On the La Croix River to Stillwater: Reisen in Nordamerika Chapter 23

October 3, 2019

By Leo

167 years ago, to the day, the Austrian travel writer Carl Scherzer reached Stillwater in the Minnesota Territory after a week of traveling down the length of the St. Croix River in a birch bark canoe piloted by Souverain Denis and Jean Baptiste (Belanger?), two La Pointe-based voyageurs.  His account follows.

Previous installments in this series, covering Scherzer’s journey from Ontonagon to the head of the Brule River via La Pointe can be found here.  These posts include information on the translation process from the original German, as well as some analysis of Scherzer’s ethnocentrism in his dealings with the Ojibwe and other groups of people.


On the La Croix River to Stillwater

Tuesday, September 28, 33 F. Cheerful, sunny but cold weather. The distance from the Bois-Brule portage to St. Croix Lake is two miles.

Since there is no connection between the Bois-Brule river and the lake, our boat and all the luggage had to be carried to the next point of embarkation. Since we could not remove such a large amount of luggage at once, it ended up taking several hours. The voyageurs had to travel back along the path three times before our last piece of baggage was brought to the other end of the portage.

The path to La Croix Lake leads through spruce forests with young birch and oak* along the fairly high ridges. All around, the horizon is obscured by these thickly wooded hills. There are several small lakes between the portage and St. Croix Lake, but they are of no importance for fishing or navigation.

190px-maitohorsma_28epilobium_angustifolium29Fireweed:  Epilobium angustifolium (Wikimedia)

(*Here, as in the west of Canada, we have generally come to the opinion that oak vegetation is always the natural successor of broken spruce, fir, or pine. In places where the trees are burnt, it is well known that Epilobium angustifolium is their stereotypical successor, sometimes growing from the tree before it has a chance to cool. (Agassiz, Lake Superior, 1851. p.50.))

While the Voyageurs carried the luggage and canoe to the lake, and prepared everything for embarkation, we engaged in the preparation of our meal at the western end of the Portage, barely 300 paces from the lakeshore. Fried bacon, tea, and ship’s biscuit were the simple ingredients that made it up. Benefiting from the rays of a mild September sun, we consumed our hearty meal on a natural green carpet.  Many a gourmand of the French cuisine, whose taste buds neither véry nor chevet could satisfy, would have been envious.

The La Croix Lake, on which we embarked, now had a breadth of 800 feet and a length of 6 miles. This is the beginning of the La Croix River or Grande Riviere, which has its origin in a swamp on the right bank of the lake, starting in a pond-like pool. Its shores are slate, and for the most part, it is overgrown with poplars, ash, oak, elm, pine, cedar, and thuja, with an undergrowth of oak and birch.

After expanding for almost 6 miles, the lake takes on the more modest, typical shape of a river, flowing around numerous bends. It doubles along the voyage, for about 250 English miles, until at Stillwater it becomes a second lake, extending 25 Miles in length and 3/4 miles in width, finally pouring into the Mississippi at Point Douglas.

At this point, both banks of the St. Croix are well within Wisconsin.  It begins to form the border with Minnesota a few miles upstream from the mouth of the Yellow River, near Danbury.

On both shores, the trees, weighed down with leaves, extend down to the reflection of the lake, turning it a dark blackish-green color, so that no surface of the valley can be discriminated.  As on the Ontonagon River, trees and water gently blur into each other. At the end of this rich lake is a small island covered in deciduous lush. The eastern (left) bank forms the border between the states of Wisconsin and Minesota.

At a quarter past three, we reached the lower end of the lake, now narrowing, to form the La Croix River. In the numerous rice fields, on both shores, we encountered whole flocks of migrating ducks, assumed to be beginning their autumn journey to the mild west. However, they did not fry for us. With the many difficulties in navigating this river through the masses of rolling stone just under the surface of the deceptively dark water, the voyageurs were too preoccupied skilfully guiding the boat through the stone clockwork, to even give attention to the flocks of ducks floating like buoys among the rice fields.

The tourist who wants to benefit from the hunt is not allowed to also designate a destination. He must be content, at times, to cover less than a mile per day. If you wish to move on quickly, your shotgun will bring little duck. In any case, even despite the greatest of care, the difficulty of navigating the ship through the dangerously low water will lead to accidents, which often delay the journey for hours. We could hardly have sailed a mile down the river before we came up on a rugged rock. The canoe crashed and filled with water so quickly that we were forced to seek asylum for the night as quickly as possible, to resurrect the vehicle with waterproof black pitch for its leaks.

The ax echoed through the woods and soon delivered a rich contingent of spruce and cedar logs, so recently brightly green, and now so dead behind us. The elevated place where we pitched our tent was a small, rather dry, spot on the western bank of the river. However, we were surrounded by numerous reedy marshes, exhaling a ghastly atmosphere of cold fever over us. We were saved by the hard edge of the recent frost tempered the foul breath somewhat. At the same time, a mighty fire purified the surrounding air, and the beneficial warmth spread through our limbs.

See previous post.

As Souverain attempted to mend the barge, he remarked that we had been too generous in disposing of our pitch to the Indian postmaster, and that if we were to repeat accidents like the present one, we might soon find the lack of resin regrettable. From this event, the well-intentioned money-maker might learn at once: “Never give anything to your neighbor, even if it is an Indian postmaster;” but in similar tribulations, we confidently expect equal service from our neighbors.

See this post for an 1844 account of the numerous uses for birch bark.

