The Leech Lake Trail


Reminiscences of Pioneers

The Leech Lake Trail, the oldest cleared trail in Beltrami County, ran from the Chippewa Agency on Leech Lake to the Agency on Red Lake. Authorized by the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863, it remained in use even after the railroads had supplanted the wagons and sleds that hauled supplies from the outside world into the villages and homesteads that grew up near it.

Trace of the Leech Lake Trail still in Occasional Use
West of Turtle River Lake

where the trail ran...

The trail began at Squaw Point on Leech Lake (in later years from Steamboat Landing, the head of navigation on Steamboat Lake) up to the Agency on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. It ran in a northwesterly direction upon leaving Squaw Point, skirted Pike Bay of Cass Lake, then continued by Little Wolf Lake. So far it had been in what was to become Cass County.

It then entered the present Beltrami county, crossing the Mississippi where the river enters Lake Andrusia. From there it continued north by Wolf Lake, by the west side of Turtle River Lake, by Gnat Lake (now Beltrami Lake), Three Island Lake, east of Big Turtle Lake then over the continental divide at Buena Vista above Lake Julia. It skirted the north shore of Lake Julia then went up to the north end of Lake Puposky. (Apparently there was an alternative route that ran by the south and west shores of Lake Julia and then to the north end of Lake Puposky.)

From Lake Puposky, it ran northwards by the west side of Boston Lake, on by the east side of Ten Mile Lake and onto the present Red Lake Indian Reservation. It ended near the agency on Red Lake.

Short sections of the trail are still in use for local access or recreational use, though it has never had official recognition. The trail never became the basis for a modern road. Except where the land has been plowed or where roads have been built, physical traces of the trail can still be identified. Much of the trail is now on public land, some of the homesteads that it runs through having been forfeited.

Note: the person who is probably most knowledgeable about the Leech Lake Trail is Lennard Bergstrom of Bemidji. He has sought out traces of the trail and, where possible, has walked it, in hiking boots and on snowshoes.

history of the trail...

The beginnings of the Leech Lake Trail are lost in the pre-history of the Dakota and Ojibwe or Anishinaabe. The Dakota, or Sioux, had villages at Red Lake and at Leech Lake until they were driven out in the eighteenth century by the Anishinaabe, as the Ojibwe or Chippewa prefer to call themselves. Probably there was early communication between the bands of the same tribe, one living at Red Lake, the other at Leech Lake. Schoolcraft in his 1820 account reports the route to Red Lake from Cass Lake was ancient.

We examined the environs of the place[where the Turtle River enters Cass Lake] with interest, the village occupies the north banks of Turtle River Valley. Turtle River, which cuts its way through this slope and plain, constitutes the direct line of intercourse, for the Indian trade, through Turtle and Red Lakes to the Red River Valley of Hudson's Bay. On inquiry, we learned that this river had constituted the ancient Indian line of communication by canoes and portages, from time immemorial, with that valley, the distance to the extreme plateau or summit, being about sixty miles. On this summit, within a couple of miles of each other, lie Turtle and Red Lakes, the one having its discharge into the Gulf of Mexico and the other into Hudson's Bay. When Canada was settled by the French, this aboriginal route was, adopted. The fur companies of Great Britain coming into possession of the country, after the fall of Quebec, 1759, followed the same route. The factors of these companies told Lieutenant Pike, in 1806 at Sandy Lake and Leech Lake, that the Turtle portage was the only practicable route of communication to the Red River and that it was the true source of the Mississippi; and they furnished him manuscript maps of the country conformable to these views The region has actually been in possession of the Americans only since 1806, adopting the era of Pike's visit.

(Schoolcraft, Summary Narrative, p.132)

The Dakota at Red Lake were driven out probably around 1750; then those about the headwaters of the Mississippi and at Leech Lake were defeated. Although there is no historical evidence, it is possible kindred in the Red Lake and Cass and Leech Lake areas communicated with one another by canoe and by land over a trail or trails close to the Turtle River Canoe route and the Leech Lake Trail.

