The Legend of Ojibwe John Beargrease and the Annual Sled Dog Marathon That Bears His Name
Today, March 10, the 29th Running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon kicks off in Duluth, Minnesota. The race up in Alaska may be getting most of the headlines right now, but the John Beargrease dog sled race is truly an American Indian special: John Beargrease was an Ojibwe man and the inspiration for this annual 390-mile competition. You can follow all the action at the official race site, Beargrease.com. Meanwhile, we present an article on the man and the history behind the grueling test of man and dog that ICTMN.com originally published in February 2011, after the conclusion of the 27th annual marathon.
When one of the longest and most-respected dogsled races in the lower 48 was run January 30 through February 2, it included a tribute to the Ojibwe man for whom it is named. The 390-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon honors the mail-carrier who braved appalling weather and questionable trails to deliver mail at the turn of the 20th century, traveling by dog team or by boat the 90 miles between Two Harbors and Grand Marais along the sometimes treacherous shoreline of Lake Superior. More than 100 years after his death, John Beargrease seems an unlikely candidate for celebrity status, but he has been the inspiration for this race, a children’s picture book and at least two biographies, one of them (as yet) unpublished. He is also one of the Minnesota Historical Society’s 150 people, places and things that make Minnesota great. Beargrease now inspires a new generation of mushers, including a young woman who is a distant relation—Billie Diver, a musher and member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Diver, a nursing student at the University of North Dakota, became interested in mushing when she was just 3, after her mother took her to visit a friend’s dog team. She was smitten with the dogs and the idea of riding behind a team, and when she was 7, she began working with teams. Diver first participated in the mid-distance portion of the John Beargrease race when she was 15. “It was really cool,” she said. “It meant a lot more to me [because of Beargrease’s name].”
While it took John Beargrease two to three days to travel one way with four dogs from Two Harbors, northeast of Duluth, to Grand Marais, it takes mushers about two days to make the complete circuit with teams of eight dogs. John Beargrease was born in Beaver Bay, Minnesota, in 1858. His father, Moquabimetem, also called John Beargrease, had recently moved there with several Ojibwe families to work at a sawmill founded by German immigrants. John and his two older brothers were taught to hunt, trap and fish by their father and they became very familiar with the trail that runs along the shore of Lake Superior that was blazed by the Ojibwe people and later used in the fur trade and commercial fishing. When he was about 19, he married Louise Wishcob of another well-known Ojibwe family in the area, and they had 11 or 12 children. As was true for many men in the Ojibwe and European immigrant families who lived in this rugged place that still didn’t have roads in the late 1800s, John Beargrease acquired a broad range of skills. He provided for his family by fishing and hunting, but he also worked in the sawmill, joined the crews of freight and passenger ships on the big lake, did commercial fishing, served as a guide and worked the ore docks in Two Harbors. He is most remembered, though, for his nearly 20 years of delivering the U.S. mail along the Minnesota shore of the lake, often using that old Ojibwe trail. Beargrease Biography, Holy Cow Press, 2008 He was a sinewy man just under six feet tall whose mail delivery in the small towns was heralded by his frequent singing and the bells attached to his dog harnesses. Until Lake Superior got too icy each winter, Beargrease and other mail carriers used a rowboat with sails. He once made the 90-mile trip from Two Harbors and Grand Marais along Minnesota’s North Shore in just 20 hours by boat—28 hours was his fastest time by dog team. “It was the North Shore version of the Pony Express,” said Daniel Lancaster, whose book John Beargrease, Legend of Minnesota’s North Shore was published in 2008 by Holy Cow Press. While researching for that book, Lancaster was struck by the friendly interactions between the Ojibwe and European immigrant families in Beaver Bay from its beginnings in 1856, shortly after the La Pointe Treaty of 1854 opened the North Shore to white settlement. “It’s a great story because it’s very much a symbiotic codependency that formed between those two communities,” he said. “What I enjoyed… was to see how the one culture influenced the other culture. And it seemed to be a really positive relationship on both sides.” Last year Bob Abrahamson, a registered nurse and photographer in Superior, Wisconsin, found an unpublished biography of Beargrease among his great uncle William Scott’s papers. Scott was a probate judge in Two Harbors who became involved with the Lake County Historical Society. In the late 1950s he collaborated on a series of books about the North Shore that was to include the Beargrease biography. Scott interviewed several octogenarians who had known Beargrease. A Two Harbors resident, Madeline James Fillinger, told him: “The Post Office, when John Beargrease carried the mail, was right across the street from where my father then had his drugstore.… Invariably, when John Beargrease arrived with the mail, he left it over at the Post Office and then came over to our store to get warm. The trip from Grand Marais probably took him two or three days, and after such a long time in the cold air, he would quickly become drowsy and would doze off in the armchair.” For John Beargrease and the other mail carriers on Lake Superior, delivery could be dangerous. Story has it that Beargrease got his job after a mail carrier fell through the ice with horses and a sleigh. That man made it out alive but immediately quit. Beargrease knew his environment well enough that he and his four-dog team, and later his two-horse team, rarely encountered such disasters, though they were occasionally stranded by blizzards. His death in 1910 may have been caused by Lake Superior’s icy waters. There are two versions of the story. In one, Beargrease jumped in the lake to rescue a mail carrier floundering in the water near the shore after leaving his rowboat during a storm. The other story, which biographer Lancaster favors, has Beargrease in the floundering boat and jumping into the water to help the other carrier, who was trying to steady their boat. Both accounts say that Beargrease died of pneumonia caught from the chill of the freezing waters. The official record, however, indicates that the cause of death was tuberculosis. Last week, as mushers gathered to run a race that traces his well-worn trail, it was a pleasing turn of history to have a legend made of a humble man who did what needed to be done to provide for his family and his community. As Scott concluded in his unpublished biography of John Beargrease: “[His] fame came not by doing some specific heroic act, but rather, when he had work to do or a job to perform, however humble or big, he did so dependably, cooperatively and conscientiously. He did his best. Can anything be more praiseworthy than that?