Willing to serve, in the multiple duties that we had to do this evening, we used closely curled birch bark as a torch, and found it far more expansive and attractive than the dim light spilling from many a German student’s ceiling upon Virgil’s Aeneid or Cicero’s Respublica.

Wednesday, September 29th, 62F. Glorious sunrise. The rocks, covered with only a thin surface of water, continue to be the annoyance and concern of our boatmen, who fear the canoes will be snatched upon the sharp reefs at the slightest inattention.

If you look at these countless turrets, of all shapes and sizes, hidden by the deceptively dark color of the water, causing the ship to be in trouble every minute, you almost start to believe that each teasing stone is the avenging spirit of an Indian driven by competition with the whites out of his native wilderness. The shores remain flat, and the vegetation forming the rich forests is coniferous and deciduous in a pleasing mixture.

Towards noon, when the rocks in the river became less numerous and threatening for a stretch, and the river increased remarkably in breadth, we exchanged our hand poles for oars. Suddenly, a soaring southeast wind arose and the water moved as if in flood.* Although we were driving downstream, it whipped against our canoe, and significantly affected the speed of our oar-assisted gliding.

(*The voyageurs call the white foaming waves that form on the surface of the water in strong winds “white caps” and always know, depending on whether the wind is coming from the land or the lake at their formation, whether they make it dangerous or not for the ship.)

On a small hill, under two lonely spruce trees, we had lunch. For a time the shores were prickly, and paddy fields and young, high-stemmed cedars and thujas were the only vegetation in the surrounding landscape. In the afternoon, however, the character of the character changed completely. The river now runs through wide, neat avenues, and the brightly colored leaves of the numerous trees of the shore bathe in its dark flood.

At a distance of 200′ we noticed a broad stone jutting out of the water, decorated with several rough strokes of red color. The voyageurs told us that the Indians sometimes paint a stone, sprinkle it with tobacco, and dance and sing under it, so that the great spirit (Manitou) may send them good hunting, rich fishing, and a bountiful rice harvest.

It is obvious that the Indian pagan, like many a selfish Christian, seeks to combine a practical motivation with his devotion. It seems his crude idea of a higher being is preoccupied with the strength of sighs, the length of the prayers and the number of the sufferers, instead of the world being governed by eternal, iron laws!

We did not see a similar painted stone on the whole journey, and in spite of our most zealous inquiries, we have not been able to find any more authentic details about this type of Indian sacrificial service.

The failed removals of 1850 and 1851, also known as the Sandy Lake Tragedy, were devastating for all the Lake Superior Ojibwe, but the tragedy lingered especially long for the St. Croix bands. Many families missed additional payments, a smallpox outbreak struck in the winter of 1853, and the 1854 Treaty failed to create a reservation at Pokegama.  The people described here are likely the remnants of Gaa-bimaabi’s (Kapamappa) band, whose village was near modern-day Gordon.

In the afternoon, we passed eight birchbark wigwams, inhabited by about twenty Indians and their families, who were busy with the rice harvest. They had a miserable appearance overall. Their bodies were covered only with ratty wool blankets and short leggings resembling a swimsuit. Two male Indians, their faces blackened with coal and lead, wore short red pants and green coats, and smoked from a long pipe made of red stone. A female was smeared red. She wore a bizarre, makeshift suit and had a kind of shield on her chest.

The more remote and ignorant the Indians are, the more they stick to their vain, colorful adornments, and thereby have the most peculiar notions of beauty and taste. Whatever they beg or catch, they then hang on their brown bodies, and will often decorate themselves with exotic feathers even more than our pretentious poets.

For example, the number of eagle feathers an Indian may carry in his hair depends on the number of enemies he has already killed. But for many a redskin, in deceitful vanity, he might wear such bloody heroes’ jewelery, when his fists were only active in knocking the ripe rice grains over the covering of his birch canoe, which doubles as a seed basket.

Scherzer’s description of the midewiwin or Grand Medicine is reminiscent of similar derogatory language used by missionaries Edmund F. Ely and William T. Boutwell in their writings.

Souverain thought, in judging by the appearance of the Indians we passed, that they had recently celebrated la grande medecine, a feast that they usually hold in the event of illness.

The Indians consider every disease to be an evil spirit, put into the patient by a powerful magician at the instigation of some vindictive enemy. They seek the aid of another magician (conjurer, medecine-man), who by means of singing, drumming, and carousing and through the use of certain herbs, cast it out again.

This medecine-man or conjurer exerts an unrestricted influence over the gullible minds of the Indians. He is not only a helper in matters of the body, he is the oracle and counselor in all cases of life, always eager to draw the utmost profit from the superstition and suffering of his fellow-men. It is the “medecine-man” who makes the determination of the various tribes in relation to war or peace, and who reveals the best hunting and fishing grounds to unconditionally trusting questioners. He is also the one who gives every child, usually by the color of his hair, the name of an animal or plant, and receives a gift for it. Judging by the names of the various Chippewa Indians with whom we met, it does not seem much thought is given to the choice of names, as the following list shows: Little Wolf, Black Bird, Big Tortoise, Yellow Beaver, Black Cloud, Cooking Pot, etc.

Several of the individuals mentioned here were chiefs or headmen of the La Pointe Band.  One wonders if they would have agreed with Scherzer that their names were meaningless.