David Thompson...

The first mapping of the area was by David Thompson, the great cartographer who worked for the Northwest Company. He passed through on his way from Red Lake to the Turtle River to the Mississippi in 1798. Thompson's map shows Red Lake, the Mud River, Lake Puposky, Lake Julia, Turtle Lake and the Turtle River, Red Cedar Lake (Cass Lake), and to Lake Winnipeg (Winnibigoshish). Thompson's trip was made in early April, by canoe.

Constantino Beltrami...

Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, in 1823, traveled with Major Long's expedition from St. Paul to Pembina. Leaving the expedition, he canoed from Pembina to Red Lake, part of the time alone. His trip from Red Lake to Lake Julia and from there to the Mississippi, made by canoe with a native guide, followed the Turtle River Canoe Route. He described the trip in much greater detail than Thompson did. The canoe route remained in use for nearly a century afterwards, mostly by Native Americans. One of the reasons John Speelman (proprietor of the Summit Hotel in Buena Vista) was on good terms with the residents of Red Lake was that they used his land to make the portage from Lake Julia to Little Turtle Lake.

The route could easily have been used for transporting furs. James Cyr reported the remains of a trading post on his homestead on Little Turtle Lake. It is even possible a trail existed along with the canoe route. Euclid "Ernie" Bourgeois, who surveyed for the Halvorson-Richards railroad, described the trail as "just a country road picked out through the woods following high ground, avoiding stream crossings, and avoiding the cutting of trees with the resulting stumps." He states that it had been in use "long before" the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863. He adds the interesting point that he remembered no corduroy on it until it was improved by Dan Gracie when the railroad equipment was moved over it. (Mainly Logging, p. 21)

When the Leech Lake Trail was built or improved, it paralleled roughly the old Turtle River canoe route.

early development of the Leech Lake Trail...

That the trail was in active use around the middle of the nineteenth century is suggested by the fact that the Old Crossing Treaty of 1863, proclaimed in 1864, provides that there will be federal support for assuring the construction of a road. Article 5 of the treaty provides for annual payments to the chiefs and a payment to enable each to build a house. The last sentence of the article reads "Also, the sum of $5000 shall be appropriated by the United States for cutting out a road from Leach Lake to Red Lake."

So, by the time the loggers and settlers came to northern Minnesota, there was an established route from Leech Lake to the Red Lake Agency used by both the Ojibwe and the army. It stuck to the high ground wherever possible, and it was a cleared trail, an open road compared to the Fosston and Park Rapids Trails.

Charles Wight, timber cruising in 1889, crossed the trail several times. "It was plain and well worn. It was just like a country road going through the woods." Later in the same year when he and his partner paddled down the Mississippi, he again encountered the Leech Lake Trail where it crossed the Mississippi "before it entered Lake Andrusia, and there was a pole bridge across the river at this point." Wight thought white men freighting supplies to Red Lake had built the bridge. "The abutments of the bridge [which was about twelve feet wide] were built in crib style, and upstream there were sheer cribs for protection of the bridge." (Mainly Logging, pp.127-129)

the trail is "found" as the country is settled...

It did not take the loggers, the settlers and the teamsters and draymen long to make it a thoroughfare. For the purpose of white settlers and business men, the main towns along its route were Buena Vista and Turtle River. It did not go through the village of Bemidji, and Blackduck was not platted until 1900. There were side roads off to Bemidji. On May 15, 1896, the Pioneer reported "After the new road is completed from Walker to Bemidji, our merchants will receive most of their freight at that point." The Eagle called the new road the Steamboat Lake Wagon Road. On June 26, 1896, it reported.

A warehouse will be erected at Steamboat Landing . . . and from there a wagon road will be built to Bermidji [sic]. This will do away with making a road to Walker via Kabekona Bay and shorten the distance some twelve miles.

The best road to Blackduck Lake was still through Buena Vista.

the railroads supplant the trails...

