Missions of the Early Days

Black gowns came almost with the first explorer, and in fact the Chippewas called the French “the men waving the stick,” as one of them explained, from the salutation of the crucifix which they associated with the missionaries. But the mission at La Pointe they established was soon abandoned, and it was nearly a hundred and fifty years after Marquette turned his attention to the Foxes and Sacs that the gospel was brought to the benighted savages of Lake Superior. The mission at the Sault was apparently the only religious station that persisted in the interval.

When the Warren brothers, Lyman and Truman, joined Cadotte at La Pointe, their New England traditions would not let them rest till they had instituted religious teaching among the Indians, and they forthwith applied to the Indian mission school at Mackinaw for help.

Rev. Frederick Ayer, born at Stockbridge, Mass., in 1803, was sent to them and opened a school at La Pointe in 1830. Two years later he spent the winter with Aitkin at Sandy lake and there finished the Chippewa spelling book he had begun at La Pointe. Aitkin gave him $80 to get it printed and Ayer went to Utica, N. Y., to have it done, nearly losing his life on the way by breaking through the ice of Lake Superior.

He married in Wisconsin and was stationed at Pokegama and Yellow lake, then at Red lake, working among the Chippewas from 1830 to 1865, and then devoting himself to the freedmen, dying at last in the South. Holding a roving commission among the Chippewas, he made repeated visits to Fond du Lac in the course of his long ministry.

The Reverend William Boutwell. (Image: Ancestry.com.)

His companion and successor was Rev. W. T. Boutwell, born in the same year as Ayer, at Hillsboro, N. IT., graduating at Dartmouth in 1831, and giving his life to the Chippewa mission after a preparatory year at Mackinaw.

He took the field in 1832, going with the Schoolcraft expedition in a flotilla of birch canoes loaded with provisions, trinkets and trading stock. Here he preached the first sermon in English ever delivered at the head of the lakes, the third Sunday in June, 1832. His description of Fond du Lac in 1832 is preserved by Folsom. IIe describes his arrival at Fond du Lac as follows: “On arriving here I was not a little surprised to find four hundred souls, half-breeds and white men. The scene of our landing was such as I never before witnessed and enough to fill one, unaccustomed to the like as myself, with wonder if not with fear. The yelling of Indians, barking of dogs, crying of children, running of the multitude, discharge of musketry and flourish of flags was noise in the extreme.

“At 10 o’clock I preached to about forty in English, the first sermon ever preached here, and at 4 p. in. I addressed through Sl\r. Johnson more than twice that number of French, half-breeds and Indians, many of the latter of whom for the first time listened to the Word of Life. All listened with attention and interest.

“My interpreter sat on my right side, while a chief occupied a seat at my left. Around and below me on the floor sat his men, women and children, in a state of almost nudity, many of whom had no more than a cloth about the loins and a blanket, but some of the children not even a blanket-all with their pipes and tobacco pouches, painted with all the variety of figures that can be imagined.” Here the Schoolcraft party found Aitkin, the chief of the department, with a party of fifteen clerks, packing their season’s harvest of furs for Mackinaw. Fond du Lac was their rendezvous, though Sandy lake was headquarters.

Lieutenant Allen, one of Schoolcraft’s party, has left an account of the station. It reads as follows: “Here the clerks meet in the summer to take their departure for Mackinaw and here they return in the fall with supplies, leaving their boats in shelter and taking bark canoes for the rest of the journey.

“The buildings consist of a dwelling house three or four stories high, a large house for the accommodation of clerks, and some other buildings for the engages or Frenchmen. They are 63 handsomely situated on the bank of the river, and directly in front is an island of about two miles circuit, of very rich soil, and a forest of large elms, where the Indians assembled in their lodges. ” The Indians had increased since the supply of whiskey fell off, though they were miserably poor, inasmuch as the land was depleted of animals and the Indians depended on the trader and promises for their support. But formerly children had often perished from the neglect of drunken mothers. Allen reckoned the population of Fond du Lac at nearly 200 inhabitants, including the Indian wives of the Frenchmen, who were left behind here.

From Fond du Lac the Schoolcraft expedition set off on the old trail for Sandy lake, a terrible trip to the soldiers of the party, unused to packing. For the Indian an eighty-pound keg of pork and a sack of flour on top of it was a fair load. The Canadians mastered the same load. The Indian women handled it more easily than their lords. But the soldiers were swamped by a half load over that horrible trail.