As soon as a medecine-man is asked for advice, he dresses in the strangest, most comical way. This is how we viewed such a conjuror who dressed himself in the skin of a bear, with the head serving as a mask, stumbling with the monstrous claws on his wrists and ankles. The skin was also decorated with all sorts of frogs, bats, and snakes, so well prepared that their lifelike appearance produced awe in both young and old.

In his left hand, he held a ghastly rattle whose clatter, according to tradition and superstition, is one of the most powerful sounds that can move an Indian heart. He swung a magical spear with his right hand, hopping, dancing, yelling, and howling as if he himself were possessed by a bad spirit. 

It is characteristic of these magicians, though great deceivers, that to a certain degree, they believe in their ceremonies and their healing power, as many modern plagiarists lie lastly to the truth and wisdom of their own selves. And while it is an imperfect method to determine where credulity ceases and fraud begins, it remains certain that these Indian doctors treat their own sick children in the same way.

Tobacco plays a major role in these incantations, and its syrup is a major ingredient in the most important and crucial ceremony.

If the patient recovers, it is, of course, a triumph of his magician over the presumed enemy. The deceiving victor, who pretends to have sucked the pain out of the sore spot, then draws out some strange object: a thorn, a stone, a fishbone, a bird’s claw, a serpent’s tooth, or a piece of wire from his mouth, which, as is self-evident, had surely been conjured into the wound of the patient by a bad spirit. Then, the deceiver, depending on his mood, will banish the evil spirit from inside his patient to the sea or to a distant mountain.

If, on the other hand, the patient dies, the spirit-conjuror attributes his death solely to being bested by his opponent’s greater magic power.*

[*First Establishment of Christianity in Ruperts Island by the Church Missionary Society.  New York, 1852. — Indian tribes in Guiana by Rd. W. H. Brett. 1852.]

Although the friends and family members of the patient actively participate in all these ceremonies, their highest degree of participation comes with the feast, which always forms a major component. As with most major festivals, we do not know whether it is out of taste, or in symbolic intent,* but a dog is also slaughtered here. We saw, on a grassy portion of La Pointe Island, among the traces of broken-down Indian tents, the skeleton of a dog that had been eaten last fall on a similar occasion by wandering redskins and their entrenched swindler. Even in its skeletal form, the mark of faithful loyalty, so universal in the race of dogs, could be verified. 

[*See Cadwallader Coldon, History of the five Indian nations of Canada.  London 1747. P. 7.]

Around 3 o’clock we came upon rapids again, and slid down their 2’ height. It is a peculiarly strange feeling to be surrounded by jagged rocks, floating in the midst of small waterfalls, while guided by the steady hand of a river-trained voyageur, to scoot over these rocky ridges of water in swaying comfort.

At times, the canoeists had to climb into the river to clear out the most intrusive and barbarous stones. Once, as we were going down a rapids, it happened that Baptiste’s pole broke in two as he was about to cut past a boulder, and the boat was forcibly thrown to the bank. Besides the loss of the ship’s pole, we suffered no damage. However, the circumstances could not have been more favorable to overthrowing the canoe, tossing our effects into the water, and mortally wounding ourselves upon the masses of sharp rock surrounding us.

Here again, we saw quite clearly how much man is allowed to attempt and endure before he breaks his neck and legs, if only he does not otherwise engage in politics. For in the light and fragile birch bark we have gone through innumerable hazards and innumerable dangers and emerged unscathed, while many of our friends in their cozy, humble rooms were ruined by a piece of paper! – That’s why we prefer the coarse birch bark to the smooth paper and parchment …

Cases have occurred, albeit very rarely, where voyageurs have accidentally crashed from ignorance or carelessness while sliding down the rapids. Such points usually carry the name of the failed boatman.

The St. Croix country was well-known as an area of both peaceful and violent interaction between the Ojibwe and Dakota.  The battleground could be the site of Waabojiig’s decisive over the Meskwaki (Fox) and Dakota in the late 18th-century victory.  However, the text would suggest the battle on the grounds of Scherzer’s camp was earlier and farther upstream.   

5 o’clock in the afternoon. We encamped on a beautiful wide plateau close to the western shore of the La Croix river, with spruces, cedars, and oaks forming a background. The eastern shore is flat but densely covered with hardwood. The area in which we bivouacked is called Campement de bataille as a result of a battle which was said to have taken place there between Sioux and Chippewa Indians over a hundred years ago. Its historians were the half-decayed skulls, which according to Souverain, were found in this area in earlier times in such large numbers that can only be compared with the number of the boulders in the river.

A mild evening and clear blue sky gave our bivouac a very homey atmosphere. Imagine a tent made of white, strong canvas, supported by two tree trunks bent vertically into the ground, connected to a third lying across as a roof support, similar (only more peaceful and natural) to those tents seen all over Germany in recent years, until it was overpowered. Next to the entrance, an iron kettle hangs in a tumultuous bustle over the flickering fire. The two voyageurs in their blue blankets, stretched out on the ground with heads tucked on arms and caressed by the heat of the flame, enjoyed a hard-earned rest. The young Frenchman and the scribe of these pages, sat on a buffalo-skin under the light canvas cover, and sketched out the day’s events, with our colorful possessions scattered around, partly drying in the vicinity of the glaze, partly sheltered from the weather, and at some distance the “Bearer of All,” the brown birch-canoe, sat brutally mauled and mended on all sides, every scar a triumphant sign of its struggle with the stone army.

