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.