Early Life Among the Indians
Copyright 1891 B.G. Armstrong & T.P. Wentworth, Ashland, WI.
1892 Press of A.W. Bowron, Ashland, Wis.


Chapter XI.

Source of the Mississippi - It Arises from a Thousand Crystal-like Springs - The Indians of that Country in 1842 - The Indian and the Moose


During the winter of 1841, an uncle of mine, who was a resident of St. Louis, made a proposition to start me in the trading business, provided I could locate a place outside of the Hudson Bay and American Fur Company territory, to which there would be some means of getting supplies to, and also of shipping furs from, and for this purpose I made a trip up the Mississippi. I picked two of the best guides I could find to accompany me during my trip. Our little party, which consisted solely of myself and guides, left Pocagemah Lake, Minnesota about the first of May in the spring of 1841 taking very little provisions of any kind. When we started, we had only enough to last two or three days, with the exception of salt, and pepper, which I took for my own meats and had a sufficient quantity for the trip. We depended wholly on our guns, with which I had provided the Indians; they carrying shot guns and myself a rifle, each carrying his own ammunition, of which we had plenty. We were continually on the look-out for game, for we were careful to keep our larder supplied with at least one day's provisions, which was an easy matter as game was plentiful and one need go but a short distance for want of a shot at a deer or any smaller game, while traces of elk, moose, caribou and bear were frequently met with. The route we traversed going up I cannot describe, there being no surveys of any kind, but we went up on the east side of the Mississippi the whole distance only seeing the river twice on the trip, keeping into the wood for several miles, my guides telling me it was far the best part of the country to travel through to avoid lakes, rivers, marshes, etc., which we would otherwise be obliged to cross. The whole country was then inhabited by Indians, who we met frequently on the route, who were then dressed in their native ways. The guides I took from Pocagemah Lake led me somewhat astray, taking me considerably to the northwest of my destination, and we arrived at the Lake of the Woods about twenty-eight days after starting. Here we found that we were out of our course and not, as I supposed, anywhere near the Mississippi. At this information I determined to procure a new guide which I did, who went through with me to Lake Itasca, and told me that this was as far up as any white man had ever been. The guide was a man of about thirty-five or forty-years of age, and was born and brought up between Lake of the Woods and the head of the Mississippi, and had trapped and hunter over the entire country. Just before arriving at Lake Itasca we came upon an Indian camp, of five or six lodges or families, and stopped there with them over night. Here I found another Indian pretty well along in years, who must have been upwards of fifty, and who was more familiar with the country around the head of the Mississippi than the former guide claimed to be. In listening to the conversation in the lodges that night, between the guide who brought me through from Lake of the Woods and our host, who was the old gentleman spoken of before, I found him giving my former guide many directions, and concluded he was thoroughly acquainted with the country. He described a river as coming into another small lake just above Itasca, the source of which was the dividing ridge between the waters flowing east and west, the outcome of which was that I employed the old man to go along with me, and also to furnish a canoe, leaving the first two guides behind to remain and hunt for the folks in the camp till we should have returned. Soon after leaving the camp with the old gentleman he told me he could take me to the headwaters of the Mississippi if I cared to go there. This was not my object in making the trip, but when I found it would be impracticable to start a trading post, there being no means of transportation, I determined to get acquainted with the whole country, hence my visit to the headwaters of the Mississippi. After exploring the river thoroughly as we proceeded up stream, which took considerable time, we at last launched our canoes on the waters of Lake Itasca, which had for more than a century been considered the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The Indians from that country disputed the long standing supposition that Itasca was its headwaters, and said that there was another lake and another stream further up, the steam being entirely fed entirely by springs, of crystal like appearance, and they were positive that the stream at the head of this little lake was the headwaters of the Mississippi, to confirm which I explored the whole country thoroughly. After going through Lake Itasca we were compelled to abandon our canoes, and proceed on foot. This we were obliged to do, the stream being so filled up with driftwood as to make it slow work to get a canoe ahead. In going up this stream we made it a point to explore on both sides. The distance traveled after leaving Lake Itasca I cannot give accurately, it being so long ago, but it must have been considerable, it having occupied quite a time, and can only estimate it. It was probably between twenty and twenty-five miles. Just after leaving Lake Itasca we came to a widening of the river, which my guide told me was something called a lake. This was not more than three or four miles above Itasca. About twenty miles beyond this we beheld one of the most beautiful little lakes in the whole country, it being surrounded by hundreds of small springs, in fact it is almost entirely fed by springs, having a stream at the further end which has its source in these crystal-like springs at the foot of and up the sides of the hill, I concluded that the Indians were right in saying that this was the true source of the Mississippi. All of these small lakes were filled with finest speckled trout I ever had the good fortune to see. From the top of the hill to which the Indians took me at the head of the small, which runs into this little lake above Itasca, the sight was the most grand of anything I ever witnessed. The surface of the earth descending as far as the eye could reach and the landscape was beautiful. For some time afterward I intended making another visit there for the purpose of taking notes and getting maps to present to my uncle for writing it up, but before another opportunity offered my uncle died and I was blinded and the trip I had intended for the interest of myself and others had to be abandoned.

