Northwestern Minnesota

Red Lake County History

rticles to read on the history of Red Lake County:

  1. Beginnings of Red Lake Falls and Red Lake County (by Virgil Benoit)

  2. Red Lake County Separates from Polk (by Charles Boughton Sr.)

  3. Ice Age History

  4. Indian History

  5. White Man History


by Virgil Benoit

The pages that follow are meant to illustrate that the large number of French Canadians who settled in the vicinity of Red Lake Falls in Red Lake County in the 1870s and 1880s was not an accident of history. From the time of the arrival of the first explorers in northern Minnesota to the settlement of Red Lake Falls led by Pierre Bottineau in 1876 it is apparent that a steady contact was maintained by the French Canadians with the area for over two hundred years. It is the nature of this contact which offers the basis for the present study. Relying on documents that have been left to us from earlier times, the following pages attempt to shed light on the motivations for early travel in northern Minnesota, the types of persons who ventured such travel, their relationships with one another, the people they met and whose lives they affected, and the country they, discovered and developed.

For the sake of convenience I have incorporated references to documents into the text but always in an abbreviated form. The complete reference can always be found by referring to the bibliography at the end of this article.

The individual motives of the first French explorers in northern Minnesota are complex, but basically dual in nature. First of all legend had it among the French that there was an inland passage to the great "Western Sea". Since the French had taken possession of the land along the Saint Lawrence, it was only natural to seek the passage to the West along the Great Lakes. Secondly, the West was rich in fur bearing animals, the pelts of which could easily pay for the high costs of exploration. The individual motivations of the early explorers apparently ranged from the get-rich-quick type who sought only pelts to purest idealists who were pushed on solely by the quest for adventure.

The first French explorers who came possibly as far as Minnesota were Pierre d'Esprit, sieur de Radisson and Medard Chouart. sieur de Groseilliers. These men, whose adventures during the mid-seventeenth century had acquainted them with the West as well as with aspects of the fur trade at Montreal disagreeable to them, joined the British controlled Hudson's Bay Company in 1667. The historian of this English fur company, which would rival for monopoly of the fur trade of the West and North until 1870, wrote that these early adventurers "brought both the knowledge and enthusiasm of the Canadian coureur de bois, the wood-runner at home with the Indian and content to winter in the woods, and some fixed and pertinent geographical notions of their own, to London." These earliest Canadian explorers are typical of those who came to Minnesota over the next two hundred years. (Blegen, 36-37; Rich, 1:23 (quote))

It was in the 1670s and 1680s that Minnesota came under control of the French for numerous explorers were quickly inspired by the mood prevalent in freshly Organized New France. Louis Jolliet explored the headwaters of the Mississippi and mapped the area. Daniel Greysolon, sieur du Luth traveled in the area of present day Duluth and to the southwest where another group of Canadians led by Father Louis Hennepin was exploring central Minnesota. "One of the dramatic episodes of western history is the meeting of the two French groups in the heart of the Minnesota country, at a Sioux village on the shores of Mille Lacs." In 1688 Jacques de Noyen journeyed from Quebec west to Rainy Lake and in the spring of 1689 went as far as Lake of the Woods. He was followed in 1717 by Zacherie Robutal de la NouŽ who went in search of the Western Sea. (Blegen, 45-63; 46 (quote); Burpee, Journals. . ., 6-7)

In 1718 a trading post was established at Rainy Lake while other posts were being set up along the Mississippi. Between 1731 and 1748 Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Verendrye and his men established nine posts extending from the Grand Portage to the Forts of the Saskatchewan. But in all of this activity la Verendrye felt no nearer to the "Sea of the West" and so he turned the direction of his explorations toward the south, going at least as far as the present city of Pierre, S. Dakota. La Verendrye died in Montreal in 1749 without having discovered the "Sea of the West". History has, however, honored him as a major figure for his contribution to the development of the Northwest. (Rich, 1:51 6-51 8; Henry, XXVI-XXVII, Burpee, Pathfinders. . ., 89)

The eighteenth century witnessed not only the intensification of the fur trade and exploration, but the great conflict between the English and the French. In the East the clash was to be most abrupt and final. By 1760 the English had conquered Canada. But the call of the west for French Canadians was not silenced. Adventure and risk associated with the peoples and wilds of the west had now run for over three generations in the hearts and minds of the French Canadians. The fall of New France did not mean the end of those Canadians who lived by means of the canoe, the trap and the gun for the lure of the west had not died; in fact, in many ways it was now greater than ever.

One Canadian who did not abandon the west at the time of the Conquest in 1760 was Jean-Baptiste Cadotte. He had been in the vicinity of Sault Ste. Marie since 1751 and it is there that the English fur trader Alexander Henry found him and his family on May 19, 1762. Henry who wanted to establish himself in the fur trade requested that Cadotte, who knew the Indians extremely well, became his partner for "M. Cadotte enjoyed a powerful influence over their conduct. They considered M. Cadotte as their chief; and he was not only my friend, but also a friend to the English. It was by him that the Chipeways [sic] of Lake Superior were prevented from joining Pontiac. "Cadotte's "powerful influence" stemmed in no small way from the fact that like so many of his compatriotes he lived among the Indians and had married one of them. "His Ojibway wife appears to have been a woman of great energy and force of character, as she is noted to this day for the influence she held over her relations - the principal chiefs of the tribe; and the hardy, fearless manner, in which, accompanied only by Canadian 'Coureurs du bois' to propel her canoes, she made long journeys to distant villages of her people to further the interests of her husband." (Tobola, 1 4, Henry, 1 49 (first quote); Tobola, 16 (second quote))

