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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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The Indian Priest
Father Philip B. Gordon
Chapter 3 - Indian Childhood

by Paula Delfeld
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

When Philip Bergin Gordon was born in 1885, his grandfather was doing a thriving business at the trading post. During his childhood Phil enjoyed visiting the store with its colorful array of goods displayed for trade with the Indians.

Me-sa-bi would be there too. He made his home with his sister, A-te-ge-kwe, who was Philip's mother. Although Joe Mesabi was Phil's uncle, their ages were close and they became pals.

William Gray Purcell describes the Gordon place in his book, St. Croix Trail Country. One of his characters in the book, Gordon Young says, "You know old Antoine built that place of his before northern Wisconsin was even surveyed and mapped. That was about 1843." (This date is incorrect.) "When the trail was cut through he added a porch to his store and built the sleeping rooms and kitchen and eating room across the road. Just north of his hotel, he made a fine church with straight logs, square-faced inside and out and tenoned at the corners like his store. This was the way Father Baraga had taught him, to build all things with respect. The wood, the tools, and the skills were those of aged Wendish carpenters, artist-axemen of the Baltic North"

He set up an outdoor Shrine of Music in the churchyard - four satin-smooth peeled poles, six yards in length, to be for a belfry. These he canted like a sort of tripod to form a seat for a swinging bell at the top of it. He also made a sheltering roof with long, clean, split shakes. These he pegged making good projection for its eaves. He painted it all white and the church too, within and without, and on the peak of his belfry was a cross which he painted yellow."

"Amazing fellow, Old Man Gordon."

Orrin McGrath, who lived as a boy at Trego, twenty four miles south of Gordon, remembers the old store with its walls and ceiling blackened by smoke from the fireplace and the early methods of lighting. In the very early times, before the coming of the railroad, various methods of lighting were used, depending on what was most available. Torches were made of pine needles and pitch, or pine knots, which could be found where a tree had fallen and decayed. Candles were made of deer tallow placed in a dish with a piece of wool yarn or cloth twisted and used for a wick. But mostly, the traders depended on daylight.

After the railroad came through, kerosene lanterns hanging from the ceiling provided somewhat better lighting. McGrath remembers when Gordon got a stove and blocked up the fireplace around 1903 or 1904.

Phil and Joe were accustomed to the air in the store, heavy with pungent, musky odor of hides hanging from pegs around the room, mingling with the fragrant burning logs, tobacco, and wet clothing drying by the fireplace.

When the post was built, lumber had to be hauled long distances from the nearest mill, and so there were not many shelves in the store. Many supplies, such as flour, beans, molasses, were hauled in wooden barrels, which were made by hand. These stood on the floor. Maple sugar was left in birchbark containers in which the Indians had brought it. There was tea, and later coffee, blankets, bolts of calico in bright colors, a few guns, traps, axes, and brilliantly colored beads and trinkets which appealed to the Indians. They were mostly deerskin clothing, but as time went on such articles as shirts and pants were added to the stock.

The trading post was an exciting place for two little boys. They had continuous contact with older Indians at the store. The Indians revealed to Phil and Joe many tales and legends of their ancestors - Battles with their traditional enemies, the Sioux; how the Chippewa had defeated them; they heard how Phil's father, when he was only twelve years old, went with his father to Minnesota to convince Pug-o-ne-gi-jik, (Hole in the Day) the war chief, not to go along with the Sioux against the white people.

Antoine Gaudin went from the present Gordon, over a hundred miles, down the St. Croix River by canoe, and then by horseback into Minnesota and persuaded his cousin not to join the Sioux nation in the uprising that resulted in the blood New Ulm and Mankato massacres. The towns were burned and several hundred settlers were killed. The affair ended with the greatest mass hanging in the history of the United States. After much deliberation, President Lincoln released many Indians, but he signed the death warrant for thirty-eight Sioux, who were hanged and buried at Wood Lake. But the lives of perhaps hundreds of white people were saved by Gaudin's action.

Philip' father, William, had gone as far as Rush City and rode back the one hundred miles through the wilderness, alone.

The boys heard tales of the voyageurs, Phil's brave, bronzed French ancestors with their bright caps and scarves and flamboyant airs, who mingled with the Indians and did much to pave the way for civilization.

