By Sue Bruns for the Bemidji Pioneer
Beltrami County Historical Society’s early historians (Charles Vandersluis, Art Lee, Harold Hagg, Rosemary Given Amble, Leo Soukup, and others) published works about northern Minnesota, particularly what is now Beltrami County. In June of 2021, the Society debuted the updated A Brief History of Beltrami County, written by Charles Vandersluis, originally published in 1963, and updated by Leo Soukup.
In 2021, the BCHS monthly historic stories in The Bemidji Pioneer focused on Bemidji in celebration of the city’s 125th anniversary as a city. In 2022, our historic stories will take readers to greater Beltrami County, featuring its communities, townships, and even ghost towns. This first story of 2022 takes the reader on early trails and tote roads to places where settlements sprang up, general stores opened, and people from many different places became parts of lasting or temporary communities. We encourage readers to seek out the sources mentioned and others available at the Beltrami County History Center in the historic Great Northern Depot.
Signs of the earliest temporary settlements in what is now Beltrami County include remnants of mounds of indeterminate age, some in the Upper and Lower Red Lake areas, some along the Mississippi River between Lake Irving and Lake Bemidji and on the west bank of the lake, and others along various waters. A Brief History of Beltrami County by Charles Vandersluis and Leo Soukup mentions pottery fragments found at Tenstrike, stone hammerheads that turned up in farmers’ fields, and “skulls and skeletons on the shores of Cass Lake [that] are periodically washed clean by the waves and taken care of by Ojibwe spiritual leaders or the county coroner.”
Vandersluis wrote that some archeologists believe an “ancient Dakota village site on the eastern peninsula of the Red Lake narrows [could be] the oldest settlement in Minnesota, … occupied by the Dakota until the Ojibwe drove them out about 1750.” The Ojibwe then formed a settlement at the narrows and another on the south shore of the lake. Land by the south shore was tillable and fertile and the Ojibwe grew potatoes, squash, and corn.
Fur Traders Arrive, Trading Posts Are Established
Fur traders came to the area, but not to settle. In his book The Mississippi Headwaters Region: Scenes from the Past, local historian Harold Haag listed several trading posts in the region, including three at Red Lake, built in the 1780s and 1790s, a winter trading station on the east side of Lake Bemidji built in 1785, two forts at Cass Lake, and two posts at Leech Lake. Some, like the fort on Leech Lake, were large complexes – armed, walled in, gated, and large enough area inside to grow a few acres of crops. Others were smaller trading stations with just one lonely clerk on duty through the long winters.
When early white settlers came to the area, there were no roads. Many used the Red Lake-Leech Lake Trail, the Fosston Trail, or the Park Rapids Trail to travel north or east before railroads were extended to Bemidji and Red Lake.
Several early trails and tote roads went through parts of what is now Beltrami County including the Red Lake-Leech Lake Trail, the Blackduck Trail, the Fosston Trail, the Freeman Tote Road, and the Park Rapids Trail.
Vandersluis described the oldest trail, the Red Lake-Leech Lake Trail, as “a walking path between the two lakes since prehistoric days.” The trail started at the village of Red Lake, went southeast, continued past Lake Puposky, through Buena Vista, and on to Turtle River Lake. Part of the Red Lake trail went through what is now Three Island County Park. The trail continued to Lake Andrusia and Wolf Lake and ended at Leech Lake near Goose Island.
The Red Lake-Leech Lake Trail was the main north-south route. Indigenous peoples had used the trails for countless years. (By 1860, an estimated 2,114 American Indians comprised the Red Lake and Pembina bands.) Other trails tied into it and brought early lumbermen and settlers to the area. The Old Crossing Treaty of 1863 provided $5000 to widen and improve the trail and opened it up for wagons.
As railroads appeared, other rudimentary roads were developed. The Park Rapids Trail, started in 1894, was a “tote trail” for hauling supplies from Park Rapids, as far as the Great Northern tracks went at that time, to Bemidji. It was the most heavily traveled route to Bemidji before railroads reached the town.
White settlers who traveled to Beltrami County in the late 1800s were often unaware of how minimal the “roads” were. In the 1980 North Country History, Vol.2, No. 3, Harold Sheggrud tells of his parents’ experience on the Fosston Trail: “They traveled about three days through the roadless wilderness on Indian trails with a team of oxen, five chickens and milk cow to their homestead three miles south of present-day Clearbrook… [One night] a black bear tried to tear open their tent to get at the food.” Other accounts tell of swarms of hungry mosquitos and impassable muddy ruts in the spring.
Travelers often relied on the hospitality of earlier settlers who opened up their homes to travelers, fed them, and watered their horses. Even when food was scarce, hospitality was not uncommon. Another account in the same book describes a man who came by covered wagon, stopped at a settler’s home, and asked to park his wagon in the yard for the night. Despite reports of dangerous gypsies roaming the area, the settlers obliged. The man (who turned out not to be a gypsy) was grateful and was up and gone before they rose the next morning.
The trails became the main routes for business and commerce. Merchants who started up general stores often bought goods from the Ojibwe who still used the trails: “A.O. Johnson bought blueberries from the Indians and had a good Indian business as they traveled from Red Lake to Leech Lake on the trail,” says one account from the 1986 North Country History.
“The Red Lake Trail was the route for mail and freight between Detroit Lakes and Red Lake Village,” wrote George Boorman. “The road kept to high ground as much as possible, avoiding swamps, fording rivers until bridges were built, often over logging dams. Corduroy was used when there was no other way to get across a low area; a miserable thing to ride across.”
And sometimes, the road determined the destination. Harold Hagg wrote: “An early settler at Buena Vista in Beltrami County, who came over the road from Park Rapids, remarked many years later that had he known what the trail was like he doubted that he would have gone to Buena Vista… ‘But the road I traveled to get there was so bad that I didn’t want to go back over it. So I stayed.’”