Through the Cadotte and Henry partner ship, trade with the Indians was developed toward the west. "By 1766 Alexander Henry and his partner Cadotte brought down from Fond du Lac fifteen hundred pounds of beaver in addition to otter and marten, and in the next year over a hundred canoes came to Michilimackinac from the north-west…" Since the English had taken over the administration of Canada the arrangement between Henry and Cadotte was a kind of "new" model for trade and exploration "with an Englishman organizing and financing, and to some extent hiring, to some extent sharing, the skill and knowledge of the French voyageurs." (Rich, 2:11 (first quote); 27 (second quote))

On a trading venture in 1775 to Lake of the Woods, Henry met with a village of Indians. He describes the nature of his relations with them: "From this village, we received ceremonious presents. The mode with the Indians is, first to collect all the provisions they can spare, and place them in a heap; after which they send for the trader, and address him in a formal speech. They tell him, that the Indians are happy in seeing him return to their country; that they have been long in expectation of his arrival; that their wives have deprived themselves of their provisions, in order to afford him a supply; that they are in great want, being destitute of every thing, and particularly of ammunition and clothing….."

As the white traders moved into northern Minnesota, the Chippewa became dependent on them and frequently moved with them. The Indian population of northern Minnesota was not high. Perhaps as few as 1,000 Chippewas were living along the Red River around 1795. Yet, the demands of the fur trade were in such excess that by this same period the supply of fur bearinq animals was all but depleted in the Rainy River area. In 1798 the geographer David Thompson described the situation of the Indians in Northeastern Minnesota. "By the extent of their hunting grounds each family of seven souls, has 150 to 180 square miles of hunting ground, and yet (they) have very little provisions to spare; this alone is sufficient to show the ground does not abound in wild animals. The Beaver has become a very scarce animal. . ." It is therefore apparent that by the end of the eighteenth century the northwestern economy based mainly on fur trade was showing signs of weakening. But before the country would begin to open up to permanent occupancy, the fur companies were to make one last great stand in northern Minnesota. (Henry, 241-242 (first quote), Hickerson, 303, 297; Tyrell, 249 (second quote))

In 1789 the Hudson's Bay Company proposed a "series of posts radiating out from Osnaburgh southwards - at Sturgeon Lake, Red Lake, Portage de l'isle and Rainy Lake . . ." The establishment of a post at Red Lake meant that trade would also develop along the Red Lake and Red Rivers since they formed the water way to Pembina and the posts of the north. Moreover, the area of the Red Lake River which extended into the regions where buffalo grazed was highly strategic in the development of the fur trade. In establishing posts along this route the Hudson's Bay Company was securing for itself the pemmican, or dried buffalo meat, so necessary for its traders. "Though the fish and the wild rice of the Rainy Lake Department were invaluable, and any rival who diverted Indians there from providing such food for the brigades was accepted as a menace out of all proportion to the furs which he might trade, yet it was pemmican from the Red River Department which was essential for the Northwest brigades. Without it the canoes would be forced to 'hunt their way' inland, and an extra season would be needed to reach the North Saskatchewan or any land beyond." Thus the Red Lake River posts were meant to be a strategic hold against the traders of competitive fur companies, who, like the traders of the Hudson's Bay Company sought to secure their trade in the far northwest. By 1826 there were as many as seventeen trading posts in the upper Mississippi country. (Rich, 2:1 28 (first quote); 180 (second quote); 518-519)

"To Jean Baptiste Cadotte Jr. [sicl is given the credit for completely opening to the fur traders the region about the upper Mississippi." Jean Baptiste had followed in the footsteps of his father, the great fur trader and partner of Alexander Henry. Jean Baptiste Cadotte, Jr. spent the winter of 1797-8 at the strategic forks of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers, or the present site of the town of Red Lake Falls. "Mr. Cadotte in the employ of the Northwest Company, probably spent the winter of 1794-5 at Red Lake and the next year at Red Cedar or Cass Lake, while the season following, 1796-7 was passed at Red Lake once more. . . . He was in charge the next winter of the trading house of the Northwest Company located on the Red Lake River on the present site of the town of Red Lake Falls." On March 25, 1798 the geographer and surveyor David Thompson, who like Cadotte was in the employ of the Northwest Company, visited Cadotte's house at the fork of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers. About his visit Thompson wrote: "Mr. Baptiste Cadotte was about thirty-five years of age. He was the son of a french gentleman by a native woman, and married to a very handsome native woman, also the daughter of a Frenchman: He had been well educated in Lower Canada, and spoke fluently his native Language, with Latin, French and English. I had long wished to meet a well educated native, from whom I could derive sound information for I was well aware that neither myself, nor any other Person I had met with, who was not a Native, were sufficiently masters of the Indian Languages. As the season was advancing to break up the Rivers, and thaw the Snow from off the ground, I enquired if he would advise me to proceed any farther with Dogs and Sleds: he said the season was too far advanced, and my further advance must be in Canoes . . . 11 (Tobola, 44 (first quote); 45 (second quote); Tyrell, 251; 252 (third quote Spelling and punctuation have been reproduced here as in the original text as edited by Tyrell .))

