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9th Book Excerpt: Logging the Reservation

The following is the ninth of several book excerpts the LCO News will feature from local author, John Dettloff. The excerpts will be from his  new book.


Detloff has lived on the Chippewa Flowage, near New Post, for over 50 years.  His family has had a small resort just east of New Post for 56 seasons and for 40 years he has been writing historical articles about the flowage, tribal history (especially Old Post), old guides, old resorts, and fishing.


His new book called Whispers of the Past, A History of the Chippewa Flowage, released on November 1st, gives a comprehensive history of the flowage going back to the fur trade era. 

According to Detloff, the book profiles in great detail the people of the "Chippewa Basin" (the area that became flooded by the flowage) and talks about the 300 plus people who were affected by and displaced by the flowage.  There were probably 250 plus tribal members and nearly 100 non-tribal members that were affected. 


From the Book:


From left to right are tribal lumberjacks Billy DeBrot, Charles Thayer, Moses Cloud (Bluesky), James Bennett, Charles Denasha, James Doyle, and Ben Denasha. Photo taken prior to 1907.

     William R. Durfee, who served as the Indian Agent of the LaPointe Agency during the Garfield/Arthur Administration (March of 1881 to March of 1885), was the Indian Agent in charge of several bands of the Lake Superior Ojibwe (including the Lac Courte Oreilles band) during the time when allotments began being awarded to tribal members in 1881.       

     The intention of the allotment process was to have each adult head of family settled on lands which they could own, maintain, cultivate, live on, and pass onto their children.  In the process, it would give tribal members some measure of security and help them assimilate into living in the modern world.  The resources on their allotments, including the timber, belonged to the Indian, and they were free to do with them as they wished.    

Built in 1882 in the heart of Pahquahwong, Thad Thayer’s home and hotel (boarding house) was a beautifully constructed New England style building. Likely taken in 1886, this photograph shows Thad Thayer leaning against his porch railing, with his family members in the background.

     The only restriction – as ruled in the Treaty of 1854 – was that they could not sell their allotted land for a period of twenty-five years and only after they had applied for and were granted a certificate of competency.  This stipulation was to ensure that they couldn’t have their land swindled away from them as soon as they acquired their allotments.   Although this provision added more government control to the process, it truly did protect every tribal member from losing ownership of their land… at least for twenty-five years. 

     While the allotment process, today, is sometimes looked back upon in unfavorable terms, the issue is more complex than just casting a negative shadow over it.  Like many government programs, there were both disadvantages and advantages to the process; however, in many cases their allotted land gave tribal members their greatest asset.

     One of the LCO Tribe’s first concerns with the allotment system was that some “outsiders” – people with Ojibwe blood who had never lived on nor intended to live on the reservation – claimed allotments which the tribal chiefs and headmen believed they had no right to.  To ensure that their own people would end up acquiring the available allotments, tribal leaders encouraged their own members to apply for them. 

     Furthermore, when the Dawes Act was passed in 1887, which also allowed allotments to be awarded to minor children, Chief Aw-ke-wain-ze – along with his chiefs and headmen – petitioned the President that: “Our people were desirous that the Dawes bill be put in operation.”  In their petition they also called for a new, and honest, Indian Agent to be appointed; they requested a stipulation that anyone receiving an allotment be obligated to building a habitable residence on their selection; and they asked that no logging contracts be issued on allotments unless Indian labor was used.

     It should be noted, however, that substantial gains were experienced by many tribal members because of the allotment system.  Most of the allotments had healthy stands of timber growing on them, which the allotees had the option of logging off.  In many cases, these allotees requested their own land to be logged and realized significant financial gain from having their timber cut.  Although some squandered their gains, others used the profits to better their lives by building houses and improving their land.   A number of tribal members held onto their family allotments for decades, later choosing to sell them at a healthy profit.  There are even some tribal members who own their family allotments to this day. 

