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(voyage icon)1835

A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor

by George William Featherstonhaugh   1835


September 9.--We got the canoe under way at the dawn, and plying our paddles, reached Wajhustachay's, or Roque's, at 7 A.M. The house of this trader was well situated at the south-eastern end of Lake Pepin, upon the edge of a high prairie fifty feet from the water, on the right bank of the Mississippi. It will make an excellent site for a town, there being a little stream emptying into the Mississippi, wide enough for boats to go up into the prairie some distance. On the opposite side of the Mississippi is Chippeway River, one of its most important tributaries in this part of the country, the sources of which are at a great distance to the north-east, not far from Lake Superior.

At this place I found Wabeshaw, the chief of the band I had visited the preceding day, with some other chiefs. He was dressed in a red-coloured garment, and acted and spoke like a person still conscious of possessing some authority. Roque was from home, but we found his wife, an active bustling Indian woman, who seemed to be a very good housekeeper, and from her I procured a supply of potatos and a bottle of fresh milk. She had two daughters by this Frenchman, one of whom I saw, a rather pretty half-breed girl, about eighteen; the other was married to a Frenchman, and lived with him in a small hut close by. I suppose M. Roque, like many others of his countrymen, had shaken hands with civilized society, for everything about his house was perfectly Indian.

Wabeshaw was grave, and not communicative. I understood afterwards that he was dissatisfied with the proceedings of the agents of the United States, and looked with great anxiety to that much-feared moment, when he, too, would be called to a treaty of cession of his lands, and be compelled to move to some distant country. He therefore dreaded the appearance of white men. I had, however, some conversation with him of a general nature. He told me that they had no name for the Mississippi, but Wahpadah Tanka, or "Great River" and none for Lake Pepin, but Minday Tanka or "Great Lake." ...

Taking leave of Madame Roque and her guests, we pushed off into the lake, accompanied by two canoes, in one of which was a young buck of an Indian, with an eagle's feather stuck in his hair, and long strings of beads depending from a slit in his ears: in the other were two squaws, with long flowing black hair, and a little boy; the oldest woman sat in the stern of the canoe, and guided it with her paddle, whilst her companion and the boy worked away vigorously at their paddles. Each of the women had a petticoat on, and a jacket slightly fastened with a silver brooch.

About half-past eight we landed on a sandy beach, on the east side of the lake, to prepare our breakfast. I had purchased a fine cat-fish of the Indian in the canoe, and they were frying part of it for me when one of those north-west winds, which at times agitate this lake so fearfully, and which had been rising for some time, came down upon us with such force that we were in an instant covered with flying sand, and our breakfast preparations utterly ruined. This lake trends north-west and south-east, and being completely raked by these occasional high winds, is at such times very dangerous for canoes. On re-embarking we found our situation far from being an agreeable one; the waves of the lake were very high, and, as we advanced upon the broad lake, became tumultuous. It required the greatest dexterity on the part of Beau Pré to keep the head of the canoe in a proper position. It was evident that a slight mistake would immediately be fatal to our frail machine. More than once I had my apprehensions about the result, for it being necessary for us to cross the lake to the right bank, we found an unexpected high sea in the middle, and not daring to steer in the trough of the waves, were obliged to keep the canoe's head to the wind. All our men were grave, none of them spoke, and all I said once or twice was, "Prudence toujours, Beau Pré." He was very prudent, and by taking every advantage of an occasional lull, we at length got into smoother water, under the lee of the right bank. Here my apprehensions being over, I became sea-sick, and upon reaching a point of land called by the French Pointe aux Sable, was glad to get ashore near the remains of an old French trading post. ...

The wind having lulled a little, we re-embarked and got to the head of the lake about 5 P.M., which by computation appeared to be about twenty-one miles distant from the south end. There are two large channels at the head of the lake, and we took the one dividing the right bank from an island about twelve miles long, edged all the way by lofty and beautiful trees. We stopped at a very commodious camping place, upon the island, a little before six; and having got my tent pitched, I sat down to a hearty supper of fried cat-fish, decidedly the best fish I have tasted in the western country.

