A Visit to Sandy Lake

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.