Because of the severity of the spring thaw and rain which accompanied it, Thompson returned to Cadotte's house March 31 at which time he spoke with the Chippewa chief of the Red Lake Indians and observed some Indian dances. Thompson concludes about the area: "The course of this River is from the south westward until it is lost in the Plains, the groves are at a considerable distance from each other, by no means sufficient for the regular Farmer, but may become a fine pastoral country, but without a Market, other than the inhabitants of the Red River." Thompson left Cadotte's house on April 9 with his crew of three French Canadians and the wife of one of the men, a native woman. They took the Clearwater River since they were travelling in a birch canoe and the Red Lake River still had ice on it from the Lake. (Tyrell, 265 (quote); 266)

The first settlers in the far north were brought in by Lord Selkirk and founded Selkirk Colony, or Red River Settlement, in 1812. They were mainly Scotts direct from Europe, but some French Canadians did settle among them. By the 1820s this mixed population numbered about 1,500 souls. The territory they were originally granted ran from the shores of Lake Winnipeg on the north to the present site of Grand Forks on the south. The boundaries to the east and west were less determined. (Ross, 20; 78; 1 0)

The arrival of the settlers of the Red River Colony introduced a new way of life to the northwest. In cultivating the land, they were very different from the nomadic-like Indians, French and mixed bloods, who had been the sole possessors of this vast territory for centuries. A new type of pioneer who would settle on and cultivate the land had just arrived and for a while he was not very successful, but history was soon to favor him. In writing of the Europeans, who had come to Red River to settle, and of the Indians and French native to the area, the Red River historian Alexander Ross remarked: "We have to notice a marked difference between the Europeans and the French. In the spring of the year, when the former are busy, late and early, getting their seed into the ground, the Canadian is often stuck up in the end of his canoe fishing gold-eye's, and the halfbreed as often sauntering about idle with his gun in his hand." Ross, however, viewed more favorably the French Canadian who showed signs of settling and, thus, resembled more the newly arrived Europeans of which Ross himself was a member:

The Canadian of any standing is tidy in his dwelling: the floor is kept clean, the bed neatly made up and generally set off with curtains and coverlet; the little cupboard, if there is nothing in it, is still orderly and clean; in short, everything else just as it ought to be. On the contrary, the half-breeds, generally speaking, exhibit more of the discomforts that attend a mere encampment in their dwellings. When anything is wanted, everything in the domicile has to be turned topsy turvy to find it, and the inmates sleep as contented on the floor as in a bed - a sort of pastoral life, reminding us of primeval times. Among this class, the buffalo robe is more frequently to be seen than the blanket in their dwellings. The better sort, however, have their houses divided into two rooms; but they are all bare of furniture, and ornament never enters, except occasionally a small picture of the Virgin Mary, or a favorite, apostle, hung to the wall in a little round frame."

Like history, the nineteenth century historian of Red River favored the settler. Adventurers would still pass through, but they too were changing and rather than rally the Indians to a trading post they now were beginning to suggest settlement of this land. (Ross, 1 94 (first quote); 1 95 (second quot-VII

Another settlement in the northwest that was growing in the early nineteenth century was located at Prairie du Chien. Until the 1840s when St. Paul became a growing center the Prairie du Chien settlement was considered the closest to Red River Colony. In 1820 a group from Red River Colony traveled to Prairie du Chien where they bought seed-wheat since their crops had been destroyed the two previous years by grasshoppers. This friendly gesture by the Prairie du Chien Colony toward the more unfortunate northern settlement certainly contributed to the development of the north. But a policy much more hostile in intent by certain members of the Prairie du Chien Colony toward the Red River Colony encouraged settlement in the north even more. (Tass6, 1:169, Blegen, 156; Ross,50-51)

One of the ambitions of Lord Selkirk was to protect trading interests of the Hudson's Bay Company. On the other hand, Prairie du Chien was the center from which a great deal of competitive fur trading was being carried out against Hudson's Bay. One man from Prairie du Chien who joined the ranks of the competitors of the Hudson's Bay Company was Joseph Rolette. His father Joseph had settled in Prairie du Chien where the younger Joseph was born about 1820. It was the younger Joseph Rolette who, in joining forces with Norman W. Kittson in the 1840s, brought northwestern Minnesota into the realm of growing St. Paul and away from the orbit of the British control fed Hudson's Bay Company. "…In 1843 he began the 'Cartline' to fetch American goods from St. Paul to Pembina. Within ten years almost two hundred Red River carts were regularly engaged in the five-or six-weeks' journey on the 'Cartline', the annual value of the furs carried to the States had risen to about twenty thousand dollars, the American Fur company established its headquarters at St. Paul in 1849, and several other companies rose to share in the promising trade." (Ross, 17-18; Blegen, 70-81; Tass6, 2:33; Rich, 2:1 59 (quote))

Joseph Rolette not only diverted trade from the Selkirk Colony toward St. Paul, he also brought Minnesota to the attention of many future Settlers. Some of the surnames of persons living at Prairie du Chien in the 1820s which appear later among the settlers of northwestern Minnesota are: Gauthier, Mercier, Menard, Hebert, Lariviere, Prevost, Laframboise, Rivard, Gendron, Roy and Dionne. But persons like Rolette also traveled a great deal and spoke with parties interested in settlement from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, the Dakotas and points east. The Rolettes were a very well known family who had traveled to New York and been cordially received by the great fur merchant John Jacob Astor. People moved about, and paths crossed in more ways than history has recorded. Father Joseph Cretin who became the first Bishop of the see of St. Paul had been at the Prairie du Chien settlement, and the Reverend Lucian Galtier who built the chapel of St. Paul in 1841 from which the city took its name died at Prairie du Chien. In 1839 Bishop Loras from Iowa Territory accompanied by one of his priests visited a settlement at the junction of the Minnesota and the Mississippi. "They spent about two weeks in the community, and from their records we know that they counted no fewer than 185 Catholics, nearly all of whom spoke either French or Sioux." (Tasse, 1:173, 206; Blegen, 154-155, 155 (quote))

