“On the shore of Little Rock Lake lived several families of French-Indian breeds. The had a few scrub ponies, cows and pigs. The lived in log huts and farmed small tracts. They hunted, fished, trapped and did nothing. One breed was named Steve Baillou and another Antoine Blais, which became pronounced Steve Blue and Tony Blair by the neighbors.” – from notes of Nelson and Robert Flint, included in A Land Called Morrison, by Harold Fisher
Antoine Blair, one of the younger brothers of Angeline (Blair) Trotterchaud, had been living in the area since at least 1849. The territorial census of that year listed him at 21 years of age and living in the “Sauk Rapids District” of “Benton Territory.” (Apparently, Benton County was not officially a county yet.) Also counted in Antoine’s household were Charlotte, age 16 and Josette, age 4 months. Antoine’s occupation was listed as “none”.
In 1849, year Minnesota became a territory, less than 6000 non-Indians lived here, and only a few hundred lived north of St. Paul. Reading the census data, it appears that the nearest white people in the area were the missionaries Frederick and Elizabeth Ayer, who had established a mission and farm at Belle Prairie, some 20 miles up the Mississippi, in 1848. (Belle Prairie is the area where the Bellefuielle family first settled in the 1850s.)
In that same year an American Fur Company employee named David Gilman moved to the area and purchased a trading post established the previous year by Asa White. Another trading post was established by William Aitken just two miles north. The place was called Watab, and was located near the mouth of a river by that name that emptied into the Mississippi. Antoine may have been employed by Aitken or Gilman or at least traded with them. Trading was done with a large Ojibwe village located near the outlet of Little Rock Lake. From 1848 to 1855, trade was also conducted with the Winnebago tribe, whose members were relocated to the area from Iowa for that brief period in a move orchestrated by businessman and trader Edmund Rice. This scheme was intended to open lands for settlement in Iowa while establishing the Winnebago as a buffer between the Ojibwe and their Dakota (Sioux) enemies.
Watab was also located along the Red River Oxcart Trail as it followed the Mississippi south to St. Paul. The oxcart trail system was developed by Norman Kittson a few years before to facilitate trade between St. Paul and settlements on the Red River north of Pembina. The mostly Metis oxcart drivers, who were independent contractors, tended to carry cash, which drew the interest of the traders and other merchants who started settling the area.
In 1857, according to General Land Office records Antoine obtained the deed to some 37 acres located along the west shore of Little Rock Lake, near present-day Rice, Minnesota. The Preemption Act of 1841 permitted “squatters” who were living on federal government owned land to purchase up to 160 acres at a very low price (not less than $1.25 per acre) before the land was to be offered for sale to the general public. To qualify under the law, the “squatter” had to be:
a “head of household”;
a single man over 21, or a widow;
a citizen of the United States (or an immigrant intending to become naturalized); and
a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months (Wikipedia).
The 1860 census recorded Antoine’s occupation as “Farmer”, which was typically used for homesteaders. However, the 1870 census lists him as a “Livestock Raiser”. This suggests that Antoine, as well as one of his younger brothers listed the same way in the census, developed a business raising and selling draft animals. These likely included oxen that were sold to the drivers on the oxcart trail.
The 1860 census indicates Antoine had five children, ranging from 2 to 9 years old, including Josette. However, Charlotte is not listed. Another woman named “Gebel”, age 30 is listed. The name is a misspelling of Isabelle. According to Ancestry.com, her Indian name was Quanzee. It appears that Charlotte had passed away sometime in the previous 11 years.
Antoine and “Belle” raised their family at Little Rock Lake and apparently prospered there. I had the opportunity while doing research at the Benton County Historical Society to review papers associated with the disposition of Antoine’s property and settlement of his debts. David Gilman served as the executor until his death in 1885. The process was finalized by a man named Campbell. The file included dozens of slips of paper with transactions recorded in pencil. Antoine appeared to have good credit, as he did business throughout the area from Little Falls to Elk River.
My hunch is his success played a role in convincing Peter and Angeline Trotterchaud to move their young family there. Peter purchased his land claim consisting of 39 acres next door to Antoine’s homestead in 1856. (More to follow on the Trotterchauds in later posts) When Peter and Angeline and several of the Blairs moved to White Earth under the terms of the 1867 Treaty, Antoine and his family stayed behind. Apparently, he was doing well enough that the prospect of receiving 160 acres of land and a fresh start did not appeal to him.
Antoine died in 1883 when he was crushed by an ox. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was falling off a wagon. But according to Mary Ostby, Executive Director of the Benton County Historical Society, it was common to avoid blaming an ox for the death, as it would make the animal difficult to sell. Antoine’s death was noticed in the Sauk Rapids Sentinel, which noted “Tony” was well known in the area. Even though he was a “French breed” who “did nothing,” he had earned at least some respect in his community.