Tuesday, October 05, 2010

BOOK: Minnesota's Last Frontier

In what appears to be a self-published work, J.W. Durham1 wrote about his experiences in northwest Minnesota in the late 1800's. While most of those experiences were further east of St. Vincent in Roseau County (part of which was once included in Kittson County), there were some recollections of individuals with a connection to my hometown area, of which I share below.  Please note that the language is of its time and style, and some of the content would be considered inappropriate and even offensive to modern ears - please read with a historical frame of mind to give it proper context...
To the Editor of the Roseau Times-Region:

I have been requested by several persons to give a brief account of the early history and settlement of Roseau County. We realize that the time is soon here when the pioneers will be extinct, and with them the early trapper and hunter of a by-gone day. It is, therefore, taken for granted that those who came here later may be interested to know something about the early trials of the Roseau frontier.

I realize that I am not competent to do justice to this undertaking, but feel very much promoted to make a contribution, though it be in a feeble way. In order not to make my story tedious aor lengthy, I propose to begin with the year previous to the first permanent settlement.

I was fortunate in meeting with a few of the old fur traders of the Northwest, who were raised in this section and plied their business over a vast region now embraced in the north Red River country, including Roseau County and all tributaries to the Red River of the North.

It was my privilege to camp over night with one of the these men, by the name of Jerome Semat, a French half-breed. At this time he lived on the Red River due west from Hallock, Minn.

We spent practically the whole night in going over his experience as a trapper and fur trader in Roseau County before the influx of white settlers. Mr. Semat was an employee of Commodore Kittson who was an independent fur trader in this section. It seemed that his kindly disposition made him quite a favorite with the traders and trappers. He was, therefore, preferred to the Hudson Bay Company by the whites as well as the Indians.

His trading post in Roseau County, as described by Mr. Semat, was located on the Roseau River two miles above Roseau Lake at a point situated near what is now known as the "Froid Farm." To verify this account, Mr. William Stafford and myself went in search of the exact location which we found by very definite markings described around what had once been a building, long ago destroyed or burnt. The description of Mr. Semat tallied with our findings.

Some distance this side of Two Rivers, or Pelan, several mounds have held awake conjectures and speculations as to their coming into existence. Imagination has created a story that this spot marks a desperate struggle between the Sioux and Chippewa tribes in the past. This, however, cannot be possible according to Mr. Semat's story. His claim was that Indians never fight entrenched, nor had it ever come to his knowledge that the two tribes met in a big battle at this point. Personally, I am inclined to have the same theory as Mr. Semat, who scoffed at any such possibility. He was speaking with personal knowledge of this territory covering a period of forty-eight years from the time I first met him. There was not even a tradition handed down by the Indians from a time previous to this.

I also had the good fortune to talk with Wm. Moorhead, one of the early settlers of Pembina, N.D. He, too, had traversed this county before the white settlement and two of his sons are at present settled on what is known as the Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods.

Mr. Moorhead's accounts corresponded with those of Semat in every detail. Both these men told me that what now is Roseau County was the greatest fur bearing country in this Northwest section. They also described to me a crossing over the Roseau River at a point north of the village limits of Roseau, at the location of the "Old Creamery". This crossing received its name from a whisky smuggler by the name of Frank Pelcher who took a cart train of whiskey across, destined for the Northwest Angle country where it was confiscated by the government and valued at about $12,000.00. This incident was corroborated by a Mr. John Clyne who is an early settler of Wood Ridge, Manitoba, whom I met some years later. He was a party to this expedition, and gave a detailed description of the country they traveled over in Roseau County.


It may be interesting to note that Indians are usually filled with a good deal of pride. It seems that they wish to attain to the very best as they see it. At one time a half a dozen of them came to my home with a request which was hard for me to give, but it was of no use to turn them away. It seemed that someone had been at the village and told them to take out their citizenship papers, and had given them to understand that if this was done they could vote for "Big Chief" at Washington and be his good friend. It was hard to get their meaning, but that was the substance of it. As I realized that they thought it was in my power to give them these papers, it was up to me to get out of it the best I could.

I proceeded to tell them that it was impossible for me to give these papers, as that would make the "Big Chief" mad, but that I thought I could help them in getting their wish fulfilled.

I explained to them that Mr. Jadis, who used to have charge of the logging business for Mr. Sprague, was a very good man, and that he would be authorized to fix them out with the right kind of papers. Mr. Jadis, at this time was county auditor of Kittson County. His connection, however, with the Sprague logging concern had made him quite well known among the Indians here, and they were real well pleased when I said they should go to him. I wrote a note to Mr. Jadis and sent along. It did not know what Mr. Jadis would do, but felt quite sure that he would fix the matter up for them. At least I suggested in the note, that if he could put something over it may be of some value to the settlers out there. We always felt that we could not afford to deny the Indians anything in our power to give.

With my note in their possession, the Indians started on the long journey to Hallock, and when they did return, Mr. Jadis had fixed them out with some kind of citizenship papers. I have doubted to this day that they were regular, but this was all the same to the Indians. On their return, they visited me again, overjoyed as boys, they exhibited their papers and said that Mr. Jadis was a "heap good white man."

From MINNESOTA'S LAST FRONTIER by J.W. Durham (1925)
1 - An interesting piece of trivia concerning Mr. Durham (Jeremiah Winfield Durham) is that he was the first Sheriff of Roseau County, just as Charley Brown was the first Sheriff of Pembina County...According to this website, the book was renewed for copyright by his daughter, Gladys O. Krewson in September 1953.  I also ran across a post by his great grand-daughter, who I have been in touch with just today for the first time.  I hope to bring you a little more about this interesting man in the near future...