Thursday, September 30, 59 F. On the morning of our tri,p we had to pass several rapids, a miles long and and 1 ½’ in height. The extremely low water level makes navigation even more difficult and dangerous, because when the river is high, the boat glides amicably and safely over many of the stones, which in the current low flowage, are only softly washed over, with their pointed shapes harassing from all sides. This circumstance compels the skippers to often leap into the river, thereby easing the weight on the canoe as they waded through the crevices as best as they could.

As often as the natural conditions of the shores allowed, we left the canoe and took the most difficult parts on foot. So, we made several portages again today.

We walked for a long time through this green labyrinth, over sticks and shrubs, pondering the cause of the elegiac impression these wildernesses, for all their sublimity and natural splendor, had on us. These lonely, gloomy forests without song and scent* may well serve a modern Timon as the desired asylum for his soul searching, but for the philanthropist, who for weeks remains in this solitude, his feelings are powerfully drawn back to those flourishing feats of human activity, where the farmer reaps the blessings of his industriousness, where gentler herds graze on rich, fat pastures, where the sun bends over happy cottages, the cozy ringing of the village bell proclaims the peace of the evening, and healthy, red-cheeked strumpets make the hearts of young boys beat louder!

[*Agassiz, Lake superior. 1850.  Wagner, Nordamerika, II.]

At about 12 o’clock, we stopped at the end of rapids on the east bank, and enjoyed tea, butter, ship’s biscuit! The more we were subjected to the climatic vicissitudes of our journey, the more we learned to appreciate the excellent qualities of green tea as both  a quenching drink and a warming agent. Three times a day, we took hot tea. It was almost the only liquid we would consume for weeks, when the fresh water, especially near marshes, seemed to be badly influenced by the suspended vegetable matter. After all the exertion, fatigue and cold, it was always the tea that produced the rejuvenating effect on the health and had a pleasantly stimulating effect on the nerves.

bannock_1995-07-01Scherzer’s preference of hard tack over la galette (lugalade, “lug,” bannock) is puzzling to say the least (Wikimedia).

Next to tea is rice and Indian corn (maize), which, due to their rich nutrients and the small amount of space they take up, are especially useful for a long life in the forest. Roasted and finely grated, corn, mixed with sugar and water, also makes a delicious drink. Ship’s biscuit has also done us excellent service. On the other hand, we have not been able to make friends with Galette, a type of bread cake made of flour, baked in a pan by the fire, and when fresh it is enjoyed and piled into the stomach in a highly indigestible manner.*

375px-gail_bordenThe eccentric preserved food enthusiast Gail Borden had a hit with condensed milk.  Meatbiscuit never took off (Wikimedia).

[*The inventor of “Meatbiscuit,” Gail Borden of New York, was so interested in hearing about our intended trip to Central America, he sent us a box to try his new method of preparation, yet we left the same untouched, even in more serious times earlier in the trip. This meatbiscuit, as we have been informed in the printed communication, is so rich in nutrients that one tablespoon of this powdered substance, boiled in water, should be perfectly adequate for a meal.]

In the afternoon, the river increased noticeably in width, and extends to 300′. The landscape now alternates with cypress bouquets looking as if in a park, with small prairies where the Indians gather hay for the winter, and with wild elms and oak forests. Over and over, though, the landscape bears the stamp of seriousness and loneliness: all members of a green society of ennui!

See the first post in the Reisen of Nordamerika for a similar description of voyageur humor in trying circumstances.

The frightening rapids continue. Storms and rain join in, and significantly hinder our progress. Like scars, traces of unlucky Indian canoes past remain on some of the rocks. Souverain, wanting to propel the canoe with all his strength, in spite of the growing difficulty, bounced off the smooth stone a few times with the pole, and found himself up to his middle in the cold water. But such incidents never upset the good old man. He laughed and joked the most, where the danger seemed most serious and his situation the most uncomfortable.

The Kettle Rapids, which we passed in the evening are 9 miles long. After six o’clock, under heavy downpour, we debarked a mile from the Yellow River near a lovely sycamore forest.

1280px-2014-11-02_12_00_54_american_sycamore_during_autumn_at_the_ewing_presbyterian_church_cemetery_in_ewing2c_new_jerseyAmerican Sycamore or Plane Tree:  Platanus occidentalis.

For dinner, bacon and tea. The bottle of French brandywine had already been emptied, and the sugar had run out too, so we had to drink our tea without anything to sweeten it. As the ground was very damp, we collected the broad, dry leaves from the sycamores whose mighty branches arched over our heads, and we created a lush green covering, which greatly protected us from the damp ground.

Friday, October 1, 70° F. At about eight o’clock we crossed the Yellow River to the eastern shore, which, like most of the small rivers which flow into La Croix, has its source only a few miles inland in a small lake.

We now drove through broad, pretty channels, adorned on either side with mighty conifers, whose foliage was complemented with fall ornaments in all the nuances of color in a painter’s palette. Orange-yellow sycamores, silver poplars with greyish-red leaves, dark sumac shrubs, golden elm and white birch trees formed the background. Spruce, fir and cedar, with their unaltered green complexion, grew  close to the shore. The harsh autumn wind blew through the pale young ones at the water’s edge, sending a shiver through the limbs.

Fall in these forests does not have the withering and dying appearance of the European autumn. The abundance and variety of tree species, with their wonderful foliage, in a season, characterized by weeks of serene weather, appears as nature putting on her makeup again. The trees, in their autumnal decoration, smile like children putting on new clothes.

In the afternoon, we passed six Indian tents pitched on the western shore. The men all seemed to be on the hunt because only women and children thrust their heads out of their miserable wigwams in curious apprehension. It was the barking of a few watchful dogs that betrayed the approach of our unfamiliar apparition.

