James Duane Doty Journal of 1820 Part I.

Welcome to Discovering the Northwoods from the Manitowish Waters Historical Society. We will take you on a journey through our local history with the help of primary source documentation. To learn more about this rich history or about the historical society – check out our website at mwhistory.org. There you will find blog posts, show notes, our YouTube Channel, and a full transcription of this episode including maps and photographs.

James Duane Doty was the secretary attached to the 1820 Lewis Cass expedition exploring the western portions of Michigan Territory.  Territorial Governor Cass had many objectives on his 1820 expedition, including delivering some of the earliest Northwoods reconnaissance. Specifically, Doty references a rough map and provides a narrative of portage and water routes into the Northwoods.  The accuracy of the map and narrative are limited, and should only be considered a baseline for poor early government knowledge of the Northwoods.

Interestingly, water course errors by Cass and Doty in 1820 foreshadow survey difficulties 20 years later when Thomas Jefferson Cram was tasked to establish the Wisconsin-Michigan border. Turns out, in 1840 the U.S. Government believed the Montreal River connected to Lac Vieux Desert, creating a survey dispute that will ultimately be settled by the U. S. Supreme Court in the 1920’s.

As with many historical works from this era, there are phrases, terms, and descriptions that are inappropriate to our modern sensibilities. The Manitowish Waters Historical Society in no way condones these offensive remarks or passages. For this episode, we choose to read this publication in its entirety for educational purposes and accurate historical context. It is important to note for this episode that Doty’s limited knowledge of the Northwoods is highlighted by the numerous inaccuracies in locations and names.


Northern Wisconsin in 1820

By Honorable James Duane Doty

Detriot September 27, 1820


To His Excellency, Lewis Cass:

Sir — The following information received at Sandy Lake, during your absence to Red Cedar Lake, in answer to your interrogatories, I have the honor of communicating to your excellency. It was obtained from persons who have traveled over and resided in the country, almost from their infancy. No opportunity was afforded of obtaining it from better or more enlightened sources than those improved, and I think in general it may be relied upon as correct.

There are three chief places of residence of the Indians in this country. The first and principal is Leech Lake; the next Sandy Lake; and the third Fond du Lac of Lake Superior.

At Leech Lake there are more than two hundred men, at least three hundred and fifty women married to them, and about eleven hundred boys and girls. Their hunting ground is around the lake and extends north to Round Lake, west to the Red River, south to the Sioux, and east until they meet the Indians of Sandy Lake. Their game is deer, bear, beaver, otter, muskrats, marten, fisher, raccoon, and a few red and gray foxes. The only buffalo they kill is on the border of the Sioux country. The beaver is hunted particularly on the river St. Peters its tributaries. A few are found in other parts. Most of the small rivers abound in otter. The other game is found throughout their country.

None of the Western waters are as abundant in white fish as Leech Lake. There are great numbers also in Lake Winnepec, Red Cedar, and Cross Lakes, but the rivers are destitute of them.

They are fine flavored and more delicious than those of the Sault of St Mary.

There are various other fish in these and other lakes and rivers; as pike carp, black bass, cat-fish, etc. A fish called by the Indians too-nee-bee, and by the french “tullibees” not equal to, but greatly resembling the white fish, is found in the large lakes above mentioned, and particularly in abundance in Leech Lake. The fish and the wild rice are the chief sustenance of the traders and without them the trade could scarcely be carried on. The tullibees are taken in nets of from 60 to 100 fathoms long, late in autumn, and to preserve them are hung up by the tail in the air until frozen. From July until November the white fish are taken, and the telibees from the 1st of September to the latter part of November, at the setting in of the ice, and both on the same ground. Neither are taken in the winter; but from the 20th of May to the 20th of June, immense numbers of telibees are caught. During the winter, pike and pickerel may be obtained.

Cormorants nesting. Photographed by Don Thompson, June 25, 1951. Wisconsin’s Historic Natural Resources Photos.

The water fowls throughout this Northwestern country are nearly all the same. They are the bustard, wild goose, several kinds of ducks, as the black French (nearly resembling the tame) wood duck, etc., swan, pelican, loon, and the gull. A fowl called the cormorant is found here. It lives on fish, is nearly the size of the raven, and of the same color; has a leg like a loon, a bill about four inches long shaped like a snipe’s, except at the peak, which is rather crooked and sharp like an eagle’s; it alights in the water and on trees, and, it is said, roosts by suspending itself by the bill from a limb of a tree. The birds are nearly the same as those commonly found in the Eastern States.

