“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.jpeg

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

 

Advertisements

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.

The Treaty of 1867: On to White Earth

As I wrote in my last post about my ancestors, Mitchell Spry (Michel Surprenant) married Amelia Trotterchaud in St. Cloud in 1871. According to the 1870 US Census, Mitchell was living with his sister Ellen, her husband H.S. Morton and their son. Both men were working as “laborers”. Meanwhile, Amelia Trotterchaud was living at home with her parents and working as a “domestic servant.” This last fact suggests the area was developing rapidly and some residents were doing well enough to employ domestic help.

Both Mitchell and Amelia and her family were residing in Langola Township, Benton County during the 1870 census. The current boundaries of the township include the north half of Little Rock Lake, where the Trotterchauds homesteaded, and lands north to present-day Royalton. There was once a town called Langola as well, which was located on the Platte River just south of present-day Rice. It featured several businesses and was a growing community until flooding on the Platte destroyed most of the town in the 1860s. Watab, another town that sprang up near the trading post south of Little Rock Lake, has also disappeared from the maps.

Mitchell and Amelia’s first child, Frank, was born at Little Rock on November 23, 1871. Henry, the second son, followed on February 17, 1873. Henry’s birthplace is listed as Stearns County, which is across the Mississippi River from Benton County. It is possible that the young family had moved there; if they did, they did not stay long. Their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born in Becker County on November 26, 1874. Based on this information, it appears the Sprys moved to the White Earth Reservation sometime in 1873 or 1874.

The White Earth Reservation was established by the Treaty of 1867, which was negotiated by the Bagone-giizhig (Hole in the Day the Younger) and other chiefs of the Mississippi and Pillager bands. The goal of the Federal government in negotiating the treaty was to get all Ojibwe not already settled on Leech Lake and other reservations to relocate to White Earth. Beginning in 1868 and continuing for the next 35 years, Ojibwe families emigrated to the new reservation.

The treaty’s terms included a provision to encourage farming. Each tribal member who farmed at least 10 acres could receive title to 40 acres and each could acquire up to 160 acres in this way. (This provision presaged the allotment system under the Dawes and Nelson Acts that eventually broke up the reservation and allowed white settlement in the 1890s.) It seems likely that Mitchell and Amelia saw this as an opportunity to make a new start to better support their family. Amelia’s parents Pierre and Angeline Trotterchaud and their family, which continued to grow, also moved to White Earth.

As evidenced by their applications for Half-Breed Scrip under the Treaty of 1854 with the Lake Superior Ojibwe, the Blairs and Trotterchauds were previously aware of opportunities for obtaining land. The scrip, which gave mixed-bloods the opportunity to obtain an allotment anywhere in the lands ceded under the treaty or any other public domain, was intended by the federal government to encourage them to become independent farmers. In 1863, the government determined that the scrip could be issued to mixed-bloods who did not live in tribal communities, which opened opportunities for speculators to get involved. Persons with any connection to the Lake Superior Ojibwe were sought out to apply for scrip and sell it to speculators. A St. Cloud attorney named Oscar Taylor assisted Machay (Margaret Blair) and her children, including her daughter Angeline Trotterchaud, to apply for the scrip in 1864. Whether the Blairs were recruited by Taylor and were intending to sell their scrip is not known. However, it seems more likely they were looking to obtain land, as white settlement around Little Rock was hemming them in and their status as mixed-bloods limited their economic opportunities.

The Half-Breed Scrip program came under investigation because of abuses by speculators, including lumber companies. Congressional hearings were held in 1871 to sort out legitimate claims. It is in this hearing record that we find Margaret Blair and her children listed as “mixed-blood of Lake Superior Chippewas.” According to the hearing record, because Margaret and Angeline were already married, they were not heads of household when the Treaty of 1854 was signed, and therefore, not eligible for scrip. Apparently this invalidated the claims of Margaret’s sons (Antoine, Edward and Alex) as well.

