PILLAGER -- Settlers using wooden ox carts -- made of two not completely round wheels and a yoke -- traveled in the 1800s on the Red River Oxcart trails from St. Paul, using the Pillager Gap to reach the Canadian border.

The Red River Oxcart wooded trails connected St. Paul and Minneapolis with the western settlements of the Red River region. These trails carried fur traders, settlers and others bound for the Red River Valley and beyond.

This part of history was shared Tuesday, Aug. 27, by Ron Miles, who lives in Fairview Township in rural Nisswa. Miles told the story of the Red River Oxcart trails and, specifically, the woods trail, which ran from St. Paul to Pembina through the Pillager Gap.

The Red River Oxcart trails history lesson was the fourth presentation in a series of six titled “History In Our Back Yard” at a packed house in the Sylvan Town Hall near Pillager. The series is presented by Sylvan Township and Pillager School Community Education.

Miles shared the history of the Pillager Gap to give folks a sense of place in the lands around them. Miles said archeologist Douglas A. Birk, a friend of his, did extensive research on the Pillager Gap before his death in March 2017. Birk’s wife was in attendance.

The woods trail of the ox carts came through the area from the 1840s through 1870s and was the primary commercial and political route through the Pillager Gap until trains were constructed and steamboats were used.

In Miles’ presentation, history showed the woods trail was not easily traveled, as it “was hemmed in by heavy forest along much of the route, and the rutted path twisted torturously between hills and marshes. There were few bridges or ferries across the many streams and rivers,” he said.

Miles said the Pillager Gap touches the counties of Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena. Fur traders would follow the trail northwest up the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Crow Wing River and through the woods at Crow Wing State Park, just south of Brainerd.

This map shows where the Red River Oxcart trails went through the Pillager Gap back in the early 1800s. Screenshot of Ron Miles presentation
This map shows where the Red River Oxcart trails went through the Pillager Gap back in the early 1800s. Screenshot of Ron Miles presentation

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, with the decline of the fur trade in the 1840s Crow Wing became an outfitting center, serving the oxcart trains on the Red River Trail. The village became the headquarters where Ojibwe Chief Hole-in-the-Day was in power. In 1868, the Native Americans here were removed to the White Earth Reservation and, in 1871, the Northern Pacific Railroad bypassed Crow Wing and built in Brainerd instead. Within a half dozen years, the old trading settlement had become one of Minnesota’s many ghost towns.

Lands around the Red River Oxcart trails became public, including Camp Ripley, Pillager State Forest, Belle Prairie Park in Little Falls and Old Wadena County Park.

Fur trade connected the two countries, United States and Canada. Fort Williams in Thunder Bay, Ontario, became the largest fur trading post in North America. Grand Portage on Lake Superior, just across the border near Fort Williams, was one of the major depots to fur trading companies -- connecting the Great Lakes and the Canadian Northwest. It was best known as a trade depot and company headquarters between 1765 and 1804.

Miles said the fur trade went from the shores of Grand Portage to Lake Athabaska in northeastern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan.

By the time the fur trade was established in Grand Portage in the 18th century, both the French and Ojibwe had many generations of experience in dealing with each other, according to the National Park Service.

Fur trading companies in Canada included the Hudson Bay Co. and North West Co.

Jim Nelson of Pillager, who attended the Pillager Gap presentation, said he grew up north of Moorhead near Georgetown. His mother grew up on the old fur trade site of Georgetown where the Hudson Bay Co. built a warehouse.

“The ox cart traffic went right to the warehouse and traded furs with the traffic going to Winnipeg,” Nelson said. “That is the opposite end of where we are right now.”

Because of Nelson’s roots, he is interested in the history of the ox carts and was pleased with the presentation. Nelson and his wife Karin Nelson have gone to all but one presentation of the Pillager Gap.

“We love to learn more about the history of our area,” Karin Nelson said. “Jim has been trekking around a little bit and exploring the trails. We’ve been to Crow Wing State Park and we canoe a lot so the river history is also very interesting.”

Gary and Mattie Kurilla of Nisswa also have gone to three of the four presentations of the Pillager Gap and said they’ve been interesting. The Kurillas know Miles and were excited to see his presentation. Mattie Kurilla said seeing the ages of the people attending the presentations, she observed the older generations are more interested in history than the younger generations.

Dave Johnson, programming organizer, said the “History In Our Back Yard” six-part series has gone well. The first presentation on May 28 was “The Glaciers and the Impact” and drew an audience of 45 people. The number of people who attend has grown with each presentation, Johnson said, with Tuesday’s attendance of 108 people the most, so far.

“We are pretty much at full capacity tonight,” Johnson said. “It has been absolutely unbelievable to see the reception and interest people have to what is in their backyard.”

Mike North of rural Pillager points on a Sylvan Township map where the trail leads on the Pillager Gap . Jennifer Kraus // Brainerd Dispatch
Mike North of rural Pillager points on a Sylvan Township map where the trail leads on the Pillager Gap . Jennifer Kraus // Brainerd Dispatch

Where and what is the Pillager Gap?

Mike North of rural Pillager, who works for the Brainerd office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, explained where the Pillager Gap is and how it got its name.

“This was all by accident,” North said of digging into the history of the Pillager Gap.

North said he and his wife bought a parcel of land located next to the Chippewa Agency site near Pillager. North said he was at work at the DNR office and noticed a map and wanted to learn more about the history, as the site is on the National Register of Historic Places list.

North said he does not know why archeologists named the area the Pillager Gap. He believes it is called the Pillager Gap because of the land mass surrounding Pillager. The landscaping has high elevation of about 100 feet around the Cass County city and when the glaciers broke it created a gap.

The Pillager Gap is a natural break in rough country proved to be a travel route for generations. The gap was a doorway to the prairies from the east to the west.

The Pillager Gap from the south begins at Crow Wing State Park. The gap crosses the Mississippi River then runs north into southern Cass County to the north side of Crow Wing River. The trail then went northwest in a diagonal direction to Kramer Lake, up to Gull Lake and then back to follow the Crow Wing River. The trail crossed Highway 210 a few times and touched on Wilderness Drive in Sylvan Township, before coming into the middle of Pillager.