All the characters we saw had a wild, naked, pathetic appearance. On a square stretched between two tents, a tuft of brown human hair, tied with a red ribbon, hung down vertically between a pair of pyramid-crossed poles. It seemed to be the scalp of a Sioux victim recently hunted down by the Chippewas.  These Indian tribes are not hostile to whites, but are biased by an indescribable mistrust.

At 1 o’clock, we passed the Snake River (Kinabic) on the western side.  It originates near Sandy Lake in Minesota, and flows here into the St. Croix River.

Riviere du bois blanc:  Wood River

An hour later, we passed the Riviere du bois blanc, which flows in from the eastern bank, and pitched our tent near it for the night. Unless special accidents occur, tomorrow we intend to reach the first settlement of whites, the falls of St. Croix.  This is probably the last night we will bivouac outdoors.

Jean Baptiste,” cried our old canotier, after the camp had been prepared and he’d taken a good piece of chique (chewing tobacco), “Il faut nous preparer pour demain!” With this, everything was then sewn, repaired, washed, and shaved, as if it were for court or a chamber ball, but yet it was only a dark little hamlet we hoped to reach after twelve days of canoeing through the wilds of Wisconsin and Iowa.

If this post is evidence, Fr. Otto Skolla at La Pointe was not as well-liked as his countryman and predecessor Frederick Baraga.

Saturday, October 2, 72° F. As we set off on the journey, a strong southwest wind rose and rain dripped from the trees. The superstitious Canadian captains had placed much of their hopes for favorable travel on the influence of their priest’s prayers at La Pointe.  As the heavens grew darker and worse for us every day, the prayers of the Franciscan friar, and notions he had forgotten us, frequently came up.

Our companion, a Catholic from southern France, likewise had a high opinion of the power of his own and bizarre prayers, and it was therefore impossible for us to express our feelings and views, or offer many remarks about the true meaning of prayer and its total ineffectiveness to sway the course of the eternal laws of nature.

The shores are quite flat again, but richly wooded with sycamores, elms and oaks, whose hearty abundance of leaves, shine as the rays of the autumn sun gleam through the branches in a splendid golden color.

Riviere du lac des cedres rouges:  Red Cedar River  Riviere du soleil levant:  Sunrise River

At 12 o’clock, we passed the Rivière du lac des cèdres rouges, which originates ten miles west of the La Croix River in two large lakes.  At one o’clock, we reached the mouth of the Riviere du soleil levant, also entering from the west shore of the La Croix.

The cheerful name of the Sunrise River derives from a most fierce battle, which took place a few years ago on its banks, when the Chippewa’s met their mortal enemies, the Sioux at sunrise. Perhaps the sun should have set rather than witness such an awful battle between human brothers.

All these tributaries are rich in precious wood species, and their connection to the “Father of the Waters” via the La Croix River  will increase their importance for the timber trade of Upper Mississippi with every passing year. Already, every winter their forests are home to a quite peculiar, floating population of the so-called Lumbermen.

Ceded land could be preempted, but could not be purchased from the federal government until it was surveyed.  See Amorin’s posts on surveys.

The greater part of the country we are traveling in is still the property of the Congress. For a century, the Government has not found it necessary to pass a law forbidding the cutting of these forests by speculators. Perhaps later settlers will only benefit if some stretches of land have already been cleared of lush forest and made easier for plowing. Likewise, such clearings appear to be of great advantage in climatic and health terms, by drying, warming, and rendering the land less polluted.

The manner in which this difficult but profitable business of the timber trade is conducted goes  as follows: a speculator hires ten to twenty strong workers for the winter, buys six yoke of draft oxen, thirteen barrels of flour, ten barrels of salted meat, and a barrel of whiskey.  All together, this assemblage, known as a team, moves to the wooded forests of the La Croix River. There are then some huts pitched, provisions stored and work begins.

Such a team (train) of 15 to 20 workers usually cuts 3300 spruce logs in the course of one winter. Each of these colossal tree trunks, 60 to 80′ long, is again cut into 3 parts (logs), 16 to 20′ in length. In the winter of 1851, three teams felled three million feet of spruce trees. Each of the hired woodworkers receives 26 dollars a month along with food. The supervisor (teamdriver or teamster) is paid up to 45 dollars a month.

In the course of the last year, 25 to 30 teams moved to the forests of the La Croix, and their five-to-six months of work brought 21,000,000 feet of spruce logs into the market, which, at a thousand feet to four dollars, equates to a value of $ 84,000.*

[*The traffic on all the upper rivers (Mississippi and tributaries) is on average 35 million feet of floatwood, which, marked up at St. Louis, makes a value of half a million dollars. According to a precise calculation, more than 5,000 acres of land have to be stripped each year to deliver the amount of lumber that comes out of the state of Wisconsin alone each year. See D.D. Owen’s, Geological Reconnaissance of Wisconsin. 1848 p. 71.]

In spring, these floatwoods swim with the increasing flow on the colossal waterway extending from the La Croix River to the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes singly, sometimes partly connected, to St. Louis, where in raw condition they are priced at 9 dollars per 1000 feet.

