The Wisconsin Tales: Grande Castor

Due to the response I received from “A Brule Ghost Story”, I present to you another fable pulled from the depths of Wisconsin history.

Enjoy the holidays, and I’ll see you on the flip side of New Year’s.

In 1745 Augustin Mouet, sieur de Langlade, and his son, Charles Michel de Langlade, established a trading post on the shores of Green Bay, in the northwest territories of New France. Soon after, as Charles recorded in his ledgers, the men were chased from their home in the middle of the night by “a terrible shaking [of] the Earth” that “throwed [sic] us from our beds.” The local Ojibwe people told them that such events were common and caused by the Great Beaver who lived along the shores of Lake Winnebago. The Ojibwe hated the beaver, because he dammed the Upper Fox River to ruin their fishing grounds and would eat their hunting parties whole; and when the Great Beaver stirred in his lodge, the Ojibwe said, the entire earth would tremble. Not entirely convinced, but at the very least amused, the Frenchmen would record these tremblors in their business ledger as Grande Castor.

The ledgers recorded every transaction that the son Charles made with the Indian trappers. Among the many in his employ was a pair of Ojibwe brothers, Meteamoh and Kennessec. Meteamoh was the elder, an experienced hunter who was well-respected among the French at Fort Michilimackinac for the fine size and quality of his furs. His brother Kennessec was still young and inexperienced but compensated for his faults with abundant confidence and brash thinking. Every season Kennessec would promise to deliver Langlade the same number of pelts as his brother, and of course when spring came he could not back up his boasting. Langlade, likely influenced by Meteamoh, forgave the younger trapper; but he did not forget.

It was customary among the Ojibwe that business deals be sealed with the exchange of gifts. The Frenchman knew gift-giving was part of doing business, but that did not compel him to be egalitarian in the effort. Langlade’s favored trapper Meteamoh was gifted a fine woolen overcoat in a style that was all the rage among the Parisians, while Kennessec was given the traditional provisions of brandy, flints, and a roll of tobacco. For Kennessec this was an insult; he was the brother of the great Meteamoh, and could hardly stand such a deliberate slight on the part of the Frenchman. The embarrassment renewed his determination to prove his worth in the coming season and earn a fine overcoat of his own.

When the Fox River began to freeze along its bank the two brothers knew it was time to pack their gear and head south to their winter quarters to hunt and trap. Meteamoh had quick success: it was easy for him to trap beavers in drowning sets along the river banks and set traps for coyote and fox in the surrounding woodlands. He would bring them back to the wigwam to skin them, then salt the pelts and let them hang on the ceiling of the wigwam above his sleeping area. Meteamoh would then cut up the meat and place it in a large pot to cook all day long. At the end of a day the brothers would retreat to the wigwam, eat a hearty stew, smoke tobacco, and talk over the day’s events. Kennessec rarely brought back anything to add to their meal, but Meteamoh made sure his brother still ate well.

At night Meteamoh would sit around the fire and wrap himself in the overcoat for warmth. Each night Kennessec would eye the fabric keenly. The overcoat was never far from young trapper’s mind.

As winter waned it was clear that Meteamoh would have no trouble keeping his promise of pelts to their Father. Kennessec, on the other hand, fell short. He knew that another failed season would not only humiliate him among his own people, but likely prevent him from ever trading with Langlade again. As his failures mounted day-by-day he grew more frustrated. When the ice began to break up along the Fox, and Meteamoh planned to leave their winter quarters and return to Green Bay, Kennessec grew desperate. Determined not to return to their Father empty-handed, he started thinking of another way to obtain the pelts he so badly needed.

Now Meteamoh was the better trapper, but Kennessec was fleeter of foot. Kennessec decided that if he could steal Meteamoh’s pelts out from under his nose he could run back to Green Bay before his brother would catch him. A plan decided, Kennessec began to conspire against his brother.

That night Meteamoh went to bed early, and Kennessec decided to make his move. He quietly crept upon the pelts hanging above Meteamoh’s head. Just as Kennessec began to remove the first pelt, his brother awoke.

“Kennessec,” Meteamoh said, “my brother, what are you doing?”

Aside from being fleet of foot, Kennessec was also fleet of mind. “The fire was covering your fine pelts in soot,” he replied. “I was trying to clean them.”

“Ah, Kennessec. You’re thoughtful, but it is late. Go to bed.”

His plan having failed, Kennessec went to bed. He woke and went out to trap. That evening Kennessec returned empty-handed. His brother Meteamoh voiced his concern.

