people know the quick version of the John Beargrease story: The
son of an Ojibwe chief who grew up on the rugged North Shore in
the 1850s, he started delivering mail by boat, dogsled and foot
and didnt let up for two decades
Lancaster, an editor from Minneapolis who keeps a vacation home
near Silver Bay, wanted to know more. He was thinking about writing
a piece of historical fiction based on Beargreases life, and
went looking for a definitive work on the namesake of the annual
Northeastern Minnesota sled-dog marathon. To his surprise, there
was none, and thus began Lancasters obsession.
began combing through turn-of-the-century newspaper clippings, correspondence
from the Bois Forte Band of Lake Superior Chippewa archives, even
the single remaining volume of records from a state mental institution
that operated in Fergus Falls, Minn.
emerged was his new book, John Beargrease: Legend of Minnesotas
North Shore, a portrait of Beargrease as one of the usual
heroes who lived and worked along the edge of Lake Superior.
He and his brothers delivered mail for nearly two decades, providing
one of the only links to the outside world for the tiny but growing
winter, Beargreases arrival in Beaver Bay, Lutsen or Lax Lake
was heralded by the jingling bells strung to his sled dogs
harnesses. People would gather around to greet him, reach for their
mail and ask for news from up and down the shore, and soon enough
Beargrease would be off again to finish the two-day trip between
Two Harbors and Grand Marais.
was a hero in those days, Lancaster said. He was one
of many North Shore mail carriers that performed these amazing feats.
why did Beargrease became a legend, but fellow mail carrier Louis
Plante, who also relayed mail up and down the shore, did not? Lancaster
thinks it might be because Beargrease was a sociable man who left
a strong impression.
made a lot of friends, so people just remembered him, Lancaster
said Beargrease also was standing at the crossroads between
modern America and the old world.
story is so connected with the settlement and development of the
North Shore, and the great loss the Ojibwe suffered,
Lancaster said. His generation saw that transition. To me,
Beargrease was unique in that he successfully lived in both worlds.
how the American Indian community fared during Beargreases
time was intriguing to Jim Perlman, editor and publisher of Holy
Cow! Press in Duluth.
history presents the almost uncomfortable relationships between
the white settlers and the Indians who were here beforehand,
Perlman said. Thats sanitized in other history books.
great loss, Lancaster said, was the lack of oral history from Beargreases
descendants. That was the result of the government-imposed Indian
boarding school era, where children were forcibly divorced from
their parents and their own culture, cutting off the oral traditions
that would have kept alive more stories of Beargreases exploits.
retiring in 1899, Beargrease made his home in Beaver Bay and Grand
Portage. He died in 1910 after leaping into Lake Superiors
frigid water to save another mail carrier. Both men emerged from
the lake, but Beargrease contracted pneumonia and died months later,
at the approximate age of 48.
work he accepted he performed under harsh conditions, Perlman
said. He required ingenuity and fortitude to carry out his
thousands of people gather each year to cheer teams competing in
the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon along the North Shore, and
the first musher to leave the starting gate is always the ghost
of John Beargrease. The fanfare might surprise the man who became
a legend, Lancaster said.
was a private citizen, Lancaster said. He would certainly
be astounded that he is remembered and celebrated to this day.