The next year, 1833, Boutwell established the mission at Leech lake. He found the men making their fall hunts, the families at the lake gathering corn and rice. A few lodges were encamped near. The women were ambitious to have their children learn.

The youngsters screamed and ran when they saw him coming, more terrified than if they had met a bear robbed of her whelps.

But they soon got used to him and there was always a group of boys hanging on his shoulder or climbing on his knee to read and sing, while others, lying flat in the grass, peeked through the sides or floor of his cottage, running like a flash if they caught his eye. He stayed till 1837, when the Indians became troublesome, murdered Aitkin’s son and ended the mission’s usefulness.

He moved to Pokegama with Ayer. His wife was Hester Crooks, daughter of Ramsey Crooks, an Indian trader and his Chippewa wife, and their marriage is said to be the first Christian wedding at Fond du Lac. It was celebrated September 11, 1834. The Boutwells moved to Stillwater in 1847.

Reverend Edmund F. Ely. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Edward F. Ely, who was a link between Indian days and white civilization at the head of the lakes, came soon after Ayer and Boutwell and established himself at Fond du Lac. Though never ordained he was commonly called reverend, and none better bore the title. He was born at Wilbraham, Mass., in 1809, and was studying for the ministry when the opportunity came to spend two years among the Chippewas as assistant teacher, which for his delicate health he accepted. He never had time after that to go back and finish his studies.

Reaching Mackinaw in 1833 he was sent up the lake by Schoolcraft and on the way overtook a party of four who had gone before him. He reported to Boutwell at Sandy lake and was presently left in charge there.

He moved to Fond du Lac in 1834 and established a permanent mission, building with his own hands the school house. Next year more teachers were sent by the indefatigable American board, one of whom was Miss Catharine Conlais, born at the Soo and starting out at 18 to redeem the poor Indian from his sins. She had not been three months at the post before she married the teacher and so found her career. As for the mission, it flourished little better than those that had preceded.

Ayer had moved to Yellow lake and in 1836 to Lake Pokegama.

Boutwell had followed him. The Chippewas of Fond du Lac were reduced to a handful and those seemed to be fast getting no more civilized. So Ely joined them at Pokegama in 1839 and that was about the last of the Fond du Lac mission.

At Pokegama in 1841 they saw the last battle between the Sioux and Chippewas, a foray in which several Indians were killed. The missionaries recovered the headdresses from the dead bodies and sent them to the American board museum in Boston. But the mission was never quite the same after that.

In 1847 the population of Pokegama consisted of the mission with its neat log huts and gardens, Jeremiah Russell, the Indian farmer, and a Frenchman. No wonder that in 1849 this mission, too, was given up and the Elys, for the education of their children, moved to St. Paul.

After Ely left Fond du Lac the Methodists tried the field.

George Copway, a Chippewa, married to a white wife, her sister and James Simpson are reported by Judge Carey as in the field in 1841. They held on, with their successors, till 1849, when Rev. J. AWH. olt, the last of the missionaries, reported a membership of twenty-eight in his school, except that there were seldom more than half of them present at any one time. It was not the fault of the missionaries; the Indians would not sit still long enough to receive the message.

Ten years covers the Presbyterian mission begun by Boutwell at the head of the lakes, sixteen years disposed of the effort among the Lake Superior Chippewas. There were never men and women more devoted. They cut themselves off from everything to live in the wilderness. They got their dry goods by the lake and their groceries from the Mississippi route, made their own sugar from maple sap, and ground their own flour by hand from wheat they raised themselves. They had no mails except by infrequent couriers or travelers. They saw no white people except the Indian agent and sometimes the trader.

Ely recalls that he met a party of lumbermen on the upper waters of the St. Croix in 1836, and those were the first whites he had seen in this country. They were the advance guard of the population that was coming and they were nomads. It was to be years before northern Minnesota was eligible for settlement.

When the Minnesota shore was acquired by the United States in 1855, Ely moved to Oneota and helped lay out the townsite.

But ’57 left him flat and he abandoned the project, removing to St. Paul in 1862. He moved to the Pacific coast in 1873, and there his wife died in 1881 and there he ended his days in 1892, aged 83 years. Of his four sons one became clerk of court in this county years after and one lived many years in Duluth, moving afterward back to Ohio.


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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