It is apparent, therefore, that from the early nineteenth century communication was developing and settlements were being created from southeastern Minnesota to the northwestern corner of the State where Pembina marked the border on the north. The Rolette and Kittson enterprise between Pembina and St. Paul which continued until the late 1860s brings us to the period of intense settlement in Red Lake County. Some of the first persons closely associated with the settlement of Red Lake County were of the large family of French Canadians and mixed bloods who were so very familiar to the entire northwest. (Holcombe, 46-49)

Some of the early settlers to come to St. Paul whose surnames appear later in Red Lake County are: Bottineau, Gervais, Labissonniere, Cloutier, Pepin, Desmarais, Bazile, Laroche, Benoit, and Fournier. Pierre Bottineau, born in Red River Settlement and trained as a scout, guide and fur trader certainly viewed the junction of the Red Lake and Clearwater Rivers where he founded Red Lake Falls as an advantageous site for a town. He was very influential in bringing settlers to Red Lake County. An early settler of this area recalled: "Pierre Bottineau and his son, John B., brought in a large number of French Canadians from Ramsey and Hennepin Counties, Minnesota, and also quite a number from the East, locating them along Red Lake River from Louisville to Red Lake Falls, and along Clearwater River from Red Lake Falls to Lambert." The year was 1877 and already many factors pointed to a rapid settlement of the area. In 1863 a treaty with the Red Lake and Pembina bands of Chippewa Indians at the Old Crossing of the Red Lake River had opened some three million acres of land to eventual settlement. The railroad had reached Fisher's Landing in 1875. Furthermore, since the 1850s "Every effort was made to reach the minds of easterners and immigrants with Minnesota propaganda." (Tasse, 2:14-1 5; Holcombe, 72 (first quote); Blegen, 181 (second quote))

Pamphlets and advertisements describing Northwestern Minnesota were distributed in the United States as well as abroad. In 1883 a group of French Canadians wrote and published at Crookston a twenty-two-page pamphlet entitled Description de la Colonie Canadienne du Comte de Polk, par un comit6 de Canadiens-franais. The pamphlet not only described Polk County but also listed twenty Canadians who were prepared to furnish information to their compatriots wishing to settle around Crookston, Carmen, Fisher, Gentilly, Red Lake Falls, Terrebonne, Emardville, Lambert, Lafontaine, Riviere Voleuse (Thief River), Louisville, Riviere Noire (Black River), and Lac aux Erables (Maple Lake). The names of those from Red Lake Falls who offered to help their compatriots were Isaie Gervais and George Labissonniere; Terrebonne, Roch Lizee; Emardville, Pierre Emard; Lambert, Patrice Lemay; Louisville, L. Hout, and Riviere Noire, D. Bray.

In 1879 the Reverend Pierre Beaugrand Champagne arrived in Red Lake Falls to serve his compatriots. Father Champagne had been ordained in 1867 by Mgr. Louis-Francois Lafleche, bishop of Trois-Rivieres,Quebec who had himself been a missionary in Red River Colony from 1844 to 1856. Until a church could be built the Reverend Champagne said mass in the home of Isaie Gervais. (Fetes jubilaires Esquisse. 58)

As in the case of so many adventurers and pioneers who had preceded him, the West for the Reverend Champagne seems to have held in its mystery and people a public and personal challenge. A challenge as complex and sacred as the motivation of the earlier adventures, and one to which he and they always remained faithful.

Since the beginning of Red Lake Falls in 1876 many people have joined the town and the surrounding community. It is their story that is told in the following pages. My desire has only been to shed light on the nature of the very early beginnings of several communites of French-Canadian origin in northwestern Minnesota and, in particular, in Red Lake County.

Virgil Benoit teaches in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and in the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The son of Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Benoit, he was raised in Louisville Township, Red Lake County where he spends some time each summer. He has also written a history of Gentilly and Polk County from 1873 to 1973.

  • Blegen. Theodore C. Minnesota: A History of the state, (Minneapolis, 1963).
  • Burpee, Lawtence J.. editor. Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye and his sos. (Toronto, 1927).
  • Pathfinders of the Great Plains. Toronto, 1922).
  • Esquisses - La Ville de Duluth: L'Eglise Catholique et la Colonle Franco-Americaine, a Duluth. (Duluth, n d ),
  • Fetes jubilaires celebrees aux Trois-Rivieres les 24 et 25 fevrier 1892. (Three Rivers. n,d.).
  • Henry, Alexarvder. Travels and Adventures In Canada and the Indian Territories between the Years 1 760 and 1776. (Rutland, Vermont. 1969).
  • Hickerson, Harold. "The Genesis of a Trading Post Band: The Pembina Chippewa". Ethnohistory(Fall 1956, vol. 3, no. 4).
  • Holcombe, R. I. and Bingham, William H., editors. Compendium of History and Biography of Polk County, Minnesota. (Minneapolis. 1916).
  • Rich, E. E. The History of the Hudson's Bay Compafiy 1670-1870. vol. 1:1670-1763 (London, 1958).
  • The History of the Hudson's Bay Company 1670-1870. vol. II: 1763-1870 (London, 1959).,
  • Ross, Alexander. The Red River Settlermnt: Its Rise, Progress. and Present State. (London. 1956).
  • Tasse, Joseph. Les Canadions de l'Ouest. 2 vols. (Montreal. 1882).
  • Tobota, Thomas H., editor. Cadotte Family Stories, (Cadott, Wisconsin. 1974).
  • Tyrrell, J. B., editor. David Thompson's Narrative of history



By: Charles Boughton Sr.

