A History of RED LAKE COUNTY, Minnesota

The French-Canadian Presence in the Northwest and the very Early Beginnings of Red Lake Falls and Red Lake County

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by Virgil Benoit

The pages that follow are meant to illustrate that the large number of French Canadians who settled in the vicinity of Red Lake Falls in Red Lake County in the 1870s and 1880s was not an accident of history. From the time of the arrival of the first explorers in northern Minnesota to the settlement of Red Lake Falls led by Pierre Bottineau in 1876 it is apparent that a steady contact was maintained by the French Canadians with the area for over two hundred years. It is the nature of this contact which offers the basis for the present study. Relying on documents that have been left to us from earlier times, the following pages attempt to shed light on the motivations for early travel in northern Minnesota, the types of persons who ventured such travel, their relationships with one another, the people they met and whose lives they affected, and the country they, discovered and developed.

For the sake of convenience I have incorporated references to documents into the text but always in an abbreviated form. The complete reference can always be found by referring to the bibliography at the end of this article.

The individual motives of the first French explorers in northern Minnesota are complex, but basically dual in nature. First of all legend had it among the French that there was an inland passage to the great "Western Sea". Since the French had taken possession of the land along the Saint Lawrence, it was only natural to seek the passage to the West along the Great Lakes. Secondly, the West was rich in fur bearing animals, the pelts of which could easily pay for the high costs of exploration. The individual motivations of the early explorers apparently ranged from the get-rich-quick type who sought only pelts to purest idealists who were pushed on solely by the quest for adventure.

The first French explorers who came possibly as far as Minnesota were Pierre d'Esprit, sieur de Radisson and Medard Chouart. sieur de Groseilliers. These men, whose adventures during the mid-seventeenth century had acquainted them with the West as well as with aspects of the fur trade at Montreal disagreeable to them, joined the British controlled Hudson's Bay Company in 1667. The historian of this English fur company, which would rival for monopoly of the fur trade of the West and North until 1870, wrote that these early adventurers "brought both the knowledge and enthusiasm of the Canadian coureur de bois, the wood-runner at home with the Indian and content to winter in the woods, and some fixed and pertinent geographical notions of their own, to London." These earliest Canadian explorers are typical of those who came to Minnesota over the next two hundred years. (Blegen, 36-37; Rich, 1:23 (quote))

It was in the 1670s and 1680s that Minnesota came under control of the French for numerous explorers were quickly inspired by the mood prevalent in freshly Organized New France. Louis Jolliet explored the headwaters of the Mississippi and mapped the area. Daniel Greysolon, sieur du Luth traveled in the area of present day Duluth and to the southwest where another group of Canadians led by Father Louis Hennepin was exploring central Minnesota. "One of the dramatic episodes of western history is the meeting of the two French groups in the heart of the Minnesota country, at a Sioux village on the shores of Mille Lacs." In 1688 Jacques de Noyen journeyed from Quebec west to Rainy Lake and in the spring of 1689 went as far as Lake of the Woods. He was followed in 1717 by Zacherie Robutal de la Nouë who went in search of the Western Sea. (Blegen, 45-63; 46 (quote); Burpee, Journals. . ., 6-7)

In 1718 a trading post was established at Rainy Lake while other posts were being set up along the Mississippi. Between 1731 and 1748 Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Verendrye and his men established nine posts extending from the Grand Portage to the Forts of the Saskatchewan. But in all of this activity la Verendrye felt no nearer to the "Sea of the West" and so he turned the direction of his explorations toward the south, going at least as far as the present city of Pierre, S. Dakota. La Verendrye died in Montreal in 1749 without having discovered the "Sea of the West". History has, however, honored him as a major figure for his contribution to the development of the Northwest. (Rich, 1:51 6-51 8; Henry, XXVI-XXVII, Burpee, Pathfinders. . ., 89)

The eighteenth century witnessed not only the intensification of the fur trade and exploration, but the great conflict between the English and the French. In the East the clash was to be most abrupt and final. By 1760 the English had conquered Canada. But the call of the west for French Canadians was not silenced. Adventure and risk associated with the peoples and wilds of the west had now run for over three generations in the hearts and minds of the French Canadians. The fall of New France did not mean the end of those Canadians who lived by means of the canoe, the trap and the gun for the lure of the west had not died; in fact, in many ways it was now greater than ever.

