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CHAPTER VIII CHIPPEWA TRAVEL

 

To survive in the Lake Superior region the Chippewa had to be experts in wilderness travel. They used a variety of specialized equipment and techniques to travel quickly throughout the interior and lake shore regions. Precise navigation was critical for a successful journey through the Chippewa wilderness, and foreign travelers had to secure an Indian guide to avoid disaster.(207) Following the proper routes across Chippewa country was difficult work; a lost traveler who was unfamiliar with the canoe trails would certainly experience extreme hardship or perish.

Canoe trails were the primary routes used by the Chippewa, fur traders, scientists, and other visitors to traverse the dense wilderness of the Flambeau area. The best means of transportation were birchbark canoes, which were light, durable, stable, and easy to repair in the wilderness. The canoe trails were the most direct route possible, using portages to integrate different river basins, land locked-lakes, and to expedite travel. Overland travel was used to a lesser degree, usually to connect distant water routes. However, Chippewa travel did change in the winter when the water routes were frozen and impassible. Using direct routes across land, and frozen swamps and water, the Chippewa used toboggans to haul their possessions.

Three different types of canoes were used for travel in the Lake Superior region: the most common was birchbark, followed by dugouts, and then by moose-hide canoes. Each type of canoe had its advantage according to weight, durability, stability, available materials for construction, and purpose. All canoes had specialized designs for different activities. A ricing canoe was wide to catch wildrice tops, but had a low draft for operation in shallow water. Small canoes were often used in the interior region because they were light for portages and would be easier to maneuver through rapids. Great Lake canoes typically were long and wide with a high bow, to haul heavy loads of cargo and navigate turbulent waters. The variation among canoes was endless and some designs attempted to combine several characteristics to create a more versatile vessel.

The most frequent mention of travel in most journals concerned the portages, where travelers had to carry all their possessions between water routes. These portages were often over difficult terrain, as Malhiot, a North West fur trader describes:

 

. . . of all the spots and places I have seen in my thirteen years' of travels, this is the most horrid and most sterile. The Portage road is truly that to heaven because it is narrow, full of over- turned trees, obstacles, thorns, and muskegs. Men who go over it loaded and are obliged to carry baggage over it certainly deserve to be called 'men'.

This vile portage is inhabited solely by owls, because no other animal could find a living there, and the hoots of those solitary birds are enough to frighten an angel or intimidate a Caesar.(208)

The portage Malhiot referred to in this citation was the Flambeau Trail, a 45 mile required portage to travel from Lake Superior to the Lac Du Flambeau District.

The hardship of portages impressed many visitors to Chippewa country, but the Chippewa had adjusted to these difficulties and were specialists at portages. The Indians understood that preparation, the most direct route, and excellent physical conditioning were requirements for attempting wilderness travel. In 1846, A.B. Gray a geologist, noted the Chippewa travelers on the Flambeau Trail: "Here we found one of the bands of Indians who had got ahead of us, their packs upon the ground, their lines out, and having already caught a number of fine fish."(209) The calories which this overland exertion demanded from the travelers were enormous, and a good supply of food would ensure warmth, energy, and the quickest possible completion of the trail.

The Indians' burden was great over the Flambeau Trail, as A. B. Gray described:

 

Their packs usually are very heavy, from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds weight, and they are obliged to take advantage of as much water travel as possible. The system of packing, too, is not con- fined to men alone; but their women pack equally as much, and their children, down to four years of age, in proportion. Upon our expedition I saw an old squaw over seventy years of age with a pack weighing from 80 pounds to 100 pounds, she carried the whole portage.(210)

 

The Flambeau Trail had long been a critical route for the Chippewa Nation and was well-known to the Lac Du Flambeau District bands.

Chippewa women frequently participated more than men in the burden of transportation across the rugged wilderness. The Chippewa women had developed special techniques which allowed them to travel with greater ease and efficiency. In 1832, James Allen a military officer, on an expedition through the Lake Superior region with Henry Schoolcraft, noted in his journals the impressive abilities of a Chippewa girl on a portage:

 

The Indian women carry better than the men being less indolent, and more accustomed to it. I saw a small young Indian women, at the close of the day, carry a keg of one thousand musket ball cartridges for a distance of one mile, without resting, and most of the distance through swamp that was frequently over her knees: this too after having carried heavy loads all day, and when, with less exertion than she had made, my strongest men were exhausted. (211)

 

Stated simply, Chippewa survival depended upon quick and efficient transportation in the Lake Superior region.

Portage distances were measured by "pauses", which were rests taken by travelers while completing the overland journey. A pause was usually a predetermined place between six hundred yards and a half-mile apart.(212) The more difficult the terrain, the shorter the distance to the next pause. The Flambeau Trail was a 120-pause portage due to its rough terrain, it was estimated to be "only" 35 to 45 miles long. On the other hand, the 6-Pause Portage between Mercer Lake and the Manitowish River had easier terrain and covered 2-1/2 miles. The pauses along a portage were well- established, hopefully allowing travelers a dry and relatively comfortable spot to rest. Those who had the burden of portaging canoes preferred to have a tree along the trail to rest the front of the canoe upon, suspending the canoe in the air and thereby avoiding the effort of hoisting the vessel back upon their shoulders.

Caches were frequently used to store equipment or food near portages. The end of the Flambeau Trail on Long Lake was an area of many implement caches,(213) such as canoes, paddles, and heavy or useless objects which were too burdensome to carry on the long trail.(214) The Chippewa seem to have left canoes all over the Lac Du Flambeau district, abandoning their vessels to proceed on their important journeys. Some evidence suggests that canoes filled with trade goods were actually sunk and then buried to create underwater implement caches. In the late 1970's, a dugout canoe was found by skin divers next to Strawberry Island in Lac Du Flambeau. Inside the buried vessel were traps, axes, shovels, and a mysterious white clay which was not found anywhere near the Lac Du Flambeau area.(215) The trade goods found in the dugout suggest that the boat was put in cache during the 18th or 19th century.