In 1898, the Great Northern completed its line from Deer River to Fosston through Bemidji. Later in the same year the Brainerd and Northern completed its line into Bemidji; and in 1902 the Minneapolis and International ran its line into Blackduck. For the settlers, the days of the Fosston and Leech Lake Trails as vital supply arteries were over, although the trails continued to provide important local access.

Native Americans and the last days of the trail...

So far as the Ojibwe were concerned, the Leech Lake Trail remained an important route connecting friends and kin of the Red Lake, Cass Lake, Leech Lake bands, providing them access to the Indian agencies and supplies and their annuities. It is difficult to tell when the Red Lake Band gave up travel on the Trail. Mettie Jensen's recollections of seeing members on the trail would have been from 1909 or 1910. Leonard Dickinson's would have been from about the same time.

The sense of private property which the settlers brought would have been enough to have doomed the trail eventually. The Pioneer in 1934 reported that "The first building erected on the present site of Turtle River was a barn . . . . It was located right in the middle of the Indian trail from Cass Lake to Red Lake." The settlers, who were very happy to use the trail at first, were often afraid of Indians and regarded them as interlopers, though that attitude was not universal.

The railroad was completed from Red Lake to Bemidji in 1905, allowing those who could buy tickets a better ride. The local tile of "Squaw Line" would suggest the Red Lake Band made good use of the railroad as well as the trail.

Nola Campbell, who moved to Lake Julia in 1923, talks of the trail as something from the past; so it was no longer in use then.

the Leech Lake Trail abandoned...

After World War I, parts of the trail were used for local access, but as a through roadway it ceased to exist. It never developed into a highway or even into country roads as parts of the Pembina Trail did. Settlers used the old trails, but when they built their own roads they followed section lines. The Leech Lake Trail, of course, was established before the towns of Minnesota were settled. It never became a commercial route and furnished no later access from one town to another. Native Americans had preferred to follow the high ground, even if the road wandered a little; the settlers preferred to build their roads straight.

Reminiscences of Pioneers

The trail was authorized particularly for the use of the Ojibwe, especially those of the Red Lake Band. They did give the trail heavy use, but they did not write about their own experiences; the white settlers did that. The Lake Julia and Turtle Lake area was a focus for settlement; so there were observations both on the trail and on its Native American travelers. Fortunately, the reminiscences in Hilda R.Rachuy's North Country History volumes have preserved many of these comments.

Lake Puposky, sometimes called Mud Lake, is a large, shallow lake just north of Lake Julia. Its first homesteader, Charles Durand, made his claim at the north end of the lake, and the Leech Lake Trail ran right through his property. Delphine Durand McKnight tells of her first encounter.

I was five years old when my folks, Charley and Katherine Durand, took a homestead two and a half miles north of what is now Puposky, on Mud Lake. We were the first ones in there and it was wild country.....

The Indians used to go by our house, long strings of them on the trail going between Red Lake and Cass Lake. This trail went through our homestead and past the house. The squaws would walk with big packs on their backs and the men riding on little ponies with a gun laying across the horse. I can see them yet. They never stopped at our house, just went past.

I remember the first time I saw an Indian close up. My dad had built the barn down the hill from the house. One day there were just the three of us little kids and Mother at home. We kids saw an Indian standing by the corner of the barn, and were scared to death! We ran to tell Mother there was an Indian down by the barn. Finally he started walking up toward the house. When he got to the top of the hill he asked for Charley. After he mentioned Dad's name Mother wasn't afraid of him any more. We never had to be afraid of Indians; they were good.

North Country History, II.3 (1980) ,p.67 © Hilda R.Rachuy 1980

The trail between Puposky and Julia has been obscured most of its distance because the county has built its road on top of it, one of the few instances where a present road overlies the Leech Lake Trail. Closer to Lake Julia, the present road follows a different line, and beyond the new road and its ditches, physical traces of the old trail can be seen. The dirt road that leads to the lake access crosses the trail. On the north side marks can be seen on the ground, though the trail itself has been overgrown during the 75 years or so it has been abandoned.

