Cass County: The Land of the Explorers

Land of Explorers and Early American History

Cass County: The Land of the Explorers

Folks have been vacationing in Cass County for nearly a century, but few know that they are retracing the same pathways tread or paddled by some of the most famous names associated with the exploration of the North American continent.

Long before the famed "lumber barons", Weyerhaeuser, Backus, Walker and others, came to northcentral Minnesota to harvest the great white and red pineries that helped build thousands of Midwestern cities and farmsteads, this part of northcentral Minnesota was visited by the likes of DuLuth, Hennepin, Pike, Cass, Schoolcraft, Nicollet, and others seeking fame, adventure and discovery across the same lakes and forests now enjoyed by thousands of visitors annually from all across the world.

But thousands of year before the arrival of European and American explorers, and almost immediately after the retreat of the great glaciers, came the continent's first "Americans", the little known "paleo-Indians", descendants of Central Asian migrants. They were the first settlers of North America and they established small hunting and farming cultures, remnants of which archeologists continue to find and marvel at around Cass County today.

Around 800 A.D., a date when Europe was deep in the "Dark Ages", northern Minnesota saw the arrival of another new group of immigrants, the mysterious "mound builders of the Mississippian Culture" that spread all across central beautiful North America. There were the early ancestors of our present Indian tribes, the great Sioux (Dakota) and Chippewa (Ojibway), and distant cultural cousins of the great Indian civilizations of Central and South American, the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. They founded lasting cultures upon the food, shelter and easy mobility provided by northern Minnesota's "lakes and woods". A few remnants of their extensive areawide mound building are still evident, especially around the Backus-Pine River-Jenkins area.

They hunted deer, bear, elk, and bison, and fished for sturgeon, muskellunge and pike. They were the first to cultivate and harvest that now great Minnesota delicacy, wild rice. And their descendants flourished along the many lakeshores and within the great forests of Cass County for hundreds of years before European fur traders and explorers ever ventured forth across North America.

Although some believe the area was first visited around 1000 A.D. by Norse explorers, the first known European "invaders" were French explorers and fur traders in mid 1600s, seeking to chart and exploit the vast geographic areas claimed by Marquette, Joliet, DuLuth and La Salle, as well as to find one of the fabled passages across the continent to the west and beyond.

The first written accounts of the area now including Cass County were provided by two early explorers. The first was Daniel Greysolon, Sieur DuLuth in 1679, the first white credited with visiting Minnesota and the first to chart the lands west and south of Lake Superior. The second was the French priest and explorer, Louis Hennepin, who was a key member of La Salle's famed expeditionary party of 1680, which was the first to explore the entire Mississippi Valley all the way from the Gull of Mexico north to the Cass County area.

Regarding the latter, the group traveled from Lake Michigan, then down the Wisconsin River to the present-day site of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin meets the mighty Mississippi. La Salle and the main party headed downriver to explore the lower Mississippi all the way to the Gulf, and there he eventually lost his life. He sent Hennepin north with a group of Indian guides to explore the upper Mississippi.

Hennepin and his group was soon captured by a Sioux war party and taken up the Mississippi, past the site of present-day Minneapolis-St.Paul, to the Tribe's main village on Lake Mille Lacs, before being freed by DuLuth. It is thought that he likely visited southern Cass County as part of these extensive travels.

The area may have been visited even earlier by the famous Frenchmen, Groseilliers and Radisson. They are acknowledged as the first whites to explore the area west and south of Lake Superior in 1650s, and may have traveled across northern Minnesota as far west as the Dakotas and the Missouri River by some accounts.By the mid-1700s, the French had established a vast fur trading empire throughout North America all the way down the Mississippi through Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans.

Area trappers sent their valuable goods eastward through the feared Savanna Portage to Lake Superior, then through the Great Lakes, out the St. Lawrence River, and across the Atlantic to the great cities of Europe. One of their most important trading posts on the upper Mississippi, called "Duquesne", was near present-day Brainerd and drew furs from the abundant waters of Cass County as well as the surrounding area. The French also established trading bases at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Crow Wing rivers, and on the major lakes of Leech, Winnibigoshish and Cass.

