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THE HEADWATERS OF THE GREAT RIVER
ON my way north I stopped at those two big thriving cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis, which as they are only ten miles apart barely escape forming a single community. The river had dwindled into a very moderate-sized stream; but at Minneapolis, where it makes the long foaming leap of St. Anthony’s Falls, it is still impressive and powerful. The river scenery at the Falls seemed wonderfully wild and chaotic on the uncertain, showery day that I loitered along the stream. There were long strings of booms and floating logs, and there were series of dams and canals and sluiceways, and there were great bridges leaping across the channel in all directions. The banks were lined with immense flour mills and grain elevators and lofty, smoking chimneys, and these structures loomed on the rocky bluffs through the mists and murk, menacing and tremendous. The roar of the waters was in my ears, the throb and rattle of machinery, the shrieking and rushing of the trains as they glided along the verges of the cliffs or across the bridges. Altogether I felt as if this might be the borderland of Hades.
When I continued my journey I went to the jumping-off place, that is, to Bemidji, the town farthest north amid the network of lakes which forms the source of the great river. Seven or eight years before this had been the outskirts of the wilderness, invaded by none save a few wandering surveyors, hunters, and lumbermen. Now, Bemidji was a city of four thousand people, and more were constantly coming. New buildings were going up, and you could see the place growing day by day and outspreading itself into the half-savage woodlands. The streets for the most part ran through a forest of Jack pine; but few trees were left in the business centre. There you found rows of stores and saloons and hotels, some of them substantial buildings, and others frail and hasty structures that will soon have to be replaced. There was the same difference in the dwellings. A few were well built and handsome; but a great number were not much more than temporary shelters. Often they rested on wooden blocks, and were banked about with dirt in winter to keep the cold winds from blowing beneath them. The streets of the suburbs were thinly grassed, but the thoroughfares at the centre were rutted sand and dust bestrewn with litter. Conspicuous in the midst of the business section was a swamp with its stagnant pools and rotting logs, its stumps and sprouting of bushes. A great sawmill was the chief source of the town’s prosperity, and the place was full of the rough mill-workers and woodsmen.
I got the impression from some of the persons I interviewed that life was held cheap at Bemidji, and that there were frequent drunken quarrels and shootings, and that the saloons were both the social and political centre of the town. “They’re never shut,” I was told, “and a feller can celebrate here about as he pleases. We want his money, and we won’t stand for havin’ any man arrested. Yes, this is a wide-open town, and you are free to booze and gamble as long as your cash lasts. You can get any sort of a game you want — shell game, hand game, cards — everything.”
This is scarcely the whole truth. The town in its beginning was decidedly tough, but there has been constant and rapid improvement. As one of its leading citizens explained to me, “At first I could almost count on my fingers the inhabitants who had a wholesome respect for law and order. Saloon-keepers and gamblers and their following were in the majority, and drunks were not considered a serious proposition. Yet though you could occasionally see a drunken fight, and though sometimes a man would flourish a gun at another, we have had only a single murder in our history. The fact is, the lumber-jack, unlike the cowboy and miner, rarely carries a gun. He is nevertheless a difficult fellow to deal with. The chief ambition in life of the professional jack is to keep every distillery in the United States running to its full capacity. His calling requires a lot of brawn and brute energy, and there is not a harder-working man on earth; but when he comes out of the woods he wants nothing except lawlessness and plenty of whiskey, and he looks for a place where he can spend his money and make his presence known. He used to resort to Bemidji, but since restrictions have been put on his behavior, he has made for smaller towns where he can occupy the centre of the stage. With his going there disappeared many of the low dives he delights to frequent. A half dozen years ago we had forty-six saloons and only two thousand people. Now twice the number of inhabitants get along with thirty saloons.
“Any stranger who visited our town in its rougher days, and heard a jack let out one of his yells, went away and told of the terrible state of affairs existing here, and we have not yet succeeded in living down the fame the town thus acquired. Gambling is about the only serious evil not well under control, and of that there is not one quarter what there was formerly. No, this is not a blood-and-thunder place. It is a natural business centre and has drawn to it an excellent type of citizens, and in many respects we have all the social, religious, and educational advantages that you could get anywhere in a town of its size.”