On the south side, the old trail has been used by residents for access to their property. Though overgrown with grass, the trail is apparent and still usable for a brief section.

The trail ran along the lake shore in front of the Lake Julia Sanitarium building and on beyond through Maher's pasture.

In the Spring of 1923, John and Nola Campbell purchased the John Morrison place, east of Lake Julia. They drove from Minneapolis to Bemidji in their Ford Model A Touring car. They drove up the west side of Lake Julia to Puposky, then across the north end of Julia by the sanitarium, where Dr. R.L.Laney was the resident doctor, then on to the Bill and Minnie Maher place. Mrs. Campbell describes their arrival.

We took off through Maher's pasture to go to our place. The road was wooded and narrow, the branches and brush slapped the sides of our car. We then were on part of the old Leech Lake trail that ran across the Rundell farm. They had a large family also and their two story frame house was built from timber cut from their land. Although the house was unfinished, it stood the rigors of the cold north and west winds that swept across Lake Julia. . . .

Later we learned and enjoyed telling our children about the Leech Lake Trail that was visible from the west boundary line adjacent to Rundell's. The trail was so perfectly cleared by the Indians who migrated from Red Lake to Leech Lake seasonally. Not a stick or stone remained, only the grass which resembled a carpet of green.

The trail ran down the hill to the creek which came from Crane Lake. Mr. Morrison told us that this was where the Indians made camp when traveling. He also pointed out a wild plum tree at the spot which he had saved because the plums were so large and sweet. Perhaps it is still standing there today.

North Country, II.2 (1979), pp.98f. © Hilda R.Rachuy 1979

The trail crossed a creek leading to Crane Lake then began climbing to the top of the divide, terminal moraine from the glacial past. The trail, which at that point runs across private land, is still in use for pickups.

The Top of the Hill
where the Black Duck Trail branches off from the Leech Lake Trail

It is daunting to think that the mud puddles seen on the trail may be a century old. The photograph looks down from the juncture of the Leech Lake Trail and the Black Duck Trail.

Theodore Dickinson's homestead cabin , modified somewhat for use by sheepherders, still sits alongside the trail at the top of the divide. Four generations of Dickinson wagons and trucks have followed the tracks laid down by the wagons and pony carts along the high point of the Leech Lake Trail..

Ida Bakken Tollefson remembers one trip with her family. The mother had a homestead near what is now the Polk County-Clearwater County line, and her husband had his in Blackduck.

The problem was, of course, that they had to live at least five months on each homestead. They would live on Mother's homestead a while and then in the spring, usually, they would go to Blackduck to Dad's homestead. They would make the move with horses and as there were no through roads they went through swamps and woods. There was a road part way that went by Buena Vista. They always used to camp on top of a big hill at Buena Vista overlooking Lake Julia because mosquitoes weren't so bad on top of the hill -- more breezy. (p.49)

One trip I remember was when I was three years old and my uncle Helleck was with us. He had taken a homestead not far from the Gilstead place [on Gilstead Lake, southeast of Hines]. We were going through a swamp and the mosquitoes were like a swarm and they were stinging us. I cried and poor Alex tried to get me out of there. He took me on his back and tried to step from one kind of high spot to the other and finally got me to high ground. . . .

We camped on top of the high hill near Buena Vista. I cried because the mosquitoes were eating me up. Dad made a big smudge for the horses and a smaller smudge for the tent. Mother put the smudge in the tent and opened the flap and the mosquitoes all took off and she shut it real quick, and we got into bed.

The next thing I remember it was early morning and Mother took us all down to the Lake and washed our faces and hands in that cold water, and I cried some more. That was the last trip we made up there as a family.(pp.51f.)

North Country History (II.4 (1981) © Hilda R.Rachuy 1981

The Lake and the breezy hill are still there, but the only wagons to be seen are those carrying sightseers to the top of the hill to see the panorama of lakes and forest, or the fall colors, or the frozen lakes and snow-covered trees.

