Obscure Stories of the Oldest European Settlement on the Upper St. Croix

Northern Wisconsin town got its start as an Ojibwe village.




7 minute read

Published in partnership with the Heritage Initiative:

The Gordon Historical Society building was originally a fur post storehouse.
The Gordon Historical Society building was originally a fur post storehouse. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Brian Finstad submitted the following to the Heritage Initiative on the draft Feasibility Study for the proposed North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix National Heritage Area. It has been edited and reprinted here with permission.

Gordon is the oldest settled community on the upper St. Croix and is steeped in history. Gordon’s beginnings were as an Ojibwe village known as Amik (beaver) and was located where the St. Croix Trail reached the St. Croix River following an 80-mile journey connecting LaPointe to the St. Croix River. It was the land route alternative to the Brule-St. Croix Portage.

Although much is made of the Brule-St. Croix portage, it is not likely it was the “highway” of early travel to the extent that is often discussed. The St. Croix Trail was two days shorter and anyone who has canoed the Brule would know that would be a very difficult route to take – particularly if traveling from LaPointe to the St. Croix River. The reason the Brule Portage is more known than the St. Croix Trail is because early travelers unfamiliar with the region are the ones who were most likely to journal and also were the ones least likely to know of the trail’s existence.

One indication that those most familiar with the region preferred the trail is a hand sketched map of the region that was given to Henry Schoolcraft by a voyageur at La Pointe. The St. Croix Trail is a major feature of the map and in fact, the map does not even recognize the St. Croix – Brule portage. The English translation of how the trail is labeled on the map would be “Map of the Grand Footpath.”

Glacial milestone

Eau Claire River glacial erratic boulder
Eau Claire River glacial erratic boulder (Photo courtesy John Sullivan)

Interestingly, the trail reached the St. Croix at the mouth of the Eau Claire River (actually just around the first bend on the Eau Claire just upstream from the mouth). Where the St. Croix and Eau Claire historically met (the mouth’s location was changed when engineers of the logging companies changed the course of the river) there is a giant glacial erratic that is the largest boulder on the upper St. Croix and has never had any study or documentation of any kind to my knowledge.

Fred Hennessey, well known local educator and conservationist, tells that as late as the 1940′s, he remembers there being native pictographs in red on this boulder that disappeared – presumably chipped off by tourists as “souvenirs.” Given this rock’s location near the mouth of the Eau Claire and that location being the beginning of “the Grand Footpath,” it would seem presumable that it held special significance for way finding, if not considered a “spirit rock.”

Nicollet’s rough draft sketches hold detail that did not make it into his final published map of his journey and notes the location of Gordon as a special spot which he labeled “Kabamappa’s place to debarque.” In other words, the place to leave the St. Croix and begin the overland journey to La Pointe.

If one were heading south on the trail from LaPointe, after it made contact with the St. Croix at Amik, it then continued to follow the high ridges above the St. Croix out to Kabamappa’s village just upstream from the Gordon Dam and from there was an additional third leg that went from Kabamappa’s village to the “Women’s Portage.” In the 1850′s, the trail was developed by the United States Military to connect St. Paul and Fort Snelling with LaPointe. Mail was carried as well as a stage coach line developed.

St. Anthony Catholic Church in Gordon
St. Anthony Catholic Church, which began as a Jesuit mission (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Antoine Gaudin, the founder of Gordon (his name was later Americanized to “Gordon” from the French “Gaudin”) was a half French, half Ojibwe man who was well known and widely respected in the region. Antoine was born at Sandy Lake and had been residing at LaPointe and also involved in fur trading at the mouth of the Snake River prior to settling along the St. Croix trail in 1860 at Amik, the point the St. Croix trail crossed the Eau Claire River. The original one room squared log house built by Antoine exists in Gordon to this day, although only locals would probably even know that.

A highly religious man, Antoine also constructed a mission for the Indians which although added onto and altered many times, still is in existence as St. Anthony’s Catholic Church on Moccasin Avenue, the main street of Gordon which is a segment of the original St. Croix Trail. Antoine’s mission was initially visited by Jesuit missionaries several times a year who came to Gordon on foot via the St. Croix Trail.

As Gordon is set in a valley, where the trail departed from Gordon on either side, the trail can still be seen, deeply rutted into the hillside, although only someone local would know where to find it.

