“We passed numerous small lakes, many of them very beautiful, and some inviting camping grounds. But the conductor advised going as far as Antoine Gordon’s, the usual stopping place.”Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 1863
In the mid-1800s, Antoine and Sarah Gordon spent a couple decades bouncing between the upper Mississippi River, Chequamegon Bay in Lake Superior, and the upper St. Croix River. Both of them children of European fathers and Ojibwe mothers, they were influential members of the region’s Métis, or mixed-race, community.
After running a trading post on Madeline Island and pursuing other enterprises, they built a log cabin near the confluence of the St. Croix and Eau Claire Rivers in what’s now northern Wisconsin in 1858. They spent the rest of their lives creating a community there. Local historian Brian Finstad said the house and its story connect to a key time in the region’s history.
”At the time, the Gordon family was grappling with how to economically find their way forward after the demise of 200 years of Lake Superior fur trade society, and poised at the beginning of lumbermen from the East marching up the St. Croix Valley,” he said.
While Antoine and Sarah have now been buried in the Gordon cemetery for more than a century, the town bearing their name still stands, as does their old home.
Over the past two years, the Gordons’ home has received state and federal recognition for its significant connections to the past. In 2021, it was listed on Wisconsin’s register of historic places. Late last year, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“At seven o’clock the weary horses drew up at this station. It was not very attractive in external appearance, having no inclosure in front, which was a barren sandy area. At the left of the house stood a garden, blighted by a heavy frost the night before (July 11), which killed all the corn.”– Harper’s, 1863
The Gordons chose an important crossroads for their home, inn, and trading post. The St. Croix River went south to Stillwater and north to the Brule River from here, a key conduit for Native American and European travel between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainages. Another ancient portage went overland from Gordon to Bayfield, on Lake Superior.
In the nineteenth century, this lengthy trail was faster that canoeing up the St. Croix, portaging two miles to the Brule, and descending that rocky river to the Lake Superior shore.
“Seven miles after the Namekagon there is a portage used to avoid the obstacles presented by the St. Croix. It is called Women’s Portage,” Joseph Nicollet wrote in 1838. “It skirts the river and is only a quarter mile long, but at the same place a route starts out which leads straight to La Pointe village on Lake Superior. The route overland is two or three days shorter than the route on water by the way of the St. Croix and Bois Brulés rivers.”
That trail ultimately became part of a stagecoach line and mail route, known as the St. Croix Trail, carrying many people between Fort Snelling and Chequamegon Bay. The Gordons’ cabin was built along the trail, serving not only as their residence, but also trading post and inn.
The village of Gordon eventually became a hub for local Métis and Anishinabe people, travelers, traders, loggers, settlers, and many others. Ojibwe people set up camp nearby at certain parts of the year. No white people lived in Gordon for the first 30 years after the Gordons built the house, as it became the center of an Indigenous community.
The Gordon House isn’t just 165-years-old, it’s a key part of an important — and forgotten — upper St. Croix River story. The structure is an “exceptionally rare” house related to the region’s Métis history. This influential and distinct culture of mixed-race people were notable during and after the fur trade era, but are now largely lost to time.
“Settlements of metis families and the societies they created were often found at the confluences of major waterways and inland trade routes, such as La Baye (Green Bay), Prairie du Chien, and La Pointe,” the National Register application says. And the St. Croix River and the St. Croix Trail.
Born of white traders and Native women, people like the Gordons spent their lives split between cultures. They also lived at a time when the fur trade, which had dominated the region for two centuries, was fading away, and logging companies were moving in. It makes sense they picked this prime spot at the meeting of several travel routes.
“Being Métis, even as people they were people at the intersection of two cultures,” historian Finstad said. “To me this house represents all of those intersections of place, changing times, and cultural understandings and practices.”
Wholly belonging to neither world, but usually at least bilingual and familiar with both European and Indigenous cultures, many Métis thrived in business and trading, interpreting and mediating, and making peace.
