoned to Sault Ste. Marie by the agent, none other than Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the “discoverer” of the Mississippi headwaters. The episode is documented in Schoolcraft’s “Personal Memoirs”, which includes parts of his daily journals. Schoolcraft wrote that Alexis “pleaded ignorance” to the laws pertaining to traders and Indian country. Schoolcraft’s journal implies that Alexis was the subject of a complaint by “Mr. Aikin” at Sandy Lake. That would be William Aitkin, the trader who ran the American Fur Company post there. During the interview, Alexis guessed that he would not have gotten in trouble if he had worked for Aitkin instead of independently. According to Schoolcraft, Alexis “did not desire to return to the Indian country”.

If Alexis Blais did leave the area in 1828, he would not have fathered Margaret’s younger children. In her interview at LaPointe Margaret claimed he died around 1835, which suggests he did not leave after meeting with Schoolcraft but returned to his family.

This experience has finally cleared up the mystery of who Alexis Blais (Alexander Blair) was and gives me a better picture of what life was like for Margaret and her children. It appears they moved wherever Alexis could make a living, with stops at Leech Lake and Mille Lacs. It is fascinating to to know that our ancestors interacted with historic figures like Schoolcraft, Baraga and Aitkin.

Mooningwanekaaning was important to the family; Margaret and her children were baptized there by Father Baraga later in 1839 (documented in “All Our Relations”). Now the island holds a special place in my heart, too.

Marking Time

24B92C05-3845-4D72-BA12-4E30BF257C5DIn this time of COVID-19, many are learning to slow down, take more notice of things around them and appreciate what they have. Even for me, someone who has been retired for several years and has all the time in the world, there seems to be a slower pace.

This Spring I’ve been doing what I do every spring: checking out the emergence of the plants and animals that tell us winter is over and summer is on its way. This is known as phenology, “the rhythmic biological nature of events as they relate to climate” to quote my friend John Latimer. John does a weekly phenology report on Northern Community Radio ( wherein he discusses his observations. He also does a “daily dose of phenology” in which he looks back at his records to see what was happening on a given date. It’s sounds geeky (and it is) but its a great way to relate to the land around us and remember we are a part of something bigger.

I have been trying to keep phenology records for the past few years but often am too rushed to remember what I saw and write it down. But this year, I find myself taking the time everyday, not just some days, to notice what is happening in the natural world. I’ve challenged myself to find something new everyday or at least write down something I saw or heard, that got my attention. I made some early observations in March but I didn’t start writing things down everyday until a few weeks ago. Here is my daily log for the Spring so far, including observations while at work, but mostly at home:


27: hepatica beginning to bloom

28: rue anemone, marsh marigold beginning to bloom; first-of-the-year (FOY) white-throated sparrow

29: aspen catkins dropping

30: sandhill cranes calling from the cattail slough (see home page photo)


1: snowberry, chokecherry leafing out

2: leatherwood leafing out

3: bellwort emerging; wood anemone flowering

4: FOY phoebe

5: Pennsylvania sedge flowering

6: wild ginger flowering

7: aspens leafing out

8: red maples leafing out; cattails emerging

9: FOY warblers: “butter butt” (yellow-rumped), palm, pine (observed at Big Sand Lake access)

10: green ash flowering

11: large-leaved aster emerging

12: FOY spring azure and fritillary butterflies, black and white warbler (Greenwater Lake Scientific and Natural Area)

13: oak trees flowering

14: FOY yellow warbler

15: FOY Baltimore oriole

16: trilliums have emerged, ready to bloom

17: wild plum blooming; FOY sharp-shinned hawk (Big Sand Lake access)

The natural world keeps on keeping on, regardless of what is happening in the “human” world. We get busy creating our own reality with work, politics, sports, celebrity gossip, etc. We seem to be in a competition to see who can accumulate the most, which really means using up and throwing away the most.

COVID-19 is a reminder that the natural world is the “real” reality and still is in charge. We may think we control our destiny, that the world exists for us to exploit. Along comes a bit of protein-coated RNA, (see my post “Virus”) one of millions of viruses that exist in nature, and our world is turned upside down.

We are not in control. Nature is, always has been, always will be.





Shivaree in the Judiths

shivaree noun
shiv·​a·​ree | \ ˌshi-və-ˈrē , ˈshi-və-ˌrē\
Definition of shivaree: a noisy mock serenade to a newly married couple. In 19th century rural America, a newly-married couple might be treated to a mock serenade, performed with pots, pans, homemade instruments, and other noisemakers. In much of the central U.S. and Canada, … it was called a “shivaree,” a loan from French charivari, which denotes the same folk custom in France. 

In 1989, my grandparents invited me to hunt deer with them in the Judith Mountains near Lewistown, Montana. My family had been hunting there since the 1950s and I grew up hearing dozens of stories about their hunts and the beautiful, historic area. Living a few hours away in Idaho at the time, I jumped at the chance to tag along.