The place even has its Salvation Army. I stopped to listen to a squad of the gospel soldiers one evening.
They had lined up before a brightly lighted saloon with their big drum and tamborine and guitar, and they sang their songs and made their appeals. Right in front of them sat four little girls on the edge of the board walk, evidently fascinated by the uniforms and music; and quite a group of men gathered, attentive and impressed. Yet when the collection was taken up the results were only twelve cents, which I thought the soldiers must find quite disheartening.
The town borders a lake of the same name that is very pretty, with its encircling of green forests and its rafts and rowboats. Sometimes I would hear the tremulous laughter of a loon coming over the water, and lending emphasis to the wildness of the environment.
Where the river enters the lake is a favorite fishing place. A few rods up-stream is a bridge that was occupied all day by a motley crowd watching the lines they had dropped into the current below. Many other fisherfolk, old and young, male and female, were to be seen along the shores or rowing around in the vicinity. Indeed, it seemed, with such a concourse of people intent on the sport, that the fish would be exterminated.
“Oh, no!” responded a fisherman to whom I hinted this fear, “the country here can’t be fished out. We got a string of lakes for two hundred and fifty miles and there’s breeding-places without number that’s never disturbed. You won’t find no better fishing region in the United States. I’ve ketched pike here that would weigh seven or eight pounds and pickerel that would weigh twenty pounds. You hardly ever see any one going home with less than a dozen or fifteen pounds of fish, and often three or four times that much.
“You ain’t from Chicago, be you? A feller from there was talkin’ with me yesterday, and I never met such a crazy chump. He had a little light pole with a reel on to it, and he had a handnet and a fish-basket and all kinds o’ flies and fixin’s. He was fussin’ around the whole time like a settin’ hen off its nest, and he tol’ me my way of ketchin’ fish was jus’ butchery and no sport at all. He said you shouldn’t pull a fish right out when it got on your hook. His way was to reel it up and let it out and keep on a-foolin’ for a quarter of an hour or so before he landed it, even if it was nothin’ but a little sunfish.”
The river at Bemidji was no more than a creek, crossed by a one-span wooden bridge, yet the distance to the remotest forest lakelet, whence the stream starts, is fully half a hundred miles. One day I followed the river far back into the woods, keeping for the most part to a rough road. The stream, though narrow, ran swift and deep and seemed by no means an unworthy beginning of the mighty river it was to become. It was full of logs ever gliding from above and slipping away beyond sight at the next bend. How smoothly and mysteriously they moved through the silent wilderness, with only a soft plunk, plunk, as they happened to strike one another! Here and there on the bank was a man armed with a pole and canthook, standing guard, ready to act if the logs showed an inclination to form a jam.
I had a chat with one of these men. “The stream here has only been drove six years,” he said. “We start the logs every spring as soon as the ice is gone from the lakes, which is about May first, and we’re gettin’ out more timber this season than ever. That’s because the demand and the price has been increasin.’ We cut everything now — even balsams and Jack pine. We didn’t use to look at anything like that. I presume they do some flim-flam at the mills and tuck in a good deal of it with other better timber and sell it to them that don’t know the difference. The logs floatin’ down now average pretty poor compared with what they did at first. The class of men we’re gettin’ in the woods at present to do the cuttin’ has something to do with it. They’re mostly Scandinavians not long from home, and while they have orders not to cut trees too small or crooked, they ain’t got sense to recognize a straight tree when they see it, and don’t seem to understand about size.”
As far as I went I saw no fine woodland. The choppers had been there before me and left little but ragged brush and sapplings and stumps. The only remnants of primeval woods that had escaped at all intact were occasional dark patches of Jack pine. The breeze kept the tall, thickly crowded trees in these groves gently swaying, and whispered in the foliage a mystic vernal melody, as if of mourning over the forest’s doom.