Local research has indicated that at least three other dugout canoes have been found in the Lac Du Flambeau region, apparently cached in the same manner. An underwater cache would be effective in preserving all non-perishable goods, hiding equipment, protecting boats from weather damage, and keeping gnawing rodents from damaging boats. Once raised from the bottom, the boats would quickly dry, be repaired, and be ready for use. In the late 1930's, Jack Messing a white resident, found a cached dugout canoe on horseshoe bend of the Bear River in Lac Du Flambeau, the boat was in such good condition he used it for several years.(216)

Canoe travel required some specialized equipment which assisted the Chippewa in traversing the wilderness. During a portage the person who carried the canoe created a yoke by lashing the canoe paddles under the thwarts (support beams) of the canoe. The blades faced forward and the canoe was balanced on the traveler's shoulders.(217) All other goods were carried by hand or in a variety of different packs. All travelers had to carry a supply of "gum" with them to repair canoes. Gum was concentrate made from pine pitch (sap), and would be heated, and then applied on any holes in the boats.(218) The gum quickly harden to the surface of any material from which the canoe was made, allowing for quick and effective wilderness repair.

Paddles and poles were used to propel the canoes along the water routes of the Lake Superior region. Paddles were made from spruce trees and specialized to the needs of the paddler.(219) Frances Densmore, an early 20th century Chippewa Ethnologist, noted that men and women had different styles of paddles and duties when traveling by canoe: "There were always two paddles, one for the man who sat in the front and the other for the woman who sat in the stern."(220) The paddler in the bow (front) of the canoe provided the power, while the person in the stern was responsible for steering. Poles were frequently used in rivers with shallow water and/or rapids. The Chippewa were skilled in the use of poles; they would quickly react to rocks, shallows, and dangerous currents by pushing the canoe through navigable channels. In 1832, Allen experienced extreme hardship on the St. Croix and Boise Brule Rivers of Wisconsin; he commented with envy on the Chippewa's ability to negotiate rapids. ". . . their piloting was of no use, for my men had not the skill to follow them, or to steer a canoe as they did by means of poles."(221)

James Allen's 1832 journal was the best narrative of ill-prepared travel in the interior region of Lake Superior. Allen's comments gave an indication of the difficulty of travel in the interior region, and how the Chippewa were experts in traversing this wilderness. Allen was on an expedition throughout the region of Lake Superior with Henry Schoolcraft; at the junction of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers, Schoolcraft and his men went ahead, abandoning Allen and his group. The result was a comedy of errors by Allen as he made his way up the St. Croix River, down the Boise Brule River, and into Lake Superior.

After a few days on the St. Croix River, Allen was overcome by his hardship and inexperience:

 

It is not to be supposed that the department would require soldiers to travel through such a country as this, and encounter the extraordinary exposure and danger incident to their transporting themselves, without some provision of medical aid; and still less could it be deemed practicable for a detachment of troops to effect a journey through an unknown, wild, inhospitable Indian country, without guides of any kind to direct, or an interpreter, through whose means to obtain guides or necessary geographic information. But, such was my situation now . . .(222)

 

Allen and his men continued to have difficulty traveling but later procured the services of a Chippewa guide.

I wished two of them, at least, to guide me

to the source of the river, and that I would reward them liberally with provisions for such service, but none of the village, would consent to go, excepting one young Indian, the chief's son, who, taking a fancy for a calico shirt I was wearing, agreed to go two days' journey with me, on condition of my adding to my former liberal offer of provisions: I had little else to give them.(223)

The value of a Chippewa guide was clear Allen had literally sacrificed the shirt off his back and a wealth of provisions. Allen's disappointment the next morning was understandable after the Chippewa guide had left, taking his shirt, the provisions, and the morning's breakfast of freshly-baked bread.

Allen continued up-river, while his men became injured and exhausted from walking their canoes up the rapids. After one of their canoes had been destroyed, Allen entered into another inspired trade with a local Chippewa by purchasing a small birch bark canoe for more than twice its value in flour. After correcting a wrong turn into a different river system, the Allen expedition finally arrived at the portage into the Boise Brule River.

The 2 mile portage was easy into the Boise Brule River because they had few provisions left to weigh them down. With the anticipation of a down-stream trip, the Allen and his men continued toward Lake Superior. Unfortunately for this expedition, their inexperience quickly led them to disaster. These men could not control their canoes in the fast current and were constantly hitting rocks. ". . . all my canoes were leaking badly; they had been so often repaired that their bottoms were nearly gummed over, and every touch of a stone knocked some of it off, and opened a leak".(224) Each canoe required one man to bail constantly to keep it afloat.

A few miles farther, all but one of Allen's canoes had sunk, and were beyond repair. The expedition had to walk out, with the exception of a few men, who paddled the last canoe and one man who had gone lame. Allen hired more Chippewa guides who promised to assist his overland expedition, but the next morning the Indians had left with the payment for guiding, and that morning's breakfast of freshly-baked bread.(225) After leaving the river, Allen's overland journey to Lake Superior would be best described as pure hell.

The misfortune of Allen and his men illustrate the need for expertise, organization, guidance, and unity when traveling in the wilderness of the Lake Superior region. The true fault of this fiasco rested with Henry Schoolcraft, who had abandoned of Allen and his men. Schoolcraft probably became frustrated with the slow travel of Allen and his greenhorns and merely went ahead. Schoolcraft's selfish and inconsiderate actions raise questions about his competency as a leader. Interestingly, Schoolcraft would later become the superintendent of Indians in the Lake Superior area.

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