Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

Exploring history: Curiosity sends author, columnist searching for fur-trading family

Jun 07, 2020 06:51AM ● By Editor

Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

By Ann Wright of the Daily Sentinel - June 7, 2020

Under threat of becoming overgrown by grass and small plants, Michel Cadotte’s gray and white headstone was almost unremarkable.

So of course it set off all kinds of history flares in Bob Silbernagel’s mind.

That was about 15 years ago, when Silbernagel and his wife, Judy, walked through a Catholic cemetery on Madeline Island, which is considered part of Wisconsin and the largest of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.

Cadotte’s age, 72 years, 11 months and 16 days, as well as the year he died, 1837, put him smack dab in the middle of the region while the fur trade thrived in its demand for beaver pelts for hats.

Things might have ended there except that Bob and Judy Silbernagel were fascinated by Lake Superior and for the past 25 years have visited it regularly while on trips from Palisade to Wisconsin to visit family.

Silbernagel, who writes the First Draft history column for The Daily Sentinel, continued learning about the history of Madeline Island and the Lake Superior area.

“I kept running into that name (Cadotte) and became more convinced that it was really important,” Silbernagel said.

He discovered that the island was named for Cadotte’s Ojibwe wife, Equaysayway, based on her European name. The couple’s home and trading post had been located on one end of the island, and generations of the family had been involved in the fur trade.

“Why,” Silbernagel kept asking, “why were they important?”

Silbernagel’s curiosity has resulted in the book “The Cadottes: A Fur Trade Family on Lake Superior” released in early May by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

The research and writing of “The Cadottes” were a nice change of pace for Silbernagel, who also is the author of “Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of Utes From Colorado” ( 2011) and “Historic Adventures on the Colorado Plateau” (2018). Silbernagel also is the Sentinel’s former editorial page editor.


Lake Superior’s “grand and treacherous landscape” captured his attention in a way somewhat similar to how the ruggedly soaring Rocky Mountains can grab you, he said.

The lake’s water stretches away from the shore large and deep with history and beauty but legendary for its capricious weather. The Cadotte family is the focus of his book, “but I think Lake Superior is one of the characters as well,” Silbernagel said.

To be part of the fur trade in the 1700s-1800s meant navigating an “aquatic highway” that included Lake Superior and connected the backcountry with Montreal, Silbernagel wrote in “The Cadottes.”

It also meant navigating changing times and politics. The Cadotte family was representative of many other intermarried Ojibwe (also known as Ojibway) and French-Canadian families involved in the fur trade, however the Cadottes stayed in the industry longer than most, Silbernagel said.

“I think the thing that really struck me … was how they continued even though their world kept changing,” Silbernagel said.

The family worked with the French, then the British and then the Americans and had the resilience to continue to adapt through great political and economic changes. “It amazed me,” he said.

However, figuring out who they were and how they survived was kind of a treasure hunt that sent Silbernagel searching for Cadotte family members as well as access to old or rare books and journals.

One historian he worked with pointed him in the direction of the Cadotte family account books stored in the University of Notre Dame’s archives. Fortunately, an archivist was able to make those papers available for him to review online, he said.

“That was just critical to getting an insight into the family,” Silbernagel said of the account books that were originally written in French and translated into English in the early 20th century.

Google Books also was “a lifesaver,” he said. “Old books that have been posted on Google Books are incredible.”

Tracking down hardbound copies of some of the books he found online would have been nearly impossible, he said.

And while much of Silbernagel’s research kept his attention north, he said it actually isn’t too hard to place a few dots and make a fur trade connection from Montreal to western Colorado and Antoine Robidoux, who built Fort Uncompahgre in 1828 at the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers.

“It really was kind of a small community in terms of numbers. A lot of people knew each other both here and back there,” Silbernagel said.

Unfortunately, the physical buildings marking where the Cadottes lived on Madeline Island, as well as the original Fort Uncompahgre, are long gone.

A reconstructed Fort Uncompahgre can be found on the outskirts of Delta, but the Cadottes’ home and fur trading post on the southern tip of the Madeline Island have given way to grass and evergreen trees.

Other parts of the island are “pretty touristy,” Silbernagel said, but this area is given to memory.

To read the original review and see related stories, follow this link to the Daily Sentinel website.