A History of RED LAKE COUNTY, Minnesota

Pierre Bottineau

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By far the most important and colorful character ever to have lived in this area is Red Lake Falls' founder, Pierre Bottineau, last of the great voyageurs, the "Kit Carson of the Northwest". To quote a portion of the eulogy printed in the Minneapolis Journal at the time of his death on July 27, 1895:

"With the passing of Pierre Bottineau, the days of the voyageurs and coureurs du bois pass into history. He was one of the last of that long line of hardy pioneers which the French race has given to America. In a later generation, he followed in the paths of Perrot, LeSeur, DuLuht, Charlevoix, LaSalle, and a score of others whose names are synonymous with the early history of discovery and settlement in the Mississippi Valley. Traversing the savage wilderness, thousands of miles beyond the limits of the settlements, they learned the forest and prairie as a book, and their knowledge was an invaluable, almost indispensable, aid in the work of laying the foundations upon which populous states have arisen."

Pierre Bottineau was born in 1817 in the Red River Country at Bear Point, near the mouth of the Turtle River. He was the son of Joseph (some accounts say "Charles") Bottineau and Clear Sky, a Chippewa Indian woman, also called "Margaret". Joseph, who was born in France of Huguenot ancestry, came to this country with his parents to enjoy religious freedom. After living in Boston for a time, he journeyed into the wilderness, and it was there that he met the Indian girl whom he married.

Pierre inherited characteristics from both parents that served him well. He is described as being over six feet tall, weighing around 200 pounds. One old biographical sketch described him as having "piercing black eyes", and adds that he was of "attractive appearance in spite of his swarthy complexion. He was naturally of manly instincts and gentlemanly deportment, polite, agreeable and of a kindly disposition, and always true to his word and to his fellow men."

That he was a man of great innate intelligence and adventurous spirit is evidenced by his life as a scout and guide. This career had its start when he, as a small boy, accompanied his voyageur father, hunting and trapping with him on the western plains.

In the earlier years of his life, Pierre's headquarters were in Canada, in the Selkirk settlement. In 1830 he made his first long trip, carrying messages for the fur company from Selkirk to Prairie du Chien. After that, he made several trips from the Hudson Bay Company's posts in Manitoba to the stations of the American fur company in various parts of Minnesota. He was at the Selkirk settlement in 1836, when a man named Dickson proclaimed himself general of the Indian Liberating Army and undertook to unite all the frontiersmen and all of the Indians of North America into a monarchy, of which he was to be the prince with the title of Montezuma II, with headquarters in Mexico. Although this scheme ultimately came to nothing, the originator had a number of followers in the beginning. In the winter of 1837, Martin McLeod, who was one of Dickson's followers (and for whom Mac Leod County was afterward named) set out for the United States, and probably Mexico, "accompanied by a Polander and an Irishman, Pierre Bottineau being the guide. They encountered such extremely cold weather that the Polander and the Irishman perished in a storm. McLeod and Bottineau pushed on through the snow for twenty-six days without encountering a human being. Their provisions were exhausted, and after going five days without food, they killed and ate their dog. They at last found shelter at a trading settlement on Lake Traverse." (Quoted from an 1895 Minneapolis Journal account.)

About 1840, Bottineau became a nominal resident of St. Paul, though he continued to follow the migratory life of a hunter and voyageur, and often served the officers at Fort Snelling as guide and interpreter. In the latter capacity, it was said that he was fluent not only in French and English, but in the Sioux, Chippewa, Cree, Mandan and Winnebago dialects as well.

Bottineau's St. Paul claim was right in the heart of the present city, but was then known as Pig's Eye Landing. Some accounts say he sold this claim for a horse and a cow, others say $300. In 1844, he bought (for about $160) and settled on 160 acres of land near St. Anthony Falls, becoming the second or third real settler of Minneapolis. He continued to buy land in that area, and at one time owned 700 acres on the present site of Northeast Minneapolis, extending along the river from Central Avenue to Plymouth. In 1852, (or 1855) he settled another claim and founded the town of Osseo, then called Bottineau Prairie. In 1853, he accompanied Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory on the first preliminary survey ever made for the Northern Pacific Railway. In his official report of the trip, Governor Stevens spoke "most highly of Bottineau as the man who seemed to have great influence over the voyageurs and Indians." During those years, he made several trips for General Henry Sibley, agent of the American Fur Company, the man who was to become Minnesota's first governor, and assisted Franklin Steele in filling his government contracts, notably the one for supplying Fort Ripley on the upper Mississippi. In 1862, he was in North Dakota on business of Indian Commissioner Dole. The Sioux outbreak occurred and the Sissetons laid siege to Fort Abercrombie. Bottineau, who was in the fort at the time of the attack, offered to go for help. He slipped through the Indian encampments, made his way over Leaf Mountain and managed to get to Sauk Center, from where help could be dispatched to the fort. During 1863-64, he scouted for General Sibley's military expedition into North Dakota and guided Captain Fisk's expedition to Montana. Also, in 1863, Bottineau served as interpreter when the Old Crossing Treaty was signed at Huot. Similar exploits and expeditions appear to have made up his "career" until 1876 when Pierre Bottineau, with two of his sons, Henry and William, came to what is now Red Lake Falls and staked a claim on land on the Clearwater River south of town. They built a shanty and planted a garden. After a time, Pierre returned to Osseo to move the rest of his family here, leaving the two young men to care for the little house and garden. One day the brothers went swimming, with tragic results. Henry, who was 19, became very ill, probably with pneumonia. William did the best he could, and finally got word to Crookston to notify his parents. They arrived just before Henry died. He was buried by the river and Pierre erected a huge wooden cross over the grave. Later his body was removed to the old Cyr Cemetery, and recently to the permanent Bottineau memorial in St. Joseph's Cemetery, where Pierre is buried.

