Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In Their Own Words: Charles Cavileer

Source:  State Historical Society of North Dakota
[Click to enlarge...]
By Charles Cavileer

I came here (Pembina) in 1851, in company with N.W. Kittson and others. After being here a few days Mr. Kittson asked me to act as assistant postmaster, he having been appointed postmaster some time in 1849. Joseph R. Brown was contractor to carry the mail from Pembina, Wisconsin Territory1, to Crow Wing in the same territory, via Thieving River, at its mouth at Red Lake River, thence by land and canoe to Red Lake Village, making short portages, thence making short portages between small lakes to Cass Lake and then by the same order of travel to Leach Lake and so on to Crow Lake and to the end of the route at Crow Wing Village, which was the headquarters of the North-West Fur Company for all that section of the country claimed by the Chippewas from Crow Wing to Pembina northwest and northeast to Sandy Lake, and Fond du Lac.

The contract was a go-as-you-please, on foot, horse back, cart or canoe, anyway-to-get-there affair. The contract price for carrying it was $1,100 a year. Kittson, being postmaster, could not act as sub-agent. He appointed me as assistant postmaster, and I ran the machine until some time in 1853 or '54. I did all the business of the office, made the quarterly returns and deposit of funds due the department, attending to every detail of the office, which at that time was no child's play as every letter and package had to be tied up in wrappers, waybilled and addressed to its destination. St. Paul packages contained nearly all of Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit and east and west exchange.

An example of an 1868 letter with U.S. postage
sent from Red River to St. Paul via Pembina
Source: The Minnesota Territory in Postmarks

Letter rates of postage ran 6 1/4, 12 1/2, 18 3/4, to 25 cents, according to distance, from 6 1/4 for short distances to 25 for 500 miles and over. Every letter and package had to be wrapped and addressed. Even single letters had to be wrapped and addressed to their proper offices. All wrappers had to be saved and used as long as they would hold together and an address could be put on without showing another.

But when it came to making out the quarterly reports the dance had just commenced. Every letter received and dispatched must be returned from the records kept on bills for that purpose, and it made a package about the size of a family Bible, and the footing up of columns with the amounts running from 6 1/4, 12 1/2, 18 3/4 to 25, was a corker. And right here let me tell you, with a feeling of pride, that I never had a quarterly return come back to me for correction.

Let me give you a sketch of the business at that early day, and the hardships and tricks of some of our carriers.

The Hudson's Bay Company, before the establishing of the Crow Wing Route, always sent special messengers or carriers every spring and fall to St. Paul with the mail from their outposts in the North and Northwest, consisting of a thousand or more letters and packages, all mailed at the postoffice in St. Paul for their establishments in Canada and England.

The mail from Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, was generally carried by two men by cart or dog train. Occasionally it was packed by men on their backs, sometimes, if in winter, via the Red Lake and Crow Wing route, but generally by the cart route via Ottertail Lake and Crow Wing.

The postoffice having been established, Mr. Kittson appointed postmaster, and contract for carrying the mail let, the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company was notified and postal arrangements were made between the United States postal department and the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, that all mail matter from the company, Prince Rupert's land, British possessions, should be mailed at Pembina, Wisconsin Territory, with United States postage stamps, prepaid at the rates of our domestic and foreign contract the same as our own mail. The route was established as a monthly mail leaving Pembina the first of every month, with no specified time for arrival at Crow Wing, or return, though it must be within the month, and be made with all possible dispatch and as little delay as circumstances permitted.

Our carriers were all half breeds2, the best and most reliable men to be had. Our best man was "Savage" (Joseph) Mountrail. He had the endurance of a blood hound. Tough as an oak knot, fearless and faithful. To verify the above I will relate an instance on one of his trips: It was made in the fall when the rivers and lakes were just freezing over. We started him out on foot with his brother Alex as his assistant. The trip to Crow Wing was made in time but with considerable hardships. The return mail was large and had to be carried on the back. One carried the mail, the other the grub, bedding, etc. They met with no mishaps until arrival at Thieving River. Alex was then taken sick and would have to be carried. A white man would have cached the mail and seen to his brother. Not so with "Savage." He endeavored to pack Alex, the mail, grub and all, but made slow progress. He took the mail and grub, leaving Alex, and making a few miles, would return for him, and then again the mail, and so on until he arrived at Pembina on the sixth day from Thieving River. That is only one instance in many of these voyageurs. I had on the route one Paul Beauvier who was as tough, if that is what to call it, as man can get to be. But he was a voyageur and every inch of him. He never, even in the coldest of weather, wore a cap or hat. A blue cloth capot, without lining, with a capecha or hood attached, which was seldom worn on his head even in the coldest of weather, was his usual dress. He always went with an open breast, with nothing but a cotton shirt no matter if the mercury showed 20 or more degrees below zero. As an equivocator he was a success. He would spin out yarn after yarn finer than any gum string could possibly be stretched.

