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John Beargrease: North Shore mail carrier

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon takes its name from an Ojibwe mail carrier named John Beargrease, who was born in 1858 and grew up in a wigwam on the edge of Beaver Bay.

John Beargrease, undated
Courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society
John Beargrease, undated
The US Congress ordered the beginning of mail service from Superior to Grand Portage, Minnesota, in 1855, but service was spotty. John Beargrease and his brothers came to the rescue. They began covering a regular mail route between Two Harbors and Grand Marais in 1879.

Since 1980, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has attracted competitors and racers from the United States and around the world. Beginning in Duluth and running 400 miles along the north shore of Lake Superior to the Canadian border, the Beargrease is one of the longest, most grueling race routes outside Alaska.

The race takes its name from an Ojibwe mail carrier named John Beargrease, who was born in 1858 and grew up in a wigwam on the edge of Beaver Bay, the first white settlement on the North Shore. John was the son of Moquabimetem, who also went by the name “Beargrease,” a leader who settled in the area with a small group of Ojibwe to work at Beaver Bay’s sawmill.

The US Congress ordered the beginning of mail service from Superior to Grand Portage in 1855, but service was spotty—if the lake was choppy in summer or icy in winter, the mail didn’t make it through. The Beargrease family came to the rescue—first the father and then the sons picked up the job. John Beargrease and his brothers began covering a regular route between Two Harbors and Grand Marais in 1879. Occasionally, they’d make the trek all the way to Grand Portage. They completed their route at least once and sometimes twice a week, with a load of up to 700 pounds of personal mail, packages, and newspapers. In the summer, they hiked along the shore, sailed, or rowed a boat. In the winter, they made the trek by dog sled.

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John Beargrease’s team of four dogs could cover thirty to forty miles a day. When the bells were heard in the distance, people gathered, not only to receive long-awaited news of friends and relatives but also for reports of ice conditions, snow depths, and other vital information. For decades, until his death from tuberculosis in 1910, John Beargrease was the link to the outside world for the citizens of the North Shore.

“Day or night or good weather or bad made no difference with John Beargrease,” writes Willis H. Raff in Pioneers in the Wilderness. “He was sure to arrive some time with the mail intact. When he reached his journey’s end with his faithful dog team, they would all rest up for a short while and start the return trip, regardless of the weather. Nature’s wild wintry blasts had no terrors for faithful John.”

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

Kate Roberts

Kate Roberts holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, is a senior exhibits developer for the Minnesota Historical Society, and directed the exhibit development for the popular Mill City Museum. She lives in Minneapolis.