Pierre Bottineau was married twice and had twenty-three children. His first marriage was in Winnipeg to Jennie LaRence. The nine children of this marriage were Pierre, John, Pierre (the first Pierre had died), Marie, Daniel, Rosalie, Margaret, Leon and Elsie, twins who died in infancy.

In this family, John became a lawyer and his daughter, Mrs. Marie Baldwin of Washington, D.C., also became a lawyer. (She has visited in Red Lake Falls.) Daniel took a claim on the north side of town, later returned to Osseo, and his daughter lived in White Bear. Rosalie died- in Osseo. The second Pierre was a Civil War veteran who was with Sherman on his march to the sea. After his discharge and return to Osseo, he died of yellow fever which he had contracted in the service. Marie lived in North Dakota where her husband, a Scotchman named McDonald, was a mail carrier out of Fort Totten. McDonald was scalped by warring Indians.

Bottineau's second marriage was to Martha Gervais, and of this wife he had fourteen children, two of whom died as infants. Their names were Charles, Martha, George, Henry, William, Sidney, Emilie, George, Norman, Laura, Jenny, Gene-vieve, Agnes, and Noah.

The daughter, Martha, was the mother of the Misses Kate, Blanche, and Louise Berthiaume of this city. Genevieve married Ferdinand Bourque in 1900. They had two sons, Jennings and August, and a foster son, Marvin Strande, who now lives in Crookston. August married Celeste Pouliot of Red Lake Falls. Genevieve lived in the Brooks-Oklee area and was a resident of the Erskine Pioneer Home at the time of her death.

The Misses Berthiaume recalled stories told them about the pioneer days in which their grandparents figured so prominently. The red brick house which Pierre had built near the site of the log shanty was large and hospitable. Everyone who happened along was welcome at their table. Their grandmother, Martha, described the hardships she had endured as a pioneer woman. The Indians frequently visited them and walking right in, helped themselves to whatever they wanted, passed the bread around wonderingly, camped on the floor and managed to disrupt the household. Mrs. Bottineau feared them, but Pierre assured her that since he was part Indian, no harm would come to them. Once when Pierre had left the house to do some butchering, the Indians walked in and demanded bullets . . . There were none.

Pierre Bottineau's contribution to Red Lake Falls continued for many years. According to a June 25, 1931, Gazette article, he traveled to Canada in 1878 and induced a large number of settlers to move here. There is evidence that he influenced many French Canadians from Ramsey and Hennepin Counties to do likewise. He established the first crossing over the Clearwater River, and the old road to Sandy Bottom was a remnant of that early road. He served on the village council from 1882 until February, 1887, and was its president in 1885. The following are some interesting entries in the council proceedings:

April 17, 1882 - "Pierre Bottineau and John Zaiser were appointed a committee to find a man willing and qualified to receive the office of Street Commissioner. By unanimous decision, salary of Street Commissioner was fixed at $1.75 per day. Wages for man and team not to exceed three dollars per day."

April 22, 1882 - "Moved by Mr. Bottineau that the Marshall's fee for arresting and taking care of each head of such cattle be 25 cents." (This referred to cattle running at large in town.)

March 19, 1885 - "Moved by Mr. Bottineau to fix village Marshall's salary at $25 a month." (A later motion, seconded by Bottineau, raised this salary to $50 per month.)

Pierre Bottineau was active also as a member of St. Joseph's Church. A picture elsewhere in this book shows him in a gathering of the St. Jean de Baptiste Society.

It was while Bottineau was engaged in the Pacific railroad survey with Governor Isaac Stevens that Stevens wrote to his wife about the guide. The letter was dated June 10, 1853, and it said, "Bottineau is a great guide and voyageur from Minnesota. He is famous as a buffalo hunter and he surpasses all in his class for truthfulness and great intelligence. Not only is he experienced in all the vicissitudes of travel and frontier life, being the hero of many interesting events, but he has the broadness of view of the engineer and I am confident he will be of the greatest service to us in finding the way. He understands, as Mr. Sibley in Washington told me, everything from shooting a bird or paddling a canoe, to hunting buffalo and conducting a large party through a long extent of difficult country." Later Stevens wrote, "Pierre Bottineau I find a most useful man to whom all the voyageurs look up with great confidence."

So appreciated were Bottineau's services to the government that a memorial was made to Congress by Henry Sibley, Governor J. S. Pillsbury, and other prominent men of that day. The memorial set forth his distinguished services as a guide on many important overland expeditions. This was done in St. Paul, in March, 1879 and prayed Congress "to pass a special act for the benefit of granting Pierre Bottineau, pioneer scout and guide, a pension of $50 a month." It further stated that "his services to the government merit the consideration of Congress."

Red Lake Falls' appreciation has culminated in the establishment of the permanent memorial to Pierre Bottineau in St. Joseph's Cemetery. The memorial is located on a triangle from which one can look to the south to Pierre's homestead.

The Pierre Bottineau Memorial at the entrance of St. Joseph's Cemetery in Red Lake Falls was dedicated in August 2000. Susan Warner, a potter and ceramist of Minneapolis, was awarded the commission, and completed the project that was funded by the Minnesota State Legislature.


The structure is 6 feet in diameter with a slanted face covered with colorful tiles depicting the life of the famous and trusted Metis guide with scenes of early expeditions into territories that brought frontier settlements and industry into Minnesota and the Dakotas.

The establishment of a permanent monument to Pierre Bottineau

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