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.