Red Lake County, the mecca of home seekers, the brightest star in that terrestrial milky way known as the Red River Valley, though the youngest county in the state in point of years, is old in its battle, not for existence, but for their right to exist.

On Christmas Eve, 1896, Governor Clough, assuming for the moment, the part of a beneficient Santa Claus, issued his proclamation declaring Red Lake a duly established and existing county of the State of Minnesota, and thereby conferred upon its citizens the most material and lasting benefits they had received for many a long year.

But this result was not attained until after a long, hard struggle, which did not end even with the victory gained, and the final culmination of which reflects credit upon the little circle of men who bore the brunt of it; who spent their time, money and ability, year after year, in a seemingly vain endeavor to plant Red Lake county upon the face of the map, and to whom defeat had become so common that when victory came they were scarcely able to realize the astounding fact that they had at last won out.

Prior to its organization the territory now comprising Red Lake was a part of its present neighbor, Polk County. Polk was created away back in 1858, and in its early days sprawled its great mass like an enormous jelly fish over nearly the whole northwestern corner of Minnesota, including all the present counties of Polk, Norman, and Red Lake, over half of Beltrami, and parts of Clay, Becker, and Hubbard. Its area was over 7,000 square miles. The states of Connecticut and Delaware and the District of Columbia, capital and all, might have been placed within its limits and room left for an army to march around the borders. It could have included fourteen of the oldworld kingdoms of Europe without squeezing, with a dukedom or two thrown in to fill the cracks. Gradually the legislature chipped off a slice here and a slice there until in 1882 Polk was left with the territory now comprising Polk and Red Lake counties. It was still large and unwieldy, the fourth county in the state in size, containing 3160 square miles, larger than the states of Delaware, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia combined. Crookston, its county seat, drew all the strength of the county to itself, with but poor returns on its part. The outlying towns and farming districts were scarcely recognized except for the payment of taxes. The county officers were strangers to the remote townships whose money they handled. Political corruption thrived and a "ring" at Crookston held perpetual lease of the county offices and grew fat on the revenues paid in by the olitsiders. All the outlying towns, Red Lake Falls, St. Hilaire, Fertile, Fosston, McIntosh and East Grand Forks were kept down and their growth stunted by the persistently successful efforts of Crookston to centralize in herself all the business, power and "booty." As Crookston waxed rich, the other towns waxed poor, arid the farmers surrounding them, deprived of a proper market for their products, unless they hauled them to Crookston, twenty, thirty, forty and fifty miles distant, suffered accordingly and lost their farms on mortgages. Red Lake Falls was the first to awaken to the existence of the situation.

She had men of energy whose business interests coincided with their wishes, that Red Lake Falls and the county adjacent to it should prosper. In the winter of 1886-87 Ernest Buse, W. A. Schreiter, F. E. Hunt, Chas. Langevin, J. T. Knight, H. J. Kaufer, Zaiser Bros., and a few others initiated a movement to form the eastern part of Polk into a new county, with Red Lake Falls as the county seat. A bill was to be put through the legislature, and funds were raised, and Ernest Buse and J. T. Knight spent the winter in St. Paul lobbying in the interests of county division. The bill was introduced, favorably reported by the senate committee, and the world began to look brighter in the future Red Lake County. But Crookston appeared in the field with a lobbying committee, and more money and more influence than Red Lake Falls could command. Lumber and railroad interests were drawn into the fight in favor of Polk. The local members of the legislature favored Crookston. Red Lake stock went down out of sight, and when the battle ended the county division bill was buried beneath one hundred and sixty others that failed to pass. Thus ended the first chapter.

In 1890 a few of the businessmen of Red Lake Falls, notably J. T. Knight, L. A. Kaufer and J. A. Duffy, resurrected the county division corpse, aided by Jos. 1. Wyer, Theo Garceau, F. E. Hunt, W.A. Schreiter, Joseph Smith and others. New life was injected into the enterprise. It was decided that Polk County was several times too large, anyway. Red Lake Falls would call to her aid other towns, which had experienced the "frozen heart," and instead of being delivered of one unruly child, Polk should have triplets. Fosston, East Grand Forks and Red Lake Falls should each be the county seat of a new county, and by combining their strength and money would defeat the Crookston schemers. A mass meeting was called of all outside towns, to be held at Red Lake Falls, to which only Fosston and East Grand Forks responded. Committees were appointed and the outcome was that Joseph Smith was sent to St. Paul to have drafted and introduced in the legislature, a bill to submit to a vote of the people the question of dividing Polk into four counties. But Crookston was on the alert and through her senator, E. E. Lommen, and other influences at her command so discouraged the divisionists that the bill still peacefully slumbers in a pigeon hole at St. Paul, having never seen the light of day. Fosston's enthusiasm too, died away, and about this time the constitution of Minnesota was so amended as to do away with all special legislation. The mercurial hopes of the Red Lakers dropped to forty-two below zero and froze up. But a characteristic of Red Lake Falls' citizens has ever been stick-to-it-iveness and a faculty of not knowing when they're beaten.

