Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

How turn-of-the-century lumber speculation destroyed the Bois Forte Ojibwe homeland

By the 1920s, dams and deforestation had so damaged the landscape that it could no longer support the tribe’s subsistence economy, and its members were forced onto their reservation at Nett Lake.

historical photo of a lumber camp
Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Camp 39, about one mile north of Echo Lake, ca. 1916. Visible are the root house (in the foreground, next to the office) and the filling shack.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

From 1890 to 1910, timber speculators and lumbermen patented most of the valuable pine lands in north-central Minnesota — the homeland of the Bois Forte Ojibwe. By the 1920s, dams and deforestation had so damaged the landscape that it could no longer support the tribe’s subsistence economy, and its members were forced onto their reservation at Nett Lake.

On April 7, 1866, the Bois Forte Ojibwe signed a treaty that transferred two million acres of their homeland (between Lake Vermillion and the Canadian border) to the United States. They continued, however, to live on and harvest the natural resources of their original territory.

In 1892, Congress extended the provisions of the Timber and Stone Act to Minnesota, allowing any individual to purchase 160 acres of white pine for only $2.50 an acre. Citizens of Tower and Duluth realized that the best tracts would be worth ten times that, and a flood of land speculation swept the area.

Wirt Cook, a Duluth timber speculator, organized expeditions to the Bois Forte area to select the best white pine. He and other lumbermen fronted the $400 price for 160 acres. In a scheme later denounced as bribery by the Duluth Evening Herald, they then paid entry men and women $50 to $100 for each timber and stone patent, and within ten years, lumbermen had patented hundreds of claims. But with no means of bringing the timber to market, they remained absentee landlords, and most of the Bois Forte Ojibwe continued to subsist on their ancestral lands.

Article continues after advertisement

Duluth land agent Charles H. Maginnis realized that he could buy land certificates given to Spanish American War veterans as a bonus for service. He could then sell these soldiers’ additional homesteads (SAHs) cheaply and easily. He carefully selected his pine lands in townships that had already attracted the attention of lumbermen; to the north and northeast of Pelican Lake, he used over 450 SAHs to patent Bois Forte lands.

Maginnis sold much of his land to Cook and to timber dealers Turrish and Daniels. In August of 1901 Cook decided to begin harvesting his vast timber holdings north of Virginia. Turrish and Daniels, meanwhile, incorporated the Virginia and Rainy Lake Railroad (V&RL) and began laying track north towards the forest. To process the logs into lumber they also constructed a lumber mill on Silver Lake in Virginia. The mill would turn out 300,000 board feet of pine a day.

A year later Cook formed a partnership with St. Croix lumberman William O’Brien. Their Minnesota Land and Construction Company expanded the Virginia mill and started cutting pine on their holdings. In 1905 they incorporated the Virginia and Rainy Lake Company, and the railroad crept into the southern part of the forest.

Lumber companies associated with the Frederick Weyerhaeuser cartel were also buying timber lands in the area. Many of the SAHs patented by Maginnis were sold and resold until they were purchased by the Weyerhaeuser cartel. By 1909, Weyerhaeuser companies had bought up nearly a quarter of Maginnis’s Bois Forte SAHs.

Lumberman Edward Hines of Chicago then proposed a consolidation of all the timber interests north and northeast of Pelican Lake. He and the Weyerhaeuser companies combined with Cook to expand the Virginia and Rainy Lake Company. Hines provided the cash to double the size of the Virginia mill while Cook and Weyerhaeuser contributed close to 2 million dollars of timber.

With the railroad running north of Pelican Lake and the largest white pine lumber mill in the world ready to process over a million board feet of logs a day, the Bois Forte forests were under attack. Although the 1866 treaty had reserved 55,211 acres for the Bois Forte Ojibwe at Nett Lake, as late as 1910, they still occupied 100 percent of their homeland.

The Virginia and Rainy Lake Company completed its logging headquarters at Cusson on land originally homesteaded by Jacob Kieffer. Logging Superintendent Frank Gilmore quickly set up the first logging camp on land patented by Maginnis with Missouri militiaman James R. Laurance’s SAH. Edward Hines, now president of the company, decided to clear cut all timber wherever it was logged. Within two years, his crews had cut 18 million board feet. Meanwhile, hunters on the company’s payroll depleted wild game to feed the loggers.

By the late 1910s, the Bois Forte land was stripped of timber, and dams built to facilitate logging had destroyed the vast wild rice beds of the Rainy Lake watershed. Gradually, the local Ojibwe moved to the Nett Lake reservation; V&RL continued logging until 1929.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.