When the Treaty of 1867 was signed, it was not clear whether the Sprys, Trotterchauds and Blairs were eligible to move to White Earth. The treaty had been negotiated primarily by and for Mississippi Band members; our family was officially identified as members of the Lake Superior band. However, the family originated at Sandy Lake, which was the foremost community among Hole in the Day’s people, so it would be natural for them to identify with the Mississippi Band. Article Four of the 1867 treaty specified that only mixed-bloods who lived with their Ojibwe relatives on existing reservations were eligible. Hole in the Day insisted on this language being included because he did not want Clement Beaulieu and other mixed-blood traders at Crow Wing to benefit from the treaty. The Sprys and Trotterchauds did not live on a reservation at the time, although they historically had lived among Ojibwe people at Watab and throughout the area. Chief Hole in the Day was murdered in 1868, in a conspiracy connected to the Crow Wing traders. The death of Hole in the Day removed an obstacle for the traders to follow their clientele to White Earth.

Because the federal government was intent on relocating as many Ojibwe as possible, our family was likely encouraged to make the move regardless of their eligibility. Ironically, about the only family story from that time has it that “they were afraid of being attacked by Indians” on their way to White Earth. They may have been concerned about the Pillager Band, which still lived traditionally and roamed the country south of White Earth.

There is no record of where the family settled when they arrived, however, it seems likely the locations of the allotments they were eventually assigned are at or close to the locations where they initially settled. For Mitchell and Amelia, this was a hill above the Buffalo River, where later generations of Sprys grew up. Pierre and Angeline Trotterchaud’s allotment was about two miIes east, near the junction of County Highways 14 and 21. Both these locations were about 6 miles south of the White Earth Indian Agency. They were closer to the new village of Richwood, located just off the reservation. A sawmill was established at Richwood in 1871, powered by a dam construction on the Buffalo River.

In 1872, when the Indian Agency was established at White Earth, Agent Edward Smith reported about 500 people had arrived at White Earth. By 1875, there were about 800 people on the reservation.  In the following years many other mixed blood families made their way to the reservation, most settling near the Agency.

I’ll write more about life on the reservation in those early years in my next post.

A Tragic Loss

Sauk Rapids Sentinel article

When I last posted on the Minnesota History page, my great-great-great-grandparents Pierre (Peter) and Angeline Trotochaud were homesteading on Little Rock Lake near present-day Rice, Minnesota in the 1850s and 60s.  The following is reproduced from the Sauk Rapids Sentinel, dated August 20, 1869.

A son of Peter Trotocheau of Little Rock Lake, ten miles above Sauk Raids, was killed by a Chippewa Indian, on Monday last. The circumstances as we have gathered them are as follows: Four Indians, said to be of the Mille Lac band, arrived at Little Rock a short time before the murder, and in the sports a wrestling match took place between one of them and Trotocheau, a young man about 18 years of age. He proved too much for the Indian and threw him. The young man seemed to think no more of the affair, and engaged in a game of cards. He was out in the open air, seated on the ground. One of the Indians laughed at his comrade for allowing the boy to throw him, and jeeringly asked him why he did not do as he said he would.  Upon this the murderer went into a lodge close by, procured a knife, approached the young man, and while his head was bent forward gave so heavy a blow with the knife on his forehead that it penetrated his head, splitting it nearly open, from the effects of which he died almost instantly. The murderer ran into the woods, pursued by some of the Halfbreeds residing there, accompanied by two other Indians; but he made his escape, and we believe he has not yet been heard from.  Mr. Osgood, Sheriff of Benton County, we understand, has gone up to the Chippewa Agency to get the assistance of the Agent in arresting the murderer.

The person murdered is quite a boy, but we never heard aught against him. His father is well known in our county as a good industrious Canadian, and has the reputation of being a very honest man. He is almost crazy over the tragical death of his sone, and we really hope that something will be done to bring on the murderer condign punishment.

