Dead Lake History

Reprinted from the Dead Lake newsletter

Ernie West

Allow me to introduce myself.  I’m Ernie West, and I was elected unanimously as the Dead Lake Township Historian.  I like to refer to it as a landslide victory.  Ok, ok, so I was the only one who raised his hand when the town board asked if anyone would volunteer to do history research on Dead Lake and the Marion Lake Resorts.

After several years at the job I’m astounded at the history this area has.  Every story seems to uncover another story.  Like any other information, it is worthless unless it’s spread around.  With that in mind, I asked the editors of the Dead Lake Association Newsletter if I could include a little blurb of history in each issue.  And they said yes.

So here goes:  Did you know we almost became Canada?  I can’t recall the date, but there was a series of expeditions to find a natural boundary between Canada and the USA.  And because the land west of the established east was so huge, numbers of millions of acres meant very little.  What was more important was to have a natural boundary, namely a river.  The Mississippi dead-ended at Itasca.  A far northern expedition followed a chain of lakes along the Rainy River ending up at the Lake of the Woods with no natural route west.  Then there was a fairly easy route west of the Mississippi that became the Leaf River.  That ended at Portage Lake.  But with just a short portage you could hook up with the Ottertail River then on to the Red River.  It seemed to be a no brainier.  But then came the serious uprising in our area of the Indians.  Dangerous enough anyway that this area wasn’t considered safe enough to explore and make into the country’s border.  That’s how close we came to being Canada.

Dead Lake History – the 1860s

I don’t know if any of you have ever noticed, but on many large maps of the United States, if you look close, Dead Lakes is on it.  I recently got back from a trip over to North Dakota.  We visited a number of historical sites, and at one there was an ancient map dated 1860 that covered both of the Dakotas and Minnesota.  It was a rather sparse map but Dead Lake was on it.  I know it’s a small thing, but Dead Lake was important enough to put it on the map 149 years ago.

Now back to some more local history.  The further back in time you go, the more likely you’ll find that the Sioux or Chippewa Indians were part of the story.  It’s difficult to tell which ones were the ornery ones at any exact time.  By the way, there was a third group that was quite ornery part of the time too (white settlers).  There were two fairly developed white settlements back in the 1860’s and 1870’s:  The Alexandria area and the Pelican Rapids area.  In between these two it was very unsettled, and those settlers knew they were pretty much on their own.  One such settlement actually built a small fort just east of where Underwood is now.  They had an alarm system set up and a plan for everyone to flee to the fort if danger approached.  I don’t know if it ever came down to a fight, but if not it was probably due to the fact that the Indians knew these settlers were prepared.  More information can be found at The Ottertail County Historical Society in Fergus Falls.

Much closer to home; one of our local persons, Tim Sullivan, who has quite a bit of knowledge regarding Indian history along with archeological experience both here on Dead Lake and over in the Dakotas, has proven again that the Indians did trade wares over quite an extended area.  He has found on the shores of Dead Lake a type of flint that only could have come from the Knife River area in North Dakota over 300 miles from here.  Before the white man came the Indian nations used their local products as trade (money) for items that other tribes had.  Sometimes this trading leap-frogged from tribe to tribe over considerable distances.

 There were some more or less unmarked cemeteries in the area.  One of these is an Indian burial area on what I prefer to call “Oak Knoll. That’s the part of our lake that some people tried to call “Blue Heron Bay.” In the recent past there seemed to be little concern for this Indian cemetery by the Indian community, the government, or the developers.  I’m one of only four or five people who know where this cemetery is at.  Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines, but I get the feeling that all of us want to keep it that way.  Being that we’re all getting a little long in the tooth, it won’t be to long and this secret will be lost in time.  Better yet, Oak Knoll has more and more of a chance to be a state park now with no development.  Let’s hope so!                                                         

Water Rights and Public Access

Here we go again. Some of Dead Lake’s laws started back in 533 A.D. How could that be, you ask? It’s because that’s when the Romans put into written law what the Egyptians had been practicing for who knows how long. The English adopted these laws in 1412 and because of that, sometime in the 1600’s, the 13 colonies adopted these same laws. And finally, Minnesota, in 1857, included these laws in the Minnesota Constitution. 

These “laws” I’m talking about relate to water rights and public access. So it turns out Minnesota riparian rights, defined as property rights arising from owning property abutting water, are based on a long tradition, going back at least 1500 years. As such, a riparian landowner has the right to open water. This access is not a free pass for the public, though. On the other hand, public access is available through government property, though it may only be available on foot.  State, county, township and cities may have property riparian rights. That means you and I have access rights, but the particular governing power can impose restrictions, like a city park may have restricted hours of use, or a township or DNR may limit maximum horse power use, or prohibit camping, fireworks, campfires, drinking, etc. 

The most recent set of rules, regarding public access to water, is the result of attempts by the government to prevent transferring of invasive species from contaminated waters to other lakes. These rules, in case you haven’t heard, are now being enforced with stiff fines. You have to remove the boat drain plug(s), and clean all vegetation off of the boat, trailer, and motor before leaving the boat access. You also must drain all boat live wells and drain all water from bait containers and replace it with known clean water. My own question, like most other sportsmen, is how can you comply 100% with this rule? For instance, how can you get every drop of water or every trace of weeds or seeds out of or off of your boat and motor? And every minnow will have some trace of water in it. No, I’m not complaining, in fact I firmly believe everyone should do the best he can to comply with the law before leaving a launch site. 

Moving on to riparian rights, I’ve heard that any road that has its “road right of way” touching a body of water is also a public access. Be careful here, though. It may be illegal to park there and parking in the ditch could be illegal too, because private property actually goes to the center of the road in many areas. 

Now’s maybe a good time to debunk a myth that many people, me included, believed in. A dock that goes out from private land does not become a “public use” piece of equipment. It is private property and is protected the same as any other private property.

Credits: The Outdoor News (Steve McComas) and our local DNR office.

P.S.  For a real education on our history, please visit the new Ottertail Historical Museum in Fergus Falls.  Their address is 1110 Lincoln Avenue West.  I guarantee you’ll be impressed.