Born in the middle
“We found Mrs. Gordon anxious to accommodate us, and as the dew was falling heavily, we thought it best to take shelter under her roof. So we spread our table-cloth in the kitchen, while she cooked in a shed adjoining.”– Harper’s, 1863
Antoine and Sarah Gordon were both of Anishinabe and European descent, and spent their lives going between the white and Native American worlds. Antoine was born at Sandy Lake, in what’s now Minnesota, in 1812 to a French-Canadian voyageur named Jean Baptiste Gaudin and Owanishan (Young Beaver), an Ojibwa woman and sister to a prominent chief, Bagone-giizhing (Hole in the Day). Antoine made history later in life by convincing his cousin to stay out of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in southern Minnesota.
Sarah was born in what’s now Burnett County, Wis. to an English fur trader named Daniel Dingley and Musk-Ko-Dence, also known as Isabella La Prairie, a woman of St. Croix Ojibwe and French descent.
Antoine and Sarah married in 1843, when he was 31 and she was 16. They remained close partners in all ways for the rest of their lives, and their descendants made history themselves, and continue to live in the area.
But the Métis culture was largely erased from the cultural landscape during their lifetimes. While French, English, and Scottish fur traders could coexist with Native American and Métis people to an extent, once American settlers and logging companies showed up, they forced most Métis to decide between living on a reservation or being assimilated into white society.
“Settlers were not interested in the existing trade networks that metis communities cultivated; rather, they wanted land, to which the metis class and their native cousins held no legal title, from the perspective of white settlers and the American government,” the National Register application reads.
Antoine and Sarah lived in the house until 1874, and then moved next door to their trading post to allow their son William and his family to live in the family home.
William moved to the Bad River Reservation in 1888, and the first white family to settle in Gordon promptly spent the following winter in the home. The town and the Gordons soon became a key supply center for logging camps that arrived at that time.
Images courtesy Gordon Wascott Historical Society
The house standing today has layers like chapters, as it was expanded in phases over the course of several decades. The original log cabin is still there, along with a log addition the family added in 1874. That’s despite a difficult location, and because of ingenious construction methods.
“With the [Eau Claire River] located one-tenth of a mile east of the property, the water table below the house is extremely high,” the National Register application reads. “As a result, the house has no dug-out basement and was instead constructed atop tamarack logs, which serve as a water-and rot-resistant foundation.”
The structure tells stories. The log foundation gives the floors a rolling quality. Steep, narrow stairs lead to the old sleeping loft in the 1859 structure. The walls are more than a foot thick in places. An original window can still be seen on one side, the panes of glass separated by wood that appears to have been milled on-site by hand.
Its very orientation speaks to its history, as well. The Gordon House is not aligned with the modern county highway that runs past it today, but is slightly askew, parallel to where the St. Croix Trail used to run.
Despite the centuries of use and changes of ownership, the essence of the structure remains intact well into the twenty-first century. Antoine and Sarah last saw it in 1907.
“The house as it appears would be easily recognizable to them were they to see it today,” the application reads.
“Her husband, a French[-Ojibwe Métis], was absent. She was the daughter of an Englishman, and her mother—a sq[**]w—lived in a wigwam on the plain in front of her daughter’s house.Mrs. Gordon spoke English, French, and Chippewa fluently, and waited on all the party with much alacrity.”– Harper’s, 1863
After more than a century out of the Gordon family’s ownership, in 1989 Antoine and Sarah’s great-great-grandson purchased the property. He has helped document the history of the house and its first inhabitants since then.
The story of the Gordons lives on in many ways. The St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church across the road from their house was built on land donated by the Gordons and with money the devout Métis family contributed. It too still stands today.
Their grandson Philip Gordon, who was born in the house after Antoine and Sarah moved next door, was surely influenced by his family’s connection to the church. Philip was eventually ordained as a Catholic priest, only the second Indigenous person to do so and the first to make a life of it. He spent his career in the clergy first at the mission at Lac Courte Oreilles, an Ojibwe reservation south of Hayward, and later at Centuria, Wis. Father Philip was known as a vocal advocate of better treatment of Native Americans from the federal government, and was at times persecuted by the church because of it.
For generations, the Gordons crossed cultural lines, blazed new paths, and cultivated community. Now that the Gordon House is designated as historic, it is able to spread the family’s stories more widely.
“While residing here, the Gordons had to navigate [many changes] and, against many odds, navigated it well,” Finstad said.
This is a fascinating story. Thanks for sharing this history.