“Your fortunes upset me, Kennessec,” Meteamoh said. “But I’m sure you’ll fare better tomorrow.”

“Perhaps,” Kennessec replied, but his mind was focused on his plan. He presented a bottle of brandy. “But what kind of brother am I that I haven’t toasted to your success yet? Let’s drink to you tonight, brother.”

Honored, Meteamoh could not refuse him, and so he drank. Soon he was asleep. Kennessec again moved toward the pelts. Yet again, even a bit drunk, Meteamoh awoke.

“Kennessec! What are you doing tonight to my pelts!”

“Brother, forgive me. I spilled some brandy on your fine pelt, and was trying to clean it.”

“Ah, Kennessec! You’re thoughtful, but it is late. Go to bed.”

Again his plan failed, and Kennessec went to bed. The next day again he went trapping but was unsuccessful. He was desperate.

“Again no luck!” Meteamoh said. “If tomorrow your fortunes don’t change, well, I have a plan.”

“Perhaps,” Kennessec said, but he wouldn’t hear it. He already had a plan. He presented the bottle of brandy again. “Last night we drank to your success! Tonight I want to drink away my misfortunes. Please join me brother!”

Meteamoh could not turn his brother down, and drank more heavily. He fell into a deep sleep, and Kennessec made his move.

This time when Meteamoh awoke it was morning, and both his brother and his pelts were gone. Alarmed, he burst from the wigwam to warn his brother that a thief was about and noticed footprints in the snow, leading from the entrance of the wigwam to the banks of the Fox and headed north toward Green Bay. It slowly dawned on Meteamoh that the thief was his own brother.

“Kennessec!” Meteamoh spoke aloud. “I would not believe you would steal from your own brother, but the proof is here in the snow. I could never catch you before Langlade would record my pelts as your own!

“Still, I told you I have a plan. We are so close to the Winnebago I can smell it, and I cannot believe I did not think of it before last night. Have my pelts, brother, and I will obtain another.”

He ran back to the wigwam to grab his flintlock and skinning knife. Leaving the wigwam he followed the Fox River south toward its headwaters and Lake Winnebago.

At this time Kennessec was already several miles downstream, having spent the night talking with his conscience. By morning he realized what a horrible thing he had done to steal from his brother. Meteamoh did nothing but offer him part of his bounty when he returned nothing to the wigwam at night, and did he not even say he planned to help him trap? Kennessec, overwhelm with guilt, turned around. He decided he would return to the wigwam, beg for his brother to forgive him for his foolishness, and ask for his help in trapping the pelts he needed.

Kennessec ran back to camp, burst into the wigwam, tossed the pelts to the floor, dropped to his knees, and began begging Meteamoh for forgiveness. But Meteamoh wasn’t there. Kennessec saw his brother’s flintlock missing and then noticed his footprints in the snow leading toward Lake Winnebago. He was unsure what his brother was on to; but he knew could still catch Meteamoh before too long. Kennessec grabbed his own flintlock and hurried south.

Meteamoh was the first to reach the lake. Looking far across the hard waters he could see a towering mountain that was the Great Beaver’s lodge, built up from felled trees stacked high above the lake’s surface. Meteamoh had come here to kill the Great Beaver and take his pelt, but had only known of the beaver in passing. He thought of the stories told to Ojibwe children of the fearsome man-eating beaver that would drown men in the lake and flood the upper Fox, and knew many men who would dare not venture near the lake in winter. Then he thought of his thieving brother who was probably halfway to Green Bay with his pelts, leaving him without the promises made to their Father. He knew what he had to do.

“Does the Great Beaver even sleep here this morning?” Meteamoh said aloud.

As his words were carried by the wind across the lake there came a response. The earth shook violently, dropping Meteamoh to the ground. From the across the lake he watched several of the felled trees dislodge themselves, tumbling out onto the ice with a thunderous crash. It was enough to make most men run from the lake in fear; but Meteamoh took it as a good sign, and when the trembling subsided he began the trek toward the giant lodge.

Kennessec was farther behind Meateamoh than he thought. By the time he reached the shore of Lake Winnebago his older brother was but a little speck on the horizon. Kennesec watched as Meteamoh began scaling the side of the beaver lodge, looking for a way inside. It suddenly hit Kennessec the scope of his brother’s plan: he was going to kill the Great Beaver, and turn his pelt over to their Father. Even Kennessec could not believe the boldness of his brother. Then again, such a large pelt would be equal to twenty of any other beaver, nay, twenty-times-twenty beaver pelts. Now Kennessec’s brash mind took hold and his angered flared: Meteamoh would again upstage his younger brother in the eyes of their Father, on one pelt alone! Then again, if he was the one to kill the Great Beaver and deliver it to Green Bay than he could only dream of the riches that his Father would bestow upon him! Without delay Kennessec headed out across the ice in pursuit of Meteamoh.

