The Last of the Chippewa Mail Runners

Some time ago I stumbled upon this fascinating story about one Antoine Dennis. The article is from the Wisconsin Magazine of History, and is from the issue years of 1938-1939.

The correspondent, Arthur Tenney Holbrook, recounts a tale of a tale.

Mr. Holbrook laments the fact that his son had to trek nine miles on foot to get back to his residence one night. Mr. Dennis, now 84, says – is that it?

Next time you drive to work, take a look at your odometer and measure out 9 miles. No short distance, that.

The next assignment is to see how far 65 miles is on your odometer. You see, that is the distance that Antoine Dennis carried the mail back and forth, over and over. This distance would take him two days. Oh yes, he did it carrying the mail, some pork, tea, a blanket in winter, and probably not much else. 65 miles is the distance between Superior, Wisconsin, and the city of Bayfield, Wisconsin. These cities are on the northernmost edge of the state, on the south shores of Lake Superior. For those not familiar with the geography, here is a simple look at that distance. It is still pretty remote, even today. This guy must have been one hard hombre to handle that.

No wonder he thought that Holbrook’s son was a wuss.

Dennis would walk the mail between these two cities. He would leave Superior on Thursday and get to Bayfield on Saturday. Then he would leave Bayfield on Monday and arrive in Superior on Wednesday. He got paid double the going rate of the job he had at the time, working in a sawmill in Superior. So he quit the sawmill job and became a mail carrier – this was back in the 1870’s.

Dennis became so familiar with the trails that he would cache his ax and pan along it so he didn’t have to carry them.

I simply cannot imagine trying this – especially in winter. The bugs must have been literally insane in the summer. Dennis did make an interesting observation – he said that in winter the snow wasn’t all that bad since the forests were so thick – that the open areas are where the snow really piled up and the wind really whipped. Still…

It is interesting to me to read about what people did just 130 years ago to make it by.

For those interested in this type of history, the article is well worth your time.

Cross posted at LITGM.

5 thoughts on “The Last of the Chippewa Mail Runners”

  1. By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
    By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
    Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
    Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
    Dark behind it rose the forest,
    Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
    Rose the firs with cones upon them;
    Bright before it beat the water,
    Beat the clear and sunny water,
    Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

  2. Hate to say it, but we walk the dog 4 miles every day in good weather. In bad weather, she walks the dog and I stay home to tease the cats. 65 miles seems a bit excessive, but then we have a car. I doubt Mr. Dennis would have left his car in the driveway, if he had had a car. Or a driveway.

    We do what we have to. However, we try not to do more that we have to. No doubt our neolithic forebears would have been contemptuous of our pitiful efforts at flint-knapping, but that will not stop me from using nice sharp German steel knives in the kitchen. They would have used them, too, given the opportunity.

  3. The bugs must have been literally insane in the summer.

    Poor bugs. Were they unable to distinguish between right and wrong, or just between literal and figurative?

  4. Mitch – not saying that they wouldn’t use the tools we have now if they were available to them. I just can’t wrap my head around NOT having the tools, and living such a tough existence.

    By the way, good on you for getting exercise, I am a zealot when it comes to staying in shape.

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