Ramblings from the Trail

Ellet’s Travel Dashed
by Vicki Pellar Price

Ellet’s travel dashed by the elements and domineering exclusion

There was so much water and a need to move things from one place to another. A small boat, only seven by nine feet, called the “Queen of the Yellow Banks” ran between Stillwater and St Louis bringing shipments of goods to the new white immigrants. The two grand rivers intersected bluffs, burr-oak groves, broad-level plains and bottomlands into a raw and natural expanse of territory that beckoned fashionable tourists and homesteaders. Ellet penned descriptions of water excursions through a formidable wilderness and picturesque water falls for an audience curious about the new territory.

Sandy bottomed lakes and fast running rivers saw the undersides of flat river boats, called le bateau and there were luxurious ferry boats providing passage for fashionable eastern tourists and the birch bark canoes of the Dakota. The “Laughing Waters” of Minne-Ha-Ha, the winding branches and forks of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers gave voice to a land in transition.

When Ellet arrived in St Paul on the steamer Ben Campbell in 1852, the Dakota still lived on the prairie and bottomland hardwood forests. They had a mixed woodland subsistence requiring seasonal movement to hunt, fish, gather and harvest. As farmland began to stretch out over more of their homeland, the Dakota way of life disappeared; natives that remained were forced to beg and steal for sustenance. For the new settlers living included pockets of settlements and homesteads surrounded by wide tracts of wilderness, invading Indians and eventually the disappearance of their tribes and villages.

And the mud, travel was often dashed by virtual rivers of it. On route to one location of interest Ellet’s wagon descended into a prairie slough, which appeared as “green turf.” In an instant a wagon wheel and horse’s foot sunk irrecoverably. Even with ropes and stakes, escape was impossible; the travelers were literally stuck in a tar-like and “tenacious mud” of which there was no departure. With horses and wagon now both sprawled in the “black ooze,” Ellet imagined spending dark hours miles from any “human habitation.”

Ellet utilized every mode of transportation available, traveling on wooden carts pulled by oxen, on foot, onboard steamboats, on bateaus poled by boatmen, and aboard the Willoughby and Powers Stage Coach Line on its Grand Tour from St Paul to St Anthony. Aboard the Ben Campbell for the trip to St Paul, Ellet was banished from the shaded view areas. She refused to move and referred to the event as an “attempt at oppression” which was followed by a “struggle,” which “secured complete liberty” and seating amongst men.

Her excursions on the Willow River, St Croix and Snake River remind of a female counterpart to the wilderness jaunts of Natty ‘Hawkeye’ Bumpo, Cooper’s cult-western hero. Unlike Cooper’s fictional “Leatherstocking” series, Ellet’s trip to Minnesota, generated “Summer Rambles in the West,” a romanticized travelogue, in which she claimed some civility amidst a state of incivility. She reconstructed the rugged way of life for her readers describing the contrasts between native and immigrant inhabitants with unabashed honesty: there were white settlers who left one country to live permanently in another and natives whose lands were transferred to white settlers, forcing them to relocate to reservations or become residents of nearby military forts.

Not anywhere resembling the ranks of Minnesota explorer Nicollet or Fremont, a topographical engineer, who brought the latest science to the west, Ellet was the first white women to see the massive bodies of water and intricate inlets of Lake Minnetonka. She passed through unmapped terrain in a treacherous journey to the lake’s ancient hunting grounds. “Big Water,” or “Mide-tonka” was the last vestige of the Dakotas’ sacred home, kept secret from the white man. There were no roads to take so the impracticality of carriages made the trip there possible only on foot or by wagon. Ellet was almost left behind because she was deemed incapable of keeping her seat by the men leading the exploration.

Upon leaving Minnesota Ellet’s group passed bottomlands lined with Indians “dressed in blue and scarlet blankets and head-dresses.” Water levels were so low they had to journey down river in a flat boat for three miles before catching up to a steamboat already in deep water. They boarded the Nominee, the “finest boat on the upper Mississippi,” continuing their journey back home.

Today the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the St. Paul/Rock Island/St Louis/Chicago districts provide vessels information on navigation conditions, a technology unavailable to nineteenth century paddle-wheel steamboats and their captains. Now the rivers are connected by a system of locks to control water levels that warn vessels of obstructions that cause collisions, groundings, and wrecks. Building dams, stone facing embankments, removing sandbars and boulders was a 30 year project to protect the waterways. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services have recently partnered in conservation restoration plans for the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers.