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.

The Man from Maskinonge

On June 27, 1839, a man named Pierre Trotochaud entered the United States from Canada (according to a “Declaration of Intent” filed ten years later to become an American citizen). Pierre was born in Maskinonge, Quebec around 1815. Maskinonge, located between Montreal and Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River, was one of the communities where the fur trading companies recruited voyageurs, at least in the early days of the fur trade. Whether or not this practice still was occurring in Pierre’s day, furs were still being moved along the St. Lawrence and opportunities to work in the fur trade were still available to young men looking for adventure.

Unfortunately, the location where Pierre entered the U.S. is not known and could have been any number of places. However, having read up on the history of the Great Lakes region at that time, and having identified the places where Pierre later showed up in and around Minnesota, I think there are three main ways Pierre could have entered the country.

One was at Ft. Michilimackinac, which was an important port of entry for the fur trade at that time. Michilimackinac was located on an island in Lake Huron, at the mouth of the St. Marys River, which flowed out of Lake Superior. Trade goods moved through Michilimackinac, up the St. Marys to Sault Ste. Marie and on to Lake Superior. Trade goods and people were moved across Lake Superior largely by small boats called bateaux, which were wooden, approximately 40 ft long and rowed by a crew of 5 or more. Occasionally these boats were fitted with sails. Birch back canoes were also still in use, mainly for shorter trips along the coasts.

In those days, the American Fur Company dominated the fur trade in the Great Lakes region and had its headquarters at La Pointe on Madeleine Island off the southern shore of Lake Superior. The company had docks, warehouses and stores located in La Pointe. According to the journals of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, approximately 800 people called Madeleine Island home in 1832. Schoolcraft estimated that only about 150 members of the population were Ojibwe. With the exception of a handful of “white” employees of the fur company, the remaining population were “half breeds”. These were the sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of unions between mostly French Canadian men and Ojibwe women. Such marriages were encouraged by fur company officials and if not encouraged, at least tolerated by Ojibwe leaders to facilitate trade.

If Pierre did not come through Michilimackinac, it is possible he arrived in Minnesota by steamboat. In those days, the head of navigation on the Mississippi was St. Peter’s Landing, below Fort Snelling. He could have boarded a steamboat in Prairie du Chien, a fur trading center on the Wisconsin side of the river, or perhaps he boarded at St. Louis, also a major trading center. Many other French Canadians who entered the US at that time landed at St. Peters.

This brings us to the third theory of Pierre’s arrival. He may have relocated from the Red River Colony, traveling what would soon become one of the Oxcart Trails. French and Scottish Canadians were recruited to settle the colony, located near present-day Winnipeg, by Lord Selkirk and others, beginning in the early 1800s. Floods, grasshopper plagues, isolation and other problems made life in the Colony very difficult and led to many of the settlers returning to eastern Canada or emigrating into the US.

Whether Pierre arrived by land or by water at St Peters, he would have found a few makeshift dwellings around the fort and not much else. The inhabitants were mainly French Canadian and mixed blood hunters, trappers and traders. Around that time the US Army began its efforts to move all civilians off the post property. The Army was concerned about a possible Indian attack, did not completely trust the mixed bloods and did not want their dwellings to provide cover for attackers. In 1840, the Army finally removed the remaining squatters by force and burned their buildings. One of those forced out was “Pigs Eye” Parrant, who was just getting his tavern business started. The place downstream from the fort where he relocated was the beginnings of a village originally named Pigs Eye, which later became St. Paul.

Regardless of how Pierre came to what is now Minnesota, it seems clear that he was involved in the fur trade. Given he was about 24 years old, it is possible he began working when he was much younger, perhaps in a warehouse back in Canada. That may have led to a similar job at La Pointe. Alternatively, he may have met and gone to work for one of the major players in the fur trade, who were often conducting business in and around Fort Snelling. These would have included Henry Sibley, William Morrow Rice (who also arrived at St. Peters in 1839), and others.

His work in the fur trade led to meeting a mixed-blood woman from Sandy Lake named Angeline who would be his wife.

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.