As I went on, I began to catch the odor of smoke, and the woodland gradually became quite hazy. At length I passed over a ridge and I could see on ahead glints of flame, and hear the sharp crackling of the fire as it licked up the dry leaves and grasses. The smoke was now dense and choking. I turned aside, hoping to escape from the murk and get around the flames; but I had not gone far when a wind caught the fire and sent it racing over the ground so swiftly and threateningly that I took to my heels. Presently I found another road that led to the opposite side of a lake, and there I met a teamster on his way to town from a logging camp forty miles back in the woods. I concluded I had gone far enough and he invited me to keep him company. He had four horses hitched to a big springless truck wagon, and the ride was no joke. We were on the jolt all the time — now into ruts, now over humps and roots, and now encountering a stump with a sudden collision that would slew the wagon sidewise and threaten to shoot us off from the lofty seat. I hung on for dear life.
“This ain’t no asphalt road,” said my companion. “It’s jus’ a tote road, and farther up the valley it’s a dern sight worse than it is here. But you needn’t be afraid; I got the seat wired on so that won’t fly off.”
He gave his horses pretty constant encouragement by swearing at them, and now and then launched his long whiplash at them with a startling crack. He told how three weeks previous he had tipped over his load as he was driving across a portion of the road that was flooded. He rescued his goods and extricated himself as well as he could, but was so delayed that night overtook him in the forest.
“Next thing I knew,” said he, “I lost the trail and couldn’t find it again. So I camped and waited for morning. The wolves got scent of me, and I guess there was a hundred of ‘em sneakin’ around there. They have a pretty lonesome sort of a howl, and it wa’n’t pleasant. Last winter in the chopper’s camp we’d hear ‘em every night; but they was so shy we didn’t often see ‘em.”
We passed two or three tiny farms carved out of the wilderness. The settlers had ploughed a little land and erected log cabins accompanied by huddles of diminutive outbuildings. I could discover slight encouragement for agriculture, and said to the driver, “This soil looks too poor and sandy to pay for cultivating.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “you couldn’t raise an umbrella on it, say nothin’ of crops. When the lumber is gone the white folks might as well get out of this country and leave it to the Indians. There’s a good many Indians workin’ on the river, but they ain’t steady. Soon as eight or ten dollars is due ‘em they’re ready to leave. If an Indian sticks to his job any length of time he’s got white blood in him. There ain’t much industry in the full-bloods. In the first place, they ain’t got no strength. Look at the little leg on ‘em — jus’ about as big as your wrist. All the work they want to do is to hunt and fish. They’ve been brought up that way, and you can’t change ‘em. If the government gives an Indian a good house he’s pretty apt to put his horse in it and keep on livin’ in his wigwam himself. One thing they like to do is to pick wild cranberries and sell ‘em in the towns. That job suits ‘em because while they’re pickin’ they can be all together having a powwow. They feel good then. They’re great hands for stealin’ — but I don’t know as they’re any worse in that respect than people generally. I know whites who, when they get a chance to steal, will only leave what they can’t carry off. The Indians ain’t so graspin’ as that.
The Forest Fire
“The only time we’ve had any serious trouble with ‘em here was in 1898. They had got some whiskey and carried it to their reservation. The marshal followed ‘em and tried to make arrests, and they resisted. So the troops was called out, and a drunken commander took a little band of soldiers down in the swamps where the Indians were. One of the men stumbled and his gun went off. Then the Indians thought they was bein’ assaulted, and they begun firing from ambush.
A major and nine men was killed; but there was no need of it. They’re a poor degraded people, and one white is good for a dozen of ‘em if he understands ‘em. Yet after that shootin’ in the swamps the settlers all around was in a panic, and they built forts out of stumps and logs and dirt to protect their villages and did all sorts of foolish things.”
Everybody in the north country had their ideas about the Indians, and these ideas were not usually very flattering. Probably the fairest opinion expressed to me was that of a man interested in the lumber business, who had been in the region for a third of a century. “I suppose,” said he, “you think it’s pretty resky livin’ where there’s so many Indians around; but as far as they are concerned a family is as safe here as in New York City. I’ve traded with ‘em and trusted ‘em ever since I’ve been here and they always do as they say. If they steal it’s only for their immediate wants. We sometimes have as much as two thousand dollars’ worth of goods in our lumber camp that we leave there without guard after we get through the winter’s chopping. The Indians could help themselves easy, but the only thing I ever lost was a five-gallon keg of syrup. Later an Indian came and told me he took it because he had nothin’ to eat. He promised to kill me some deer in the fall to pay for it, and he did.