     According to Indian Agent William R. Durfee, when he was appointed to his post in 1881, there was not a consistent policy in place which allowed owners of allotments to cut and sell timber from their land.  Therefore, many of the Indians weren’t interested in receiving allotments because they saw no benefit in it for them if they were not allowed to cut and sell the timber from their land.  Desiring to help the Indians by encouraging them to apply for their allotments, Durfee developed a policy of allowing them to have their timber cut and sold if they chose.  His recommendation was accepted by the commissioner and put into practice.  Once this policy became known by tribal members and they began being awarded patents for their allotments on June 20, 1881, many of the allotees chose to contract to have their allotments logged.  Much of the reservation was forested with healthy stands of first growth pine, which – for the most part – had been unmolested.  This timber had great cash value which offered substantial potential benefit to those who held allotments.

     During Durfee’s tenor as Indian Agent he had insisted that only Indian labor be hired to cut and haul logs on the allotments.  He felt that it was important to employ any Indians who wanted to work as a means of helping them to become self-sufficient.  While this rule was based upon good intentions, it was problematic for various reasons.  First, there weren’t enough able-bodied Indians to supply all the labor that was needed on the scores of allotments that had contracted to be logged off.  It put the contractors in a bad spot because – without labor – there would be no logs to purchase.  Being aware of this, some Indian laborers demanded wages that were double what the white laborers were being paid and that extra expense reduced the potential profits that the allotee (landowner) could earn.  The other problem was that, because the Indian laborers tended to be less reliable than the more experienced white laborers in their work habits, the expense of using Indian labor for the allotment owner also tended to be greater.

     A logging company was not legally allowed to come onto the reservation and contract with an allotment owner to log their land.  The Indian Agency had ruled that the owner of an allotment had to go through a licensed Indian Trader – who was obligated to keep good records of all their transactions – before an allotment owner could contract to sell their timber.  

     Thaddeus Thayer just happened to be in the right place at the right time… for he had a license to trade with the Indians for the previous fifteen years at his trading post.  Although he recognized the great potential of this untapped timber market, Thayer lacked the capital to make the best of the moment; therefore, he became open to entering into a partnership.  Malcomb S. Dobie, a thirty-eight-year-old Scotchman who had immigrated from Canada some years earlier, had been working as a surveyor in Bashaw, near Shell Lake, Wisconsin.  Dobie’s brother-in-law, Milton S. Stratton was a twenty-seven-year-old surveyor from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.  After both men became aware of the prospect of getting involved in logging on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, they saw an opportunity in partnering with Thad Thayer of Pahquahwong.

     It was in 1882 when Dobie and Stratton, armed with three hundred dollars in seed money, made their way to Pahquahwong and formed a partnership with Thad Thayer.  Thayer needed their capital, and Dobie and Stratton needed his license to transact business on the reservation.  The new firm of Dobie, Stratton, and Thayer became the first licensed company to buy timber on the reservation, using Thayer’s trading post – which they enlarged – to be used as their company trading store.

     However, they needed a headquarters in Pahquahwong that was more befitting of Dobie, Stratton, and Thayer’s grandiose vision, an edifice that could also serve as a residence and hotel.  So, sometime in 1882, the new firm constructed a beautiful, three story, New England style boarding house, located to the northwest of Pokegama Creek on the high ridge along the west edge of the Chippewa Road.  The village of Post now had a fine stopping place/hotel for lodgers and other dignitaries.

     During that first cutting season of 1882-83, seventeen Lac Courte Oreilles members requested to have their allotments logged, eleven of whom contracted with Dobie, Stratton, and Thayer.  These eleven allotees were mostly Pahquahwong residents.  Each contract listed the potential amount of board feet of timber that a particular tract was thought to yield.  It also listed the price per thousand board feet – based upon the grade of the trees – that the contractor was willing to pay each allotee for their timber.

Lac Courte Oreilles tribal members Charley and Josephine Denasha did well for themselves by contracting to have each of their allotments logged off. In 1888, Charley and Josephine earned a total of $3,668.93 profit for having their timber cut. In today’s dollars – one hundred and thirty-six years later – that amount would be equivalent to approximately $118,000.00! This afforded the newly married couple to build a fine log house and barn for themselves on Charley’s allotment.

