As winter was about to descend in 1850, about 4,000 Lake Superior Ojibwe were forced to travel to Minnesota Territory to collect money and goods promised in U.S. government treaties. The new distribution site — Sandy Lake, about 50 miles west of the head of Lake Superior — was "ingeniously contrived," a government agent said, to remove the Ojibwe to Minnesota just as the rivers froze and snow mounted.
When supplies finally arrived a month late, the flour was "hard with lumps" and the pork "heavily perfumed," according to Enmegahbowh, a Canadian-born Ojibwe who had come to Minnesota as a Christian missionary. He warned a tribal leader that the food was unsafe to eat. "But the Indians were hungry," he wrote, and soon "it seemed death was in every home."
Dozens died over the next five days, including many children, until the death toll from disease and starvation at Sandy Lake climbed to 167. Another 230 Ojibwe died as they attempted wintertime returns to homes near Lake Superior, Leech Lake, Gull Lake and Mille Lacs.
"Oh it was dreadful!" Enmegahbowh wrote in a letter. "Weeping and wailing everywhere!"
That grim scene is one of many firsthand accounts in a new book that takes its title from the English translation of Enmegahbowh's name — "Stands Before His People: Enmegahbowh and the Ojibwe."
The book offers a unique vantage point on the Ojibwe of the 1800s, said co-author Verne Pickering, because Enmegahbowh "is the only Native American who interacted between the Native population and the white establishment … and who left a written record."
Pickering, who is 90 and a retired computer engineer from White Bear Lake, met longtime Episcopal priest and co-author Stephen Schaitberger while on the board of Episcopal Community Services, a charity that went defunct in 2010. Schaitberger had amassed a vast collection of Enmegahbowh's letters and invited Pickering to transcribe them, launching an eight-year project that involved nearly 200 letters amid an archive of roughly 1,000 documents.
The result is a deeply researched account of a largely overlooked figure in 19th-century Ojibwe life.
"We've tried to let Enmegahbowh speak to many of the issues, and he was very good about expressing himself," said Schaitberger, who splits his time between Brainerd and Mesa, Ariz. He hopes their book about Enmegahbowh plugs a hole in state history because "a man of his character has been missing from the historical Minnesota narrative."
Enmegahbowh, born in Ontario about 1813, learned English from Methodist missionaries. He took the name John Johnson at his baptism sometime before 1836, the year he first visited the area that would become Minnesota for a treaty conference at Fort Snelling. Within two years, he moved to the future state to serve as a missionary.
After his Methodist mission fizzled in the 1840s, he formed close alliances with Episcopal priests. Bishop Henry Whipple ordained him as a priest in 1867 — the first Ojibwe Episcopal priest, according to the book.
"Enmegahbowh was a man between two worlds," Pickering said in an e-mail, who "always represented himself as an evangelist. He adopted many of the white man's habits but remained an Ojibwe."
Along with its account of the Sandy Lake tragedy in 1850, the book explores Enmegahbowh's role in curbing the chaos that erupted during the outset of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Enmegahbowh's wife, Charlotte, was a niece of the great Ojibwe Chief Hole-in-the-Day (the Elder), whose son and successor, Hole-in-the-Day (the Younger), organized a small group of warriors to attack whites for cheating the tribe — at the same time that Little Crow was leading Dakota fighters to reclaim Native lands 200 miles to the south.
Enmegahbowh tipped off white leaders of a possible attack on the settlers' agency on the Crow Wing River. By the time warriors reached the agency, Ojibwe scouts told them the whites were well prepared to rebuff any attack, and it was called off.
Enmegahbowh died with little fanfare on the White Earth Reservation around the age of 90 in 1903, and he was buried in St. Columba Episcopal Church Cemetery on the reservation. He'd outlived many of his fellow Episcopal leaders, including missionary James Lloyd Breck and Whipple, his longtime friend and recipient of many of his letters. "No dignitaries attended the funeral," according to the book.
"Enmegahbowh was the herald of all our Indian work … the man who first opened the door for all that has since followed of God's work for the Indians," said Theodore Holcombe, another early Minnesota Episcopalian.
In the new book's preface, Schaitberger admits he was self-conscious about writing Ojibwe history as a white man. But he said Ojibwe friends urged him to put his years of research into a book.
"My prayer for the future," Schaitberger writes, "is that Ojibwe authors will build upon this work and offer their perspectives."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.