“The Indians don’t as a rule cultivate a very close friendship with us. That’s partly because they’re a different kind of people, and partly because their experiences on the frontier with the white men have not been altogether happy. The adventurers who first came into the country were mostly rough and unscrupulous, and all they cared about was to grab what they could for themselves. The impression the Indians got from them of the white race was not very rosy, and though whites of a better class have come in contact with the Indians since, there’s plenty of crookedness yet, and I don’t blame the Indians for being suspicious.”
I became a good deal interested in what I heard of the Indians and decided I would attempt a closer acquaintance with them. There was an Indian settlement down at Cass Lake, and thither I journeyed. I stopped at a town which resembled Bemidji in appearance and in situation, except that it was a mile removed from the lake. On the sandhills near the water was an Indian hamlet of a dozen log cabins dotted irregularly along the ridges, and among them were certain diminutive patches of corn and potatoes, with once in a while a few rows of beets, carrots, and cucumbers. Some dwellings had a little firewood out in front, but never a supply that looked at all thrifty or enterprising. Usually there was a stump handy where fish were cleaned, and the ground about was strewn with fish-heads and scales, bits of rabbit fur and duck feathers. At the foot of the sand-bluffs was a shallow well which supplied the entire village. It was roughly boarded around, and was accompanied by a stick with a crotch at one end that was used in lowering and pulling up the pails. The women brought tubs from their cabins and did their washing by the well when the weather permitted. Not far away was a little, mound-shaped wigwam scarcely high enough for a grown person to stand upright in it. The framework was covered with blankets, and pine bushes had been cut and leaned against the sides to keep the blankets in place. There was a fire outside near which a man was squatted scraping the hair off from a deerskin that later would be transformed into moccasins. Beside the man sat a squaw holding a pappoose in her lap. She apparently had some cooking under way, for over the fire hung a pail suspended from a stake thrust slanting into the ground. It was the most rudely primitive family scene I had ever beheld.
Up in the village I made friends with a young Indian who agreed to take me out to one of the islands in the lake where I could see virgin forest that had never been disturbed by the axe of the choppers. My Indian’s name was Ben. He was a flat-chested, slouch-figured fellow, with one shoulder higher than the other and some ugly-looking scars on his neck. These scars, he explained, were the results of a fight of a fortnight previous with another Indian. “I was workin’ on the logs then,” said Ben, “and he ‘n’ me was takin’ a raft down the lake. He got mad and give me two or three cuts with a little knife he had; but I hit him under the chin and knocked him off into the water. I wouldn’t let him on to the raft again, and he had to swim to shore. He tol’ me as he swum away that he was goin’ to kill me, but I ain’t seen him since. I sprained my arm fightin’ with him, and it ain’t strong enough for me to go to work yet.”
Ben owned a rowboat, and after padlocking his cabin door he shouldered the oars and led the way across a swampy, brushy meadow to the lake shore. My guide bailed out the boat with a leaky tin can and we rowed far out into the lake against the wind and the dashing waves. In certain places the water was beginning to be hidden with sproutings of wild rice, thrusting up from shallows that were sometimes only a few inches deep, and sometimes fully two yards. Later the rice would grow tall and thick and almost impenetrable. In October, when the grain is ripe, the grassy jungles furnish ideal feeding and lurking-places for the ducks and other water fowls. But what is of more importance the wild rice is a staple food of the Indians. Two men in a birch canoe can gather seven or eight bushels in a day. One man sits behind and paddles and the other bends the rice stalks over the boat, first from this side, then from that, and raps them with a stick, and the rice grain comes rattling into the bottom of the canoe.
After the harvest has been secured and carried home, a fire is built on the ground, and the rice, a little at a time, is put in a kettle and held over the blaze and allowed to scorch slightly. Near by, a hole is scooped and a big kettle set in it. This is filled half full of scorched rice, and a man takes off his shoes and stockings and tramps about in the kettle to loosen the husks. Lastly the grain is transferred to a large pan and winnowed by shaking it in the wind, and then it is stored in sacks ready for use.
