Freed earlier this year of his duties as Department of Natural Resources commissioner under Gov. Mark Dayton, Tom Landwehr has published a book about the great wealth of fish and game that resided in Minnesota between the years 1850 and 1900.
But more broadly, his nearly 200-page volume, “Hunting Adventures on the Minnesota Frontier,” is about changes that occurred to the state’s landscape and therefore its people during that period, the summation of which gives the reader great pause about the nature and pace of future transformations that await us.
Thirty years in the making, Landwehr’s book was begun in 1989 when the author, then a DNR wildlife biologist, lived in Northfield and in his spare time visited the Carleton College library. There, in microfiche archives, he found Minnesota hunting stories published in the mid- to late 1800s in a magazine called Forest and Stream.
These recollections told of a seemingly otherworldly time in which the state’s fish and wildlife and their habitats lay largely untouched except by a few adventurous sportsmen. So Landwehr began assembling the tales in book form.
“Then I got busy,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was recently between jobs, after I was DNR commissioner and before I became executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, that I finally got the book done.”
With each page, Landwehr’s fascination with the subject becomes the reader’s. Hunters encounter flocks of ducks so numerous they blacken the sky, grouse so thick they give way to daily harvests in the hundreds, and elk herds that are pursued near what is now Willmar. Each story tells of a time of unlimited bounty and, for those who pursued it, unmatched adventure.
That this occurred during a period of volcanic upheaval in Minnesota compounds the era’s intrigue. Statehood was achieved in 1858. The Civil War, to which Minnesota supplied troops, roiled the nation from 1861 to 1865. And the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 would write the state’s earliest chapters in blood, the stain of which remains.
But perhaps no change was as telling as this: In 1850, Minnesota’s population was 6,000. By 1900, it was 1.3 million.
This also was an era in which some of Minnesota’s earliest white residents transitioned from killing game and fish to survive, to hunting and angling for sport.
Among these was Henry Hastings Sibley, Minnesota’s first elected governor and the brigadier general who directed the Union Army in the U.S.-Dakota War. Less well-known is his earlier life as a trader for the American Fur Co. stationed in Mendota, a position he opportunistically used to further his frontier hunting interests, about which he wrote prodigiously.
“Sibley was in a unique position as a prominent writer because he was far from the big, eastern cities where most writers were based,” Landwehr notes in his introduction to a story Sibley, using the pen name Hal A Dacotah, published in Forest and Stream in 1880. “Hence, he was a sole voice for life on the frontier — something that fascinated the eastern hunting elites.”
In the mid-1800s, danger awaited those who pushed very far west of the fast-growing cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Unforeseen weather changes could forestall travel, as could much-feared prairie fires. Bison were by then scarce, having fallen victim across the frontier to increasingly accurate and deadly Springfield and Sharps rifles (replaced, after the Civil War, by repeating rifles). But bears and wolves were plentiful. And while the Dakota, or Sioux, Indians generally were friendly, their enmity for other tribes could catch interloping whites in the crossfire.
“There are no buffalo and very few elk to be found now in this immense State of Minnesota,” Sibley wrote in 1880. “Deer are abundant as are the Canada (spruce), pinnated (greater prairie chicken) and ruffed grouse which do not seem to suffer serious diminution, notwithstanding the annual raids made upon them by the sportsman and pot hunter. The numerous lakes are still the haunts in the proper season of multitudes of geese (probably Canadas), brant (probably snow geese) and ducks, affording fine sport to the many possessors of breech-loaders in all parts of the state.”
Forest and Stream debuted in 1873 and was owned by Charles Hallock (1834-1917) of New York. A promoter, land speculator, businessman and sportsman, as well as a publisher, Hallock, to his great credit, in 1897 proposed a national code of uniform game laws.
He also traveled regularly to Minnesota and fell in love, especially, with the northwest corner of the state, where he dreamed of turning much of what is now Kittson County into a game preserve, in which wealthy hunters would invest.
That scheme didn’t work out. But he did establish the town of Hallock, which today remains the Kittson County seat.
Given the changes Minnesota’s landscape and its fish and wildlife have undergone in the relative blink of time since statehood, projecting alterations yet to come and the pace at which they’ll occur seem unfathomable.
But one thing’s certain: more people.
Now thought to be about 5.6 million, Minnesota’s human population is forecast to grow to about 6.3 million in 2030, a 27% increase from 2000.
“You read these stories and think about what the state was like before white settlement,” Landwehr said, “and you ask yourself, ‘What will the next 50 years look like?’ ”
Dennis Anderson · 612-673-4424