White Earth: Settling In

When the Sprys arrived on the White Earth reservation in 1873-74, the area was not far removed from being a wilderness. There were no roads, other than a trail from Detroit (Lakes), where there was a railroad depot. There were about 500 or 600 people living on the reservation, many of them concentrated near the Indian agency at White Earth village. The village included a couple of stores, run by the McArthur and Fairbanks families. The federal government had built a gristmill and a sawmill at White Earth Lake. There was also a sawmill just off the reservation on the Buffalo River at the outlet of Buffalo Lake. A small village, Richwood, had sprung up there.

The homesteads the Sprys and Trotochauds started were located several miles south of White Earth (assuming they homesteaded where they received allotments years later). Although they may have gotten some of their supplies from Richwood, they likely conducted business in White Earth as well. The original treaty language required Indians to farm at least 10 acres to be eligible for 40; an individual Indian could claim up to 160 acres. As tribal members, Amelia, Angeline and the other Trotochauds were eligible to obtain land this way. An entry from May in 1877 of the day book of the Indian agent, Lewis Stowe, mentions issuing Pierre Trotochaud 10 bushels of wheat to plant. They may have gotten lumber to build their homes from the government-run sawmill at White Earth Lake.

About the same time our family arrived at White Earth, a Catholic priest named Ignatius Tomazin came to the reservation to start a church and school. Fr. Tomazin was likely known to our family, as he was a protégé of Fr. Pierz and also worked with Fr. Buh, who served churches and missions from Crow Wing down to Sauk Rapids. In January 1873 Fr. Tomazin planted a mission cross at the present site of Calvary Cemetery, two miles south of White Earth village. The following year, work was completed on a small church at the site. It is likely members of our family were parishioners there.

Fr. Tomazin served as the resident priest at White Earth until 1877, when he ran into trouble with the federal government. Almost since his arrival on the reservation, Fr. Tomazin protested what he saw as discrimination against Catholic Indians by the Episcopal-run Indian agency. The priest wrote letters to newspapers as far away as New York complaining about Episcopalians getting the best clothes and other supplies before the Catholics. Fr. Tomazin believed the Catholic church should have charge of the White Earth agency because there were more Catholics on the reservation than any other denomination. Another issue was funding for the Catholic school. Although the government had built the Episcopal church and the government school run by the Episcopalians, the agent refused to fund the building of a Catholic school. This was not just the policy at White Earth, but at other reservations as well.

The conflict came to a head in the summer of 1877, when Agent Stowe ordered Fr. Tomazin to leave the reservation. The agent claimed that Fr. Tomazin had broken the law when he transported the late Bagone-giizhig’s daughters off the reservation without permission. The priest brought the girls to St. Benedict Academy in St. Joseph to further their education. When federal officials arrived to force his removal, the priest began ringing the church bell, bringing his parishioners to see what the trouble was. The Sprys lived about 5 miles south of the church and may have heard the church bells. The parishioners maintained a vigil in and around the church and outside the priest’s house because of a rumor that the officials were going to burn the church down. Because the government was concerned that Fr. Tomazin would incite the Indians further, a small cavalry attachment was sent to White Earth from Fort Snelling. After another confrontation during which Fr. Tomazin refused to come out of the church for three hours, he was finally convinced to leave the reservation. It seems likely that the Sprys and Trotochauds were on hand to witness these events. As with most of the mixed-blood families, the Catholic faith was the center of their lives and they would have supported their priest and protected their church.

Fr. Tomazin’s exit paved the way for the Benedictines to come to White Earth. To replace the priest, the bishop requested the abbot of St. John’s Abbey provide a priest and nuns for the reservation. The abbot sent Fr. Aloysius Hermaneutz and two nuns, Sister Philomene Ketten and Sister Lioba Braun. They arrived at the White Earth mission in November 1878 to find the log priest’s house log church had been stripped of everything but two stoves. Within a week, they opened a school with an enrollment of twelve girls and three boys and had forty pupils within a week. The Benedictines would go on to build a new school and church in 1881 located less than a mile east of the original mission site.

Soon Indians that homesteaded along the Buffalo River, including our family, requested that Fr. Aloysius provide them with their own school. In 1882, Sr. Philomena began riding horseback to the Buffalo River day school, some eight miles each way from the mission. Because of the dangers of traveling in open country, the school was often closed during the winter months.

Later in the 1880s, Lizzie Spry, the oldest daughter, attended an industrial school in St. Joseph run by the Benedictine nuns. There she was taught sewing, cooking, gardening and other “household arts” as well as reading and writing. In 1896, at age 23 Henry, the second-oldest son, was sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, apparently to learn a trade. Henry only attended a month there before returning home. School records indicate he “ran”.

Mitchell and Amelia had a total of eight children, according to family records: Frank, born in 1871, Henry (1873), Lizzie (1874), Amelia (1878), Peter (1882), Ellen (1885) Lawrence (1891) and Madeleine (1894). Strangely, the U.S. Census in 1900 lists another son, Albert, born in 1886. Albert also shows up in annual Indian censuses conducted between 1886 and 1901. I can find no other record for this person.

The Spry family prospered in their new home, raising their family and watching the area around them change from wilderness to farmland. The land Amelia and Mitchell had selected for their home straddled the Buffalo River. They could have selected 160 acres of prairie, ready for the plow, but they chose to claim the woods along the river. This suggests to me they wanted to remain connected to woodland, to moving water. This allowed them to continue to hunt, fish and trap as Amelia’s family always had.

As they watched the land around them change, the Spry family also witnessed the debacle that unfolded with the passage of the Nelson Act, which established the allotment process and the Clapp Rider, which allowed Indians to sell their land. I’ll write more about this history in my next post.Spry family home

Frank, Mitchell, Lawrence, Peter, Amelia, Henry, Madeleine and Ellen Spry at their home, around 1892.

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