With the meeting of the legislature of '92 and '93 the old war horses of former battles bobbed up serenely and "got into the game." Meetings were held in Red Lake Falls, committees appointed, the aid and funds of the village council invoked and pledged, and J. T. Knight was sent to St. Paul to have drafted and passed, if possible, a bill providing a mode of procedure for dividing any county in the state. Mr. Knight devoted his energies to the matter and spent the winter in St. Paul in its interests. The bill was drafted by a constitutional lawyer, introduced, and though Crookston lobbied hard against it, affe, many defays and references to committees, it passed and became a law. McIntosh having been taken into the division plan in place of Fosston gave some aid in this fight. The home committee in charge of division matters at this time was composed of L. A. Kaufer, J. A. Duffy, Fred Gesswein and J. T. Knight. The new law required a petition for each proposed new county signed by fifteen percent of the voters of the old county to be filed with the secretary of state. The governor, secretary of state and state auditor constituted a board to pass on the petition and if found conformable to the faw, the governor was to issue his proclamation submitting the question to a vote. In July, 1893, three petitions were circulated in Polk County, one calling for the formation of Red Lake County, with the county seat at Red Lake Falls; one for Nash County with the county seat at East Grand Forks; and one for Columbia County, with the county seat at McIntosh. The requisite number of signatures to each petition was quickly obtained, and though Crookston again interfered by invoking the aids of the courts to prevent the issuing of the governor's proclamation, fortune favored the right, and the three new counties were ordered to be voted on.

The subtle minds of Crookston again set to work and evolved a curious scheme. They induced the people of Fosston to petition for the formation of Nelson County, to overlap the territory of both Columbia and Red Lake, with Fosston as the county seat. This picture was largely signed in Crookston, and the support of the voters of that city and vicinity pledged to carry the Nelson County proposition, provided that the Nelson County people would help down all the others. All were to be submitted to a vote at the 1894 general election. A hot campaign ensued. Plotting, planning, lying, selling, promises easily made and more easily broken, town against town, neighbor against neighbor. Laughable incidents occurred. One prominent farmer agreed, for a consideration to deliver the vote of his entire town, and when the ballots were counted he had not even controlled his own vote. Everyone in the town had voted on the other side. The old Red Lake Falls committee had secured reinforcements of new men, among them J. D. Marshall, Dr. N. M. Watson, Theo Garceau, A. P. Toupin, C. N. Bourdon, J. M. Bray, Wm. Findeisen, Mike Jeffers, A. D. Berry, J. B. Hebert, Swan Anderson, and the writer took more or less active parts in the campaign. Political issues were lost sight of and the only influences brought to bear on voters was for or against county division. Election day dawned, cold and bitter, snow falling to the depth of two feet. Red Lake Falls, like the hub of a great wheel, sent spokes (no pun intended) out in every direction, men to every polling place, to influence votes.

We lost, Crookston won. Every proposition went down to defeat, Fosston and East Grand Forks defeating the others and Crookston playing traitor to Fosston.

Hope long deferred maketh the heart sick.

County division was again a corpse. As if to drive another nail in the coffin, at the next meeting of the legislature, Crookston, with but faint opposition on our part caused the division law to be so amended that a voter might vote for or against only one proposition, no matter how many were in the field. With this amendment the Crookstonites considered their armor complete and invulnerable, and lo, there was great rejoicing in their camp, for they thought the county division question was settled forever. But this very amendment proved their undoing and they fell in the pit they themselves dug.

The ghost of Red Lake County wouldn't stay dead, but persisted in coming to life and clothing itself in another attempt to beat the master minds of Crookston city down the river - and fate.

As the general election of 1896 drew near. the battle-scarred veterans of former county division fights, not a doubter or laggard among them, gathered together at the center of gravity, Red Lake Falls, and decided to make another attempt to throw off the tyrant's yoke. It was determined that since old Polk would have neither triplets nor quadruplets, we'd go her one better, and try for quintuplets; Red Lake, with the county seat at Red Lake Falls; Hill, with the county seat at East Grand Forks; Garfield, with the county seat at Fertile; Nelson, with county seat at Fosston, and leave Crookston with just enough of old Polk to make a pleasant driveway around the city limits, so that her citizens might drive out evenings and gaze over the lines at the prosperity which was not of their making. Indeed, it was proposed that we should all turn in first and move the county seat from Crookston to Fisher and divide afterwards, but we lacked the time, so that part of the plan did not materialize. Petitions for the four new counties were rapidly circulated and signed. It was feared that as the law now stood only one proposition could be voted on at any election, so a friendly suit was brought to determine this. The Supreme Court decided that any number of propositions could be submitted to the people, but each voter could vote for or against only one.

Then the subtle Crookstonites evolved a plan that was indeed a credit to them. They inoculated Thief River Falls with the county seat germ, induced its citizens to circulate a petition for the formation of Mills County, with county seat at Thief River Falls, and then with soft words and endearing promises led McIntosh to circulate a petition for the formation of Columbia County. Now Mills County was to overlap the proposed territory of both Red Lake and Hill, and Columbia was to overlap Red Lake, Nelson and Gargield, so if all carried, there would be several counties piled one on top of the other, and the idea was that the courts would declare all illegal, and Polk, one and indivisible. And this very thing nearly happened. Votes were at a premium. The fact that a man could vote only for or against one county made his vote all the more valuable. Workers were sent from every town to corral the farmer vote. Canvassers from Crookston met canvassers from Red Lake Falls at country homes and wrangled over a vote as dogs over a bone. Committees met every night and discussed the situation. Lots of voters in every town were procured and that particular man was sent to each voter who would be most likely to influence him. Speakers were hired and schoolhouse meetings held. The committee of each proposed county was suspicious of the committee of every other county. Amateur secret service men were sent out to learn the intentions of "our friends, the enemy." The writer was sent incognito to McIntosh and Fosston and was present at committee meetings in each town learning the secret intention of the committees as to the disposition of the votes at their command, without being otherwise known than as an innocent commercial traveler.