These savages must be taught that they cannot commit such acts with impunity….The mother of the murdered boy is, we think, one-eighth Chippewa. She is a quiet, inoffensive woman, and much respected by those who know her. She is the mother of some eight or ten children, but we understand that this boy was her only son. This poor woman has the sympathy of all her acquaintances.

Life at Little Rock Lake

When we last visited Pierre and Angeline (Blair) Trotochaud, they were living at Little Canada on the outskirts of a young St. Paul in 1850. The next data point is 1856, when Pierre filed a land claim in what was to become Benton County. The claim was located next to his brother-in-law Antoine Blair, who had settled there sometime before 1849. These homesteads were located on the western shore of Little Rock Lake, about 1.5 miles east of the present-day town of Rice. The area was an important historical nexus, where the Oxcart Trail ran along the east side of the Mississippi River, where several trading posts were located and where Peace Rock, a granite outcropping along the river, marked the boundary between the Ojibwe and the Dakota nations.

At the time Pierre had proved up his homestead claim, he and Angeline had five children: Margaret, born in 1845, Sophia (1847), Peter (1850), Amelia, the future Mrs. Mitchell Spry (1852), and Eliza (1855). A second son, Moses, came along in 1857.

Minnesota had been a territory since 1849 and was on the verge of statehood. A final territorial census was completed in 1857, which listed “Pierre d’Autrechaud” as a hunter. This suggests Pierre was paid to hunt, probably to supply local merchants. This was a natural extension of Pierre’s previous life in the fur trade.  David Gilman, previously mentioned on this blog (see “Uncle Antoine”) owned a hotel at Watab and may have employed Pierre to supply the dining room. Pierre’s game bag probably included deer and waterfowl. Bison and elk had already been wiped out in most of Minnesota by that time. The continued loss of game in the area probably made this a short-lived occupation for Pierre.

The 1860 federal census lists “Pierre Trotocheau” as a farmer with real estate valued at $400 and personal property at $100. Oldest daughter Margaret, then 15, was listed as a domestic servant. Margaret probably worked at the Watab hotel, as there does not appear to be anyone in the area in 1860 who had the wherewithal to employ servants. Another son, Joseph, was born that year to Pierre and Angeline.

The 1860s were a turbulent time in the area. More and more settlers were moving in, increasing the demand for land. The Ojibwe were subject to continuing pressure to cede lands and move to reservations. Their old enemies the Dakota (Sioux) had already been moved on to reservations along the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota. In August 1862, The Dakota, fed up with their treatment by Indian agents and traders, started attacking white settlements beginning what became known as the “Sioux Uprising”.

The Ojibwe were approached by emissaries from the Dakota to join them in the war. Hole in the Day the Younger had made himself the leader of the Ojibwe, a position he inherited from his father Hole in the Day the Elder and maintained through oratory skills and force of will. Hole in the Day the Younger, who was based at Gull Lake, decided to join the Dakota and had sent his own emissaries to Leech Lake and Red Lake to rally the other bands. Hole in the Day was also the nominal leader of the Ojibwe people living in the large village between Watab and Little Rock Lake, near the Trotochaud and Blair homesteads.

Had the Ojibwe entered the war, white settlements along the Mississippi all the way down to St. Paul would likely have been attacked and a great many more lives lost. Credit is given to Father Francis Pierz, an Indian missionary priest, for convincing Hole in the Day to choose peace over war. Father Pierz had been a missionary to Indians around Lake Superior since the 1830s and had been assigned by the new bishop in St. Paul to minister to Indians and whites along the Mississippi for 100 miles above St. Paul. Father Pierz established a parish at Crow Wing in 1852 and parishes at Belle Prairie, Swan River and Sauk Rapids in 1853, St. Cloud and St. Joseph in 1854 and St. Augusta in 1855.

For the Trotochauds, the nearest parish would have been Sauk Rapids, about 12 miles to the south. I have not found any information to indicate whether the family were practicing Catholics. There may be mention of them in Fr. Pierz’s baptismal register, which may still reside at the Belle Prairie parish.