One Canadian who did not abandon the west at the time of the Conquest in 1760 was Jean-Baptiste Cadotte. He had been in the vicinity of Sault Ste. Marie since 1751 and it is there that the English fur trader Alexander Henry found him and his family on May 19, 1762. Henry who wanted to establish himself in the fur trade requested that Cadotte, who knew the Indians extremely well, became his partner for "M. Cadotte enjoyed a powerful influence over their conduct. They considered M. Cadotte as their chief; and he was not only my friend, but also a friend to the English. It was by him that the Chipeways [sic] of Lake Superior were prevented from joining Pontiac. "Cadotte's "powerful influence" stemmed in no small way from the fact that like so many of his compatriotes he lived among the Indians and had married one of them. "His Ojibway wife appears to have been a woman of great energy and force of character, as she is noted to this day for the influence she held over her relations - the principal chiefs of the tribe; and the hardy, fearless manner, in which, accompanied only by Canadian 'Coureurs du bois' to propel her canoes, she made long journeys to distant villages of her people to further the interests of her husband." (Tobola, 1 4, Henry, 1 49 (first quote); Tobola, 16 (second quote))

Through the Cadotte and Henry partner ship, trade with the Indians was developed toward the west. "By 1766 Alexander Henry and his partner Cadotte brought down from Fond du Lac fifteen hundred pounds of beaver in addition to otter and marten, and in the next year over a hundred canoes came to Michilimackinac from the north-west&" Since the English had taken over the administration of Canada the arrangement between Henry and Cadotte was a kind of "new" model for trade and exploration "with an Englishman organizing and financing, and to some extent hiring, to some extent sharing, the skill and knowledge of the French voyageurs." (Rich, 2:11 (first quote); 27 (second quote))

On a trading venture in 1775 to Lake of the Woods, Henry met with a village of Indians. He describes the nature of his relations with them: "From this village, we received ceremonious presents. The mode with the Indians is, first to collect all the provisions they can spare, and place them in a heap; after which they send for the trader, and address him in a formal speech. They tell him, that the Indians are happy in seeing him return to their country; that they have been long in expectation of his arrival; that their wives have deprived themselves of their provisions, in order to afford him a supply; that they are in great want, being destitute of every thing, and particularly of ammunition and clothing&.."

As the white traders moved into northern Minnesota, the Chippewa became dependent on them and frequently moved with them. The Indian population of northern Minnesota was not high. Perhaps as few as 1,000 Chippewas were living along the Red River around 1795. Yet, the demands of the fur trade were in such excess that by this same period the supply of fur bearinq animals was all but depleted in the Rainy River area. In 1798 the geographer David Thompson described the situation of the Indians in Northeastern Minnesota. "By the extent of their hunting grounds each family of seven souls, has 150 to 180 square miles of hunting ground, and yet (they) have very little provisions to spare; this alone is sufficient to show the ground does not abound in wild animals. The Beaver has become a very scarce animal. . ." It is therefore apparent that by the end of the eighteenth century the northwestern economy based mainly on fur trade was showing signs of weakening. But before the country would begin to open up to permanent occupancy, the fur companies were to make one last great stand in northern Minnesota. (Henry, 241-242 (first quote), Hickerson, 303, 297; Tyrell, 249 (second quote))