Our family hunted on the Abbott Ranch on the eastern edge of the Judiths near the ghost town of Gilt Edge. The owners were direct descendants of “Teddy Blue” Abbott, who had come north from Texas on longhorn cattle drives. Abbott worked for Granville Stuart, a prominent Montana pioneer, on his ranch and eventually married his daughter. Teddy Blue’s memoir, We Pointed Them North, was published just before his death in 1939. Teddy Blue was a good friend of Charlie Russell as well as Calamity Jane.

I met Grandpa and Grandma, as well as Grandpa’s cousins Stan and Edwin Tuve, along with Edwin’s wife Marie, at the Lewistown VFW. Because I had run out of gas on the way, I was about 3 hours late and the party was on. Eventually, we made it out to the ranch and set up camp near the outbuildings.

The next morning, Grandpa posted me at the top of a draw and he and Grandma, ages 69 and 66 respectively, made a drive for me. That is, they walked up the draw to kick deer out toward me. I got my deer right away. Afterward, while we were waiting for someone to come with the pickup to load the deer, Grandpa and I sat in the meadow and passed a bottle between us. After listening to Grandpa’s stories about Montana deer hunts all my life, I could not believe I was there with them, a part of it all.

Later that day, I was assigned again to post along with Grandma. As we were walking toward the ridge where we were to position ourselves, a deer came bounding over the top of the ridge at full speed. Mule deer, unlike whitetails, tend to run stiff-legged, making it look like they are bouncing across the ground. They do not seem fast but they’re still tough to hit. I watched Grandma pull up her Winchester .32 Special and drop the deer with one shot from about 60 yards. It was well known in the family that Grandma was the best shot; I got to confirm that in person!

The rest of the hunt was a lot of fun as we had little trouble filling our tags. As the only non-senior citizen in camp, I was obliged to do most of the dressing and dragging of deer. I didn’t mind the work one bit. It was on the warm side for October, so we skinned the deer and hung them in one of the ranch sheds.

It was the perfect weekend: beautiful weather, gorgeous central Montana scenery, Grandma’s delicious cooking and great stories around the fire. Grandpa and Grandma’s 49th wedding anniversary happened to fall during the weekend. As they were in the camper preparing supper that night, the group got together some pots and pans and lids and spoons and shivareed them! We kept up the racket until Grandma and Grandpa came out of the camper and gave us a kiss. We celebrated with a beautiful cake baked by Mrs. Abbott in a wall tent also provided by the Abbotts.

Little did I know this would be my last hunt with them. I never got back to Minnesota to hunt with them before Grandma “retired” and Grandpa passed away. I will always treasure the memory of this hunt.


We lost Grandma Arleen last week, at the age of 96. She is at the center of so many of my memories; it’s hard to imagine life without her. These last few years I was able to visit her often and listen to her stories. I am grateful for the time with her. Now she is back with Grandpa, on another grand adventure.




Prosperity and Hard Times in Callaway

I have been studying this photo for quite awhile because I think it tells a story.

Spry family home

The photo appears to have been made around 1900. Mitchell and Amelia had been working their farm for about 25 years. In that time, they had managed to build a relatively large, well-appointed home complete with window shutters and landscaping.

The way his family is posed in front of his house suggests that Mitchell wanted to show the world he was prospering. He had come along way from his poor beginnings in Quebec. His family looks healthy and well-clothed. This was no snapshot; the photographer composed the photo carefully. The message is clear: this family is successful.

We do not know much more about Mitchell and Amelia’s life. We know that Mitchell and Amelia served on committees organizing the White Earth Celebration back in 1888, according to the The Progress, White Earth’s newspaper. We know Mitchell was one of five men who signed (Mitchell with an X) for a 90-day note for $700 for construction of the Catholic church in Callaway in 1909 (from Assumption Catholic Church’s centennial booklet).

One other source of information on the family is the Becker County Recorder’s office. These records indicate Mitchell and Amelia mortgaged the farm in 1907 and satisfied that debt in 1908. The deed records include several entries indicating the Sprys, including sons Henry and Peter, may have been speculating on lots in the newly platted town of Callaway. Callaway sprung up on a former Indian allotment along the Soo Line railroad, about 3 miles from the Spry farm. Henry and his brother-in-law Eusebe obtained a “town lot deed” in 1908 from Tri-State Land Co. for a lot in Callaway; this may have been where they established their store.

The deed records indicate Pete and his wife Addie sold Pete’s original 80-acre allotment along the Buffalo River to Annie Reinhardt, wife of Henry who owned the flour mill in Richwood. Presumably, Pete then farmed with Mitchell and his brothers for a time. In 1917, Pete and Addie bought Mitchell and Amelia’s farm with $1500 in financing from his parents and another $500 borrowed from his brother Henry. Pete and Addie raised their ten kids on this farm.

