On horseback and in wagons, 20 hunters headed west from Minneapolis and St. Paul to what they called “the promised land.”
They emerged from the Big Woods to find a rolling prairie, with “crystal lakes of the most perfect purity, and surrounded by groves of majestic oaks and maples.”
“And for game, speak about a ‘sportsman’s paradise!'” These are the words of John Swainson who wrote about his 1856 adventure. He wrote about seeing numerous deer, “gangs of elk,” and waters that “swarmed” with "wild fowls, ducks, geese and swans.” The hunters flushed sharp-tailed grouse on the prairie and in every grove, ruffed grouse “were found in the greatest abundance.”
As for fishing: “In any of the lakes you need only throw a line to catch all that you wanted, and more, too, of pickerel, pike or black bass.”
This was the Kandi-johi country, he wrote, rumored to be the finest part of the territory in the wilderness west of Minneapolis.
The adventures of Swainson and his hunting companion are told again today in “Hunting Adventures on the Minnesota Frontier, Sportsmen’s Tales from 1850 – 1900.” The recently published book by Tom Landwehr is a compilation of stories that featured adventures in Minnesota. Western Minnesota and what is now Kandiyohi County — or Kandi-johi, from the Dakota “where the buffalo fish gather” — are prominent in the book.
Landwehr needed only to make his way over to the Carlton College Library in Northfield to discover this and many other accounts of hunting adventures in Minnesota during the years 1850 to 1900. The microfiche archives of the library held the copied pages of Forest and Stream magazine, where these stories were first published. The editors of this publication were among the early voices for conserving natural resources. Back in 1990, Landwehr perused the stories and copied the magazine accounts of early times in Minnesota.
Landwehr, currently executive director of Save the Boundary Waters, served as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for eight years under Gov. Mark Dayton. With the election of a new governor, Landwehr found himself in between jobs, and finally, with the time he needed to assemble these fascinating accounts into his book.
The challenge facing many in conservation today is the fact that most really do not know what has been lost. No one alive today was a witness to the abundance of game and the beauty of Minnesota’s natural landscape prior to settlement. These are accounts from a time when elk, bison, moose, wolves, grizzly and black bears were as much a part of the Minnesota outdoors as are today’s mix of deer and pheasants. They describe a wild landscape of prairie colored by carpets of flowers, and of lakes and wetlands and forests in which you could still get lost.
For these reasons alone, Landwehr’s work in resurrecting these accounts is a deserving read whether or not you are part of the hook and bullet crowd.
If you are, you will discover that some things never change. These authors pursued their sport with the same passion and enthusiasm that is understood by today’s hunters and anglers.
Kandiyohi County was a destination for many early day hunters, and Landwehr pays the area its due in the articles selected for his 178-page book. He has included a piece under the pen name “Hal A. Dacotah.” The author is actually none other than Henry Hastings Sibley. He recounts an 1847 excursion he made to the area.
Sibley State Park is named in his memory. It’s well-known that the one-time fur trader, brigadier general who had led the Union Army in the U.S.-Dakota War, and former governor had enjoyed hunting this area.
The book includes a selection of articles written about adventures from the Mississippi River to the state’s northwest corner. Readers will recognize many familiar locations in west central Minnesota and the Minnesota River Valley. Author Charles Zimmerman writes about shooting waterfowl in the pass between Lake Koronis and Mud Lake. His party left Litchfield at 2 a.m. on horses to reach their destination on a frosty Nov. 15, according to the 1875 story.
There are also accounts of the Upper Minnesota River Valley and Lac qui Parle lake area.
Landwehr introduces each article with background information on the author and the area described by the author. In the article on the Kandi-johi country, the article is published with the author identified only by the initials “J.S.” Landwehr surmises it is John Swainson, who became a land speculator.
Swainson and his partners were so impressed by what they found on that hunting trip that they purchased the area on the northern edge of lakes Kasota and Minnetaga, Landwehr points out in his introduction. As many local history buffs know, they had hopes of seeing the site become the state’s capital.
Here is Swainson’s introduction to what is now Big Kandiyohi Lake: “ ... a sheet of water of indescribable beauty, surrounded by groves of the finest timber.”
Landwehr’s passion for hunting and his work in natural resources has given him the opportunity to explore virtually every corner of the state. Many of the natural areas Minnesotans appreciate today are protected thanks to the conservation efforts began by these early day sportsmen and their accounts. They are all the more interesting to hear today, and every bit as important. If we are going to protect our outdoor heritage is to be protected, we need to know where we started.
Copies of the book are available on eBay for $19.95 https://tinyurl.com/y5ryb7q.