Growing up in an area of rich farmland near the Minnesota River, Darrel, who now lives north of Pine River with his wife, Ruthie, has been very interested in the chapter of Minnesota history that lead up to the 1862 U.S. – Dakota Conflict, the only war every fought on Minnesota soil.
“If I was younger and had a choice, I would have lived during the early 1800s,” Darrel admitted.
But for the past 25 years, clad in his buckskin jacket and pants, which he made, Darrel, the buckskinner, has frequently portrayed those days when immigrants traveled to the Minnesota territory to settle on land that had been inhabited solely by the Sioux and other tribes. Darrel was raised not far from Traverse des Sioux, named by French explorers meaning the “Crossing Place of the Sioux.”
The sharp bend in the river was the ideal location for the Indians to cross the river which eventually traders, trappers and settlers began to use. It was also the same area where the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed in 1851 that gave 24 million acres of tribal land in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota to the U.S. government. The treaty left 7,000 Sioux a narrow reservation of two million acres along the river and a few pennies per acre to be paid to the Sioux in annual payments of money and supplies.
However, payments by the government were scarce and caused increasing desperation among the Sioux leading to poverty and starvation. The suffering of the Native Americans resulted in the U.S. – Dakota Conflict in 1862, four years after Minnesota became a state.
Darrel has 11 commemorative medals, one for each year starting in 1991 and culminating in 2001 that commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the treaty. During those years, he participated in the annual Traverse des Sioux Encampments, also referred to as Rendezvous, held at a park in St. Peter where families would gather and relive the days of the 1800s, not only by their dress but also the activities of that era. Five hundred numbered medals were made, and Darrel has the last one made for each of the years the encampment was held.
Each medal portrays individuals who were significant in the signing of the treaty, which included Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey, Chief Little Crow, and Dr. Thomas Williamson, a missionary who established a mission at Lac qui Parle in 1835 and helped to translate the Bible into the Dakota language.
Darrel and Ruthie have participated in many Rendezvous since that time, most recently in September when Darrel helped to organize the fourth annual pre-1830s Buckskinner Encampment held at Forbes Park in Pine River during the city’s Heritage Days celebration. The encampment was open to the public where demonstrations, such as leather crafting, rope making, fire starting, weaving or cooking over an open fire, were given.
“I’m really partial to that kind of life (1830s),” Darrel emphasized, “but Ruthie got us into the rendezvous scene.” Before moving to Pine River in 2001, the couple lived in Mankato, where Ruthie managed a tuxedo store. One of her customers said that he and his bride were going to wear buckskins during their wedding dance as the groom was Native American. He brought in a photo album filled with photos of family-friendly rendezvous encampments that included activities such as tomahawk throwing, log sawing or shooting black powder guns for adults, and games from the same era for children, such as egg and spoon races, tug-o-war, bobbing for apples, or finding beads in the straw.
To take part in the rendezvous, all participants must be serious about living history of that time period just as the trappers, traders or farmers did. They wear clothing of that time period made with cotton, leather or wool. Pocket watches are the time piece of the day, not wrist watches.
“The fringe is not sewn on,” Darrel noted. “I had to allow enough leather in the pattern so the fringe could be made by cutting.” The final result was a beautiful, fringed, soft leather jacket enhanced with beads that he wears proudly at rendezvous when it isn’t too warm outside. He has also made leather pants, vests, and bags of various sizes that are decorated with beads and feathers.
Not to be overlooked, Ruthie is also a talented seamstress who made a tan leather dress, a white leather Native American wedding dress from a deer hide and also moccasins.
“But now I usually wear a long cotton dress at rendezvous,” she admitted with a chuckle, “as the leather ones are too warm and they don’t fit quite as well as they did years ago. But I always have them on display at the rendezvous.” She also creates beautiful bowls, placemats, bags, and other items by wrapping strips of cloth around a clothesline and then sewing the coiled wrapped rope together, which she sells at art and craft shows, an art similar to that of Native Americans.
Darrel has accumulated many deer hides through the years from which to make his leather items. He usually brings the hides to a tannery, which is a costly.
“I tried to tan my first two hides myself, and it is a lot of work,” he said. He used the “brain tanning” method which the Native Americans used by using the deer’s brain that is spread over the hide after the fur, fat and meat are removed.
Darrel explained that the soft brain mass is mixed with water and then spread by hand over the hide.
“The chemicals in the brain react with the chemicals in the hide and causes the membranes in the hide to break down and soften,” he said. “Today, the tanneries use chemicals, not animal brains.”
Cooking at the rendezvous is done with cast iron or tin utensils – no stainless steel, aluminum or plastic is allowed. Camp fires should be started by rubbing sticks together or with flint and steel; however, Darrel admits he does use matches, as many other history buffs do, but he’s also used the primitive methods.
“We cook everything over the fire,” he said, “everything from beef stew to apple pies. Large chunks of meat are done on a hand-cranked rotisserie.”
It’s not uncommon for Darrel and other buckskinners to bring their hides to a rendezvous to trade for other goods just as it was done during the pioneer days.
Darrel uses lodgepine poles, as did the Native Americans, for the conical frame of the teepee. The poles were historically bound with rawhide, but rope is used today. The opening at the top allows for smoke to escape that is adjusted by smoke flaps, allowing an open fire to be inside the dwelling in order to cook and heat the lodge. Darrel’s lodge has a 5-foot tall liner on the inside walls that helps to insulate and provides a source of fresh air for a fire and inhabitants.
“Many who take part in the rendezvous sleep on cots, but there were no cots in the 1830s,” Darrel explained. “I sleep on all natural materials, which are layers of wool or cotton blankets, and I sleep very well. I don’t use a sleeping bag.”
He made a waist-high wood cabinet to store the tin dishes, utensils, and food items that Ruthie uses to prepare meals. The drop-down door serves as the kitchen counter.
No modern-day coolers are visible at a rendezvous. To resemble the time period, Darrel and Ruthie use a wooden box constructed by Darrel, which is lined with styrofoam but is not seen as the cover is usually on. If a cooler is used, it must be in the tent or covered by a tarp.
Darrel noted that during the 19th century, when refrigeration was not available, Native Americans developed pemmican made with dried lean meat (usually buffalo) and rendered fat, which was used to store and preserve the meat and was the main food source during the cold winters. Pemmican became a popular commodity to the frontiersmen, trappers and other settlers that was traded for goods needed by the Native Americans. If kept away from direct light, heat and moisture, the pemmican could last for years.
In addition to the Buckskinner Rendezvous held in Pine River, Darrel enjoys rendezvous held annually in Deer River, Perham, and Crow Wing State Park.
Darrel and Ruthie, who have been married for 39 years and have a blended family of six children, 17 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren, have actually experienced rustic living for 10 years after they retired and moved to property which they had purchased four years earlier.
After working for 38 years at Midwest Electric Products in Mankato, Darrel retired in 2000.
“It was my dream to move up here when I retired,” he said. “We had a log cabin on property north of Pine River, so I moved here in March of 2001, and Ruthie moved here in June of that year.”
Living with wood heat and a generator for lights, Darrel began the process of updating their property by adding electricity and sewer. He and Ruthie lived his dream in the log cabin for six of those years with only a cistern pump for water. Today, the couple lives in a home with all the modern conveniences but still with a rustic flavor of log furniture and Native American décor. In a smaller way, he still lives his dream.