That same year, the U.S. entered World War I. Farm prices grew stronger during the war, as demand increased to feed war-torn Europe and the hungry soldiers overseas. Wheat prices increased from $1.03 per bushel in 1914 to $2.34 in 1919, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Land prices also doubled in value, and farmers found it relatively easy to obtaining financing to expand their operations.

In 1920, Pete and Addie obtained a $4000 mortgage from Security State Bank in Detroit Lakes and a $300 second mortgage from Citizens State Bank in Callaway. They used these funds to pay off their debts to Pete’s parents and brother.

After the war ended and as European countries began to recover, crop surpluses began to build. Burdened with debt, farmers were reluctant to reduce production and crop prices began to drop. By 1920, wheat was down to $1.65 per bushel. With reduced demand, land prices also declined. Soon, farmers were unable to make their mortgage payments. Between 1926 and 1932, foreclosures took 1,442 farms in Minnesota. The farm crisis also precipitated bank failures, including Security State Bank and Citizens State Bank.

In 1924, Pete and Addie obtained a $6000 mortgage from the State of Minnesota. This mortgage may have been issued by the Department of Rural Credit, formed by the state in response to bank failures. The couple apparently used this financing to satisfy the previous mortgages, which were then held by Northwestern Trust Company.

In 1927, the State of Minnesota foreclosed on Pete and Addie. A sheriff’s sale was held on June 11, 1927. It does not appear that there were any successful bidders, as the 1929 county atlas still listed the State of Minnesota as the owner of the farm and the 1930 census indicated they were renting the farm. The home Mitchell and Amelia built and were so proud of was still home for Pete and Addy, but it was not theirs anymore.

Another photo of the Mitchell Spry family, taken around 1920, tells another story.

Mitchell Spry Family

Back: Eliza Spry Bellefeuille, Amelia Spry Bellefeuille, Lawrence Spry, Madeline Spry Trepp, Ellen Spry Bowman. Front: Henry Spry, Mitchell Spry, Amelia Trotochaud Spry, Frank Spry. Missing: Peter Spry

Here the adult children surround Mitchell and Amelia, perhaps on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. Again, this portrait depicts a prosperous family. But Peter is not in the portrait. According to family lore, he was too busy working in the fields to sit in on the photo. This story suggests that Pete did not lose the farm for lack of effort.

The 1940 census indicates Pete and Addie had moved into Callaway sometime after 1935. Pete served as city treasurer and also served on the school board. Oldest son Ray, his wife Abby and their kids Russell and Donna were staying with Pete and Addie in 1940. The youngest boys, Lee and Bunt, were still living at home. Soon they would be off serving in World War II. Elmer would serve, too.

The 1940 census has Uncles Ernie and Elmer living in Grand Portage. Uncle Ernie joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and helped build the replica trading post at Grand Portage. A historian researching the CCC in Minnesota interviewed Ernie in 1982 about growing up during the Depression. He recalled the whole family out picking potatoes in farmers’ fields for $3 a day.

Pete and Addie’s oldest daughter Ethelbert had married Lauren Brandvig of Nebraska and was living in Minneapolis and working at Woolworth’s (1937). Doris had married Joe Zurn; Joe was a truck driver who owned his own truck in 1940. Rena was married to Dan Clark, who was working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was building roads and public buildings. Lenora was married to Lyle Bryngelson, who worked for Cass-Clay Creamery; they were living in Moorhead in 1936. Lenora’s twin, Leonard “Bud” Spry was my grandpa. In 1940, he and wife Irene (Diz) and my dad Jerry lived in Callaway and Bud worked at Paul Johnson’s bee farm.

Spry sisters

Rena, Doris, Ethelbert and Lenora Spry, daughters of Pete and Addie

L to R_ Ervin, Elmer, LeeDespite a disastrous farm economy and the Great Depression, Pete and Addie managed to raise their kids and send them off into the world to start their own families. Pete lost Addie in 1944 at the age of 65. Pete lived the rest of his life in Callaway in a house on the south side of town. He passed away in 1971, at the age of 88.


In 1982, I came home to Callaway on Spring Break and helped my dad tear down Great-Grandpa Pete’s house to make room for a new house to be built by cousin Ernie Clark. I remember working alone in the old house, knocking out plaster walls and taking out studs that Dad would recycle for other projects. I remember finding a report card in one wall; it was Henry’s from his time at Carlisle Indian School. I gave it to Aunt Rena for safekeeping. As I worked, I wondered about Grandpa Pete. I couldn’t say I really knew him; I was 10 when he passed away.

As I said in an earlier post, the Sprys did not have a lot of stories about their ancestors. Researching my family history has filled in some holes in our story. Although I did not find a lot of details, I was able to align the facts I could find with events in the history of White Earth and of Minnesota. This gave me a better idea of what our ancestors experienced. Hopefully, our family now has a better sense of where we come from.