This trip to a country where moose were then plentiful brings to mind a short story of the attempted capture of one of these animals on Chequamegon Bay. Quite early in the forties, I think it was in '43, there lived on the banks of Fish Creek, a small stream which empties into the head of Chequamegon Bay, near the present city of Ashland, Wisconsin, and Indian named Da-cose and his wife. They were childless and lived apart from the Chippewa tribe, to which he belonged, by reason of his eccentric nature. He was a lazy, indolent and selfish man and at Fish Creek game was as plentiful and in greater quantity and greater variety could be more easily obtained than in any other section of country that he knew of. In case of an invasion by the warlike Sioux he would temporarily move his abode and join the tribe and would remain among them until the battle had been fought or the scare was over when he would invariably return to Fish Creek which for many years had been their permanent home. I knew this family well. The old man was lazy and improvident throughout his whole disposition and was one of that class of people whom we often meet that seem to think the world owes them a living whether they strive for it or not. His wife, on the contrary, was directly the opposite nature. She was a hard worker, always busy and industrious. She tended the fish nets, set and attended the snares and traps for larger game and fur bearing animals, and in fact was a whole family in herself, and as is the nature of such people she often complained to the old man of his selfish nature and reminded him that only for her care and watchfulness for their welfare they would have nothing to eat or wear, and as the old man believed his ways were right and that it was folly and useless to fret about the future, and from the fact that a wife among the Indians was only expected to be seen and not heard, he never took kindly to her advisory way of making remarks to him and these differences in their general makeup led frequently to hot words and petty quarrels, though I never knew that the old man ever allowed himself to chastise his wife for her interference with his superior position in the family, but it was an almost daily occurrence for him to chide her for her fretfulness and to him her uncongenial disposition. He was always satisfied with his lot and what they had to eat, be it little or much, and as a matter of course thought she ought to be. He would shoot what ducks, geese, and other game came handy or providentially his way and trust to luck or the old lady to do the rest. One morning as the old lady was passing out of the creek to her nets she espied a moose plunging into the water from the southeast shore of the bay, closely followed by a pack of wolves and she knew the moose only had one way to escape from his howling pursuers, which was to swim to the opposite shore, some three miles away, as he could not land in the swampy ground around Fish Creek. The point where he entered the water was not far from the Keystone Lumber Company's sawmill. As she would have plenty of time she hastened back to inform her liege-lord of the circumstances and request that he make ready and accompany her and assist in capturing the moose while he was yet in deep water and unable to defend himself against their attack from the canoe, and she quite forcibly insisted that he waste no time in making his preparations to start and remarked: "If you move as slow as you generally do the moose will be across the bay before we are ready to go." This ruffled the old man's equipoise somewhat and he retorted: "There it is again! Always fretting about something. How many times I have told you to take it easy. Don't you see that the moose is coming our way, as things generally do?" She said something about his enterprise, having had little to do with the discovery of Mr. Moose but desisted from further relieving her mind on this point with true womanly tact, knowing the old man would rather argue than go after the moose. He made inquires as to the size of the moose and whether in her opinion he was in good condition and the probable chances of her being able to overtake him, until she became too vexed to make further replies. This he took to be a cooling down of her irritable temper, and he followed along to the bank of the creek and actually only stopped once on the way, and that was to sharpen his knife on his gun barrel remarking to the old lady as he did so: "It takes a sharp knife to skin a moose." But as he was about to step into the canoe he stopped and shouted "Te-wah! I forgot my pipe," and back to the wigwam he goes for it. The old woman's patience was about as nearly exhausted now as it well could be, she paced up and down the creek in rage and her Indian vocabulary had about ran out when the old chap returned and seating himself in the bow of the boat with his little flint-lock shotgun, he says "I am ready" but refused to take up his paddle and assist the old lady in moving the boat saying: "You paddle along, I want to talk to you. I know you can catch that moose before he can get half way across the bay and I want to tell you what you have got to do." The old woman retorted: "Take up your paddle and help me, there will be plenty of time to talk