In 1789 the Hudson's Bay Company proposed a "series of posts radiating out from Osnaburgh southwards - at Sturgeon Lake, Red Lake, Portage de l'isle and Rainy Lake . . ." The establishment of a post at Red Lake meant that trade would also develop along the Red Lake and Red Rivers since they formed the water way to Pembina and the posts of the north. Moreover, the area of the Red Lake River which extended into the regions where buffalo grazed was highly strategic in the development of the fur trade. In establishing posts along this route the Hudson's Bay Company was securing for itself the pemmican, or dried buffalo meat, so necessary for its traders. "Though the fish and the wild rice of the Rainy Lake Department were invaluable, and any rival who diverted Indians there from providing such food for the brigades was accepted as a menace out of all proportion to the furs which he might trade, yet it was pemmican from the Red River Department which was essential for the Northwest brigades. Without it the canoes would be forced to 'hunt their way' inland, and an extra season would be needed to reach the North Saskatchewan or any land beyond." Thus the Red Lake River posts were meant to be a strategic hold against the traders of competitive fur companies, who, like the traders of the Hudson's Bay Company sought to secure their trade in the far northwest. By 1826 there were as many as seventeen trading posts in the upper Mississippi country. (Rich, 2:1 28 (first quote); 180 (second quote); 518-519)

"To Jean Baptiste Cadotte Jr. [sicl is given the credit for completely opening to the fur traders the region about the upper Mississippi." Jean Baptiste had followed in the footsteps of his father, the great fur trader and partner of Alexander Henry. Jean Baptiste Cadotte, Jr. spent the winter of 1797-8 at the strategic forks of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers, or the present site of the town of Red Lake Falls. "Mr. Cadotte in the employ of the Northwest Company, probably spent the winter of 1794-5 at Red Lake and the next year at Red Cedar or Cass Lake, while the season following, 1796-7 was passed at Red Lake once more. . . . He was in charge the next winter of the trading house of the Northwest Company located on the Red Lake River on the present site of the town of Red Lake Falls." On March 25, 1798 the geographer and surveyor David Thompson, who like Cadotte was in the employ of the Northwest Company, visited Cadotte's house at the fork of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers. About his visit Thompson wrote: "Mr. Baptiste Cadotte was about thirty-five years of age. He was the son of a french gentleman by a native woman, and married to a very handsome native woman, also the daughter of a Frenchman: He had been well educated in Lower Canada, and spoke fluently his native Language, with Latin, French and English. I had long wished to meet a well educated native, from whom I could derive sound information for I was well aware that neither myself, nor any other Person I had met with, who was not a Native, were sufficiently masters of the Indian Languages. As the season was advancing to break up the Rivers, and thaw the Snow from off the ground, I enquired if he would advise me to proceed any farther with Dogs and Sleds: he said the season was too far advanced, and my further advance must be in Canoes . . . 11 (Tobola, 44 (first quote); 45 (second quote); Tyrell, 251; 252 (third quote Spelling and punctuation have been reproduced here as in the original text as edited by Tyrell .))

Because of the severity of the spring thaw and rain which accompanied it, Thompson returned to Cadotte's house March 31 at which time he spoke with the Chippewa chief of the Red Lake Indians and observed some Indian dances. Thompson concludes about the area: "The course of this River is from the south westward until it is lost in the Plains, the groves are at a considerable distance from each other, by no means sufficient for the regular Farmer, but may become a fine pastoral country, but without a Market, other than the inhabitants of the Red River." Thompson left Cadotte's house on April 9 with his crew of three French Canadians and the wife of one of the men, a native woman. They took the Clearwater River since they were travelling in a birch canoe and the Red Lake River still had ice on it from the Lake. (Tyrell, 265 (quote); 266)

The first settlers in the far north were brought in by Lord Selkirk and founded Selkirk Colony, or Red River Settlement, in 1812. They were mainly Scotts direct from Europe, but some French Canadians did settle among them. By the 1820s this mixed population numbered about 1,500 souls. The territory they were originally granted ran from the shores of Lake Winnipeg on the north to the present site of Grand Forks on the south. The boundaries to the east and west were less determined. (Ross, 20; 78; 1 0)

The arrival of the settlers of the Red River Colony introduced a new way of life to the northwest. In cultivating the land, they were very different from the nomadic-like Indians, French and mixed bloods, who had been the sole possessors of this vast territory for centuries. A new type of pioneer who would settle on and cultivate the land had just arrived and for a while he was not very successful, but history was soon to favor him. In writing of the Europeans, who had come to Red River to settle, and of the Indians and French native to the area, the Red River historian Alexander Ross remarked: "We have to notice a marked difference between the Europeans and the French. In the spring of the year, when the former are busy, late and early, getting their seed into the ground, the Canadian is often stuck up in the end of his canoe fishing gold-eye's, and the halfbreed as often sauntering about idle with his gun in his hand." Ross, however, viewed more favorably the French Canadian who showed signs of settling and, thus, resembled more the newly arrived Europeans of which Ross himself was a member:

The Canadian of any standing is tidy in his dwelling: the floor is kept clean, the bed neatly made up and generally set off with curtains and coverlet; the little cupboard, if there is nothing in it, is still orderly and clean; in short, everything else just as it ought to be. On the contrary, the half-breeds, generally speaking, exhibit more of the discomforts that attend a mere encampment in their dwellings. When anything is wanted, everything in the domicile has to be turned topsy turvy to find it, and the inmates sleep as contented on the floor as in a bed - a sort of pastoral life, reminding us of primeval times. Among this class, the buffalo robe is more frequently to be seen than the blanket in their dwellings. The better sort, however, have their houses divided into two rooms; but they are all bare of furniture, and ornament never enters, except occasionally a small picture of the Virgin Mary, or a favorite, apostle, hung to the wall in a little round frame."

Like history, the nineteenth century historian of Red River favored the settler. Adventurers would still pass through, but they too were changing and rather than rally the Indians to a trading post they now were beginning to suggest settlement of this land. (Ross, 1 94 (first quote); 1 95 (second quot-VII

Another settlement in the northwest that was growing in the early nineteenth century was located at Prairie du Chien. Until the 1840s when St. Paul became a growing center the Prairie du Chien settlement was considered the closest to Red River Colony. In 1820 a group from Red River Colony traveled to Prairie du Chien where they bought seed-wheat since their crops had been destroyed the two previous years by grasshoppers. This friendly gesture by the Prairie du Chien Colony toward the more unfortunate northern settlement certainly contributed to the development of the north. But a policy much more hostile in intent by certain members of the Prairie du Chien Colony toward the Red River Colony encouraged settlement in the north even more. (Tass6, 1:169, Blegen, 156; Ross,50-51)

One of the ambitions of Lord Selkirk was to protect trading interests of the Hudson's Bay Company. On the other hand, Prairie du Chien was the center from which a great deal of competitive fur trading was being carried out against Hudson's Bay. One man from Prairie du Chien who joined the ranks of the competitors of the Hudson's Bay Company was Joseph Rolette. His father Joseph had settled in Prairie du Chien where the younger Joseph was born about 1820. It was the younger Joseph Rolette who, in joining forces with Norman W. Kittson in the 1840s, brought northwestern Minnesota into the realm of growing St. Paul and away from the orbit of the British control fed Hudson's Bay Company. "&In 1843 he began the 'Cartline' to fetch American goods from St. Paul to Pembina. Within ten years almost two hundred Red River carts were regularly engaged in the five-or six-weeks' journey on the 'Cartline', the annual value of the furs carried to the States had risen to about twenty thousand dollars, the American Fur company established its headquarters at St. Paul in 1849, and several other companies rose to share in the promising trade." (Ross, 17-18; Blegen, 70-81; Tass6, 2:33; Rich, 2:1 59 (quote))

Joseph Rolette not only diverted trade from the Selkirk Colony toward St. Paul, he also brought Minnesota to the attention of many future Settlers. Some of the surnames of persons living at Prairie du Chien in the 1820s which appear later among the settlers of northwestern Minnesota are: Gauthier, Mercier, Menard, Hebert, Lariviere, Prevost, Laframboise, Rivard, Gendron, Roy and Dionne. But persons like Rolette also traveled a great deal and spoke with parties interested in settlement from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, the Dakotas and points east. The Rolettes were a very well known family who had traveled to New York and been cordially received by the great fur merchant John Jacob Astor. People moved about, and paths crossed in more ways than history has recorded. Father Joseph Cretin who became the first Bishop of the see of St. Paul had been at the Prairie du Chien settlement, and the Reverend Lucian Galtier who built the chapel of St. Paul in 1841 from which the city took its name died at Prairie du Chien. In 1839 Bishop Loras from Iowa Territory accompanied by one of his priests visited a settlement at the junction of the Minnesota and the Mississippi. "They spent about two weeks in the community, and from their records we know that they counted no fewer than 185 Catholics, nearly all of whom spoke either French or Sioux." (Tasse, 1:173, 206; Blegen, 154-155, 155 (quote))

