Better than Christmas

March and April seemed to last forever when I was a kid. Nothing to do but watch the snow melt and the mud dry. This was also the Lenten season, when I gave up cookies or chocolate for 40 days. Easter Sunday couldn’t come soon enough. My birthday during the first week of April was a bit of a reprieve, unless it fell during Lent, then no chocolate cake for me.

But the hardest part of waiting out March and April was anticipating the opening of fishing season the second Saturday in May. This was the most exciting day of the year for me, bigger than my birthday or Easter Sunday or maybe even Christmas. Fishing Opener meant spending the weekend with my grandparents at Island Lake.

Leading up to the big day, I would go through my tackle box, making sure I had enough hooks, sinkers, leaders and swivels. I carefully untangled the Daredevil spoons and sorted them by color and size. By late April, most of the snow had melted and formed small ponds in the fields surrounding our home. These made perfect locations for casting practice. Having had to slog through the muck a few times to retrieve a lure hung up on some stubble or a rock, I learned to take the treble hooks off and practice with a blank lure.

On the Friday before Opener, my grandparents would pick me up after school on their way to the lake. I don’t think I learned much in school on those Fridays; the anticipation was so hard to contain. Grandpa would have his 14′ Lund loaded in the back of the pickup, inverted with the bow above the cab, and the Hiawatha camper hitched up. I imagined how jealous my classmates were as they watched me climb in.

I always thought the drive to Island Lake, along Minnesota 34, was beautiful, no matter the weather. The scenery heading east from Detroit Lakes transitions from scattered oak stands in fields to dense hardwoods and then to a mix of hardwoods and pine in the hills further east. Having grown up surrounded by farmland, I’ve always been attracted to the beauty and mystery of the Minnesota northwoods. Spotting the first majestic white pine along the highway, somewhere around Toad Lake, was always a highlight for me.

The only part of the drive I didn’t like was the annual stop at Hanson’s Flyway on Height-of-Land Lake. Lawrence Hanson ran a small bar and gas station along the highway, and loved to tell stories to anyone who would listen. As I learned growing up, Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside joints for a beer or two and a story or three. So I would get a candy bar and bottle of pop and sit and wait, spinning on a bar stool until it was finally time to go.

Island Lake lies northeast of Height-of-Land in eastern Becker County. In addition to several islands, the lake features an assortment of points, bars and other structures, which make for excellent walleye habitat. The fishing was great, as well as I can remember, in my early years. Like with most lakes that receive a lot of fishing pressure, fishing at Island seemed to decline over time. But that didn’t discourage us from coming back every year.

After setting up the camper and unloading the boat, Grandpa and I would sit down and go through our tackle to plot our strategy. We’d check the rods and reels, changing line if necessary. Grandpa taught me how to tie knots, pick sinker weights and put together the best presentation to fool the wily walleye. For me, the anticipation continued to build. I couldn’t wait for Opening morning.

We usually headed out just after daybreak, with Grandpa at the helm, Grandma on the middle bench and me at the bow. We had our favorite spots: the Moosehead, the Sunken Island, Barrel Bay (“like catching fish in a barrel”), and others. Grandma would hand out the minnows, but she would not touch the leeches. We would fish until mid-morning, come in for lunch, and then head out again in the late afternoon and fish until dark.

I always liked fishing in the evening the best, enjoying the colors of sunset, the silhouettes of the pine trees along the shore and the calls of the loons. According one of Grandpa’s favorite stories, I didn’t always like the loons. One evening when I was probably 7 or 8, I said “I wish those loons would quit making all that noise.” Apparently, it was affecting my concentration!

Most years we were joined at Island Lake by Uncle Dewey and Aunt Elsie from Brooklyn Center. Uncle Dewey was Grandma’s only brother and a World War II vet who fought all the way across Europe. Being really into all things WWII, I was fascinated by him. Dewey wasn’t one to tell a lot of stories, but once in a while he would talk about his experiences and answer my questions. Aunt Elsie always brought really decadent treats to share and had an infectious laugh.

Uncle Dewey drove a fancy Buick Electra, the first car I ever saw with electric windows and air conditioning. He had a contraption mounted on top that would allow him to load and unload the boat by himself. Grandpa gave him a hard time about living in the lap of luxury. Grandpa would also grumble about Mitzi, the little poodle that went everywhere with Elsie.

