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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 5 - Murder and 'Buried Gold'

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

There was another excitement during the summer; William Gordon had come to Odanah, not as a great Indian chief, but as Chief of the Indian Police and interpreter at the Indian Agency. During his first year as chief, he had the unpleasant duty of arresting his own uncle.

Joseph Blackburn and his brother, John, had come from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Stillwater, Minnesota, in 1847. They went into business together and traded all over Minnesota and into Wisconsin. Later they split up. John went to work for the Shell Lake Lumber Company and Joe opened a trading post about 10 miles southeast of Gordon in 1860. He married Mary Dingley, sister of Sarah, Philip's grandmother.

Joe was accused of trespass in his transactions for timber rights when he allegedly hauled off lumber from government lands. A warrant was given to Bill Gordon, which he served on his uncle. He took Joe to Madison and testified against him in Federal Court. Blackburn was fined $10,000. He wrote a check for that amount on the First National Bank of Stillwater. The court, being skeptical, wired the bank. The answer came back, "Blackburn's check up to $50,000 will be honored."

Blackburn came to a tragic end, no doubt due to his wealth. One October 1, 1897, he returned from the Eau Claire Lakes with a wagonload of cranberries. He had unhitched his horses from the wagon but had not yet removed the harnesses, when he was apparently attacked by an unknown assailant. Evidence showed indications of a fight and Blackburn was killed by a blow on the head with a blunt instrument. His axe, which had been fastened to his wagon with a leather thong, was found near his body and was either the murder weapon or he had used it defending himself. The crime has never been solved.

The story was revived in 1932 when the Superior Evening Telegram published and article, "Pioneer Sheds Light on 'Buried Gold' Narrative." The paper had received a letter from Frank Berquist, pioneer Gordon resident and old friend of Blackburn.

The letter stated, "A man who gave his name as Akerly and his residence as Minnesota, recently told District Attorney Claude Copper that he had been told by 'spirits' that there was gold in an Indian squaw's grave at Gordon, Wisconsin.

"Akerly's story was connected with Blackburn's death by courthouse employees, for although Blackburn was reputed to be a wealthy man, after his death none of his wealth was ever found… From time to time since Blackburn's death, stories have been circulated as to the whereabouts of the money Blackburn was supposed to have and now sow some persons believe the money is in the wife's coffin."

Father Gordon, who was at Centuria, Wisconsin at the time the above item was published, wrote, "Joe Blackburn was quite a figure in his time. When his wife Mary died, seven years before his death occurred, Blackburn erected a chapel in which eight or ten people could pass with seats arranged so that visitors could sit while viewing the closed coffin. Her grave was never filled up and I often wondered how evidence of corruption did not make it impossible to enter the chapel."

It was an old Indian custom to build a little wooden house about five feet long and two or three feet high over a grave with a place for a food offering. Some of these may still be seen in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Blackburn's was much larger than that.

After reading the newspaper article, Father Gordon wrote, "My father often related incidents pertaining to Blackburn's wealth. On one occasion, after a winter's logging, Blackburn came home to Gordon bearing a small oaken chest under his arm. My father saw therein hundreds of bills, greenbacks of various denominations, and estimated there was easily several thousand dollars in the box.

"It is my father's opinion that the money of Joe Blackburn, who lived almost a miser's existence, dressing poorly, traveling very little and never know to have any immediate relatives other than a brother, is somewhere on the premises formerly occupied by Blackburn. The idea that Black burn hid the treasure, if he had any, in the coffin of his deceased wife sounds improbably put would not have been impossible."

Mr. Berquist, in is letter, added, "Blackburn was one of the most picturesque and best liked of the early settlers in the vicinity of Gordon…"

"Blackburn did not live in a shack, but a large hewed timber building, which had accommodations for forty men or more and his building still stands (1932). Lumberjacks going to and from the camps, used to stop at the Blackburn place and there were several other good sized buildings on the land, one being used as a trading post… Black burn was a man who did not have much to say but always helped anyone in need."

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