The older trapper found an opening where one of the felled trees became dislodged during the quake and began his descent into the lodge. He had never been in a beaver lodge before, having never found one large enough to accommodate a man, and he found it unpleasant. It was dark and damp and smelled strongly, and Meteamoh wondered how any animal could stand it.

Now beaver lodges are usually constructed of many rooms, tunnels, and passageways, and it would take Meteamoh some time to search them all. With only slivers of sunlight cutting through the walls of the lodge to guide him he began his search. He did it silently, and slowly, in hopes that the giant beaver was still asleep and would not awaken; it if did wake his plan would all but disintegrate. It took him so much time that Kennessec was able to catch up with him, descending through the same opening into the lodge. From there he could see the dark figure of Meteamoh slink through the lodge’s tunnels and disappear into the far chamber.

Here, in the final chamber of the lodge, in the far corner, lay the Great Beaver. The giant beaver was still asleep as Meteamoh hoped, shaking the walls of the lodge with every breath it drew. Meteamoh steeled his nerves and began his advance, slowly… slowly… slowly inching forward. The beaver continued to sleep. When he inched to within striking distance Meteamoh slowly drew the skinning knife from its sheath.

Then from behind him came the sound of thunder. Kennessec raised his flintlock toward the giant beaver’s heart and fired. The flash of the pan illuminated the entire chamber, temporarily blinding the gunman. When he was able to see again, his expression was one of terror: the musket ball Kennessec just fired lay at his feet, having bounced harmlessly off the beaver’s hide. Kennessec’s shot succeeded only in waking it.

Meteamoh took a step back as the giant beaver reared up on its hind legs and bared its chiseled teeth. Its intention was clear: Meteamoh would be the one to die, swallowed whole by the enraged beast. In the brief moment before the giant beaver could strike a killing blow, however, Kennessec made another brash decision, drawing his tomahawk and lunging toward the beast’s head and, with every last ounce of strength he could gather, smashing the tomahawk between the beaver’s eyes.

This blow also failed to kill the beaver, but stunned the beast enough for Meteamoh to draw his skinning knife and plunge it through the animal’s throat. The beaver shuddered as Meteamoh drew the knife across his body. Caught in its death throes, the beast shook the lodge so furiously that both men feared it would collapse upon them. They ran from the chamber, back towards the opening in the lodge, ascending to the surface and scrambling down the slope and onto the ice. As they reached the lake’s surface the lodge exploded behind them, scattering whole trees across Lake Winnebago. Meteamoh and Kennessec dodged the falling timbers as they crashed onto the lake, spewing forth fountains of freezing water and thrusting up heaving sheets of ice.

When the chaos subsided both men lay on the ice, exhausted.

They looked across the devastation on Lake Winnebago, then at the lodge. There sprawled across the ruins of its fortress lay the giant beaver, dead.

Meteamoh fought to catch his breath. Kennessec approached him and was again prepared to beg forgiveness for his betrayal, when Meteamoh spoke first.

“Thank you brother,” he said. “You saved my life.”

Kennessec was taken aback. “No, brother,” Kennessec replied. “You saved mine. Oh, I tried to betray you and sell your own pelts to our Father in Green Bay! But I returned, and the pelts are waiting at the wigwam. Please, forgive me Mateamoh! What can I do to prove my word?”

Meteamoh thought to himself.

The giant beaver was much too large to salt. Meteamoh knew that if the pelt wasn’t delivered to Green Bay soon it would quickly begin to rot and become worthless. Someone fleet of foot would need to deliver it.

Meteamoh turned to Kennessec. “I forgive you, Kennessec. I’ll even make a deal with you. I will carry every other pelt we have collected back to Green Bay, if you will carry only one.”

Kennessec could not believe it. “Thank you Meteamoh! I don’t deserve such kindness and generosity…”

Then Kennessec fell quiet. He suddenly understood what Meteamoh meant.

According to Charles Langlade’s records for that year both brothers returned with all the furs owed him. Langlade noted that one of the beaver pelts was “from a specimen of a fine size.”

The Frenchman’s ledgers never made mention of Grande Castor again.

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Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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