I always gave him provisions sufficient for the round trip, but in Red Lake Village he would lay over two or three days, and in the morning when he wanted to leave for Crow Wing he would apply to the resident missionary, Mr. Wright, for grub to take him to Crow Wing, having played high old revel with the dusky maidens of the village until his supplies were exhausted.

On one occasion, after getting his supplies from the unsuspecting missionary to last him to Crow Wing, before he got to the last wigwam or tepee of the village he hadn't a mouthful left for the trip. He knew they were cutting a road through from Crow Wing to Cass Lake and concocted a plan to euchre the overseer out of grub enough to take him through to Red Lake Village on his return trip. He struck the contractor or overseer some miles west of their encampment and told him a flowery yarn of how the roaring Red River had robbed him of all his provisions and asked the loan of enough to take him to Crow Wing, and that he would replace it on his return, and succeeded in getting what he wanted. In returning home Paul knew about where they were working the road, and took a straight cut some distance from the dog trail. He therefore kept the old trail and passed without drawing a growl from the dogs, getting home O.K. Those fellows may be looking for him yet.

First Dakota Territory Legislature met in Yankton in 1862
[Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society]
In 1853 I went into partnership with Forbes & Kittson at Indian trading. In 1854 I moved to St. Joseph, now Walhalla, and took charge of the post. From there I had to make a monthly trip to Pembina to attend to the arrival and departure of the mail. Tiring of that I recommended to the postoffice department at Washington the appointment of Joseph Rolette as postmaster, giving my reasons for it. He was duly appointed and held the office for several years, but failing to make out his regular quarterly returns on August 31, 1861, Joseph Y. Buckman was appointed.

Buckman and Captain Donaldson were elected to the Territorial Legislature that year. They worked through the session at Yankton that winter. Donaldson returned to Pembina in the spring. Buckman never came back. He died the next year, but where I can't, nor is it necessary here to tell how.

Donaldson, I believe, was the next postmaster. John E. Sheals was appointed June 26, 1863. After Major Hatch's battalion left in the spring of 1864, Sheals went to Fort Garry, and left me to run the office as assistant. Collector of Customs Joseph Lemay and Joseph Rolette sculdugged, through Capt. J. B. Todd, the appointment of Charles Murneau, and removed Sheals. I knew nothing about it until I saw Murneau's appointment and bond drop out of the mail pouch. "Now, Mr. Lemay; after I am through with this mail I'll attend to you." And I most assuredly did—did it without one apology, or cream on the pudding. Joe Rolette came in while we were at it and I soon learned that he had a finger in the pie. I said to Joe, "Now as you took the trouble to write to Captain Todd for the appointment of Mr. Murneau, just sit up to this table and ask Mr. Todd to have the appointment canceled and have Charles Cavileer appointed." Joe most kindly did as I requested.

NOTE: April 28, 1865, Charles Cavileer was appointed and held the office for twenty years, when his son, E. K. Cavileer, under appointment of January 15, 1884, succeeded him. James R. Webb was appointed December 26, 1886. His bond never was accepted or completed...

From:  The Early History of North Dakota, by Clement Augustus Lounsberry 

1 - Pembina's history includes a number of geographic allegiances including being part of the Missouri Territory in 1834-36, Wisconsin Territory from 1836-38, Iowa Territory from 1838-1849, and Minnesota Territory from 1849-1858. In 1861, Pembina became part of the Dakota Territory. (Not to mention the fact that it was often considered part of British North American/Rupert's Land and/or Red River/Selkirk Settlement...)

2 - The first public business tending to civilization was the establishing of a monthly mail between Pembina and Fort Abercrombie. It was a kind of go-as-you-please, sometimes on foot, with the mail bag on the man's back, sometimes by horse and cart, and by courier, any way so that the mail was carried, and in those days it was never behind time. At least the contractor never was docked or fined. From Pembina the mail was taken to Fort Garry, and that office had to use Uncle Sam's stamps... (Source:  Minnesota Historical Society Collections, Volume 10, Part I)

Before there was Minnesota Territory, before there was Dakota Territory,
this is what the region looked like during the first half of the 19th century.