As before, politics was lost sight of. The question of the hour was, "What's the prospect for county division?" Some men gave all their time to the work and accomplished a great deal. Others gave all their time and accomplished very little. One man was sent into an unknown territory to canvass votes. He spent several days and announced on his return that the voters there were unanimous for Red Lake. On election day they voted ten to one against Red Lake. New men joined in the battle. All the old fighters were there, and we added to our list many new names, notably Hon. Marcus Johnson, a power in himself, and worth a dozen ordinary men.

The work continued to the closing of the polls election day. Teams were hired to bring voters to the polls. Placards and bills (in violation of election laws) were displayed in every polling place and even hung in the secret booths. Men were detailed to help unlettered voters mark their ballots. These tactics were resorted to by all the opposing parties, so none had cause to complain.

When the votes were counted Red Lake, Mills and Columbia had carried by a majority; Nelson had lost; Garfield was in doubt. Red Lake had received votes as follows: for 922, against 449; Mills, for 334, against 56; Columbia, for 575, against 107; Garfield, for 603, against 608. Here was a situation Crookston had anticipated. Red Lake had carried; but Mills and Columbia also carried, covered its territory. Who was to say which was the right county, since the three were piled upon each other? We had won, and yet lost. It was like eating the Dead Sea apple which looks beautiful to the eye but crumbles to ashes at the touch. But the man of the hour was at hand, and here, more than ever before, we recognized the value of a "pull." Hon. Marcus Johnson by his great political influence at St. Paul induced Governor Clough to issue his proclamation declaring Red Lake a duly created county, and the governor further refused to issue any proclamation for Mills or Columbia.

It should have been stated before that in the proposition to create Red Lake County submitted to a vote, five good men and true had been named as its first board of commissioners, as follows: Samual Gibeau, of Lambert; Wm. C. L. Demann, of Lake Pleasant; K. M. Hansen, of Thief River Falls; 0. J. Johnson, of Wyandotte; and Swan Anderson, of Black River.

The governor's proclamation was issued the day before Christmas, 1896, and was kept secret from newspaper reporters or Crookston agents who were then in St. Paul, as it was feared that injunction proceedings would be brought to prevent the organization of our Board of Commissioners. Secretly and swiftly it was brought to Red Lake Falls by Mr. 0. J. Johnson, arriving Christmas Day. A terrific blizzard was blowing, piling the snow drifts eight feet high, but teams were sent to the five quarters of the county to bring in the county commissioners. It was resolved to organize as soon as possible after midnight. As the night wore on the belated commissioners struggled in through the storm, the last one arriving about three o'clock in the morning, and all through the dark hours a wearied, anxious group of men, the leaders of the division movement, sat in the union club rooms and worried lest at the last moment a writ of injunction might arrive from Crookston.

At 3:00 a.m., December 26, the commissioners took their oaths of office and before daylight Frank E. Hunt drove to Crookston to file in the office of the Clerk of Court certified copies of the governor's proclamation with the commissioners' oaths of office endorsed upon the back. Crookston awoke to its first realization that a new county had been born.

At last we had won. Our victory was complete. It is safe to assert that no happier lot of people ever celebrated the holidays than the worthy citizens of Red Lake Falls that Christmas week in 1896. Our county board met, appointed a full set of officers and Red Lake County became a reality.

But it was not in the nature of our opponents to give up even then. They laid all information before the attorney general and caused an action of quo warranto to be brought in his name, on behalf of the state, against our board of commissioners, to determine the legality of Red Lake County. Eminent counsel was employed on both sides. The supreme court decided that of all the counties voted upon Red Lake alone was legal because it had received both a majority of the votes cast on that proposition and a plurality over its competitors, Mills and Columbia. Thus ended the fight, and though there have since been other matters of dispute between Polk and Red Lake, the question of our organization has never been further disputed.

To the men who planned and directed the execution on both sides of this long continued fight, great credit is due. Yet republics, even in miniature, are proverbially ungrateful, and many who did their utmost for their respective sides, both in Crookston and Red Lake Falls, have scarcely received thanks for the work.

Since the formation of our county, Red Lake and her citizens have gotten rapidly ahead. Every city and village in the county has doubted or trebled in wealth and population. Farmlands have increased in value, jumping from $4 and $5 per acre to $18 and $25 per acre. Farmers have paid off their mortgages. Rates of interest have dropped from twenty percent to six. Great saw mills have been built to employ laboring men. Industrial improvements have been made. Drainage ditches are being dug. We have our own representatives in the legislature. Foreign capital has been attracted to our county. Farmers are leaving their old settled communities in Iowa and flocking to our new and fertile lands. We are no longer a distant suburb of Crookston. We are free and independent. Red Lake County has become a bright and shining mark upon the map, and the visions of prosperity which seemed but dreams to the rebels of 1886 have become a glorified reality to the patriots of 1901.


About 10,000 years ago the last glacier that covered this area retreated northward as it melted, leaving behind a mantle of glacial debris. With the melting of the glacier, a vast quantity of water was produced. The retreating glacier prevented the Northward drainage of this water, thus trapping it and forming a huge lake called Lake Agassiz.