What I Learned at the National Archives, Chicago


The “Bean” at Millenium Park, Chicago

There was still snow on the ground and ice on the lake in the last week of April when I traveled to Chicago to do some research for my book project. Although I had planned the trip to gather information for that project, I knew it would also be an opportunity to research our family’s history further. The Chicago unit of the National Archives holds records for the midwestern U.S., including Bureau of Indian Affairs records for White Earth and other reservations.

I spent an entire day at the Archives, and was able to access official correspondence to the Indian agent at White Earth as far back as the 1870s. I found the official record showing that Amelia Trotochaud Spry had “proved up” her land on the reservation prior to the allotment era. This process was spelled out in the 1867 treaty, whereby tribal members could claim 40 acres by breaking ground on 10 acres. Up to 160 acres could be claimed this way.  The record book had a total of 71 entries; Amelia’s 160-acre claim was 15th in the list, with the date of August 18, 1878. The location has the same legal description as the allotment she received under the Nelson Act of 1889. (In Amelia’s case the allotment was a formality.)

The Archives have the original receipt book kept by the Indian agent to record annuity goods handed out to tribal members. I found an entry dated August 8, 1874 for receipt of 11 lbs. of pork, 49 lbs. of flour and 10 lbs. of sugar issued to Angelique Blair (Mrs. Pierre Trotochaud). A week later, another entry had 4.5 lbs. of pork and 24.5 lbs. of flour being issued to Mitchell Spry. As these were the only entries in the book for members of our family, it suggests they needed some initial supplies when they got to White Earth. This means the Trotochauds and Sprys at White Earth in late July or early August of 1874. Amelia was about 5 months pregnant with Liza; Frank was 3 years old and Henry about 18 months.

The Archives also hold the original annuity rolls, which were used to record membership in the tribe. The members are listed under their respective chiefs; The Trotochauds and Sprys are listed under “O-muck-kuck-keence”. Interestingly, John Johnson Sr. is listed under the same chief. This could be Enmegabowh, the famous Episcopalian missionary. If so, it begs the question what if any relationship our family may have had with him.

The annuity rolls list all of the eligible children of each tribal member. These records appear to be at least as accurate as the census records in terms of names and ages. However, they reveal the names of additional children born to Amelia and Mitchell. The 1881 roll lists Josephine, born that year. The 1898 roll lists Matilda, age 3 but notes that she died in 1897. I seem to recall seeing a grave marker for her at Calvary Cemetery near the old mission.

The rolls also list Albert, born in 1886. He is listed in all of the rolls I reviewed up to 1898. He is also listed in all the censuses up to 1901, when he would have been 15. Then he disappears. Could he have run away? Or had a tragic accident? I did a search for Albert Spry on and found incidences of that name in papers throughout the country. Many were from the East Coast and were likely associated with the English name Spry. His name does not show up in any Minnesota newspapers. There were several references to an Albert Spry, an electrician in Arizona, who was convicted of larceny. Because other Spry cousins moved to Arizona to work in the mines, this could be a match for our Albert. However, this Albert, while the right age, claimed to have been born in California. Our Albert will remain a mystery, at least for now.

Finally, the Archives provide records of the additional allotments made to tribal members at White Earth as a result of the 1904 Steenerson Act. This act allowed all members who previously had only received 80 acres under the original Nelson Act to obtain another 80. The records show that my great-grandfather Peter, who had 80 acres next to Henry east of Callaway, selected an additional 80 acres about 2 miles east of Waubun. Youngest brother Lawrence selected 80 acres north of Ogema. Sisters Ellen and Madeleine selected land northwest of Ogema. All of these parcels appear to have been prairie that could be converted to farmland. Their sister Amelia received an allotment south of Big Sugarbush Lake. This was likely hardwood forest at the time, although about half of this parcel is now cleared and farmed. The allotment records are numbered, presumably in chronological order. All of these allotments issued to Sprys were numbered between 983 and 990. Because these parcels were far flung from their original allotments, it seems likely the Spry siblings rented them out or sold them.

Oldest sister Eliza, at that time married to Eusebe Bellefeuille, received additional allotment no. 225, which could mean she was in line on the day back 1905 when the government started issuing allotments (see my previous post). This parcel was located northeast of Waubun and was probably a mix of oak woods and prairie. Because these parcels were far flung from their original allotments, it seems likely the Spry siblings rented them out or sold them.

Among the records in the Archives I came across an affadavit signed by Peter (brother Henry was the second witness but his signature is absent) on behalf of “Zephine” Bellefeuille. Presumably this was Zephyr, his brother-in-law.This affadavit verified that Zephyr was a mixed-blood tribal member and was required to be submitted as part of an application for fee-simple patent for his additional allotment.  This was usually a preliminary step to selling the land. Based on the legal description, the additional allotment no. 261 received by Zephyr was located just west of Bad Medicine Lake. This was very likely pine land. Other Bellefeuilles and some Trotochauds also received additional allotments on the pine lands in the eastern part of the reservation.