Chippeway River Mouth

September 10.--We struck our camp at the dawn leaving our excellent bivouac, with its smooth, clean ground, and abundance of the best dry fire-wood. All were delighted at having exchanged the turbulent and dangerous surface of the lake for the secure amenity of the river. About 7 A.M. we stopped at an Indian village, consisting of eight large teebees erected near the bank of the Mississippi. On our arrival a number of Indians of both sexes, children, and dogs, issued from them. We had taken them by surprise, for they appeared all to have been sleeping when we came up, and were roused by the sound of our paddles. The principal chief was Mahpayah Mazah, or "Iron Cloud"; there was also another chief, called Mahpayah Monee, or the "Cloud that Walks." Some of the Indians at this place had come from a great distance, and being unaccustomed to see white people, were very curious. I wore a large Mackinau blanket coat of a bright green colour, which attracted their attention; and being told I was the chief of the party, they followed me wherever I went. We were surprised to find the two canoes here which had left Roque's with us: they must have worked very hard to have outstripped us, one of them only having a pair of paddles; but the Indians are more skilful than the whites in the management of canoes, and we probably lost a great deal of time upon the lake. The maize they raised here appeared to be of a very good quality.

Canoe Race

At half-past 8 A.M. we reached six lodges full of Indians, all busy drying their maize. The men were fine brawny-looking fellows, all, as usual, in excellent condition at the end of the summer months, and what rather surprised me was to see them working as hard as the women. We stopped and had a few moments' conversation with them, during which they informed me we should soon reach a tributary of the Mississippi, called Hohang, or "Fish River," giving a nasal termination to the word, which reminded me of the Winnebagoes. All these Indians had very fine teeth. ...

About eleven, the wind coming aft, we rigged a sail and glided along very pleasingly. At 1 P.M. the banks became again about 300 feet high, the escarpments coming down to the water's edge; and at half-past four we had nothing but round knolls on the left bank about 100 feet high, all well covered with grass. Here we came in sight of the Hohang, or as the French call it, the St. Croix river, which I suppose to be about thirty-eight miles from Lake Pepin. I left the canoe for a moment, and ascended the bank, from which I saw that this stream, about two miles from its mouth, becomes a lake, and that its left bank was low and exhibited some beds of horizontal limestone. From this point the Mississippi became gradually narrower, diminishing to 250 yards, where there is a prairie on the right bank, and at length, after winding very much, becoming only 100 yards wide. Here I stopped at half-past 5 P.M. for the night, on the right bank, at a fertile bottom, where there was a small deserted house not far from our bivouac, once occupied by a trader of the name of Brown, formerly a discharged soldier. This Mr. Brown, the serjeant informed me, was a gay deceiver amongst the Indian fair. First, he married, after the Indian fashion, a half-breed young beauty, the daughter of a person named Dixon; then, becoming tired of her, he took another wife of the same degree, a daughter of a Mr. M'Kay. They had both of them lived with him at this place. But casting off the second, he had acquired such an exceedingly bad character for abandoning his women and children, having played the same trick with two or three white wives in the States before, that he had found it convenient to move away to a very remote part of the Indian country, where he was unknown.

St Anthony Falls

Whilst the men were pitching the tent I heard a deep throbbing sound coming at intervals from a great distance, which the men told me proceeded from the cataract of St. Anthony. The evening being fine for fishing, I took the serjeant with me, after I had supped, to an Indian lodge I saw at a distance, hoping to be able to borrow one of their canoes, our own having been landed for the men's bivouac. We found an old squaw, her son, and some young children at the lodge, but no canoe. I therefore promised the youth a piece of pork if he would go with the serjeant and bring a canoe, for we were very sure they had hid the one which belonged to them; but the little fellow refused to go unless he was paid first, so I told the serjeant to return to the camp and procure a piece. But now another difficulty arose; the old squaw would not let me stay by her fire until they came back, because she said her children would he frightened and would cry. All this distrust, as I found afterwards, was owing to the ill-conduct of the soldiers and other white men at Fort Snelling, who often took the canoes of the poor Indians without their consent, and did not return them. Indeed, I was sorry to learn from the serjeant that they were not famous for keeping their word with the natives at all. We procured a canoe at length, but had no success; and I retired to my tent rather late, listening to the throbbing sound of the cataract until I fell asleep.

Ft. Snelling

George Featherstonhaugh

Featherstonhaugh, George W. A Canoe voyage up the Minnay Sotor. London: Richard Bentley, 1847. Reprint ed.: St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1970. p. 148-203, 213-254.
From the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: F 353 F28 1970
Original edition: Rare Book F353 F28