Mail and supplies were now transported by train, but the boys heard stories about how Phil's father, when a young man, had carried mail on the route from Gordon to Bayfield, the last leg of the Stillwater to Bayfield route. He traveled only during the summer as his father would not let the boy tackle the trip during the severe winter months with below zero temperatures and many feet of snow.

Often the mail went through only once a month during the winter when transportation was on snowshoes or with a dog team.

William would leave Gordon at three or four o'clock in the morning and travel on foot all day along the narrow trail through the dense woods. His little pure white dog, which always accompanied him, help him many times to find the way as it walked ahead of him through the dark, early morning hours.

With the heavy pack on his back, William would reach his destination in the late afternoon or early evening, the route led past Ox Creek and on to the Halfway House at Spider Lake. He traveled about thirty five miles in the undisturbed wilderness of dark pine woods to the half-way point between Gordon and Bayfield. The remainder of the way, the mail was carried by Mr. Busquet (or Buskey), whose uncle operated a trading post at Spider Lake. He also made the trip in winter when he could. There were times when he had to plod ahead of the dogs to break a trail.

South of Gordon, William's brother, Edward, who had a post on the Namekagon River, carried the mail. From there it was relayed to Sunrise and Rush City, Minnesota, and then transported by train by rail to St. Paul.

If the mail from Bayfield was already at Spider Lake, William would make the return trip the next day. If there were delays, he would have to wait over at the Halfway House before returning to Gordon. Although the route through the forest was dangerous, Gordon was never armed and never had an accident. He recalled that Mr. Buskey had a close call one evening when he encountered a pack of wolves. Buskey also had a small dog for company. He grabbed the dog and climbed a tree for safety. The mail pouch, which sometimes weighed seventy pounds, was too heavy so he dropped it to the ground at the foot of the tree where it was torn to bits by the savage wolves. Buskey remained in the tree with this dog until nearly daylight when the wolves left the scene.

Phil's father told the boys of trips he made with his father during the early days when travel was extremely difficult. Tony Gordon would go by ox team to St. Croix to buy furs, which was more important than money in trade. William recalled a time when a grain bag stuffed with money was tossed on the wagon and handled the same as if it had been a bag of potatoes.

The two little Indian boys had been indoctrinated into the tribal customs and the mysteries of the Medicine Men. One day Me-sa-bi would take the place of Osawati; the chief shaman of the tribe because tribal heritage was carried on through the female line and Me-sa-bi had been adopted by his sister.

But they were also being educated in the ways of the white man in the new one-room school building that had replaced the original log structure built by Phil's grandfather. With a later addition this school was still standing in 1933 when it was destroyed by fire. The boys would live to see many schools built in Gordon and the surrounding district.

Tales of the lumberjacks, who were now coming to the store, were equally fascinating to the boys. The tide of immigration had set in. The prairie country to the west was being settled and the demand for lumber from the immense pine forests was strong. The logs were hauled by ox teams to the river banks and floated down the St. Croix River to St. Croix Falls and Stillwater, Minnesota, which became a terminal for timber cut all around the area.

As Phil heard more of the outside world, he began to realize even at an early age, that the Indians were not living as well as others.

Mauser-Sauntry and Weyerhauser had large camps in the vicinity of Gordon, Wascott and Solon Springs. Gordon became the chief supply point for these camps in the winter and for the drivers in the spring. Lumberjacks going into the big woods to cut logs took with them horses, oxen, beans, flour, hay, whiskey, canthooks, axes, saws, salt pork and sourdough.

Early settlers in the East had learned through experience that they could not afford to use timber of inferior quality in their farm buildings, their churches, or the fortifications they built for protection from the Indians. When they moved west, the lumber industry had no choice but to cut the best logs and leave the inferior timber in the woods. Mush was wasted and often burned. Although they have been condemned for their practices, there was a demand only for quality lumber; It was the price we paid for the development of our nation.

A journey of a few miles with a team of oxen was a slow and tedious process through unbelievably dense growth. The pioneers could not foresee the end of the magnificent forests that extended beyond imagination.

Times were changing rapidly with the growing lumber business and the dwindling fur supply. In 1897, William Gordon moved his large family to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Sawyer County, which was the area where his Indian wife had lived. From there they went to Odanah on the Bad River Reservation and another phase in the life of Philip Gordon began.

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