However, many are caught on the way by their own devices and prepared in various sawmills along the banks of the La Croix and Mississippi in the form of slats, moldings, shingles and staves (coopers-stuff) for a variety of construction purposes.*

[*In this footnote, Scherzer inserts a long table of lumber statistics at St. Louis.  I have chosen not to translate it. ~LF]

In finished condition, 1000 feet of spruce wood in St. Louis comes to 12 dollars, that is to say, threefold what they are worth at the mouth of the La Croix River. Often 15,000,000 wooden blocks from the upper Mississippi swim down to St. Louis at the same time.  It is easy to imagine what torture these wooden travelers are for the pilot, who is in a hurry from St. Paul down to the “Capital of the West.”

But these logs, which only bother navigation in the spring, must not be confused with the famous snags, those uprooted, washed-away trees that sometimes pile up in the middle of the riverbed. With their sharp branches, they are the sworn enemies of the flatboats of the Mississippi throughout the year.

At about 2 o’clock, we stopped on the western bank of La Croix near a forest cabin for a light lunch. The rain, which was now pouring down, did not even allow the benefit of a warming fire. We sent Souverain, as a scout, into the lonely dwelling, but he found such an inhospitable reception from the old matron and a scrawny barking hound, that we preferred to camp outside in spite of the storm. Then, as if the clouds had more compassion for us than the people, we soon saw bright sunbeams, and were able to make fire and boil tea.

Eventually, several people, men and children, appeared, but they all remained, as if awestruck, under the eaves of their cabin, and watched our elaborate cooking preparations from a distance. They were the first white settlers we had seen after several weeks of voyage, and therefore we were doubly sorry to find them so inhospitable. From their language and way of life, the grumpy settlers seemed to be Irish.

It is our peculiar observation that immigrants who leave their fatherland for whatever reason, in order to establish a new livelihood in quiet forest solitude far from all society, are always unsociable and averse to human needs. It seems as if, in having left the world, they have paid back their debts and obligations, and may resign themselves to all their pleasures and bounties, and no longer care to know any duty of hospitality.

At 6 o’clock in the evening, when it was already dark, we finally arrived at the last rapids of the La Croix River requiring portage. If the river is high, you can make the trip across these rapids to the village of St. Croix, two miles away, but with the river lower, the canoe heavily laden, and the night already falling, it was better to continue the journey on foot to St. Croix, or to camp the night outdoors on damp earth on the barren shore.

We moved to the dark but refreshing forest path and set off with our traveling companion. The two voyageurs, with canoes and effects, stayed behind with instructions to meet us again in the village the next morning.

When we left the river and met the fissured, miry, forest road, the landscape had already assumed a hilly character, which we saw more clearly at the top of the falls. The banks rise up to 150′ in height and were richly overgrown with ash trees, oaks, poplars, and prairie. The river itself had again expanded enormously and assumed a linear regular course. It took us almost an hour to get to the village along the muddy, deep-set forest track.

St. Croix has 600 inhabitants, whose main sources of livelihood are the several large sawmills, which are active almost all year round. One may get a sense of this activity from the fact that two thirds of the La Croix spruce logs, about 7 million feet annually, are processed in these sawmills for industry and commerce.

W.S. Hungerford was one of the earliest lumber speculators on the St. Croix.  See Folsom’s Fifty Years in the North West.

Since there is no inn in the village, we had to rely on the hospitality of a sawmill owner, Mr. Hungerford, and not surprisingly, a man who only works with logs and boards all year fulfills the duty of innkeeper poorly. Although inhabiting a splendid, spacious house, he directed us to the sleeping quarters (boarding-house) of his workers, which we had to share with a number of strangers.

The poor, musty air that prevailed in the room, the broad spiderwebs that hung like a festoon from one end of the room to the other, and the dirty linen set on the floor for us to cover our mattresses, soon left us longing for our camp in the airy tent, and regretting that we did not choose to camp with our fellow travelers in the forest.

We do not mean to say that we feel an aversion to living with workers. On the contrary, we lived for a considerable time in Germany, France and England among the working classes, and drew more entertainment and knowledge from them, than we did from the stiff-lipped “haute volée” of the aristocratic circles.

Rather, we cherish the most sincere respect and sympathy for those whose hard business industry alone make it possible for the man of science to indulge in nobler, more serious research; but it remains a most-embarrassing moment, after weeks of forest bivouac, to spend the first night in a narrow room with people whom one has never seen before, all coming late into the night, and with boots and spurs on their lumbering bodies unable to avoid missing our bed or avoid pulling off our thin blanket.

Sunday, October 3, 50° F. The hilly landscape rises on both sides of the river up to 200’ feet high. The rapids, whose hydropower sets the wheels of the two sawmills in motion, are about 100′ wide, and have a fall of 15′ over 2 miles. In the village itself, they barely reach the height of 5 or 6 feet.

Trap, Dalles of the St. Croix Owen pg. 142

Trap, Dalles of the St. Croix  (Reports of David Dale Owen)

Everywhere, the sandstone of the river-bank makes room for trap rock, which, along with scattered copper-pieces, made the inhabitants assume that rich mineral-bearing sites were to be found there. Mr. Hungerford, too, probably more for speculation than out of true conviction, propagated this speculation, and it would not surprise us to read about the “Hungerford diggings” soon, even if it were only as a bait for the Sawmill owner to sell his numerous plots of land more easily and more expensively to simple-minded emigrant ninnies.*

[*S. Owens Reports, 1839. Pag. 66.]

We took breakfast at the common table with the workers of the sawmill, of whom more than fifty were suddenly rushing to the door, and hastily sat down at the long table, when, according to American custom, a bell vigorously rung by a woman announced the readiness of breakfast, or rather gave the sign to start the fork fight.