When we reached the shore of the island we found a faint footpath, and after following it for a time came to a sheltered glade where the Indians every spring came to make maple sugar. Here was a small shanty in which were great numbers of birch bark sap dishes, and several casks full of spouts. The sap dishes were oblong receptacles that would hold three or four quarts. The bent-up ends were tied in place with thongs of basswood bark, and slight cracks and holes were mended with pitch. The spouts were split out of cedar, and were a foot long, two inches broad, and one-fourth of an inch thick. They were slightly rounded and sharpened to a flat edge at one end. The trees were tapped by making a V-shaped cut with an axe, below which an incision was made with a round-edged chisel to receive the spout. The sugar which the Indians manufacture is finely granulated and is put up in stout birch bark receptacles shaped like a fish basket, with a bulging bottom and a neat cover. These baskets hold about sixty pounds each. Quite a party, including squaws as well as men, worked together and made the maple woods their home while the sap run lasted.
Floating Logs down the Mississippi near its Source
This portion of the island was grown up to hardwood, but farther on were pines, tall and straight and clean-trunked, worthy pillars of the forest temple. There was a light undergrowth of saplings, and many fallen tree trunks, upturned roots, and a tangle of dead branches. Quiet reigned, and the sunlight flickered down through the tree-tops on to the thin green foliage of the undergrowth, and the thought that the aspect of it all had hardly changed for centuries made the scene doubly impressive.
On our way back to the mainland we skirted another island and stopped to see the deserted camp of an Indian family. The shore was low and wet, and there were streaks of bushes, and occasional trees. Under one of the trees where the ground was a trifle higher than that round about was the frame of a conical wigwam. The family had evidently left the day before, and back in the bushes were some of their household goods covered with bagging, and under another clump was a birch canoe. Ben poked around to see what treasures he could find. He removed the strings from a pair of discarded shoes, and he picked up and pocketed a safety-pin which he spoke of as “a squaw pin.” I did not wonder the Indians had moved. There were remnants of fish all about, from which pestiferous clouds of flies arose wherever we went, and the stench was insufferable.
We soon embarked once more and resumed our rowing, and presently arrived at the spot where we started.
On another occasion Ben and I went together six miles into the wilderness along the lakeshore to a village on an Indian reservation. We followed a narrow path that dodged along through the bushes and that constantly turned and twisted to avoid irregularities of the ground and whatever obstructions the forest growths made. Some of the detours were quite recent and were necessitated by a fallen tree-top that one could not easily step over or go under. Such obstructions could usually have been removed in a few moments by a man with an axe; but the trail-makers preferred to go around rather than exert themselves to improve the path. Travelling was no hardship where we had solid ground under foot. It was another matter when the route led through swampy hollows and we had to jump along on tufts and roots and rotting tree fragments. Ben was inclined to be contemplative and silent. He replied readily to questions, but he had the racial taciturnity. It was evident, however, that the woods were his ancestral home, and that he felt more free and easy there than anywhere else. Little incidents were constantly occurring that showed his real interests and half-wild characteristics. Once we encountered a couple of inoffensive calves in our path. They looked at us inquiringly, and Ben made a sudden run at them, and chuckled gleefully as they hurry-skurried off into the bushes. Sometimes he would point to certain tracks in the path — a dog’s footprint, the mark of a moccasin, or whatever it might be, and study on its significance. Once he called my attention to a rude figure of an Indian cut in the bark of a tree by his father; but it was devoid of any purpose. We heard the partridges drumming and Ben stopped to listen. A squirrel ran up a tree and sat on a limb regarding us alertly. Ben, delighted with the sight, called to it in his native language and got out a pistol from his hip pocket. Luckily, he had no cartridges; yet he took careful aim and snapped the harmless weapon and exulted in the thought of what would have happened had it been loaded. I asked him about some of the birds we heard singing, but he could not tell me their names, except that they were “canaries and other birds.”
At length we came to the outskirts of the Indian village. Some of the cabins were very well placed on hills that afforded a wide view over the forest and marshes, and over the inlets and broad expanses of the lake. They were much scattered, and the woods intervening between the little clearings shut them away from sight of each other. Most of them were beyond a stream a dozen rods broad that connected two sections of the lake. At the mouth of the stream was a boom of logs, and there was no way for us to get across except by walking on that. It was precarious footing; but we made the passage in safety, and Ben even stopped midway to look at some large fish lazily breasting the current. “Gee!” he said, “I wish I had them.”
