Nathan Richardson: A Big Hearted Paleface Man

It is a difficult thing to title a book. Considerations abound. What’s the book about? How can it best be summarized in a few short words? What sort of title will appeal to the widest possible audience? Meeting these requirements while adding a touch of the poetic is the ideal, one we hope we’ve reached with “A Big Hearted Paleface Man.”

With the publication of “A Big Hearted Paleface Man,” Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) staff are sometimes asked where we got the title. In actuality, we started with the subtitle: “Nathan Richardson and the History of Morrison County.” It’s a mouthful, to be sure, but one that accurately describes the contents of the book. However, it fails miserably for its lack of poetry and its potential appeal to a broader audience. If readers don’t have any clue as to Richardson’s importance to central Minnesota and they’re not related to the guy, they won’t pick up the book based on his name alone. Similarly for the Morrison County history portion of the subtitle. It sounds too colloquial and can easily be dismissed as a local history.

Thing is, Nathan’s story is a compelling one, showing how, through the specifics of one man’s life, a territorial area became an industrial center. That’s big. It’s a scenario that played out all across the United States. A handful of adventurous European/American folks would set out for an undeveloped frontier area and hobble together a settlement. They’d have to figure out how to meet their basic needs through life on unfamiliar terrain. They’d have to either learn to live with the native inhabitants, or drive them out. Survival was at stake. If they succeeded in overcoming adversity, they’d set up towns and governments. The foolhardy and the brave were the likely candidates for these ventures because they had a penchant for risk. Who doesn’t enjoy a story about the foolhardy or brave?

To capture this sense of a larger story, Jan Warner, Executive Director of MCHS, suggested we find a new title. I was elbows deep in reading the many newspaper articles written by and about Richardson and knew that he could turn a quirky phrase. I thought a title would come directly out of his mouth.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the troubles the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe was having in getting its annuity payments and in attempting to save its reservation land from timber sharks. Nate was directly involved in both struggles, helping to draft a petition from Morrison County citizens to the U.S. government urging federal authorities to stop those who were attempting to steal reservation land. Representatives from the Mille Lacs Band came to Little Falls to make the appeal for assistance. Nathan took notes at the meeting and recorded the eloquence of the Ojibwe men in attendance as translated by Peter Roy.

Someone at the meeting produced a certified copy of a document that showed that reservation land had been illegally entered at the Taylors Falls Land Office. In response, Chief Moose-o-ma-na said, “I am afraid of that paper; it appears to me like a match to burn up our country.” Pure poetry!

It would be another Ojibwe chief who, in waxing poetic, would give me the title for the book.

The Indian Agent in charge of distributing annuities to the Mille Lacs Band in the autumn of 1883 was Major C. P. Luse. Major Luse had decided that the Mille Lacs Indians should receive half of their annuities in money and half in supplies, instead of receiving the entire amount in money, as they were accustomed to. Band members would not accept this deal because they had debts to pay that could not be satisfied with supplies, so Major Luse pocketed the money and off he went. Compounding the problem, the year had been a poor one for hunting and wild ricing, so the band had little in the way of natural resources they could draw on to see them through the winter. As the season turned, reports of dire conditions on the reservation were heard in Little Falls. Without the promised annuities, the band did not have the provisions they needed to survive the winter. Many band members were starving.

Nathan was outraged and let ‘er rip in a letter to the editor of the Little Falls Transcript. He harangued Luse for first withholding annuities from the band and then for denying that the band was having any difficulty. He ended his letter by saying, “I for one cannot stand by and see the Mille Lacs Indians abused and maltreated in the manner they have recently been, without entering a protest against it.” (LFT, Feb. 1, 1884)

A copy of the newspaper, with Nathan’s letter of protest, made its way to the White Earth Reservation. There, Enmegahbowh (a.k.a. Rev. John Johnson) read the letter to the White Earth chief, who, upon hearing of Nathan’s defense on behalf of the Ojibwe at Mille Lacs, exclaimed, “It is the most wonderful true story. I never thought that such a big hearted paleface man would come out from such a place as Little Falls.” (LFT, Feb. 15, 1884)

There it was – the perfect title for the book, out of the mouth of an unnamed chief. It spoke to the wider issues of settlement on a frontier; it showed Nathan’s relationship with the Ojibwe and gave a hint about his personality; and further, it was poetic. What more could we ask?

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2006, Morrison County Historical Society

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Richardson’s Response

After the White Earth Chief said nice things about Nathan Richardson, Nate had this to say in return:

Little Falls, Feb. 14, 1884

Rev. J. Johnson, White Earth, Minn:

Dear Sir – You may be assured that I read yours of the 11th inst. to me with no ordinary degree of interest, and must confess that I was not a little surprised at its contents, not because I did not think there were many good people residing at White Earth, but because I thought their residence there was likely under duress.

My letter in the newspaper pointing out the wrong and shameful treatment of some of the Chippewa Indians to which you refer, was written by me pursuant to the dictates of a sense of duty. I am poor as they are and can personally assist them only by asking that justice be done them; and especially that those who have always been loyal and friendly to the whites shall not be discrimated against, as has been done as a rule since the war and trouble of 1862. I am sorry to say that I cannot accommodate you with a few copies of the paper containing my letter, as the sample numbers are all used up. If occasion and demand shall require, I shall revise and have it reprinted.

You will please remember me to my friend the chief, who brought you the paper containing my letter so early one morning for you to read, and who so warmly expressed his approval of my feeble effort to secure justice for my brave and honest red brethren. As he expressed to you a strong desire to shake hands with me, and fearing that I may never have the pleasure of meeting him, I will authorize you to shake hands with him for me, and you will please give him a good hearty shake. I have known you by sight and reputation for at least a quarter of a century, and have yet to hear aught against your character. I therefore believe you to be an honest man and that you are devoting your life and energies in a commendable effort to elevate and better the condition of your race. Words of approvel [sic] and commendation from such a man are, I assure you, highly valued by me. Hoping to hear from you again I am with much regard, your pale faced brother,

N. Richardson

Little Falls Transcript, February 22, 1884

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