Return to Mooningwanekaaning

Last October, my wife and I decided to make trip back to Madeline Island to celebrate our anniversary. We had been there several years ago and really enjoyed our time there. I also wanted to go back because the Madeline Island Museum was closed last time and I wanted to see if they had any information about my ancestors.

We stayed in Bayfield and took the ferry out to LaPointe. The museum was open this time. I told a staffer at the front desk that my great-great-great grandparents were married there. She offered to make photocopies of pages from the marriage register, which had been compiled and typed from the original register. I got a copy of the page listing the marriage of Pierre Trotochaud to Angelique Masset (or Massey) by Father Baraga in 1843. Interestingly, Angelique was listed by her mother’s maiden name and not Blair.

While touring the museum, I stopped to talk with an elder from the nearby Red Cliff Reservation named Rob who worked there. I told Rob about the marriage record. He said the names sounded familiar to him. Then he showed me a photo of a book on his phone, “All Our Relations”. Rob suggested I check it out to see if I could learn more about my family.

Rob went on to tell me about the importance of the island (called Mooningwanekaaning in Ojibwe, referring to home of the yellow-shafted flicker) to the Ojibwe. He told me that many of the people who migrated from the island to Sandy Lake, where Angelique was from, were of the Loon Clan. Rob explained that, although the Ojibwe had dispersed from Mooningwanekaaning to reservations established by the treaties, they still considered the island their spiritual home. Rob pointed out that many of Catholic Indians continued to return to the island to have their children baptized and to be married. He mentioned two children buried at the Catholic church who perished at Sandy Lake and their parents buried them at LaPointe. (These were Clem Beaulieu’s two daughters who died in 1845.) I enjoyed my visit with Rob and told him I hoped to see him again.

When I got home I immediately reserved a copy of “All Our Relations” from the local library. Rob was right: the book had information about our family. The book includes records of interviews conducted at LaPointe after the Treaty of 1837. The government was trying to determine who was eligible for a payment to mixed bloods that was provided for in the treaty.

One of the interviewees was Margaret Bles (Blai or Blais), who was born at Pine River in Iowa Territory, which at that time included most of what is now Minnesota. She had resided at Sandy Lake “until within the last 2 months.” The entry went on to say that she married a man named Alexis Bles “13 or 14 years since”, which would be about 1825. The marriage produced 5 children: Angelique, 11 yrs old; Antoine 10; Joseph 8; Edouard 6; and Alexander 4. Antoine had been born at Mille Lacs and Joseph at Leech Lake; the other three children were born at or near Sandy Lake. This record matches the names and approximate ages of the Blairs in our family tree. The record also mentions that Alexis had died “4 years since.” This would be about 1835.

The book also includes information about a man named Alexis Blais who appeared before the Indian agent in 1828. He was one of three men who were ordered out of Indian country the previous year because they did not have licenses to trade in Indian country. The men were summoned to Sault Ste. Marie by the agent, none other than Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the “discoverer” of the Mississippi headwaters. The episode is documented in Schoolcraft’s “Personal Memoirs”, which includes parts of his daily journals. Schoolcraft wrote that Alexis “pleaded ignorance” to the laws pertaining to traders and Indian country. Schoolcraft’s journal implies that Alexis was the subject of a complaint by “Mr. Aikin” at Sandy Lake. That would be William Aitkin, the trader who ran the American Fur Company post there. During the interview, Alexis guessed that he would not have gotten in trouble if he had worked for Aitkin instead of independently. According to Schoolcraft, Alexis “did not desire to return to the Indian country”.

If Alexis Blais did leave the area in 1828, he would not have fathered Margaret’s younger children. In her interview at LaPointe Margaret claimed he died around 1835, which suggests he did not leave after meeting with Schoolcraft but returned to his family.

This experience has finally cleared up the mystery of who Alexis Blais (Alexander Blair) was and gives me a better picture of what life was like for Margaret and her children. It appears they moved wherever Alexis could make a living, with stops at Leech Lake and Mille Lacs. It is fascinating to to know that our ancestors interacted with historic figures like Schoolcraft, Baraga and Aitkin.

Mooningwanekaaning was important to the family; Margaret and her children were baptized there by Father Baraga later in 1839 (documented in “All Our Relations”). Now the island holds a special place in my heart, too.

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.