Martin McLeod: A Man of Exceptional Quality

He wasn’t used to the snowshoes.  The snow was deep, and the cold, blowing wind around him made walking in the shoes increasingly difficult.  He didn’t walk so much, but rather dragged his feet through the snow.  The rawhide thongs on the shoes cut into his moccasins, chafing his feet.  Each step was excruciating – more excruciating than the last –  so much that his blistered feet began to bleed, leaving behind a trail of blood on the hard outer crust of snow he walked on.

Martin McLeod was new to the region.   He was in his early twenties, a clerk from Montreal and unprepared for the rigors of the Minnesota wilderness.  He came west with a group of explorers headed by a man named James Dickson, an impractical idealist with visions of ruling over a self-constructed kingdom.  They broke trail from Lake Superior and found themselves at the Red River Colony.  However, within a year the group had become disillusioned with Dickson and began to scatter.  McLeod and two others accompanied a guide south toward the mouth of the Minnesota River.  It was to be a long, arduous journey of seven hundred-fifty miles through the Minnesota wilderness, in winter, and on foot.

The trek south was hard.  McLeod nearly drowned, nearly froze to death, and he was often on the verge of starvation.  In his journal he recorded “Out of provisions, obliged to kill one of our dogs; “dog meat excellent eating.”    During one instance, the small group was waylaid by a wet, snowy blizzard from which they were separated and forced to survive on their own.  McLeod was one of the lucky survivors.  Using his snowshoe to dig a shallow trench in the snow, he wrapped himself in a waterlogged buffalo robe and waited out the storm in clothes that froze to his skin.

Martin McLeod came to the North Country at a time when the promise of wealth came through the fur trade.  With the help of Henry H. Sibley, as well as a number of other prominent traders of the time, McLeod soon became a well-known fur trader in the region.  Few white men found themselves trapping or hunting for furs, but rather became merchants who depended on the Indians for labor.  McLeod was one of these, traveling between trading posts and Indian encampments encouraging the natives to hunt and bring in more and more furs.  This tactic was successful in bringing in high quality furs, yet it played a role in overhunting as well as oversaturating the fur market, both of which helped to usher an end to the trade.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, as the fur trade came to an end, McLeod as well as the other trade merchants began looking toward treaty negotiation between the United States and Native Americans as a means to create wealth.  Many of them, McLeod included, ran for public office as a way to lobby officials in an attempt to buy land from the Indians, who in turn would receive stipends from the government with which they could buy goods from the trade merchants.  With money guaranteed from the government, many trade merchants began selling on credit and inflating their prices.  When the Indians’ money ran out, the traders would lobby for new treaties.  It became a vicious cycle that ultimately led to war between factions of Dakota Indians and white settlers in Minnesota.

Martin McLeod was one of the few who took umbrage to the way treaty negotiations were made with the Indians.  Never one to approve of the whiskey traders pushing their product on the natives, McLeod resented the fact that his peers pursued treaties that benefited them at the expense of the tribes, going so far as to distance himself from his peers to the point of being reclusive.

The late 1850’s saw McLeod discontent with the direction Minnesota was heading.  He withdrew to his home and fell deep into debt.  By 1860 he was broke.  On November 20th of that year, Martin McLeod died.  It was a quiet end to an adventurous life.

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