The first occupants of the territory, of what is now Becker County, of which we have any definite knowledge, were the Indians known as the Otter Tail band of Pillagers They ranged over a considerable extent of country, but their favorite resort was the Otter Tail River, and the country adjacent thereto. This range of country was an ideal home, and a veritable paradise for the Indians. The time was when buffalo were numerous, and men are still living who have killed them in Becker County. Still later, when the elk was very abundant, and not more than fifty or sixty years ago, elk meat was the principal source of food throughout northwestern Minnesota, and later still up to the present time, venison was to be had in considerable quantity, but what was of far more value to them than all these were the numerous lakes stocked with countless numbers of fish of the finest quality, and the abundant supplies of wild rice that could be obtained around the borders of these lakes. Game might sometimes become scarce, and once in a long time the wild rice might fail, but the supply of fish was inexhaustible and never failing. Where is the Indian that would starve in the vicinity of any of these lakes before they were depleted of fish by the white man?
Alexander Mackenzie, who explored Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean, in 1789, and who also led the first expedition across the North American Continent to the Pacific in 1793, and who was in those days the leading spirit of the northwestern fur trade, in writing of this country more than one hundred years ago said: "There is not, perhaps, a finer country in the world for the residence of uncivilized man, than that which occupies the space between the Red River of the North and Lake Superior. It abounds in everything necessary to the wants and comfort of such a people. Fish, venison and fowl, with wild rice are in great plenty, while at the same time, their subsistence requires that bodily exercise so necessary to health and vigor."
Up to the time of the Sioux outbreak in 1862, and the expulsion soon afterwards of the Sioux from Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas, the Chippewas in this vicinity were liable to frequent raids from these Indians, and bloody battles were fought in some of the adjoining counties. Many years ago the Sioux held possession of the Otter Tail River country for some time, and the numerous mounds along the river, and in other parts of the country are said by the Chippewas to have been built by the Sioux. Some of these mounds are of considerable size, especially those near the outlet of Height of Land Lake, some of them being ten or twelve feet high with a base of thirty or forty feet in breadth. There are others quite prominent on the farm of I. J. Collins, near Frazee, also three or four a little west of the bridge across the Otter Tail River on Section 23, in Erie Township, some near Round Lake on the White Earth Reservation, some at Shell Lake, and two or three near Detroit Lake on the little prairie a few rods west of where the Pelican River flows into the lake.
When the Sioux left Becker County as a place of abode, no one appears to be able to tell, but it must have been more than one hundred years ago. The date of their final relinquishment is the 19th of August 1825.
The Otter Tail band occupied the country as individuals and families, but I can find no trace of anything resembling the appearance of a village, or permanent headquarters for the habitations of the people anywhere in the county, previous to the settlement of the Indians at White Earth in 1868. There were, however, occasional temporary gatherings, and the outlet of Height of Land Lake was the most frequent place of rendezvous. This, by the way, was the most beautiful and romantic spot in Becker County and would have been an admirable place for a white man's village. Aside from its natural loveliness and ease of access there had been a fish trap built across the Otter Tail River, a short distance below the outlet, a long time ago, where fish could be secured in abundance at all seasons of the year. At the upper end of Height of Land Lake and the two lakes first above mentioned were the most extensive and valuable wild rice beds in the whole region of country; all of which made tile vicinity of Height of Land Lake a kind of wigwam metropolis for the Otter Tail Indians on various occasions.
Many of the Pine Point and Otter Tail Indians were born in Becker County. John Rock was born at Floyd Lake near Detroit in 1844, and Kab-a-mab-hie was born at Rice Lake, three miles south of Frazee, a short time afterwards.
While there was constant warfare between the Sioux and Chippewas, and the Chippewas living in Becker County were kept in a state of perpetual dread and anxiety from fear of the Sioux, there is no record or remembrance on the part of any of the older people of any actual fighting, of any importance in Becker County.