IMG_0049Finally, I reviewed records associated with the land fraud claims and investigations made at White Earth in the early 1900s. I came across a record (case no. 145) wherein Lawrence Spry mortgaged his additional allotment in 1909 for $800 to the Homestead Real Estate Loan Co. It is not clear whether this was proven to be a case of fraud (Lawrence was 18 or 19 at the time).

My time at the National Archives gave me a glimpse into some details of our family history. The records confirm the Sprys did not benefit from the scandals related to the pine lands. Their focus seemed to be on farming. Nevertheless, they were witness to major changes on the reservation in the late 1800s and early 1900s.



“A Model Reservation”

Callaway TWP

When we last visited Mitchell and Amelia Trotochaud Spry, they were settled on a farm in the southern part of the White Earth reservation. Amelia’s parents Pierre and Angeline settled nearby on land north of Richwood. Amelia’s siblings married into other early families at White Earth, with names including McDougall, LaDoux, Blue, Vizenor, Pelland, Roy and Fairbanks.

The earliest histories of White Earth describe it as a thriving community and a success story, at least from the government’s perspective.  In fact, prominent leaders in Minnesota like Henry Rice were advocating the relocation of all the Ojibwe in Minnesota to White Earth. These designs were as much about getting at reservation land as they were about “civilizing” the Indians. The lumber companies in St. Paul were clamoring for access to virgin timber on the reservations. Meanwhile, the rapid settlement of the Red River Valley to the west had created demand for opening up the western parts of the White Earth and Red Lake reservations to create more cropland for whites.

In 1889, Minnesota Congressman Knute Nelson sponsored legislation to consolidate all the Ojibwe at White Earth and assign 160-acre allotments (first authorized by the Dawes Act of 1887) to individual Indians. The intent of the law was to allow homesteading of “excess” lands by white settlers. But even before the excess lands could be sold off, the allotment process was corrupted. Rules were changed, enabling whites and mixed-bloods with little or no connection to the bands at White Earth to claim allotments. This story has been documented in a book, The White Earth Tragedy by Melissa Meyer.

Among those who benefited were the Beaulieus, headed by Clement H. Beaulieu, the oldest son of Bazil Beaulieu, an old trader from LaPointe. Clem’s mother was a Lake Superior Ojibwe, and her son used the extensive connections of both his parents to build a thriving trading business in Crow Wing. Clem Beaulieu’s sister Margaret had married Martin Bisson, another French-Canadian trader. They had been among the first families to homestead at Belle Prairie, a community a few miles downriver from Crow Wing. The Bissons migrated back to Quebec during the Civil War years; when they came back, they brought two sons-in-law with them. One was Theodore Bellefeuille, who married Sophie Bisson in 1855. Theodore and Sophie settled at Belle Prairie and began raising a large family. Theodore’s brother Raphael also settled there.

As descendants of Lake Superior Ojibwe, the Beaulieus were not eligible for allotments at White Earth. But Clem Beaulieu successfully argued that he and his family became eligible when the 1854 treaty with the Lake Superior Ojibwe allowed band members living at Sandy Lake and Crow Wing to switch bands. Under this arrangement, the Beaulieus and their relatives, including the Bellefeuilles became eligible to receive allotments at White Earth.

Theodore and Sophie Bellefeuille moved to White Earth and claimed an allotment not far from Mitchell and Amelia Spry. Two Bellefeuille sons, Antoine and George, who had married and started families, also moved to White Earth. The Bellefeuilles and Sprys, being neighbors and sharing a French-Canadian cultural background, became close and several marriages between the families occurred. Another son of Theodore and Sophie,  Eusebe, married Lizzie Spry, Mitchell and Amelia’s oldest daughter in 1891. Lizzie’s brother Henry married Eusebe’s little sister Georgiana. Bellefeuille cousins, children of Raphael, also married Spry siblings: Josephene married Frank and Jonas married Amelia. Finally, in 1905, Peter Spry, my great-grandfather, married Adelaide, the daughter of Antoine and granddaughter of Theodore. All of the Bellefeuilles (over 40 individuals) received allotments. Early applicants received 160 acres each; beginning in 1891 the government reduced the allotment size to 80 acres.

Meanwhile, other developments at White Earth were leading to more Indians losing their land to whites. In 1902, Congress passed a law allowing Indian heirs to sell allotments they had inherited. In 1904, the so-called Clapp Rider enabled tribal members to sell timber from their allotments. Also in 1904, the Steenerson Act was passed to allow allottees who only received 80 acres to claim another 80. The two laws, passed a week apart, opened the doors to speculators and lumber companies.

The day before the additional allotments were to be made in the spring of 1905, people lined up outside the agency. Many had prepared by scouting out locations where there was merchantable timber.  Ojibwe descendants from all over the country came in hopes of acquiring valuable property. The “full-blood” Indians protested and attempts were made to give them an equal chance by forming a second line. But the net result was most of the choice pine lands being awarded to mixed-bloods of certain families who were connected to the lumber companies. When the full-bloods complained, government officials said the mixed-bloods had shown initiative and demonstrated they were adapting to the white world. The full-bloods were dismissed as lazy.