When I was little, I thought I would always want to be with Granydpa and Grandma at Island Lake. But that changed when I got to high school. It so happened that the high school prom fell on the same weekend as the Opener. Although I didn’t have a girlfriend, I still asked a girl to prom, because that’s what everybody did. Grandpa and Grandma seemed to understand. Looking back now, I would rather have gone fishing.

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A family at Sandy Lake

My family’s Ojibwe ancestry has been traced back to a woman named Margaret or Ma Chay, who was born around 1800 at Sandy Lake, which was a major Ojibwe village located in what is now northeast Minnesota in the 18th and early 19th century.   According to Anton Treuer’s book The Assassination of Hole in the Day, Hole in the Day the Elder was a prominent chief at Sandy Lake and his son Hole in the Day the Younger was born there.

Sandy Lake was also the site of important trading posts during the fur trade era.  In 1794 the Northwest Company established a post on the west shore of the lake that remained in operation until after the War of 1812.  A law passed in 1816 required all trading with Indians be conducted by American citizens, which forced the Northwest Company to sell its holdings in the U.S. to John Jacob Astor. Astor’s American Fur Company operated the old fort for several years before establishing a new fort on the Sandy River, which connects Sandy Lake to the Mississippi. Several other independent trading houses also may have existed in the area.

The trading posts are important to our family’s story because it is likely that Margaret met Alexander Blair at one these posts. According to government records, Blair is listed as the father of Margaret’s four children: Angeline (born 1819), Antoine (1827?), Edward (1829?) and Alex (1840?).  Given the time span between the oldest and youngest, it appears that Margaret and Alexander had a long-term relationship.

Unfortunately, I have found no solid information for Alexander beyond his name.  Having read as much as I can about the fur trade in the early 19th century, including employee lists of the trading companies, I have yet to find any mention of him. I have found other potential clues. There was an Alexander Blair who served in Canada in the British army during the War of 1812. Is it possible that our Alexander stayed behind after the war? There are also a couple of Alexander Blairs who show up in city directories for Detroit and other cities in Michigan and upstate New York in the 1840s and 1850s.  Was our Alexander one of many white men who, after making their fortune in the fur trade, abandoned their native families and returned to “civilization” to start another life? It is unlikely that I will find any connections between these men and our family, but I’ll keep looking.

Unfortunately, there is also little information about Margaret.  Her name shows up in the “Half-Breed Scrip” report, which investigated the use of scrip to issue land claims under the 1854 Treaty. The investigating commission had as one of their sources a trader named Peter Roy, who claimed to know Margaret. Roy stated that she and her three children who filed claims for scrip in 1864 were from Sandy Lake and were mixed blood Ojibwe of Lake Superior.  The commission ruled that Margaret was not eligible for scrip because Margaret was married before 1854, and therefore was not a head of household when the treaty was signed. Apparently, because Margaret was ineligible for scrip, the claims of her children were also rejected. Census records indicate that Margaret lived with one of her sons through at least 1870 and the sons and her daughter all settled together at Little Rock Lake north of present-day Sauk Rapids (the next part of the story will be in a future post).

My sense is that Alexander Blair died at Sandy Lake. I have no way of verifying this, of course. The burial grounds at Sandy Lake have long since been covered up by lake homes and condos.  Or was he buried along side a trail or portage somewhere? Did he drown? There are many possibilities, all of which suggest Alexander Blair was one of many men involved in the fur trade who are lost to history.

This is hard.

Ok, so I was going to write an “epic” historical novel about my French-Canadian and Ojibwe ancestors. I came up with an opening scene and wrote the first few paragraphs. I had a general idea where I wanted to go with it, but then I stopped. Maybe I was just scared, but the right side of my brain was telling me it was not practical for me to write a novel to share on this blog.

I know almost nothing about writing fiction, and my attempts to date have been painstaking. I need to give myself time to learn how to write fiction without the pressure of any deadline or specific goal. I need to start out on a smaller scale, join a writing group, do some workshops, etc. At least that is what I have read about other writers starting out. Mostly, I need to find out if I am any good at it.

But I have all this information about my ancestors that I really want to share. I decided I will share it in essay form. Hopefully, I can keep it interesting enough to keep you coming back for more. Bear with me.