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‘Blueberry War’ between Native Americans, settlers bears no fruit

The lynch mob hanging of two American Indians in front of first version of The Last Turn saloon in the late 1800s were suspected in the disappearance of an Old Crow Wing Village woman and that prompted fears of reprisal. Seventy-five soldiers came to Brainerd after Native Americans were seen in town … and it turned out they were there to sell blueberries.

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Wooden mugs hold picked blueberries. Contributed / Daniil Silantev via Unsplash.com

BRAINERD — The so-called “Blueberry War” of the late 1800s between American Indians and European settlers in the Brainerd lakes area was over before it even started.

The area was once a dense pine forest that served the indigenous Chippewa Indians as hunting grounds and blueberry fields according to the city of Brainerd’s website.

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A person holds handfuls of blueberries. Contributed / Hasmik Ghazaryan Olson via Unsplash.com

“The area that would become Brainerd was first seen by white men on Christmas Day, 1805,” according to city officials.

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Jeremy Jackson, a historic investigator and researcher with the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscape Literature Review project team, has extensively researched the “war.”

RELATED: English fur trader helps settle Crow Wing County

“The ‘Blueberry War’ was a St. Paul newspaper prodding the governor at the time for being over reactionary and sending troops to Brainerd,” said Jackson, a Brainerd native.

A pair of White Earth Nation brothers was linked to the 1872 disappearance of Ellen McArthur, a 22-year-old woman from Old Crow Wing Village, now part of Crow Wing State Park.

RELATED: Brainerd’s birth comes at Old Crow Wing Village’s expense

The Native Americans were lynched from a Norway pine in front of The Last Turn Saloon on the corner of Fourth and Front streets in 1872 without a trial.

Jackson is co-author of the historical marker at the site of the hanging in front of the original Last Turn Saloon.

RELATED: Original Last Turn Saloon in Brainerd final stop for unlucky few

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“Fears of retaliation by Ojibwe tribes encamped nearby prompted the sheriff to telegraph the governor of Minnesota to request troops to defend the remote town from imminent reprisal,” Jackson wrote.

About the same time as McArthur’s mysterious disappearance, a family of settlers was allegedly murdered by American Indians in the general vicinity in the spring of 1872.


"There were people that actually got in trains and went to Duluth because they anticipated there was going to be violence."

— Jeremy Jackson


“It was only about 10 years after the U.S.-Dakota War, which was a violent war as there ever was in Minnesota, which occurred during the Civil War … so the earlier pioneers were expecting something similar in Brainerd,” Jackson said.

Minnesota’s National Guard was deployed from St. Paul by the governor and arrived at the Brainerd Headquarters Hotel. The leaders of the Ojibwe were camped on the west bank of the Mississippi River.

A sign on the Dairy Queen property along Washington Street and the Mississippi River in Brainerd denotes the historical significance of the location as, among other things, a one-time trading post.
A sign on the Dairy Queen property along Washington Street and the Mississippi River in Brainerd denotes the historical significance of the location as, among other things, a one-time trading post. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“It was learned that the Indians’ true intent was to trade and sell their harvest of fresh blueberries. … But the anticipation was they were going to come and retaliate against the town of Brainerd,” Jackson said.

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The 75 soldiers came to Brainerd as a result of a wire from Sheriff John Gurrell. The wire was based upon reports that Indians, “sullen and threatening, were gathering in large numbers.”

RELATED: Reconciliation event brings cultures together

“Some citizens were feeling they were there to retaliate for the lynching deaths of the two brothers that were accused in her murder,” Jackson said of McArthur. “There were people that actually got in trains and went to Duluth because they anticipated there was going to be violence.”

A St. Paul newspaper dubbed the deployment of troops to Brainerd as the farcical “Blueberry War,” prodding the governor for being an alarmist, according to Jackson.

RELATED: Prohibition forced Brainerd brewery to shut down

“The troops went and actually met with the chief and the Indians and learned the true intent was to come to town just to sell and trade blueberries,” Jackson said. “It was blueberry harvest season and very common at that time that the Indians would come to town to trade blueberries.”

After a survey of the local situation, 50 of the soldiers were sent back to St. Paul the day after they arrived, according to a Brainerd Dispatch account of the time.

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The site of Dairy Queen along Washington Street and the Mississippi River was once a trading post. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“There was a trading post very close, where the Dairy Queen is now on Washington Street. That building stood until like 1930 something and that actually predated Brainerd as a trading post,” Jackson said.

McArthur’s scattered skeletal remains along with identifiable clothing and the large shawl she carried were all found a little over a mile northeast of Old Crow Wing Village several years after her disappearance.

“I'm creating a pretty large manuscript on the events of the ‘Blueberry War’ because it's a much bigger story than just the murder of Ellen MacArthur and the hanging of the two suspects and the eventual nonevent — the ‘Blueberry War,’” Jackson said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

Related Topics: HISTORYBRAINERD HISTORY
I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write articles for the Wadena Pioneer Journal weekly newspaper owned by Forum Communications Co.
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