During this early colonial period, the Chippewa lived in the forests of northern Wisconsin and Michigan, while the forests of northern Minnesota belonged to the Sioux. The Chippewa initially played the role as "middlemen" in the fur trade between the western tribes and the French, but became increasingly dependent on the trade for their livelihood as their tribal hunting grounds declined. The French fur traders, however, soon spread out into the interiors of Upper Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. They intended to diminish the role of the Chippewa in order to maximize their profits, and began dealing more directly with the western tribes. In reaction, the Chippewa began to infiltrate the northern Minnesota forests in an attempt to reestablish their trading role and to find suitable new hunting grounds. Serious fighting between the two tribes ensued, continually exploited and encouraged by the arriving British and the established French as part their own running feud that spanned half the world for most of the 18th Century. (The North American version of the conflict between these two world powers culminated in "The French and Indian Wars" of the early 1760s which served as a dress rehearsal for many of the same participants in the American Revolution.)

Cass County and its immediate surrounds saw the bloodiest encounters between the Sioux and the better armed Chippewa. Fighting ebbed and flowed for many years, but the tide of conflict turned in 1768 when the Chippewa won a decisive running battle that was fought from one end of Cass County to the other, including sites in Crow Wing County along the Pine River and in Aitkin County along the Mississippi.

One major consequence of this conflict? The mighty Sioux forever relinquished the northern forests and rejoined some of their tribal brethren who had begun migrating to the west years before. Reunited and reestablished on the western plans, the Sioux nation forged their great "horse culture", which was to forever become an essential part of 19th Century American frontier lore and has since become popularized in many Hollywood movies such as "Dancing with Wolves".

By the late 1700s, the British had won its own running war with the French and assumed control over France's vast fur trade holdings east of the Mississippi. They continued to contend, however, with each other for the ever expanding trade to the west, the latter including northern Minnesota and all of Cass County. English dominance was lucrative - but short-lived - as the great North American fur trade peaked as the century drew to a close and, in 1794, the United States acquired all of England's land holdings east of the Mississippi as part of the Treaty of Ghent ending the Revolutionary War.

This area beyond the original 13 American states, was known as the Northwest Territory, but it took many more years of American control to eradicate the strong British and French influence along this frontier. An even more significant event took place in 1803 as Cass County became part of the United States, a result of that great American acquisition of lands from the French west of the Mississippi, called the Louisiana Purchase.

The American acquisition of the Great Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys through the Louisiana Purchase set off the great American period of exploration. In 1805, the U.S. Army sent Lt. Zebulon Pike, later of Colorado's Pike's Peak fame, to more carefully map and explore the Mississippi River above the Missouri, especially "around the headwaters of the Mississippi". He was also ordered to seek peace treaties with the Indian tribes and improve relations between the tribes and the area fur traders. This was one of the two great expeditions ordered by President Thomas Jefferson to inventory the vast unknown resources secured by the Louisiana Purchase, the other being the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition that Jefferson sent up the Missouri River and out to the Pacific Northwest in the hope of finding a route to the Pacific Ocean.Pike arrived in present-day Cass County in the dead of early winter, 1806.

Then using ancient Indian portage routes, traveled across the county to Leech Lake, mistakenly declaring it the source of the Mississippi and seizing control of the "Brit's" Northwest Company trading post near present day Walker. His journals clearly outline his travel route, a well known "portaging shortcut" connecting the Mississippi River at the upper and lower ends of the county. He canoed up the Pine River, portaging across the present day "Portage Hills" in the middle the county, then on to Ten Mile Lake, and then finally through Leech Lake to Cass Lake (which he also declared the "upper" source of the Mississippi) before stopping and returning to his wintering post near present day Little Falls (at a site very close to the childhood home of that famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh). The route traveled north was the same often used by area fur traders, as recorded in their own journals some years before. His path back to the Brainerd area used the area's one, principal "land route" previously established by the local natives, starting south of Leech Lake, skirting the eastern edge of the Foothills State Forest, closely paralleling present-day Hwy 371.