after we have got the moose." But the old man could not see that his duty ran in that direction and just then catching a glimpse of the moose he says: "I will now take a smoke for after we have got that meat to take care of there will be plenty of work to do and no time to smoke," an he deliberately take his pipe from his kinnikinnik sack and with his flint, steel and punk he starts a light and began to smoke. The moose was now quite well along over the distance he had to swim and the old lady was and had been from the start using her paddle as for dear life and was fearful that she would not be able to overtake it him before he should reach low water and again she tried to induce the old man to take his paddle and help her, to which the old hero replied: "I will now tell you what I started to awhile ago and then I will help you paddle. You see, as soon as we get this meat, your relations will come and want some of it, but don't you give them a particle. We will carefully cut all the meat from the bones and dry it and lay it away. It will last you and me a long time and when your friends come you may make some soup from the bones and that is good enough for them. Of course I will be there and be busy telling them what a hard time we had in getting the moose and how we got it to shore and will show them the moccasins we will make from the hide, which we will ornament so nicely with porcupine quills. I will manage to keep the busy and you be sure and not give them a bit of that meat. The old woman had now given up all hopes of getting any help from the old man's paddle and she kept brushing away satisfied that she could overtake him without help, for the moose was now getting tired as well as herself. The old man now faced about and saw the moose but a little ways off and shouted: "Bo-shoo! Moose, you are always afraid of an Indian. Don't hurry we want to get acquainted with you." A few moments more and the canoe was along side of the moose and the old lady said: "Take your knife and cut his hamstrings and cut his throat, too, he may get away from us." "Yes," the old man said, "there it is again, always in a hurry. Lay down your paddle and rest. I will take a hold of the moose and he will pull us along," and laying down his pipe he took hold of the moose, and patting him on the back says: "How nice and fat you are. I say, old woman, what nice eating he will be." The old girl now made a rush for the knife to disable the animal, but the old warrior fought her away, saying; "Don't be in so much of a hurry. Give the poor fellow all the time to live you can. His meat will soon be boiling in the pot." But the old woman's fever was not going down a bit. She saw they were nearing the shore and knew the sand bars could not be far away and she again entreated the old man to kill the animal. She took the pole that she carried in the canoe for use in shoal water and sounded and found she could touch bottom with it, and with a shriek of despair she shouted, "Be quick or he will get away." Just then the moose caught his hind feet on a sand bar and darted ahead and broke the old man's hold on him. The old lady made the best use of the pole and kept as well up to the animal as she could, and the old man really began to realize that something must be done pretty soon, and raising to his feet brought his gun to his shoulder to shoot, but snap went the old flint lock again and again. The moose could now use all four feet, as the water was getting shallow. The old lady was doing her best but the moose was gaining on her. Snap and snap again went the gun, and the old girl saw that the jig was up. Her anger had reached it bounds, and reversing the pole she set it firmly on the bottom of the bay ahead of her and shouted "Mar-chi-an-iem" which means (the "old devil's dog" and was the only word used among the Indians as a substitute for stronger language until the appearance of the white man among them.) The canoe paused and Mr. Indian and his flintlock went head long into the bay.

The old woman turned her canoe around and paddled homeward; leaving the old man to get out of the water the best he could and foot it around the head of the bay home, a distance of about two miles. I hailed the old woman from the shore, a short distance from Fish Creek, where I had been standing during the chase, and she took me in the canoe and paddled me around to their wigwam, there relating the whole story to me. I did not wait to hear the friendly chat between the couple on the old man's return, but started on my journey into the woods. On my return I made it a point to reach the lodge in the evening and stay over night with them, and laughed and joked with the old lady and gentleman over the mishap of the day.

 

Contributed and used with permission on this site by Timm Severud. The Lac Courte Oreilles Historical Preservation Office created this reproduction.Timm Severud manually typed it in and some minor changes to text have been made from the original, to correct spelling mistakes, and slight grammar mistakes. There is no copyright on this book or this reproduction. Feel free to use and share with others. Enjoy what I consider the best historical biography I have ever read. T.L.S.

 

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