Wars and battles, which are so largely interwoven into the history of nearly all the nations of the earth, and of which it is largely made up, have no place in its history or traditions. Not a trace or scent of the smoke of battle can be found through all the dim and hazy recollections of the past. The white-winged dove of peace has faithfully and successfully watched and hovered over the destinies of Becker County, as far back as the memory and knowledge of the red man can reach.
In the meantime many bloody tragedies were enacted In Otter Tail and other neighboring counties. A terrible battle was fought between the Sioux and Chippewas at Battle Lake in Otter Tail County, more than one hundred years ago. W. W Warren, the historian of the Chippewa Nation, in giving an account of this battle in 1851 says, that it was fought fifty-seven years ago. This would place the date of the battle in the year 1794.
A war party of forty-five Chippewas, belonging to the Mississippi band, recklessly attacked a camp of three or four hundred Sioux, who were partly concealed in a grove of timber on the shores of one of these lakes. Soon after the fighting began the Chippewas retreated to a patch of tall grass which afforded them a temporary protection, but the Sioux swarmed around them, and outnumbering them eight to one, the little band was nearly annihilated, two-thirds of their number leaving their bones on the battlefield. The Sioux also suffered terribly; losing a far greater number of warriors than the Chippewas.
Basswood, a Chippewa Indian, belonging to the original band of the Otter Tail Pillagers, and who is now seventy-four years old, still resides at the south end of Basswood Lake. His land is in Sections 34 and 35, Township 142, Range 37. His father lived there before him and there is where he died. Basswood's home has been in the same place all his lifetime, although he and his father have been away frequently on hunting excursions, some of which were of considerable length.
There is a good sized island in the lake covered with a heavy growth of Basswood timber, which in years gone by served as an asylum of retreat and seclusion for the Basswood family, whenever a war party of Sioux invaded the neighborhood.
I questioned him regarding the relations of the Chippewas toward the Sioux in his younger days, and he stated that while there was much fighting between the two nations from fifty to seventy-five years ago, he never knew of any battles being fought in what is now Becker County, but that when a boy, there was a battle fought between the Sioux and the Chippewas at Grave Lake in Otter Tail County. I told him I had never heard of Grave Lake. He replied that it was not more than fifteen miles from Frazee, and lay directly west from Rush Lake only a few miles. I told him it must be Dead Lake, and he said I was right; the proper name was the Lake of the Dead. He was not present at the battle, but referred me to another Indian by the name of Ma-king who was there on that fatal occasion. Ma-king lives about four miles north of Pine Point, and I looked him up. He is now (1905) about seventy years old and in poor health. He stated that he was born on the north side of Detroit Lake, where the village by that name now stands, and his home has been within the limits of what is now Becker County ever since. When he was a boy, somewhere between the age of five and ten years, and as near as we could figure it out, with the help of Frank Smith, our interpreter, about the year 1843 or 1844, there was a terrible slaughter at Dead Lake. It was not much of a battle, but was cold-blooded murder, a veritable massacre of old men, women and children. The able-bodied men of the Chippewa camp had gone away either on a hunting excursion or warlike expedition, and had left their old men and their own families, to the number of about fifty people, in the seclusion of a heavily timbered point of land on the east shore of Dead Lake. This place is fifteen miles from the Becker County line and is nearly due south from Frazee.
After living there for a few days in fancied security, they were suddenly surprised by a war party of Sioux, who came in from the east on the land side and fired upon the defenceless camp without a moment's warning. Nearly half of the party were shot down at the first fire, including nearly every man in the camp.
There was great consternation and excitement among the Chippewas and they undertook to scatter away into the woods for shelter, but every avenue of retreat was cut off in that direction, and their only recourse was to take to their canoes, three or four of which we soon loaded down with women and children. Many of them were shot while fleeing across the water. Only one of the old men and thirteen women and children escaped. All the others, between thirty and forty were killed. Ma-king, his mother and a small brother escaped. His father had been killed the winter before by the Sioux in the vicinity of Red River.
This tragedy is corroborated by Henry Way, who settled in Otter Tail County more than forty years ago, and who heard it related frequently by the Indians as having occurred something like twenty years before that time. He says that the lake went by the name of the Lake of the Dead in those days.