     It was the responsibility of the allotee (the landowner) to either pay someone to cut and bank their timber or arrange to do it themselves, at their own expense.  The allotee was also responsible for paying half of the cost of scaling (measuring) and marking the timber once it had been cut.  Generally, the allotees would receive between $5 and $7 per thousand (depending on its grade) for their timber, from which they had to pay the above-mentioned expenses.  Naturally, if they took charge of logging it themselves, they’d pay out less than having others do the logging.  However, if they took full charge of logging their own land, they had the added expense of purchasing a “kit.”  A kit – which included all the gear that was needed to log, such as the teams (horses or oxen), a sleigh, and tools – could cost as much as $1000 or more.

     The allotees (the landowners) were customarily obligated to purchase any of the gear they needed for their logging operation at the company store of the contractor they had signed with.  While Thayer was involved with his firm only during its first year, it was said that they offered a 20% discount for the benefit of the allotees who had contracted with them.  In the meantime, the allotees could obtain any goods and supplies that they needed to get them through the winter from the company store, the charges of which would be deducted from the balance due to them once it came time to receive payment for their logs.  Any credit that was extended to the allotees for any other gear or provisions that they had purchased from the company store would also be deducted from the balance due to them upon completion of the project.  After any debt was subtracted from their timber earnings, the allotees were to be paid in full in gold for their timber once it had been cut and banked.

     If things worked out well and the logging was done efficiently and the allotee (the landowner) had taken an active part in the logging operation, many of the tribal allotees profited from the deal.  The proceeds from their timber sales afforded them to build houses; acquire horse teams, sleighs, and tools; pay off any previous debt; and even come out with a balance of gold as payment.  In some cases, however, if an allotee sat back and took no active part in his own project, or if he went at it haphazardly, or if it was done inefficiently, the allotee could and did come out at a loss.  It all depended upon how efficiently the logging operation was conducted and how much available timber was on the allottee’s land.  But overall, the process of the Indians contracting to have their own property logged off had great potential to enrich the lives of many tribal members.

     Regarding the eleven individuals who contracted with Dobie, Stratton, and Thayer during the 1882-83 logging season, although they contracted for a total of 2,850,000 board feet of timber to be cut on their land, only 2,033,300 board feet were actually cut and removed.  So, it is important to note that the contracted amounts of timber were often greater than how much timber was truly harvested.  In approximating how many logs are generally needed to make up 1000 board feet of timber, it usually took four to five large diameter, sixteen-foot-long logs to add up to 1000 board feet.  

     Most of the eleven individuals who contracted with Dobie, Stratton, and Thayer during that first year did well.  The few that came out behind weren’t as committed as they should have been to their own logging projects and, as a result, spent more money on labor and supplies than they took in from the sale of their logs.  

     More tribal members soon realized there was an opportunity to make money by selling the timber off their allotments, so every year growing numbers of tribal allotment owners requested to contract to have their lands logged off.  During the six successive winter logging seasons beginning in 1882-83, five hundred and ninety-six contracts were made by the Indians to have their allotments logged on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, during which time an estimated 300 million board feet of timber was said to have been harvested.  With the total adult population of Lac Court Oreilles in 1886 being listed as 1,150 (with 596 males, 554 females, and 308 children), it’s interesting to note that such a significant percentage of the Lac Courte Oreilles band’s entire population requested to get their allotments logged during that six-year period.

     Today, in looking back upon this huge harvest of timber which took place one hundred and forty years ago on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, it should be understood that the decision to remove this timber ultimately rested with the tribal members who were the owners of the allotments.  In some cases, family members of the allotment owners signed logging contracts on behalf of their own relatives, because they felt it was in their family’s best interest.  But overall, the logging companies did not come in and take the timber against their will.

     (To order a copy of John Dettloff's new book, send a check or money order for $29.95, plus $6 shipping and 5 1/2% sales tax, made out to Trails End Publishing and send it to: Trails End Publishing, 7431 N Flowage Rd., Couderay, Wi 54828.)

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