This lake covered all of Red Lake County, although it was relatively shallow throughout this area. The soils of Red Lake County are the result of the sorting action of this water or developed on the sediments of this glacial lake.

There, were long periods when the lake stayed at a fairly constant level which is shown by the presence of gravel ridges found in the southern central and western parts of the County.

Originally the soils in the western part of the County developed under a prairie grass vegetation which today is just on the eastern edge of the Red River Valley. The eastern portion often supported a growth of aspen and scattered oak trees as well as areas of open marsh and some areas of prairie grasses.


The Northwestern part of Minnesota was originally the land of the Nadowa, or the Dakota Sioux and they lived here for many centuries.

The Ojibway or Chippewa Indians originally lived in the eastern United States but were gradually driven westward by the fierce -Iroquois. The Chippewa tribes were a peaceful people and they adopted the white mans tools and customs as they moved westward and became proficient in the use of firearms.

By 1660 a few of the Ojibway hunting parties had entered Minnesota, but they did not remain for it was the land of the Hadowa.

By the 1730's the Sioux turned against the French traders with whom they had been living in peace and began a series of raids. One of their war parties killed a Chippewa family near Lake Superior. That event marked the beginning of the Chippewa march into Minnesota against the Sioux. These Indian wars lasted nearly 50 years. By 1770 the Chippewa became the dominant tribe in a wide area of Northern and Central Minnesota, including the Red Lake area.

The Chippewa Indians called Minnesota's two largest lakes the "Red" lakes because of the color of the water when reflecting a summer sunset. This name, translated into English, was later used by the white men for Red Lake and was also used for Red Lake River and Red Lake County.


The beginnings of habitation by white men in this area can be traced back to 1798. In that year David Thompson became the first white man to explore the area.

That same year also saw the beginnings of the first permanent settlement of white man when a Frenchmen by the name of Jean Baptiste Cadotte established a British fur trading post for the Northwest fur Company at the confluence of the Red Lake and the Clearwater Rivers. These two rivers join in the northwestern section of present day Red Lake Falls.

Rivers and lakes were one of the primary means of transportation during this period. The Indians, early explorers, traders and settlers followed a water route from Duluth to Cass Lake, to Red Lake and over the Red Lake River through Red Lake County on their way to the Red River of the North.

Land transportation using oxen and the big 2-wheeled carts was also an important way of delivering goods and supplies during this period. A major north-south route called the Pembina Trail connected St Paul and St. Cloud with Pembina, which is in the extreme Northeast corner of North Dakota on the United States Canadian border.

The East Plains portion of the Pembina Trail passed through the western part of Red Lake County and the place where the Red River Carts crossed the Red Lake River became known as the Old Crossing.

In 1863 the Red Lake and Pembina bands of the Chippewa tribe of Indians, ceded Northwestern Minnesota to the White man in a ceremony at the Old Crossing on the Red Lake River. This site is now the Old Crossing Treaty State Park and is located near Huot in western Red Lake County.

The Old Crossing Treaty opened 3 million acres of land to settlement by the White Man that was previously controlled by the Chippewa Indians. The original settler was Pierre Bottineau who was a famous guide. Bottineau Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis is named for him, as are a county and a town in North Dakota. A motel here in Red Lake Falls is named the Chateau Bottineau.

Pioneers of French and French-Canadian descent were the first settlers to move into the area after the treaty was signed. Later other settlers of varying descents moved in including German, Finnish, and Norwegian. The first permanent settlement was established in 1876. We celebrated our 100th anniversary in July of 1976, which coincided with the celebration of the nations 200th birthday.

On December 24, 1896, Red Lake County was formed from a portion of what was then Polk County. Several years later on November 23, 1910, Pennington County was formed from the northern half of Red Lake County. Today Polk County is south, east, and west of us and Pennington County is on the North.

The size of Red Lake County is 432 square miles and the 1990 census showed a population of 4525. There are four incorporated villages in our County. Their names and population are:

Red Lake Falls 1481
Oklee 450
Plummer 290

There are several other areas that were once important service centers. These areas have been losing their population until today there are only a few people living in earch area. These areas are: Terrabonne, Dorothy, Rolland, Wylie, Huot, and Marcoux Corner.

We have seven beautiful rivers: Red Lake River, Clearwater River, lost River, Hill River, Black River Little Black River, and Poplar River. We also have seven Creeks: Badger Creek, Cyr Creek, Browns Creek, Brooks Creek, Beau Gerlot Creeek, Terrebonne Creek, and Kripple Creek.

The Red Lake River has been designated a navigable Canoe route by the Department of Natural Resources. It is indeed a scenic route with places along the route where the bluffs are over 100 feet high, rising almost straight up from the river.

The two largest rivers in Red Lake County provide recreation areas during the summer with swimming and fishing being the most popular. The Red Lake River originates in Lower Red Lake (Beltrami County) and the Clearwater River flows out of the Clearwater Lake. The origins of these rivers account for the good fishing. The sporting fish include Northern Pike, Walleye, and Catfish. Deer, moose, fox, coyote, ducks, geese, rabbits, ruffed grouse, sharptail grouse, and hungarian partridge can all be found in the county. This area has some of the finest small game, big game, and waterfowl hunting in the state. Near Red Lake Falls is Timberline Ski Area with several downhill runs. Also near the ski area are excellent cross-country ski trails and areas for snowmobiling.

The economy of Red Lake County has been historically agricultural. The climate and soil conditions have been favorable for the growing of good quality small grains. Livestock production is a strong supporting enterprise to the grain crops. Manufacturing, retail sales and tourism make up other sectors of the local economy.









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