The Trotochaud family continued to grow at Little Rock Lake. A son, Antoine, was born in 1862 a daughter, Delphine, in 1866 and another daughter, Christine in 1869. According to the 1870 Census, the Trotochaud homestead was still valued at $400 but the personal property was now valued at $500. Around this time, Pierre Trotochaud was listed as one of the top producers of wheat in Benton County.

In spite of their prosperity, the Trotochauds experienced a shocking tragedy in 1869. More on this to follow in the next post.

A Visit to Sandy Lake

image

A few weeks ago, as Mel and I were returning from my nephew’s birthday party in northern Wisconsin, I suggested we make a side trip. We were in no hurry to get home, so Mel agreed.

“Where are we heading?” she asked.
“Sandy Lake; it’s near McGregor.”I replied.
“What’s there?”
“I don’t know – hopefully something telling about the history of the place.”

Instead of heading out of Duluth on Highway 2, we took Highway 210 to McGregor, then turned north. We saw no signs indicating any historical sites ahead but I thought there had to be something commemorating the place in Minnesota’s history. I got on my smart phone (Mel was driving) and googled Big Sandy Lake. Just as images of historical markers popped up, we happened by those very markers along Highway 65.

The markers are located at a wayside rest with a beautiful view of the lake. For some reason, the wayside rest was barricaded off, but we parked on the shoulder and walked in. I was surprised to find a detailed description of the Sandy Lake Tragedy that pulled no punches regarding the white leaders involved. The marker clearly describes the motives of Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey and how the Ojibwe were wronged. High school history classes in Minnesota discuss Ramsey as a prominent figure in the state’s formation. I wonder whether his role in the Sandy Lake Tragedy is talked about in those history classes….

image           imageWe continued north toward the area where I read the old trading post was once located. Another surprise: a well-maintained recreational area at the outlet of the lake. The Corps of Engineers maintains a flood control dam at the outlet and has developed an attractive park, including more historical markers.

image The most recently installed marker, commemorating the Sandy Lake Tragedy, was established by descendants of the victims representing several Ojibwe tribes. Called the Mikwendaagooziwag Memorial, it stands on a small knoll that also is home to a very old cemetery.

image

Based on the information on all the markers, it became clear that the main Ojibwe village was located here or very close nearby. The missionaries Frederick and Elizabeth Ayers established a mission here in 1831, and later moved it to Fond du Lac in 1834. Interestingly, the Ayers missionary life paralleled the journey of our family. Prior to Sandy Lake, the Ayers served at LaPointe, and they later appear in the 1849 territorial census somewhere north of Little Rock Lake, as the nearest neighbors to Antoine Blair. Whether there this is coincidence or there is a real connection between the Ayers and our family depends whether Alexander Blair was French Canadian or Scottish. If he was from Scotland, he would likely have been Presbyterian, like the Ayers. On the other hand if he was French Canadian and Catholic, he and his family would have had very little to do with the Protestant missionaries.

According to the historical marker on-site, the cemetery includes Indian and non-Indian graves. The marker clearly points out that, although the small hill resembles a burial mound, it is a naturally occurring glacial feature. Only two gravestones remain, both of which are dated in later settlement days. As I reflected on this information, it occurred to me that Alexander Blair and other members of our family may have been buried here.

image

Given its strategic location on the portage between the Mississippi and the St. Louis River and Lake Superior (Savannah Portage State Park is located near the lake’s northeast corner), one can imagine this area bustling during the height of the fur trade. Early American explorers, including Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, William Cass and eventually Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, all stopped at Sandy Lake to rest and re-supply. The members of our family who lived here witnessed a very important era in Minnesota’s history. The same can be said for the family members who later settled at Watab, which will be the subject of my next post.

Uncle Antoine

“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.

Out of the Woods

Following their marriage at La Pointe in 1843, the next data point I found for Pierre and Angeline Trotochaud is July 27, 1848. On this day, Pierre declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen before a county clerk in St. Croix County, Wisconsin Territory. This would have been in Stillwater, in what is now Minnesota. Later that year Wisconsin became a state. The following year, 1849, Minnesota Territory was formed from the areas left over after Wisconsin and Iowa (1846) statehood.