Were any of our relatives in line that day? The Minnesota Historical Society has a Becker County plat book dating from 1911 that shows several Sprys, Bellefeuilles and Trotochauds owning parcels east of White Earth in the forested part of the reservation. These allotments may have been selected for these family members, some of whom were children, by relatives or unrelated brokers. Most of these tracts were located around Big Sugarbush and Strawberry Lakes, which was dominated by hardwood forest with few pines. By 1911, the lumber companies had already acquired most of the valuable pine lands further east.

The government further eroded the Ojibwe land base in 1906 when a second Clapp Rider passed, allowing mixed-bloods to sell their allotments outright. Wanting to share in the bounty, full-bloods signed affidavits claiming they were mixed bloods so they could sell. Many allottees were swindled out of their land. Subsequent investigations identified Gus Beaulieu, son of Clem, and B.L. Fairbanks as the leading brokers who arranged fraudulent allotment sales to the lumber companies.

In 1911, a group of White Earth Indian leaders petitioned the Indian Office to have 86 people removed from the rolls, including Gus Beaulieu and B.L. Fairbanks. The group was well aware of the damage done by the mixed-blood brokers and wanted to punish them. Also included were 43 members of the Bellefeuille family, for reasons that are not clear. The Bellefeuilles did not seem to be involved in the fraudulent sales or tribal politics.

The Bellefeuilles may have been included because it was believed they had no connection to the White Earth Ojibwe, their only association being with the Beaulieu family. The Indian Office, beginning to recognize the role that certain mixed-bloods played in the allotment scheme, heard the full-bloods’ complaints and suspended the 86 individuals. None of the Sprys was included in the list even though we were affiliated with the same Lake Superior band as the Beaulieus and Bellefeuilles. Perhaps the White Earth leaders knew our family was connected to the Blairs and Trotochauds, who had lived among the Ojibwe at Sandy Lake and Little Rock.  The government reversed itself and reinstated all 86 in 1916.

By that point, much of the reservation land had been transferred to whites. The Indians that had not adapted to farming could no longer count on traditional subsistence without a land base. Extreme poverty and despair followed. The people of White Earth are still burdened by this history as they struggle to build a future.

As for the Sprys, their modest farm, supplemented by what local game they could harvest, enabled them to raise their family. Pete and Adelaide took over the farm from Mitchell and Amelia and raised their ten children there. Uncle Henry opened a store with his Bellefeuille in-laws in Callaway, a new town founded in 1907 where the railroad crossed the southern boundary of the reservation. Most of the rest of the Sprys had left the area by the 1930s. The Sprys who remained on the reservation continued to live close to the land as hunters, fishers and berry-pickers. Those traditions continue in our family today.


Henry Spry, Theodore Bellefeuille, Georgiana Bellefeuille Spry, Lizzie Spry Bellefeuille, Eusebe Bellefeuille, Antoine Bellefeuille in front of their store in Callaway.


Rez Plumbers


June 1977: In a community center in the village of Naytahwaush three old ladies were sitting in a circle, quietly conversing while they hand-sewed a quilt. I recognized one of them as Mrs. Keahna, the Ojibwe woman who came to our school the previous winter to demonstrate making traditional black-ash baskets. Downstairs in the basement of the former schoolhouse, Grandpa and I were putting in a new water heater, struggling to convert the old cast-iron lines to copper to make the connections. While I waited for him to signal me to turn the water on, Grandpa went upstairs to check the pressure at the sink. After the test, Grandpa walked past the old women on his way back downstairs. They grew quiet for a moment as he made his way down. Then I heard one of them say something in Ojibwe and they all tittered like schoolgirls.

Grandpa Ray was a man of many talents and many jobs. He was adept at stringing together just enough part-time work to pay the bills but not so much as to interfere with his hunting and fishing.  Of course it helped that Grandma Arleen worked full-time running their crop insurance business.  One of Grandpa’s part-time gigs was as a plumber for the tribal housing authority on the White Earth reservation. I spent my high school summers working for him as a plumber’s helper.

We split our time between new housing projects and service calls at existing homes, community centers and other facilities.  I liked working on new home construction best. The first step was reviewing the blueprints and figuring out what fittings and lengths of pipe we needed. Then we did the “rough-in”, starting with the PVC drain lines and stubbing the water supply lines into what would be the kitchen and bathroom. We came back several weeks later, after the drywall was installed and painted to set fixtures and hook everything up. By the end of the summer, I got proficient enough that Grandpa would have me doing nearly all the work in the crawlspace. Working on the new homes was predictable and easy because everything was new. There was also satisfaction in knowing that, in some cases, we were helping provide the first homes with indoor plumbing for some families.

