The Life of John Beargrease
John Beargrease was born in Beaver Bay, Minnesota in 1858, the son of an Anishinabe Chief, Moquabimetem. The family lived in a traditional wigwam on the edge of the first settlement on Minnesota’s North Shore; Beaver Bay. They survived through their traditional native practices of hunting, fishing and trapping.
In John’s early years, a mere footpath existed as the main means of travel from Duluth to Thunder Bay, Ontario. The path was utilized first by the native Anishinabe and was adopted later by settling European fur traders and fishing families.
Despite the remoteness of the region, it offered abundant wildlife and great promise. By the time John Beargrease was in his twenties, the North Shore had become home to numerous small settlements of fishing families which had planted themselves in the many coves of Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline.
Lake Superior’s North Shore was then and is now, subject to severe temperature changes, heavy rainfall and violent storms and travel in the area was extremely difficult despite the influx of settlers. This lead to limited communication with the outside world at a time when most other parts of the country were receiving regular mail delivery.
John Beargrease and his brothers were avid hunters and trappers and made regular trips to the region along their well-established Lake Shore Trail trap line. Recognizing the opportunity, John and his brothers picked up the job of delivering the mail by simply tossing a mailbag or two into existing packs.
For almost twenty years, between 1879 and 1899, John Beargrease and his brothers delivered the mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais. With the limited equipment available and loads weighing as much as 700 lbs. The trip was made once a week…an incredible feat for one man to accomplish especially when you consider the constant range of altitude along the shore.
Through the seasons, the Beargrease brothers used a variety of methods to transport the mail including canoes, horses and large boats. John Beargrease himself was best known for his winter travels by dogsled. His sled looked more like a toboggan than today’s sleds and he ran with teams of only four dogs. His fastest trip on dogsled was 28 hours from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. Without the weight, and with today’s advances in technology, Beargrease mushers can accomplish the same trip in little better time, with teams of up to sixteen dogs.
John Beargrease was pivotal in the development of the entire North Shore and the communities who have maintained their foothold there over the past century. With his successful delivery, the population and economy stabilized and permanent towns made their mark on the landscape. Today we celebrate the vital role of John Beargrease in the early history of the North Shore of Lake Superior through the annual running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
1899 would be the last year John Beargrease delivered the mail. The Lake Shore Trail that he had traveled for twenty years became an actual road, one that could be traveled with horse and buggy. John ended his last trip to Grand Marais on April 26, 1899.
He made his home in both Beaver Bay and among his people in Grand Portage. He never forgot how much the people living on the North Shore depended upon the mail. One day in 1910, he went out in a storm to rescue another mail carrier whose boat was caught in the waves off Tamarack Point, near Grand Portage. He caught pneumonia after the ordeal and died soon after. His grave can be seen today at the Indian Cemetery in Beaver Bay.