“Gee,” was his favorite exclamation, though he sometimes used terms more coarse and violent.
In a grove on one of the hills was a government school. A man and wife educated at Carlisle had charge, and there were about forty children in their care. The main building was a large, well-built, clapboarded structure, and round about were various log barns and sheds. It is an industrial school, and besides book education the boy pupils learn how to care for cows and horses and do gardening, and the girls learn to sew and do housework. The children are allowed to visit their homes frequently, but are urged not to stay long. If they do, their health is apt to suffer, especially in winter; for the home huts are very hot and very cold by spells, and not at all hygienic. Some of the children accommodate themselves readily to school life and discipline and others do not. Ben said he tried it once, but he had to take care of horses the whole time, and he didn’t like that job, and quit. The boys and girls were wandering in the woods and by the waters, and I thought they seemed to be having a very free and easy time; but perhaps it is best that way. A gray-haired, bareheaded old Indian lay under one of the trees close to the school smoking a large red pipe shaped like a hammer. There he reclined, stoical and contented, puffing away with much the same peace of mind and enjoyment that a cow has in chewing its cud.
Ben had two sisters ten and twelve years of age among the pupils, and they returned with us. They were vigorous and erect, bright-eyed and attractive; and they were neatly clothed, but did not put on any head covering. When we came to the stream we all walked the boom. Ben escorted the girls one at a time along the wobbly logs; but the older maiden when she neared the end of the boom ran on alone as nimble as a squirrel and made a five-foot jump to the shore. The girls now took the lead and swung along at such a rapid walk I sometimes had to take a little run to keep up. It was a great delight to them to get away from the school, and they chattered and laughed, and picked and ate some of the abounding wintergreen berries. In the swampy glades they gathered great bunches of cowslips, which they were doubtful whether to call buttercups or water lilies. They tired of carrying them after a time, but instead of throwing them carelessly down they set them upright on the ground as if the flowers had grown there. The mosquitoes swarmed in the woods everywhere, and the younger girl partially protected herself from them by putting her apron over her head. Ben gave his hat to the other to wear.
I parted with my companions at the Indian village and continued on up to the town where I rested for a time and refreshed myself with a square meal. Then I went for a ramble about the streets. It was evening — very quiet and warm, and the atmosphere was dull with haze from forest fires and pungent with dust. Every one was outdoors. The young men were playing ball; the children were running, laughing, shouting, and disputing; and their elders sat at the house-fronts visiting. The mosquitoes had invaded the town, and smudges had been resorted to quite freely to fend off the pests. I even saw a smudge on the windward side of two cows in a little enclosure back of one of the log houses. The cows stood where they received the full benefit of the smoke and seemed quite grateful for it. Some of the houses had been smudged out and then closed up, and the inmates awaited bedtime sitting outside gathered about the smudge pail. I joined one of these groups, which included two or three neighbors besides the home family. The sun, a great ruddy orb, was sinking behind the pine woods in the west, and the sky above it was flushed with rosy color that faded into saffron and light yellow, and then into softest blue.
When the sun had disappeared and the twilight had grown dim, one of the neighbor women of our group rose leisurely and said, “Gosh! I must go home.”
The Frame of an Indian Wigwam
Night was gathering over the ragged little town on the sands, and the gloom of the serrated forest that hemmed it in on every side was deepening into blackness. The children were going indoors, the ball games had ceased, and soon the vast silence of the wilderness was almost unbroken.
NOTE. — Here is tourist country to make one happy — forest and Indians and lakes and streams and most wonderful fishing. There are hotels, too, which, if not palatial, are at least comfortable; and yet you are where only a few years ago was almost uninhabited wilderness. What if a good deal of rawness still shows itself in the towns — that is to be expected and only adds zest to the situation and makes the appeal to the traveller stronger. This northern country for many reasons deserves the attention of tourists, especially those from regions long settled, where conditions have taken on permanence, and where the beginnings are dim with remoteness.