So many travelers came by from the Red Lake Reservation that one might think they were a sight not to be remarked upon; yet they obviously made an unforgettable impression. Mettie Nelson Jensen remembers.

The old Leech-Lake Red Lake Trail went past our place, between the lake and the house, and wandered up through the woods. I remember the Indians traveling past on that trail in the early days. They had the smallest ponies. Sometimes they would be in muck up to their bellies. The road was corduroy through the meadow down by the lake and the ponies' little feet would go through and they would have an awful time getting them out. There would be six or eight men in one little two-seated buggy and the little ponies trying to pull them, and behind would come the women dragging the tent poles and all the cooking paraphernalia, and then came the kids. One time I stood and watched them and I told my mother, "It looks to me like the men ought to put the ponies in the buggy and pull them instead of the ponies trying to pull the buggy with all those men in it." When they were drunk it was worse; the ponies had an awful time, sometimes, when they went through there.

Dad told me the Indians came once, when he was first up there, and asked permission to go down on the meadow by the lake [Little Turtle Lake] and dig the wild artichokes. These grew very tall and got yellow bloom on the top. Pa thought they were weeds. He told them to go ahead and asked what they were going to do with them. They said, "We eat the roots; they are good. There used to be lots of them and we came every year to get them." These tubers stay in the ground all winter and in the spring the Indians came to dig them for years.

North Country II.2, (1978)p.85. © Hilda R.Rachuy 1978

A vivid recollection for many of the old timers was the time the train came through on the Leech Lake Trail. Halvorson and Richards planned to log in the woods north of Lake Julia and Lake Puposky. Since the streams in the area were small, it was decided to build a railroad from the village of Nebish, really a lumber camp, up to Red Lake. They would then drive the logs down the Red Lake River to the sawmills farther down at St. Hilaire or at Crookston.

In 1897 and '98, the closest railroads stopped at Fosston to the west and to the east, Walker on Leech Lake. The locomotive, cars, and other material were taken by water from Leech Lake to Steamboat Lake then hauled by sled over the frozen trail. (The trucks for the cars came by water to Red Lake.) There was no diary of the difficulties the teamsters had as they pulled the locomotive up the hills and down, but those who watched remembered it. R.H.Dickinson, who did so much to help found Buena Vista, recalled it for the WPA Historical Project.

When the steel and other equipment was put in, this equipment was brought in overland from Steamboat Landing. It had come up as far as Walker over the Minnesota & International railroad, then placed on rafts and floated to Steamboat Landing and finally hauled by team northward through Buena Vista. When the cars and locomotive passed through town, Mr. Dickinson stated that the men kept ringing the bell, and the comment was made that "the first locomotive in Beltrami County passed through Buena Vista.

Excerpt from an interview written by Lloyd A. Halseth, WPA Historical Project No. 3769, following an interview with Mr. Dickinson, June 9th, 1938.

Leonard Dickinson, R.H.Dickinson's son, also remembered being told of the scene.

The entire Red Lake Railroad was hauled up from Steamboat Landing through Buena Vista and built from Nebish [seven miles north of Buena Vista] to Redby [on Red Lake]. That's where it went first. It wasn't built from Bemidji to Nebish. It started at Nebish. I can remember when they took the locomotive through Buena Vista and, if I am not mistaken, they had 24 head of horses on it. They hauled all the rails through there on big logging sleighs -- big 40 foot logging bunks -- on frozen ground. The bunks were 12 by 12, or 12 by 16 feet long and hewn out of oak.

In Our Own Backyard, p.21.

Ledora Siems grew up on Big Turtle Lake, just a short distance down the trail from Buena Vista.

In 1904 my grandfather purchased land between Big Turtle Lake and Three Island Lake....Since there were no suitable roads between Bemidji and their new home, the family traveled by Rail up to the Turtle River depot and then moved their possessions by sled over the Hudson Bay Fur Trail. After coming from the prairie, the family thought they had never seen anything so beautiful as the snow in the evergreen trees.<\blockquote>

Until they could get their house built, the Worths lived in the abandoned buildings of the Blakely and Farley Logging Company.

