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The Wadsworth way

Trail connected St. Cloud with Fort Sisseton, S.D.

By Katie Erdman

Andy Aanerud of Donnelly has spent many years researching the Wadsworth Trail that crossed central Minnesota. Photo by Kaite Erdman

The roads across central Minnesota don’t always flow in a straight line. They move north and south around lakes and trees. They go through and around towns. They go over rivers and through small sloughs. Do you ever wonder why and how these roads were plotted?

Some of the earliest roads were first traveled by Native Americans, trappers, traders and possibly even Viking explorers. Later, as forts were built in various areas of the state, military roads were made to bring supplies to these forts. One of these roads was the Wadsworth Trail. This trail was the avenue for supplies from St. Cloud, Minnesota to Fort Wadsworth, South Dakota. This fort was later renamed Fort Sisseton.

We can follow this trail through the dedicated research of many historians. One of these is Andy Aanerud of Donnelly, Minnesota.

“I have spent the last six years researching the Wadsworth Trail as well as the forts and stockades in Minnesota,” Aanerud said. “I grew up by Donnelly and have always loved history. When I got married, my father-in-law shared stories about visiting all 48 states. That piqued my interest.”

From the visits to forts and other research, Aanerud has compiled notebooks, albums and a photo book that he has put together about his findings.

“I can see that I am just scratching the surface on many of the trails and forts across Minnesota,” he said.

Another resource for the Wadsworth Trail is a book written in 1938 by Grace Cynthia Hall called The Wadsworth Trail. Hall had firsthand knowledge of the activities along the trail as her family lived at Gager’s Station near Morris and heard tales from travelers stopping there on their way to the fort. Each museum or historical society in the counties where the trail was located has a vast amount of history about the trail and many artifacts from the paths.

Gager’s Station was located on Wintermute north of Morris. It was a stop for travelers along the Wadsworth Trail.

Gager’s Station was just one of several stopping points along the trail. A typical horse or oxen drawn wagon could travel about 15 miles per day, so with an approximate 180-mile trip from St. Cloud to Fort Wadsworth, there were many stops made. St. Cloud was where the steamboats could come up the Mississippi filled with the needed supplies for the forts. These were then loaded onto wagons to begin the trip west. Other trails went in different directions taking the supplies to forts.

The Wadsworth Trail was established by the U.S. government in 1864 as a military supply route. The trail was used from 1864 until 1871 when trains replaced the wagon transportation system. The government supply trains were typically made up of 12 mule teams hitched to large wagons carrying supplies sometimes weighing as much as four tons.

There were no bridges along the route, so streams and rivers were crossed at low points. There was no method of clearing snow, so the teams went over or around. Extremely muddy areas were often treacherous and even deadly to the animals. Travelers were exposed to all types of weather conditions with no place to go for protection. Even insects could cause a great deal of discomfort for the travelers.

From St. Cloud to Sauk Centre, the military supply wagons could follow the well-established Red River Trail. From there they headed west toward Glenwood. The trail basically followed some of the Native American trails, but also trails made by French explorers, fur traders and Metis.

Fort Wadsworth was later named Fort Sisseton as it is located near the town of Sisseton, South Dakota. Contributed

Metis is a French term that means “mixed” and portrays people who have mixed ancestry. Many of these people were involved in the fur trade in pre-territorial Minnesota. Some of the mothers of the Metis came from the Dakota and other Native American tribes. This marriage helped the husbands build bonds with the families of the wives.

One of the first stops after Sauk Centre was at Westport Lake. This stop had no store or trade station, just a place to camp and rest. The next big stop was the city of Glenwood, a growing community that offered several hotels, restaurants, saloons, blacksmith and many other places the weary travelers may need.

From there the trail ventured further west. Many nights were just spent camping along a lake such as near Lake Amelia, Camp Lake or the Pomme de Terre River. The next larger rest stop was at Gager’s Station located north of Morris on Wintermute Lake. Wayne and Jean’s Evergreens is now located in this area. In fact, Wayne Lesmeister, one of the owners, has found many artifacts on his property that date back to the days of the Wadsworth Trail. Also, further north in a slough area he found a partially submerged wagon from the 1800s.

We know more about Gager’s Station from the book written by Grace Cynthia Hall. The station was built in 1866 by Henry Gager near Wintermute Lake but was earlier located by the Pomme de Terre Dam just outside of Morris. The trail started to move further north so Gager decided to move the station. His wife was a good cook but did not like it in this wild country. They later moved on toward the Wahpeton area.

Gager’s Station also had what is termed as the first post office. It was called a Potosi and was a box where letters could be placed or picked up by the local residents. Gager’s Station was termed as one of the most important stopping places on the trail by Hall. It was not just a haven for the travel weary, but a rendezvous for horse thieves and cattle rustlers.

Frisby’s Grove was about three miles to the west and a little south of Gager’s.

The Frisby house was another popular stopping place along the trail. In the doorway is Emma Frisby who was said to be friendly and a very good cook. Contributed photos

“Mrs. Frisby was also a good cook and a cheerful, friendly soul so her place became a more popular stopping place for emigrants and land seekers,” Aanerud explained.

These people usually traveled in the summertime, but one winter day the frozen body of an unknown man was found between Gager’s and Frisby’s.

From there the trail headed toward Chokio and crossed what was referred to as the “Big Muddy.” The travelers were about halfway on the trip so the stop by Chokio was called “the halfway house.” There was then about 25 miles or more of unbroken prairie before the next stopping place. This was at Toqua Lake in Graceville. Quite often the travelers had to switch out the teams of horses here in order to allow them to rest after the hard trip thus far.

There were several battles among different Native American tribes in this area. The Chippewa and Dakota tribes were hereditary enemies and were generally at war. “Toka” in the Dakota language means “enemy” and it is believed that the lakes derived from this name were sites of battles between the two tribes.

Browns Valley was the next stop named for Major Joseph R. Brown and later his son Samuel J. Brown. Major Brown lived in a log house about a mile east of the fort and across the Kettle Lakes. In 1866, the building was taken down, each log carefully numbered, and hauled with ox teams to the point where Highway 28 turns toward Sisseton from Browns Valley. There it was erected again and used as a residence for the Brown family and a station on the Wadsworth Trail. This also included a post office called Lake Traverse.

The Wadsworth Trail was established by the U.S.. government in 1864 as a military supply route connecting St. Cloud to Fort Wadsworth in the Dakota Territory. Contributed map

About 45 miles west of the present site of Browns Valley, the United States Government had established Fort Wadsworth. This was the final stop for the military supply trains, but also a branching out area for land seekers looking to establish a claim in this territory. Fort Wadsworth was active from 1864 - 1889. Eventually supplies were delivered by rail instead of trail. However, the trail was still used by gold seekers heading even further west to the Black Hills.

We can follow the path that travelers took on the Wadsworth Trail but know very little about the people who used it. Did they encounter wind, rain, hail and blizzards? Did they have to bury loved ones along the way? Were they happy when they reached their new land or did they simply want to go back home?

Those things are a mystery, but we can only imagine what many of our ancestors encountered as they followed the path of the Wadsworth Trail.

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