I came across this information in a book titled “Declarations of Intention (1847-1852) of 262 Minnesota Pioneers”, published by the Minnesota Historical Society. The author, James E. Erickson stumbled upon an index of the first declarations made in St. Croix County and was able to track down the actual hand-written declarations for all but 3 of the 262 pioneers. Unfortunately, Pierre’s declaration, which would have stated where he entered the U.S., is one of the missing three.

Stillwater was ground zero for the beginning of Minnesota’s logging boom. One can imagine how shocking it must have been for the young couple to come from Sandy Lake (or LaPointe or Fond du Lac or Lac du Flambeau), deep in the woods, to this boomtown with all its hustle and bustle.

They may have come to Stillwater looking for work, or they may have just been passing through. Regardless, they were leaving behind the life they knew. The fur trade was winding down, transitioning from large monopolies like the American Fur Company controlling vast territory to independent traders focusing on particular locations still holding furs. Working for these independents probably was not as stable as working for the old “outfits”.

Meanwhile, their Ojibwe relatives were finding the subsistence lifestyle more difficult to maintain. A succession of treaties the Ojibwes were making with the federal government continued to reduce their land base, making them dependent on government food supplies.

These were the circumstances that set the stage for the Sandy Lake Tragedy in 1850. Territorial officials, led by Alexander Ramsey, sought to remove the Ojibwe from Wisconsin. To do so, they moved the location of the annuity payments under the treaty from LaPointe to Sandy Lake. Thousands of Ojibwe made the trek to Sandy Lake, only to find the annuity payment had been delayed. Government food supplies were late in coming, and what food was available was spoiled, which eventually sickened and killed hundreds. Lobbying by Ojibwe chiefs and public pressure finally forced the government to allow the people to return to their homelands. But by then winter had set in, and many more died on the way.

It is not clear whether any of Pierre and Angeline’s extended family were still at Sandy Lake to witness the tragedy. Her brother Antoine had settled on land near Little Rock Lake, near present-day Rice, Minnesota in 1849. It is possible that Margaret Blair (Ma Chay) and the younger siblings stayed at Sandy Lake, among her relatives. As for Pierre and Angeline, the 1849 census (and the 1850 census) found them in Little Canada.

Founded just 5 years before by Benjamin Gervais, Little Canada, as the name implies, was originally a town full of French Canadians. Gervais had arrived in the area as a refugee from the Red River colonies in 1826, and was twice forced off Ft. Snelling land by the U.S. Army. Gervais had Dakota Indian friends who told him about the rich land of their traditional summer camp at “Lac du Savage.” After scouting the area, he sold the 160 acres he had purchased from “Pigs Eye” Parrant (property which would later become downtown St. Paul) and moved to the lake that now bears his name. By 1850, about 30 families had moved to Little Canada.

Some twenty years ago, when I first became interested in our family history, I came across a record that indicated Amelia Trotochaud had been born in “New Canada” in 1851 (of course, now I can’t remember the source or where I found it). Assuming this refers to Little Canada, it would make Amelia one of the first babies baptized in the St. Paul Diocese, founded in 1850.

In my research, I’ve found several sources of information on the early days of St. Paul and Little Canada. Each source takes great pains to individually name each of the families that arrived and the year of their arrival. J. Fletcher Williams’ “A History of St. Paul to 1875,” first published in 1876, focuses on the prominent businessmen and other early leaders, apparently very few of which were French Canadian. The French Canadians are given better treatment in “Minnesota Territorial Census 1850”, (Minnesota Historical Society 1972), which provides additional information on the families found in that census. Henry Scholberg’s “Les Pionneers Francais du Minnesota” names dozens of families that settled in Little Canada, including 14 French Canadians who arrived at Little Canada in 1849-50.