Doing service calls around the reservation was anything but predictable. The work could range from fixing a leaky faucet in a mobile home to retrofitting old plumbing in a disused building being converted to a new use. Our supervisor, Bill Englund, did his best to brief us on the assignments for the day. Bill and Grandpa were hunting and fishing buddies from way back and liked to start the day with cups of coffee and the latest news and gossip. I still can picture Bill, his arms resting on the side of the pickup box out in the housing authority’s parking lot, telling stories in his low, gruff voice. Bill spoke with a sing-song rhythm unique to native people at White Earth. His stories were usually about colorful characters around the reservation, with nicknames like Cowboy, Dude and Smoke.

One such character was Pat Clark, Grandpa’s sidekick and my fellow plumber’s helper. Pat came from a large family of mixed-bloods who came to the reservation around the time my family did. A long-time farmhand, Pat walked stooped with his square head and big shoulders leading the rest of him. Pat was not much younger than Grandpa and probably in worse physical shape, so he mainly handed Grandpa tools and parts. More than his help, I think Grandpa enjoyed his company. Pat also spoke with that White Earth lilt, mixed with a brogue that suggested Irish roots. An inveterate gossip, Pat seemed to know everyone on the reservation, or at least he had a story about everyone.

Some days the three of us spent more time riding in the truck than working. Getting to remote parts of the reservation took a lot of time, but I enjoyed exploring this land of woods and water. Occasionally, Grandpa would get the itch to try out fishing on a small lake in the middle of nowhere. On these days he had his jon boat and three-horse Johnson outboard in the back of the truck when he stopped to pick me up on the way to work. That is not to say we played hooky, but finished up early enough to drop a line at the end of the day. Grandpa also liked to bring a small grill along and cook up lunch on the job sites.

Like so many of my adventures with Grandpa, working on the rez was a learning experience. As a farm kid from the edge of the reservation, my eyes were opened to a different world. In some homes dysfunction and despair were evident and the work was sometimes unpleasant. In others, we encountered families who lived mainly subsistence lifestyles and held traditional beliefs. Here we were met by people with a quiet dignity who were sometimes friendly and sometimes not. These encounters were my first real experiences with a different culture. What little I knew about my family’s history as mixed-bloods on the reservation did not prepare me. I went home everyday with questions spinning in my head: who were the real Indians? What did it mean to be Indian? Where do we mixed-bloods fit in? I still ponder these questions today.

As for Grandpa, he enjoyed meeting people and learning about their lives. He was not afraid to ask questions. As with the many other places he traveled, he made friends on the reservation. Many white men of his generation looked down on Indians with disdain but Grandpa treated everyone with respect. As a kid growing up in a white man’s world, I could have easily picked up bad attitudes about people different from me. But Grandpa showed me how to be a decent human being.


Wandering the Prairie


When I was growing up, we lived on the edge of the Red River Valley. From our farmstead to the west stretched miles and miles of farmland. Looking east, the dark line of Minnesota’s famed “northwoods” defined the horizon. We lived in an area that was once oak savanna, where the woods and the prairie met. Before white men came, clumps of oak woods dotted the prairies here, waging a ceaseless battle for territory against waves of grass, a fight arbitrated by wildfire. When the area was settled these woodlands were felled to build homesteader cabins, provide firewood and to clear more land for farming. Only remnants of the wood islands remain near my childhood home, clinging to the steep banks of the Buffalo River or other hillsides too steep to farm.

These wood patches drew me in whenever I ventured out from the farm to explore the natural world.  I had little interest in exploring the open country, which was a monotony of wheat and barley. In my mind, even the smallest patch of woods could still hold beauty and mystery. I wanted to find the wild places. Little wonder that, when I came back to Minnesota ten years ago, I settled in a place in the woods.

About the time I was an exploring farm kid, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources established the Scientific and Natural Area program to save remnants of the wild places. Today there are over 160 SNAs scattered across the state, preserving “natural features of exceptional scientific or educational value.” The program uses volunteers to monitor conditions on these sites and report any vandalism or other activities that would harm the resource.

When I decided to become a volunteer for the SNA program, I looked to serve as a site steward for an SNA near my home. I imagined having responsibility for a rare woodland habitat or a bog. But the nearest SNAs that did not have stewards assigned were out in the Red River Valley, at least an hour from my home. These were remnants of the tallgrass prairie that somehow avoided the plow over the past 140 years.  What little knowledge of prairies I had came from books – I had never visited one before. I decided it was time to do some on-the-ground learning and signed up as a steward for Santee Prairie SNA, located near Mahnomen.

Santee Prairie is a 440-acre parcel originally purchased by The Nature Conservancy, an organization that specializes in acquiring neglected parcels of habitat. Santee includes upland prairie, cattail marshes and patches of shrubs and small trees. Attempts were made to drain and farm the land years ago; old ditches criss-cross the site. The SNA adjoins a state wildlife management area providing habitat for deer and small game, raptors, waterfowl and songbirds. Large areas of the SNA are wet much of the year, supporting not only cattail marshes but lush meadows. Upwelling groundwater at Santee creates conditions favorable to certain rare plants.

