First Sawmills on the Bad River Reservation

March 5, 2016

By Amorin Mello

United States. Works Progress Administration:

Chippewa Indian Historical Project Records 1936-1942  

(Northland Micro 5; Micro 532)


“Records of a WPA project to collect Chippewa Indian folklore sponsored by the Great Lakes Indian Agency and directed by Sister M. Macaria Murphy of St. Mary’s Indian School, Odanah, Wisconsin. Included are narrative and statistical reports, interview outlines, and operational records; and essays concerning Chippewa religious beliefs and rituals, food, liquor, transportation, trade, clothing, games and dances, and history. Also includes copies of materials from the John A. Bardon collection concerning the Superior, Wisconsin region, La Pointe baptismal records, the family tree of Qui-ka-ba-no-kwe, and artwork of Peter Whitebird.”


Reel 1; Envelope 8; Item 4.


By Jerome Arbuckle

Detail of Bad River Falls omitted from Barber's second survey of 1856.

Detail of Ervin Leihy’s sawmill at Bad River Falls omitted by the General Land Office.

“Bayfield, Wis., June 3 [1901].
Ervin Leihy, one of the first white settlers to come to the northern part of Wisconsin died at his home in this city last week. He was born in Oswego county, N. Y., October 12, 1822. His early life was passed on a farm and at 18 moved to Illinois. Later he bought a farm at Bad River, Ashland county, and in 1846 moved onto it. In 1870 he moved to Bayfield, built his present home and opened a general store which he conducted for a number of years. While living at Bad River he was a member of the town and county boards of Ashland county for a number of years and in 1871 and 1872 was a member of the town board of Bayfield. Besides these he held numerous other offices. He was a public-spirited man, had plenty of means and was always ready to assist in anything that would tend to advance the interests of the town in which he resided.”
Wisconsin Weekly Advocate, June 6, 1901.

The first sawmill on the Bad River Reservation was operated by a Mr. Leihy at the rapids of Bad River, which is approximately fifteen miles from the village of Odanah. The power was furnished by a paddle-wheel which was propelled by the force of the stream. The saw was of the old vertical style. With these rude methods, the sawing of six to ten logs into lumber was considered a good daily average. Mr. Leihy was known to the Indians as “Nig-gig-goons” or “Little Otter”. He married a woman of Indian blood, and he apparently enjoyed great favor among the Indians of this region.

The lumber was placed on rafts made of large cedar logs and guided down Bad River when the conditions for such a venture were favorable. A long oar or sculler was used in the stern to assist in propelling the raft and to act as a rudder.

From the mouth of Bad River the raft emerged into Lake Superior provided the wind conditions were favorable, then along the shore line to Chequamegon point and thence across to Madeline Island. The channel between the point and the island was considerably narrower at the time than it is at the present. The lumber thus landed was carried to other points on the Lake by sailboats.

Detail of White River omitted from Barber's second survey during 1858.

Detail of Albert “Wabi-gog” McEwen‘s sawmill on the White River omitted by the General Land Office.

According to the oldest residents of Odanah, another sawmill was located some distance up the White River. This mill was operated by a man known to the Chippewa as “Wabi-gog” or “The White Porcupine.” This mill was operated practically the same as the Leihy mill. The lumber was also rafted down White River to the confluence with Bad River, thence to Lake Superior and to Madeline Island. During the winter the lumber from this mill was hauled on sleighs by oxen to what is now the city of Ashland.

Read Poor McEwen for more details about Albert McEwen's supposed murder.

Read about Benjamin Armstrong’s investigation of Wabi-gogs supposed murder in Poor McEwen.

“Wabi-gog” was in the habit of making trips on foot to St. Paul, where he purchased the necessaries for his project. He used a trail that intersected what was known as the “Military Road” which led to St. Paul.

On one of these trips he failed to arrive at his destination and no trace of him was ever found. It was surmised that he had been waylaid and murdered, as he usually carried a considerable sum of money on his person.

Details of settlements on the La Pointe Reservation from Charles Whittlesey's 1860 Geological Map of the Penokie Range.

Detail of the La Pointe Indian Reservation from Charles Whittlesey‘s 1860 Geological Map of the Penokie Range from Geology of Wisconsin, Volume III, plate XX-214:  “Lehys Mill” is identified at the Falls on the “Mauvaise or Bad River”.  The White River was partly surveyed upstream from the Mission at “Odana”, up to Albert “Wabi-gog” McEwen‘s sawmill, but did not identify it.  Whittlesey may have had a copy of Joel Allen Barber’s missing 1856 survey of The Gardens at Odanah.

One Response to “First Sawmills on the Bad River Reservation”

  1. Melonee Montano said

    “tinder, punk” is written as a side note.

    Tinder,punk is what it is referring to but is not a literal translation. Zagataagan is the name for one particular tinder, punk medicine. Many today know it by a different name and weren’t given the traditional teachings that go along with it.

    Just an FYI : )

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