Melting pot

Confluence of the Eau Claire River (right) and the St. Croix
Confluence of the Eau Claire River (right) and the St. Croix (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

The Gordons, being Metis, had strong connections with both the Ojibwe and French cultures of the time. Antoine was a cousin of Chief Hole-in-the Day the younger and played an important role in riding on horseback to meet with his cousin and discourage him from joining the Dakota uprising in MInnesota. Antoine’s wife, Sarah Gordon, was the daughter of Daniel Dingley and Isabella La Prairie, Mr. Dingley being the well known fur trader at what is now Forts Folle Avoine. At Amik, the Gordons conducted an independent fur trading post and stopping place along the trail.

The first permanent white settlers did not reside in Gordon until 1888, a full 28 years after the Gordon’s first settled at Amik. However, the Superior and Douglas County historian John A. Bardon, makes mention of visiting Gordon in the 1870s and it being the only place of significant population in Douglas County outside of Superior. So the Gordons weren’t alone at Amik – there was certainly an Ojibwe population and likely a mixing of Metis as well. It was a unique place at a time of very interesting transition. One journal writer traveling the St. Croix Trail in 1863 noted the Gordons living in a log structure while Mrs. Gordon’s mother, Isabella LaPrairie living in a wigwam in front of the house.

It is interesting that Amik and Kabamappa’s village never coexist in any early maps; however, Amik appears immediately after Kabamappa’s village disappears. This also happens to be at the same time that the first damming activity occurs, which would have flooded Kabamappa’s village. The site of Amik was one of importance to that village as it was noted by Nicollet as “Kabamappa’s place to debarque.” It seems clear to me that it was the same village, relocated due to the damming activity. Additional support for that theory comes from the name, “Amik.” What word would you expect the Ojibwe to associate with damming activity? Beaver. It is very likely that modern Gordon is an evolution of Kabamappa’s village.

Logs and lumberjacks

Gordon train station
Gordon train station (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Following white settlement, Gordon became the headquarters and supply point for the Musser Sauntry Logging Company for their upper river operations. Log Drives coming down the St. Croix and Eau Claire Rivers met at this point and it is here that the wannigans were launched that would follow the log drives down to Stillwater. Also, a steam boat was constructed and launched at where is now the Gordon Ranger Station that would tow the logs across what is now the Gordon Flowage.

The little museum on Moccasin Avenue in Gordon is filled with pictures and manuscripts related to this little town’s history. One item is a French bayonet that was found while digging a basement in Gordon and was studied and dated to the 1600s. An old logger who settled in Gordon remembered the chants that the lumberjacks would sing while on log drives. It was documented by a Gordon resident who interviewed this old logger back in the 1930s and published in a pamphlet, the only one I have ever known of being in the museum in Gordon. The words of the chants mention people and place names along the St. Croix River. Such rich river lore that is and fortunate someone had the foresight to preserve – yet again, few even know if its existence.

Gordon is full of things for researchers and documentarians to yet discover. Another interesting side note – a Clovis site was also uncovered and studied in Gordon when building the new freeway lane in the 1990′s which dated to thousands of years B.C.

Gordon’s history is unique to the St. Croix unlike any other and it is the earliest settlement on the upper St. Croix River. It has connections and associations with fur trade, logging, Ojibwe, the St. Croix trail and was the point of connection between LaPointe and the St. Croix River. Its main street is a segment of the “Grand Footpath”, the St. Croix Trail. It has a great local history museum which includes a restored train station adjoining. The little museum building in Gordon was actually originally the storehouse of the trading post that was moved and converted into a home in 1907 (by Antoine’s granddaughter) and then later again relocated to become the museum – however, nothing at the museum even recognizes the fact the structure had originally been associated with the trading post.


St. Croix 360 offers commenting to support productive discussion. We don’t allow name-calling, personal attacks, or misinformation. This discussion may be heavily moderated and we reserve the right to block nonconstructive comments. Please: Be kind, give others the benefit of the doubt, read the article closely, check your assumptions, and stay curious. Thank you!

“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” – Bill Bullard

One response to “Obscure Stories of the Oldest European Settlement on the Upper St. Croix”

  1. beth j. demars Avatar
    beth j. demars

    Thank you for being the keeper of our local history, Brian. Your cousin Ron tells of finding a french coin just north of the overlook where an alleged French Fort had been, on Leo Creek. My own grandfather, Guy Little Sr had a collection of stone arrowheads found near the old Spring here in Solon Springs. He was born in the Spring house. Keep up the Good Work!