Vaccinium corymbosum is rare in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  It seems likely Scherzer means V. macrocarpon, the cranberry. On Nicollet’s map, the Cranberry River in Bayfield County is Riviere des attacas.  Attacas is not the Ojibwe word for cranberry.  (mashkiikiimin is).  The Dakota word is potpaka.

During the whole meal, which lasted no more than ten minutes at most, there was complete silence except for the clatter of the eating utensils. The workers of the sawmill were tall, hardened figures, with intelligent faces and a decent manner. They get better food than any working class of Europe. For breakfast, fish, cold beef, fried bacon, potatoes, tea, coffee, milk and canned fruits (attacas*) were served. Similar rich, courtly meals are repeated for lunch and dinner. The wages are 30-40 dollars per month.

[*Vaccinium corymbosum grows here wild, as in all of Minesota, and with sugar, makes excellent preserves.]

We would have liked to have known more of the circumstances of St. Croix and its future, but the unkindness and inhospitable behavior of the landlord prevented us from doing so.

Within five years, a railway is to run from Chicago to St. Croix and thence to Fond du Lac, and the railway and waterway are to be so closely connected that for travelers to the states west of the Mississippi, it will be is the quickest, least expensive, and most pleasant route to Lake Superior. A small, state-of-the-art steamer, capable of carrying no more than 20 passengers, runs between here and Stillwater, a thriving town thirty miles below the falls on the western shore of St. Croix Lake. It carries provisions for the woodworkers and residents of St. Croix. His expenses amount to 6 dollars per trip.

We did not make use of this modern mode of transport, however, and preferred to continue our journey in birch-bark with our two Canadian voyageurs, who have led us so bravely and relentlessly through the wilderness of the Lake Superior for weeks.

Above the St. Croix Falls rugged, black trap masses, 3-400′ high, come to the fore.  Suddenly, they give the area such a wild romantic character, one is involuntarily reminded of certain rocky parts of Saxon Switzerland or Muggendorf. Pine trees and firs are the only sparse inhabitants of these rugged masses of rock, which, however, disappear a mile’s drive downstream and make way for the usual sandstone formations and hardwood vegetation.

330px-kossuth1848The Revolutions of 1848 loom large over the Reisen, and Scherzer seems to have been supportive of them.  However, the Viennese traveler seems less enthused than the American public for nationalist movements in the Austrian Empire, like those of the Hungarian leader Lajos (Louis) Kossuth (wikimedia).

Since it was Sunday, there was a lot of life in the village and on the river. A small pirogue painted white, with the black inscription L. Kossuth, rowed by two workers, scurried past us with lightning speed. It was rapidly disappearing from our eyes, much like the enthusiasm and sympathy of the Americans for the Hungarian agitator whose name she wore.

But at the very least, it is interesting proof of how powerfully the flame of enthusiasm–before which only the ashes of disappointment are left–must have flared in all directions, when the reputation of the Hungarian ex-governor spread from the penitents of Pannonia to penetrate the lonely primeval forests of America, and his name still graces individual inscriptions, half joyful, half elegiac, on ships, shops and taverns in memory of a freedom-loving man!

schanzelThe Schanzel was a marketplace on the Vienna riverfront.

We also encountered several rafts heavily laden with sawn wood, driving down the river.  They were similar to those numerous flat vessels coming out of the bustling Bavarian country, laden with wood, stones and fruits, descending the Danube to the celebrated Viennese Schanzel.

Soon, after leaving St. Croix, there appears on both sides alluvial land, which stretches along the banks and, often completely separates from them.  It is richly overgrown with willows and reeds. This is the first sign that one is approaching the Mississippi and its alluvial formation. The shores, which are more obscure from both sides, retain their sandstone character and their former rich vegetation of oaks, birches, elms, poplars, and spruces, which sometimes close form a background decoration of a lovely hills.

The river, at a breadth of 300′, often stretches for miles in a perfectly straight course, and its forests are interrupted for the whole stretch from St. Croix to Stillwater (30 miles) only by a few clearings, on which are eight sawmills and the associated settler shacks.

At 5 o’clock, just as the sun was hiding behind the hills, we landed in Stillwater, at the top of La Croix Lake. The hills, thus far wooded, are now gradually replaced by sandy bluffs. The vegetation is dwarfed and less drained.  Stillwater itself is terraced on a lush green ridge, like a last glimpse of flourishing nature amid the ever present sandstone.

Stillwater, in the state of Minesota, is a small village of 150 houses, founded only in 1846, with 1200 inhabitants, 3 Protestant and 1 Catholic churches, 4 doctors, 1 school and 2 taverns. Its main source of income is the timber trade with the Upper Missisippi. There was also a lot of tourism, and the two inns were crowded with guests.

Since Stillwater is the only place within many miles, where there are doctors and druggists, and at the same time a fairly healthy climate prevails. All types of fever, chest and lung patients from the various environments seek asylum here for their sufferings. It creates a society, which one encounters in the inns and on the streets, a very eerie, hospital-like appearance, and reminds one of those innumerable curiosities of Germany, created by unscrupulous physicians, who for their own medical glory, bring together their incurable patients and do nothing for them.

Only with difficulty, did we succeed in finding a place in the Eaglehouse for our numerous effects. Our guide, so in need of rest, was put off until the night when, at nightfall, the crowded assembly in the smoke-filled inn (parlor) would leave and make room for a bed of straw.

