Pike to Cass

One thing leads to another in history and careful research uncovers some interesting connections. In the Winter 2004 MCHS newsletter, the 1805 exploration of Lt. Zebulon M. Pike up the Mississippi River was examined in relation to his fort site in Morrison County. I had not researched the entire trip because there was plenty of county-related material to use for the article. For this current newsletter article, my intent was to cover Governor Lewis Cass’ 1820 expedition through this section of then Michigan Territory. At the time, Michigan Territory covered the portion of Minnesota east of the Mississippi River.

Research on Cass unearthed a surprise for me. It turns out that Lt. Pike had purchased land at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers during his trip. According to Past and Present of St. Paul, Minnesota, Pike signed a treaty with Chief Little Crow and other Sioux leaders on September 23, 1805 “for a tract of land located at the mouth of the St. Croix, nine miles square, and another tract extending from below the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi and running to and including St. Anthony Falls, embracing nine miles on each side of the river”. Bought from the Sioux for a song ($2,000 plus whiskey and trinkets), this latter piece of land became the site of Fort Snelling. Construction of the fort, which was originally called Fort St. Anthony due to its proximity to St. Anthony Falls, began in 1819, one year prior to Gov. Cass’ expedition. When Cass and company came through what is now Minnesota, they stopped near the fort site, which was completed in 1822 and served as a final outpost for early settlers before they headed to the northern wilderness to carve out homes.

So, what other connection does Governor Lewis Cass have with Morrison County? Along with passing through what is now Little Falls and the site of Pike’s fort in the county, Cass met two people critical to Morrison County history on his trip. First some background.

Cass’ expedition was mounted at his request. He wrote a letter to John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, suggesting that the territory just attached to Michigan be explored. Calhoun agreed and Cass and his men set out from Detroit, Michigan, on May 24, 1820. Cass’ company included Dr. Alexander Wolcott, Indian agent and surgeon; Captain David Bates Douglass, military engineer; Henry R. Schoolcraft, mineralogist; James Doty, secretary; Charles Trowbridge, topographer; James Riley, interpreter; Joseph Parks, guide and interpreter; Robert Forsythe, private secretary of Governor Cass; and Alexander Chase, commissary. In addition, voyageurs, soldiers, and Indians rounded out the group to a total of about forty.

Early expeditions into “unexplored” territories were ambitious affairs. The men involved not only had to explore and map the territory, they had to collect information on plants, animals, geography, geology, and human inhabitants. Military expeditions, as this one was, also had to keep peace between the Indian inhabitants, establish fort sites, and inform the British inhabitants (primarily fur traders) that they were now under American rule.

Cass started his expedition by traveling through Lake Huron with a stop at Michilimackinac Island. This is where he met Pugona-geshig, Morrison County’s own Chief Hole-in-the-Day I. According to historian, Dr. Carl Zapffe, in his book Indian Days in Minnesota’s Lake Region, Hole-in-the-Day joined the expedition here, and later averted a potential disaster.

When Cass and company reached Sault Ste. Marie on June 14, 1820, they set up camp so they would have time to establish Fort Brady in the area. They also had to convince the Ojibwe that the Americans were now in charge, instead of the British. Negotiations with the Ojibwe were heated and bordered on deadly violence. Pugona-geshig and Ozha-mushkoday-equay (Golden Meadow Woman) were critical in helping Cass to reach an agreement on the fort. For his assistance in the matter, Pugona-geshig was awarded a Presidential Medal by Cass and named a chief of the Ojibwe.

Zapffe explains that, normally, whites were not in a position to name a chief among Indians. However, for Pugona-geshig’s actions in halting a sure massacre of the Cass party by standing up to his own people, this chieftainship was later honored when Chief Babesi-kundibay (Curly Head) passed his position on to Pugona-geshig.

After their high drama at Sault Ste. Marie, the Cass expedition continued on to Lake Superior. While there, Cass met William Morrison, a fur trader with the American Fur Company. Morrison County was named for William’s brother, Allan. William, who knew the central and northern regions of Minnesota from his trapping trade, convinced Cass to change the course of his expedition. Cass had intended to visit what is now the Boundary Waters area. William suggested that he take a shorter and less treacherous route to reach the Mississippi River, which Cass did.

On July 28, 1820, Cass and company went through the Little Falls area and passed Pike’s old fort site. They went downriver to St. Anthony Falls and the future Fort Snelling area, where they arranged a peace treaty between the Ojibwe and Dakota. The party continued to Prairie du Chien and then traveled northeast through what is now Wisconsin. When they reached Lake Michigan, the expedition broke into two groups, each of which went around opposites sides of the lake in order to survey it. They finally met back where they started, at Detroit, Michigan, on September 23, 1820.

The connections between Zebulon Pike, Lewis Cass, Pugona-geshig, and William Morrison demonstrate a common occurrence when studying early history of the county and state. With relatively few people inhabiting the region, and an even fewer number of movers-and-shakers, these people were bound to come in contact with or influence one another. As is obvious from the story of the Cass expedition, distance in the early 1800s did not prevent these interactions. When studying history, it’s these interactions that are surprising and delightful to discover.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society

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