The moose, elk, rein, and common deer, wolf (not north of Sandy Lake) red and white ermine, wolverine, lynx, skunk, porcupine, wood-chuck, and red striped squirrels are found in different parts of the country.

There are many turtles of various sizes; some very large and delicious are found in the lakes.

No rattle, or other snakes, except the small striped or garter snake.

The Indians of Leech Lake are in bands; and each band has its own chief. No general leader of the whole is acknowledged; the Brachu who resides at Sandy Lake has, when he is present, some considerable influence over them. The chieftainship descends from father to son, and the line becomes extinct by the death of the last male, the females being entirely excluded. In filling vacancies they generally elect from the tribe the most valiant, brave, and powerful, or the man they deem the wisest or the most eloquent speaker; and this last qualification is considered highly essential and is generally preferred; and the person elected becomes the heir to all the honors of the old line. In fact they always claim this right of election, but it is occasionally dispensed with when some daring, bloody fellow, usurping the throne, holds, either by his ferocity or his many and influential relations, his tribe in awe. Such a one, however, is soon — casually — disposed of, if he does not in a short time ingratiate himself by some extraordinary act with the band. Even then he can scarcely be considered secure, for he is only respected, not loved; and is liable to be deposed at any time. Aware of this, he generally moves cautiously, and deals severely.

The chief of the Leech Lake Indians is Es-kee-buc-ee-ose, or flat mouth; the regular chief of those at Sandy Lake, the Bras Casse, or Broken Arm — in Indian, Book-oo-sain-ge-gun; and the chief of Fond du Lac, Ghin-gwau-by, or as called by the French, “the deaf man.” These are severally influenced by the Brachu, who it seems raised himself to this superior station merely by his eloquence. His ancestors have always been of good standing and for a time furnished chiefs for the tribe at Sandy Lake. It appears he is the first emperor of these tribes, they having been entirely distinct and independent previous to his time.

The Sandy Lake tribe of Indians is the second in size. It has eighty- five men, two hundred and forty-three women and children, besides thirty-five half breeds. They are divided into three parties, one resides about half way from Sandy Lake to Leech Lake, at a place called Pac-au-gum-aw, on a small lake through which the Mississippi runs, and near the boundary between these and the Leech Lake Indians. These Indians hunt north to Vermillion Lake, the head waters of the Fond Du Lac River, and on which the Northwest Company has an establishment; west to Pauc-qua-gun-aw, above mentioned; east to the Fond Du Lac River and down it to the Portage de la Prairie; and south to the borders of the Sioux country, or near Elk River which falls into the Mississippi. It is about one hundred miles to Pac-au-gum-aw, the same as Vermillion Lake, fifty miles to Portage de la Prairie, and one hundred and twenty miles to Elk River. These are considered direct courses.

Their furs and game are the same as those of the Leech Lake Indians. The birds do not vary from those in the country around Leech Lake. White-fish and telibees are found in Sandy Lake, but inferior in quality to those of Leech Lake. The latter part of September the white-fish begin to run, and continue until winter sets in. The telibees are taken at the same time as those in Leech Lake.

Winter commences about the first of December and breaks up by the first of April it is nearly the same as at Montreal. This applies also to Leech Lake, but it is much colder at Fond du Lac, where the season is generally fifteen days later. The depth of snow is not as great at Leech Lake as at Sandy Lake. Around Lake Superior it falls two and a half or three feet deep, but decreases to the west, so that when the snow is three feet in depth at Fond du Lac, the ground is scarcely covered at Sandy Lake. A south wind may prevail at Fond du Lac three days without decreasing the snow; while at Sandy Lake, one of twelve hours invariably produces a thaw.

The summer is generally warm and pleasant. Vegetation springs up and advances rapidly as soon as the snow has disappeared. Potatoes grow finely at Sandy Lake and most of the garden vegetables may be raised.

Artistic illustrations of Lake Superior Ojibwe camps, circa 1700s and 1800s. Catalog Number 2020.2.9.