For the time being we leaned into a free corner, and tried to make friends with the colorful company with which we likely had to spend the next night. What a strange assemblage of costumes, figures and faces to observe!

CalabraserA Calabraser (Calabrian) hat.

Raw, weathered figures in red and blue jackets with wild, comical beards and tangled drooping hair sat silently around a glowing iron stove, with their black and white Calabrians carelessly pressed into the face, and their feet laid over each other, or pressed against the wall.

Most of them seemed absorbed in a prolific speculation, and moved, as if ill-tempered by the long absence of a suggestive idea. The thick tobacco ball moved back and forth between the cheeks, like the Austrian soldier running down the lanes, biting a bullet in his mouth to soothe his excitement. Sometimes, one would go out to the tavern (bar-room), choke down a glass of whiskey or portwine, and then return to his former silent position by the stove.

How unusual this gathering must have seemed to us, compared with a cheerful Sunday circle of German peasants in a village pub, where the glasses sound, fiddle stirs, and song and dance create pleasure and joy.

The silent, gloomy tone and rude manners that made the atmosphere in the dining-room at Stillwater so heavy and oppressive, are by no means a mere accidental phenomenon. They are a feature of the whole American peasantry of the West, and with certain modifications are typical of the American character in general. The American, is not, as we sometimes hold him up to be, the ideal of amiability, but as we generally meet him in public transport, he is a frosty, unmanly and, to put it simply, a boring figure. He has a myriad of small bad habits that often make his company unsettling.

But in order to judge a nation justly, one must not regard it according to the more or less pleasant qualities of the individual. One must regard them in their totality as a people: in their political and social development. There are nations where the individuals seem to be very amiable and easy-going, but as a nation they are immature, weak-minded, cowardly, and blasé, e.g. the French, the Spaniards, the Italians, and the Poles.

On the other hand, we find peoples, who as individuals, come across as odd, unsociable, dry, and selfish, while as a nation they are free-spirited, enthusiastic about progress, self-confident. Among these are the Americans.

And that is why every friend of progress and humanity will pay the deepest respect and warmest appreciation, to the American people, with their great patriotism, with their noble national pride, their practical execution of equality of religion and their restless struggles for independence. —- But, now we return to the bitterly dull inn of Stillwater.

After eleven o’clock at night, when the meditating assembly still did not want to disperse (which, incidentally, seems to prove that in America too, the good get-rich-quick ideas cause lengthy headaches). Drowsily cowering in the corner, we were finally approached by the host who offered us a place to sleep in a room on the upper floor.

Along with our traveling companion, we were pleasantly surprised by the elegant furnishing of this room, so pleasingly contrasting with the room below.  We immediately took possession of the mattresses and spread them out over the whole width of the room in the name of “our sleepy majesties.” It is a pleasant feeling, indeed, after weeks of uncomfortable, hard camp in the damp forest, to be able to spread one’s tired dull limbs carelessly and unobtrusively on a soft, broad sleeping surface.

Unfortunately, we were soon informed that several other guests would share this improvised camp with us, and in less than a quarter of an hour there were already five guests, stripped bare of heavy boots, with all the dirt and sweat of the day beside us on the ground. So, there were seven people in total. To add to the eeriness of that night, at the other end of the room, on a divan, lay a sick man, whose haggard lungs breathed with all the effort of one who had spent hours running.

At about 1 o’clock, the host shone in the doorway with a lantern, and shouted in that frightened voice with which it is customary to proclaim a conflagration: “Steamboat! Steamboat!” There was, however, no fire, but only steam, which brought us into a state of alarm, the steam of a boat which was just arriving with passengers from St. Paul, only to drive off at once to Galena. Since none of the seven sleepers present appeared to be on their journey, our room soon became completely dark again.

All at once, a passenger who had likely just arrived by steamboat from St. Paul, rushed into the room, disrobed and, without much asking, lay in the middle of us. Now it had grown so tight in that room that had once been so comfortable, it was almost impossible to move without hitting a part of a neighbor’s body. There could be no question of a refreshing sleep. It was a a trying stretch, yearning for the dawn.

Monday, October 4, 7 o’clock, 57° F. From Stillwater to St. Paul, 18 miles to the west, a comfortable carriage travels daily. Before boarding this wagon to continue our journey to the capital of Minesota, also the largest city in the Territory, where we hoped to recover in a comfortable hotel, we still had to arrange two matters. We had to get rid of the canoes and useless utensils, and finally to say goodbye to our two faithful canoemen with a well-deserved reward for their services.

The former was quicker and easier than the latter. We gave away all the small items that were useful to us in our forest bivouacs and sold the birch bark for a third of the purchase price. It was tougher for us to split from the brave voyageurs with whom we had been in such intimate conversation for weeks.

Mais c’est trop! C’est trop!:  But it’s too much!  Too much!

Since we had been on the road far longer than we expected, owing to the bad weather, their wages were a rather considerable sum, which took them by surprise. The old man smiled and did not want to believe his eyes when he saw the many golden one-dollar pieces falling into his hand. “Mais c’est trop! C’est trop!” he shouted continually, until the whole sum was paid out, and then, without counting them, he shoved the pieces of gold joyfully into his trouser pocket.

We shook hands with both of them, drove on to St. Paul, and our thoughts were soon busy with a hundred new, interesting objects. But old steadfast Souverain, this staid, strict-minded character, who could neither read nor write, will always be a pleasant picture in our memory whenever we encounter in the social life of modern world those whose wisdom and deeds fail to match their education.



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