TIME was when the Minnesota Big Woods extended one hundred miles in length and forty miles in breadth, stretching from Mankato to the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. In writings from the year 1850 this large, wooded area was given the name “Bois Franc,” indicative of the nationality of the first explorers who blazed trails in the region. With English ascendancy the tract became known as “The Big Woods.”
What we know now as the Nerstrand Woods is a small remnant of that virgin forest. It was called “Tyske-skogen” (German Woods) by early Norse settlers. Located twelve miles south of Northfield, in Wheeling Township, Rice County, it comprises about twelve hundred acres. Fortunately, this much is at long last being preserved as a state park. Here we can still see hard maples, basswood, ash, red oak, and black walnut trees, as well as wild plum, hawthorne, thorn apple, dogwood, and sumac, standing in fields of hepaticas, anemones, blood-roots, white, yellow, and purple violets, dog-tooth violets, bellworts, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine, with an occasional lady-slipper, and numerous ferns. There is also, surprisingly, a little trickle of a waterfall, where the many varieties of birds find welcome refreshment, and to which the agile brown and gray squirrels leap for draughts of cool water. What an idyllic vastness the Big Woods must have been during the many years when the prevailing sounds were the whispering of leaves, the buzzing of insects, the caroling of birds, the scampering of small animals, and the barely perceptible tread of larger animals on the spongy softness of carpets fabricated through decades of falling leaves under the thickly set, tall tree giants! No human beings to be frightened by the sudden hoot of an owl, the cry of a wolf, or the growl of a bear. And no sound of ax or saw to startle the denizens of the forest primeval.
The picture changed somewhat with the arrival of the Red Men. Then was added the whizzing sound of fleet arrows, vying in speed with the winged creatures of nature. Deer, bear, beaver, mink, marten, otter, and badgers were slain — not in sport, but as a means of subsistence.
The abundance of the provision in the natural resources of the land was marvelous for those who used it for maintenance and not for profit. The Red Men found all their wants amply supplied — as to food, clothing, shelter, and implements. Wild animals provided their meat; waterfowl their eggs; the trees, fruit; the bushes, berries; the vines, grapes; the hard maple, syrup; the inland lakes, wild rice. The skins of animals furnished their clothing — fashioned into shirts, skirts, leggings, moccasins, and caps. From herbs and roots the medicine men concocted remedies for bodily ills — such as the intricate rites and faith treatments failed to cure.
The trees were useful in scores of ways. Well the Indians knew the quality and worth of each and every variety. From the bark of the birch they fashioned teepees and wigwams to live in, boxes for storing foods, buckets to catch the maple sap; and, from the longest, widest, heaviest strips their lightweight, water-tight canoes, “that float led] upon the river like a yellow leaf in autumn, like a yellow water-lily.” For picture painting, too, the smooth birch bark was used, as well as the white skin of reindeer.
Their bows were made of ash wood, or of the chokecherry tree; and “From the oak-bough [they] made the arrows, tipped with flint, and winged with feathers. And the cord [they] made of deer skin.” The long cottonwood and butternut logs were hollowed out into sturdy, one-piece canoes. From the bark, stem, roots, and seeds of various trees and bushes color-fast dyes were produced. The tough bark of the basswood was woven into mats to place on earthen floors. From the soft, pliable willow branches the “Sits Beside-Him Woman” wove artistic baskets and trimmed them with red-stemmed dogwood. Baskets of birch bark she laced with strands of aspen. The thorns of the hawthorne bush supplied needles, and the inside bark of the basswood sapling a strong thread for sewing the leather garments. As for the baby — she “rocked him in his linden cradle, bedded soft in moss and rushes, safely bound with reindeer sinews.”
“The Indians worked with nature and never tried to control it.” They felt the “ancient rhythms of earth.” Their “keeping step with nature was the basis of all their beautiful ceremonials.”
When the White Men came, as explorers and traders, into this wooded area, the rhythm was broken. Enticed by brightness and newness, the Indians exchanged furs for gaily colored, woven blankets, for guns, liquor, beads, and trinkets. Their appearance, habits, values changed accordingly. Discordant notes came in.
When the pioneers appeared after the traders the scene became an entirely new one. Not only were the forest inhabitants deeply affected, but the forest itself was radically disturbed. Where the Red Men had been satisfied to cut one tree, the White Men chopped down hundreds, hauling out load after load with their teams of oxen. Wood was a necessity in the building of houses for themselves and for their cattle, and also for fuel. Furs they amassed in excess of their needs, for sale in foreign marts. Not depending entirely on animals and fruit from the woods for sustenance, the White Men cleared the woodland and planted grain. Next came the grist mills, built along the rivers. Gradually, saw mills, too, sprang up to cut lumber for more elegant housing than that with crude, whole logs.
All this was very strange to the Indians. They swarmed around to look, with much grunting, at the queer antics of the white strangers, who built “up and down houses.” They continued, however, for some time to live on in their own, somewhat modified style, but on more or less friendly terms with their uninvited, queer neighbors. For the land preempted by the intruders they received money from the federal government, and with this they had the new experience of buying the White Man’s products. To get their money they walked a trail to Red Wing, crossing the Cannon River at the location of Waterford. Who can say which were grater, their gains or their losses?
No longer were the Big Woods the Indians’ own hunting grounds. Little by little, the Red Men were forced into reservations. Their supplanters continued arduously to carve their own type of communities out of the Big Woods territory.
As It Was In The Beginning
To Be Read First, Please
The Big Woods
On the Banks of the Cannon
Up to Manitou Heights
The Hall in the Woods
From Dawn to Dusk
A New Tree Grows on Manitou
In and Out Among the Trees
Boughs and Branches
The Woods Recede