After Pike's expedition, the early 1800s saw three further American expeditions venture through Cass County, seeking to find and explore a truer source of the Mississippi River. The first attempt was in 1820 by Lewis Cass, the county's namesake and newly appointed governor of the Michigan Territory, which at the time included present day Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. Cass, together with Henry Schoolcraft (namesake of the county's Schoolcraft State Park) and others, traveled the famed Savanna Portage Route from Lake Superior Duluth to the Mississippi. They eventually passed through present-day Grand Rapids (Judy Garland's hometown), following the Mississippi across the top of Cass County to Cass Lake.

They compounded the confusion of Pike's Expedition, however, by mistakenly declaring Cass Lake as the river's source, before returning to Michigan through the Wisconsin River portage.

Upon learning of a further expanse of the river beyond Cass Lake, Henry Schoolcraft returned with his own expeditionary force in 1832, and followed the river from Cass Lake some thirty some miles westward to place now recognized as its true source. This small lake he coined "Itasca", a contrivance from the Latin term "verITAS CAput" or "true head". Schoolcraft returned by following the Mississippi back to Cass Lake and then portaged to and canoed through Leech Lake to present-day Walker. He then crossed a chain of lakes south of Walker to access the Crow Wing River at Akeley, using that river to return to the Mississippi.While history thereafter gives the honor of discovery to Schoolcraft, the real honor should go to William Morrison, a fur trader who often traversed Cass County and surrounding areas, and first visited the lake as early 1803. He documented his discovery after a return visit in a 1812 letter to his brother, Allan, a fact confirmed years later but too late to overturn the entrenched historical record. (Allan Morrison later commanded the American trading post at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers, at southernmost point of Cass County, a site now preserved as Crow Wing State Park).

The last official expedition to pass through Cass County was a federally commissioned mission to map the lakes, portages and trails of the headwaters region. It was undertaken in 1836 by famed French explorer, astronomer and engineer, Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (after whom the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis is named). Coming up the Mississippi from Fort Snelling (near Minneapolis), Nicollet used another variation of the famed "shortcut" across the county, the lower portion of which was identical to the route used by the Sioux, in their great running and decisive battle with the Chippewa, some 68 years before.Arriving at the south end of Cass County, Nicollet passed northward up the Gull River through Gull and then Sibley lakes, and then portaged across the northwest corner of present-day Crow Wing County, before connecting with the Pine River and the Whitefish Chain of Lakes near present-day Manhattan Beach. From there, he departed that earlier historic route and traveled up Daggett Creek back into Cass County, eventually passing up along the eastern side of the county through present day Roosevelt Lake and Outing.

He skirted present-day Remer, before connecting with the Boy River, which took him into Leech Lake. From there, he passed through Leech and on up to Cass Lake, where he reconnected with the Mississippi. On his maps he did note other portaging pathways, including both the historic route used by the Sioux, as well as a route similar to that used by Pike. His maps were considered among the most accurate and useful until the surveyors for the great logging companies descended just before the turn of the century.During the early 1800s, the Americans, through such players as the famous John Jacob Aster and his American Fur Company, established their trading pre-imminence throughout northern Minnesota. Around Cass County, his agents operated a trading post at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers, another on Gull Lake, two on Leech Lake, and one on Cass Lake.

Some of the most prominent names in early Minnesota history were associated with the last days of the fur trade in Cass County. Frequent visitors included Philander Prescott (the founder of Prescott, Wis. and one of the first settlers at present-day Minneapolis), Allen and William Morrison (the namesakes of Morrison County), Henry Rice (Minnesota's first territorial representative to Congress, first U.S. Senator, and namesake for St. Paul's Rice Park), Alfred Aitkin (the namesake for neighboring Aitkin County), and Giacomo Constantino Beltrami (namesake for neighboring Beltrami County).

While the days of exploration and discovery are long gone, the great portage routes across the lakes and forests of Cass County, and along its still unspoiled rivers, remain by and large unobstructed and accessible. And they await rediscovery by latter-day explorers. Check out Cass County's driving tours, hiking trails and canoe routes to retrace the steps of the continent's early giants now long vanished.


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