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.