A humorous incident arose from this arrangement. The Indians who traveled between Red Lake and the Cass Lake Reservations were used to spending the night in the camp after the logging crew moved out. This particular group of Indians evidently had not traveled this way since my grandparents moved in. They gave no thought to checking and merely bounced through the door. It gave the women quite a fright and they immediately fled out another door in their nightgowns.

It was a common sight to see Indians, traveling between the two reservations, along the old Hudson Bay Trail which goes through our farm. The Indians were friendly and frequently stopped for food and water. Mrs. Badboy was the first Indian woman the Butlers became acquainted with, and she, like all Indian mothers at this time, carried her baby in a cradle on her back. All items needed to make the trip were placed on a blanket which was tied between two poles and dragged by a horse. When they stopped for the night, they didn't bother to put up tents, but merely wrapped up in their blankets on the ground. even the cold winds of late fall and the snow of early winter did not seem to bother the men, and often my grandfather would look out the window in the morning and see strange mounds covered with snow in his front yard. Suddenly up would pop an Indian, shake off the snow, and be on his way. They were a hardy people. . . .

She also remembers the trips into Turtle River:

Most of the shopping was done in Turtle River, which was a fairly large town at the time, five miles away. The road was quite narrow -- just about wide enough for a wagon, and since this was the best way of traveling and bringing home supplies, boards would be placed across the wagon box to accommodate more of the family. If the boards happened to be a little too long or if the horses didn't travel exactly in the right rut, the board would hit the trees by the side of the road and the passenger dumped into the wagon box or knocked into the bushes by the side of the road. The road was also full of deep ruts, which did not add to the comfort of the travelers.
North Country, I, 3 (1975), pp.6-8 © Hilda R.Rachuy 1975

Alice Guthrie Glidden lived by the trail and also remembers, as so many do, the Indians and her response to them.

In 1898 my father came to Northern Minnesota and filed on a homestead about two and a half miles kind of southeast of Turtle River. . . . (p.86)

The road went right by our house and the Indians went past to go to Cass Lake. We saw a lot of them go by. We kids were scared to death of them and we stayed way back. They had a number of small ponies. They would take tents and everything they had when they went down to Cass Lake.

One time we went picking blueberries and we had to go about two miles, walking, to a place we had been picking before. When we got there the Indians had their tents up and we were frightened. Father was with us that time and he said, "Never mind. Don't say anything, just pick right along and say nothing." Which we did, but we stayed close together. There were lots of blueberries in Turtle River township. (p.89)

North Country History, II.5 (1982) © Hilda R.Rachuy 1982

Though blocked in places by fallen trees, the trail west of Turtle River Lake can still be identified. Occasionally used by pickups, it winds under a grove of pines.

Still west of Turtle River Lake, the trail goes up a hill in a sandy section. The land about it was cleared of timber long ago, and the young pines are finally coming back. Farther along it is used in the winter by snowmobiles. Open and clear, it is good for hiking.

It is quiet, no traffic; the homesteads and the people are gone. This is public land, forfeited for taxes. So much bravado gone; Peter Larkin put up the first building in Turtle River squarely in the middle of the trail. So much work, so much hope. But not wasted. Their children, like Ledora Siems, look back on them with admiration and on past times, in spite of all the work and hardships, as a golden time.

The wild life at that time was plentiful. It was common to see deer about 200 feet from the house and they often drank water with the cattle from the watering trough at the barn. The rivers and lakes were full of fish, and geese and ducks were in abundance. Moose were seen in the swamp half a mile from the house, and at night the chilling howls of wolves were plentiful.

Marcus Butler would have been proud if he knew his granddaughter had written:

My grandparents lived out the rest of their lives on the farm they cut out of the north woods. They saw the community grow, Turtle River, Farley and Buena Vista fade away . . . .

My husband and I have the old farm now, and we hope to pass it on to our children. (pp. 8f.)

North Country, I.3 (1975) © Hilda R.Rachuy 1975

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