It is apparent, therefore, that from the early nineteenth century communication was developing and settlements were being created from southeastern Minnesota to the northwestern corner of the State where Pembina marked the border on the north. The Rolette and Kittson enterprise between Pembina and St. Paul which continued until the late 1860s brings us to the period of intense settlement in Red Lake County. Some of the first persons closely associated with the settlement of Red Lake County were of the large family of French Canadians and mixed bloods who were so very familiar to the entire northwest. (Holcombe, 46-49)

Some of the early settlers to come to St. Paul whose surnames appear later in Red Lake County are: Bottineau, Gervais, Labissonniere, Cloutier, Pepin, Desmarais, Bazile, Laroche, Benoit, and Fournier. Pierre Bottineau, born in Red River Settlement and trained as a scout, guide and fur trader certainly viewed the junction of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers where he founded Red Lake Falls as an advantageous site for a town. He was very influential in bringing settlers to Red Lake County. An early settler of this area recalled: "Pierre Bottineau and his son, John B., brought in a large number of French Canadians from Ramsey and Hennepin Counties, Minnesota, and also quite a number from the East, locating them along Red Lake River from Louisville to Red Lake Falls, and along Clearwater River from Red Lake Falls to Lambert." The year was 1877 and already many factors pointed to a rapid settlement of the area. In 1863 a treaty with the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians at the Old Crossing of the Red Lake River had opened some three million acres of land to eventual settlement. The railroad had reached Fisher's Landing in 1875. Furthermore, since the 1850s "Every effort was made to reach the minds of easterners and immigrants with Minnesota propaganda." (Tasse, 2:14-1 5; Holcombe, 72 (first quote); Blegen, 181 (second quote))

Pamphlets and advertisements describing Northwestern Minnesota were distributed in the United States as well as abroad. In 1883 a group of French Canadians wrote and published at Crookston a twenty-two-page pamphlet entitled Description de la Colonie Canadienne du Comte de Polk, par un comit6 de Canadiens-franais. The pamphlet not only described Polk County but also listed twenty Canadians who were prepared to furnish information to their compatriots wishing to settle around Crookston, Carmen, Fisher, Gentilly, Red Lake Falls, Terrebonne, Emardville, Lambert, Lafontaine, Riviere Voleuse (Thief River), Louisville, Riviere Noire (Black River), and Lac aux Erables (Maple Lake). The names of those from Red Lake Falls who offered to help their compatriots were Isaie Gervais and George Labissonniere; Terrebonne, Roch Lizee; Emardville, Pierre Emard; Lambert, Patrice Lemay; Louisville, L. Hout, and Riviere Noire, D. Bray.

In 1879 the Reverend Pierre Beaugrand Champagne arrived in Red Lake Falls to serve his compatriots. Father Champagne had been ordained in 1867 by Mgr. Louis-Francois Lafleche, bishop of Trois-Rivieres,Quebec who had himself been a missionary in Red River Colony from 1844 to 1856. Until a church could be built the Reverend Champagne said mass in the home of Isaie Gervais. (Fetes jubilaires Esquisse. 58)

As in the case of so many adventurers and pioneers who had preceded him, the West for the Reverend Champagne seems to have held in its mystery and people a public and personal challenge. A challenge as complex and sacred as the motivation of the earlier adventures, and one to which he and they always remained faithful.

Since the beginning of Red Lake Falls in 1876 many people have joined the town and the surrounding community. It is their story that is told in the following pages. My desire has only been to shed light on the nature of the very early beginnings of several communites of French-Canadian origin in northwestern Minnesota and, in particular, in Red Lake County.

Virgil Benoit teaches in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and in the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The son of Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Benoit, he was raised in Louisville Township, Red Lake County where he spends some time each summer. He has also written a history of Gentilly and Polk County from 1873 to 1973.

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