Interestingly, the name Trotochaud does not appear in any of these publications. How is it possible that Pierre and Angeline’s family were overlooked? I have a theory. In those days, people like Angeline were considered “half-breeds”, people who lived like (and sometimes with) Indians. Largely illiterate and non-English speaking, they were ostracized by mainstream society. As I will discuss further in my next installment, mixed bloods such as our ancestors were largely ignored by whites. To put it another way, while “half-breeds” were officially counted in the early censuses, when it came to early Minnesota historians, they didn’t count.

Holy Matrimony at La Pointe

On September 28, 1843, at St. Joseph’s Mission in LaPointe on Madeleine Island in Lake Superior, Angeline Blair, the daughter of Margaret (Ma Chay) and Alexander Blair, married Pierre Trotochaud. St. Josephs was built by the famous missionary priest, Frederic Baraga. Originally from Austria, Fr. Baraga first came to the U.S. as a missionary to Ottawa Indians in Michigan in 1831. He established his mission at La Pointe in 1835. The church in which Angeline and Pierre were married was built in 1841.

As of 1843, La Pointe was well established as the center of the fur trade in the region as well as the headquarters for the American Fur Company. But the fur industry was declining rapidly as the beaver were being trapped out and European fashions were changing. In the 1830s, the Company began a commercial fishing business on the island. Fish were processed into barrels and salted down for preservation before being shipped to markets to the east. But this business line suffered growing pains and setbacks from national financial crises. In 1842, the Company suspended operations and a few years later went bankrupt.

La Pointe became an important government center about that same time. Treaties between Ojibwe bands and the US government 1837 and 1842 called for annuities to be paid to tribal members. The 1842 Treaty included the Lake Superior band members at Sandy Lake. The federal government began establishing agencies where the annuities could be distributed and other Indian issues could be addressed. One such agency was established at La Pointe. Here tribal members from the treaty bands would gather annually to receive their payments. Just as the few year-round residents of Madeleine Island did, the treaty band members lived the subsistence lifestyle while on the island, harvesting berries, wild rice, fish and game.

Also present at annuity time were the traders to whom they owed debts. Indian trappers and hunters were encouraged to buy traps and other supplies at the trading posts on credit before the trapping season started. As dwindling harvests, the introduction of whisky and unfair trading terms took their toll, Indians often fell hopelessly in debt. This resulted in the traders’ bills being payed as part of the treaties and the traders benefiting from the annuities more than the Indians did.

All of this information serves as background when considering the question of how and where Pierre and Angeline met. Was Pierre employed by the Company at La Pointe? Perhaps Alexander Blair was a fur company employee or an independent trader who had moved his family to La Pointe from Sandy Lake. Or, after Alexander died, Margaret moved her children there so they could find work. A check of the burial records for St. Joseph’s Mission (dating back to 1835) does not list any Blairs. I have yet to check the church’s baptismal records.

Margaret and her family may have remained at Sandy Lake, and only traveled to La Pointe for the annuity payment. As many as a couple thousand Indians would gather at La Pointe to await the payments. When there were delays in the arrival of the payments and other treaty goods, the bands would head out for the trapping and hunting season without their supplies. Because the band members had to be present to accept the payments and goods, the traders were not able to benefit.

A third possibility is that Pierre met Angeline while he was working at Sandy Lake or nearby Fond du Lac. Further research into fur company payroll records might verify where and when he worked in the fur trade. Under this scenario, they would have traveled together, perhaps at the time of an annuity payment, to La Pointe to be married in the church. This would suggest some devotion to the faith on their part, as many marriages between white men and Indian women in those days were informal and not officially recorded.

Pierre was about 28 years old and Angeline about 24 when they got married. Although it is possible theirs was originally a marriage of convenience to facilitate trade, they remained committed to each other the rest of their lives, until Pierre’s death in 1906. Their marriage endured personal tragedy, involved two homesteading efforts, and witnessed a tremendous amount of change in the Indian world as white settlement became an overwhelming tide.