Spending time at Santee was intimidating at first. Being used to the woods, standing out there on the wide, flat land I felt vulnerable. Other than some scrubby aspen stands, there was no place to shelter. I grew up hating the wind that never seemed to quit blowing out on the farm and at Santee I was exposed again to its force. I did the perfunctory checks on the access points and signs, but did not spend much time exploring.

I was also intimidated by my lack of knowledge of the native plants I found there. I had taken every botany and plant ecology course I could in college, but that was over 30 years ago. I never really got to use or expand that knowledge during my desk-bound career. On top of that, what little I did know about grasslands pertained to places like Montana and Idaho. I had to brush up on my plant identification skills to begin identifying the myriad wildflowers I encountered.

IMG_1965During my first few trips out (we are asked by the DNR to visit once a month, if possible) I was mystified by the lack of grass. The ground was densely covered with forbs (leafy plants) and woody species like like willow and aspen. Grass seemed to be only a minor component of the plant community, which went against my idea of what prairie should look like. Finally, when I visited in August I encountered the “sea of grass” I had imagined. Big bluestem and Indian grass stood shoulder-high, towering over the other plants. These are called “warm season” grasses, which don’t even begin growing until July. I realized I had been looking in May and June for the “cool season” grasses I was used to seeing in drier grasslands out west.

Wandering through the tall grass, I can experience what this place looked and felt and sounded like some 140 years ago when my ancestors came to homestead. I can get a sense of the wild land that greeted them and challenged them to make their home here. My great-great grandparents (see the Minnesota History page on this blog) relocated here when the White Earth reservation was established, homesteading about 30 miles south of Santee. They tucked their home into a stand of oaks above the Buffalo River, with a view of the tallgrass prairie stretching to the western horizon.


I learn something every time I visit Santee and look forward to my next visit. On my last couple visits I spent hours wandering the prairie, identifying plants I had never seen before, spotting sandhill cranes, hawks and owls. I find myself staying almost until sunset, when I run out of daylight to see and explore. I am not only learning about the prairie, I am learning about myself. I realize I can experience that sense of wonder I felt as a kid in the woods now out on this open and windblown, wild place.








This seems like the longest spring I can remember. Winter fizzled out this year, with little snow or cold weather beyond January. February kept us in a holding pattern. Winter seemed over, but we knew spring was a ways off. We began to warm up a bit in March and snow was mostly gone by mid-month.

During this time, I found myself looking for signs of spring, even though the calendar said it was still winter. All Minnesotans long for spring at some point. Even the most hardy winter lovers are ready to move on by March. But waiting for spring in this country can test anyone’s patience.

We’ve had some warm spells that have given us a foretaste of glorious summer. This year the ice was off the lake by April 4th, almost as early as last year, when spring came charging in full force in March. But this year spring advances and retreats like the last glaciers of the Ice Age. We’ve had temps in the 60s followed by temps in the 30s with snow.

On the lake, evidence of spring was proclaimed by the cacophony of waterfowl and shore birds from mid-March until ice out. We are blessed to have the outlet of our lake on the Crow Wing chain as our front yard. A small bay where the river reappears at the end of the lake stays open throughout the winter and is home to about 8 or 10 trumpet swans. As the the weather warmed and the open water increased in size, the swans were joined by Canada geese, then ducks including mallards, bluebills (scaup), goldeneyes and others. Then came mergansers and sandhill cranes (heard but yet to be seen). The loons and great blue herons arrived just before ice-out. A couple of juvenile bald eagles, probably raised in the nest between 5th and 6th Crow Wing, have been roosting in the white pines behind our house, eyeing the ducks and thinking about their first fishing forays.

In the much quieter woods, evidence of spring is slow to appear. Last week, my granddaughter and I inspected the hepatica, just beginning to bloom. A few mayflowers and violets are appearing this week. The red maples I planted last year flowered at Easter, as did the leatherwood. Other trees and shrubs have broken bud but have yet to unfurl their first leaves. Slowly, slowly is the spring unfolding.

I’ve learned to appreciate the waiting. When I was a kid, I looked forward to spring only as a precursor to the fishing opener and the warm-up to summer. Spring was just a season of mud and restless anticipation. And summers were always too short. Then back to school and more waiting, for hunting season, first snow, ice for fishing, for Christmas break.

Often I sense that time is accelerating as I get older. The weeks and months fly by and before you know it your first little grandchild is 12 years old and taller than her grandma.  Now this long, slow spring feels like a gift of time. There was time get in some woodcutting before the ground thaws. There is time to rake up last fall’s leaves and the winter detritus before the grass takes off. There is time to observe the each week’s arriving migrants among the songbirds. And there is time to walk in the woods with my youngest granddaughter to look for new wildflowers, to experience her wonder and joy. So let spring take its sweet time in coming, for the time is sweet.