The food of the Indians in this country varies according to the different seasons. They occasionally subsist on the Waub-es-see-pin. It resembles a potato, is mealy when boiled, and grows only in wet, clay ground, and about one and a half feet deep. The crane potato is another article of food called by them the sitch-auc-waub-es-see-pin. It is of the same kind, but inferior in quality to the waub-es-see-pin, and is found throughout this country. The wau-tap-pin-ee is a small root frequently pulled three feet long, which is dried in order to preserve it. This root is found on the southern shore of Lake Superior, but is seldom brought as far as Sandy Lake. These three are boiled when prepared for food. They also use the bois retors, or twisted wood, in cases of extreme necessity. It resembles the bitter-sweet runs into the tops of the highest trees, and from one tree to another, has thick bark, and is sweet and palatable when boiled. To these may be added the wild rice — fols avoine — and such game as they occasionally kill, eating every kind and every part. I saw them yesterday cooking a skunk, but when it was prepared for the table, it was impossible to approach the lodge except to the windward. They boil the excrement of the rabbit with their rice “to season it” and esteem it a luxury. To make that dish still more palatable, and one of their highest epicurean dishes, they occasionally take a partridge, pick off the feathers, and without any further dressing except pounding it to the consistency of jelly, throw it into the rice, and boil it in that condition. In this they seem not far above the brute creation it is scarcely possible to account for such an appetite or relish, except it be that necessity having compelled them frequently to resort to this loathsome food for sustenance, they have at length acquired a preference for it.

A band of the Sandy Lake tribe of Indians resides at Pauc-quau-me-no-min-ie-con, or Rice Lake, between twenty and twenty-five miles south of Sandy Lake. There are only thirteen grown men in the village, their number of young men, squaws, and children is forty-seven. They hunt in the woods adjoining the Lake. To the east of their village and near Fond du Lac they occasionally kill a few moose. This band has never been much noticed by the English Government, and has been generally well disposed towards ours.

All of the men at Sandy Lake and south of it, annually, in the month of March go to the borders of the Sioux country, and as far beyond as their fears will permit them, to hunt the beaver, which hunt is called by them no-tah-mic-qua and signifies  “searching for beaver” — “mic” meaning beaver. Their families being left at home in this hunt, repair to the sugar camps, and are engaged in manufacturing sugar during the absence of the men, of which they make very large quantities.

The Indians around Sandy Lake in the month of September repair to Rice Lake to gather their rice. In no other place does it grow in as large quantities as there. This lake is about five miles long and three broad. It might perhaps be called a marais for the water is not over five feet deep, and its surface is almost entirely covered with rice. It is only in morasses or muddy bottoms that this grain is found.

Wild rice tied into bundles on Rice Creek by Big Lake, circa 1920. Catalog Number 2019.11.63.

It was formely the practice of the Indians, when the grain was in the milk, to pass around in canoes and gather up the tops in large shocks or branches and fasten them, to render the collecting of the grain much easier after it had ripened. By this means they obtained it also in much large quantities than at present. This work of harvesting is performed by the females. It is now gathered by two of them passing around in a canoe, one sitting in the stern and pushing it along, while the other with her back to the bow and with two small pointed sticks about three feet long, one in each hand, collects it in by running one of the sticks into the rice and bending it over on to the edge of the canoe, while with the other she strikes the heads suddenly and rattles the grain into it. This she does on both sides of the canoe alternately, and while the canoe is moving. About a gill is generally struck off at blow. It is not ripe when harvested. It falls covered with a husk, and has a beard about two inches long. One method of curing the rice, and that which makes it the most palatable, is by putting it in a kettle in small quantities, and hanging it over the fire until it becomes parched. A round role is dug in the ground about one and an half feet deep, and three in circumference, into which a moose skin is usually put. Into this hole the grain is then poured, where it is trod by an Indian until completely hulled. This is a very laborious work, and always devolves upon the men. After being sufficiently trod, it is taken out and cleaned, in a fan made of birch bark, shaped something like those used by farmers. This is the most expeditious method of curing it.

The other method differs from this only in drying. It is as follows: a scaffold is made of small poles about three feet from the ground, and covered with cedar slabs. On this the rice is spread, and under the scaffold a small slow fire kindled, which is kept up until the grain becomes entirely dry. It takes nearly a day to dry one of the scaffolds full. The grain cured in this way is more nutritious, and keeps much longer than the other. By that parched in a kettle, the substance appears to be destroyed. The rice, when cured, is put into sacks of about a bushel. A sack is valued at two skins. A fathom of stroud or a blanket will buy two sacks. A skin is valued at two dollars.

One family ordinarily makes about five sacks; though those who are industrious sometimes make twenty-five. The last, however, is very rare. A few provident Indians save a little for the spring of the year to eat with their sugar, though generally by that time they have done curing it, the whole is disposed of for trinkets and ornaments. Thus by gratifying their vanity, they are left nearly destitute of provisions for the winter — choosing to endure hunger and the greatest misery than mortify their pride!