Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


More obscure N.D. history...

Posted 5/08/18 (Tue)

There’s a rather obscure place in North Dakota that few people know about, that just happens to be a critical link to our past.

There are no signs, no roads, not even a remote trail leading you to this place. But it’s there and has been since long before North Dakota existed.

About halfway between Dunseith and Belcourt, and a mile north off North Dakota Highway 5, or 11 miles south of the Canadian border, is Holywater Spring, a natural occurring spring that brings water to the surface.

In this day and age, it’s in a remote area, surrounded by trees and sort of hidden. It’s not terribly large, so if you aren’t paying attention, you might walk right past it. But the hoof prints of cattle are around the spring as the bovines drink water from the source.

There are several stories among the Chippewa, Metis and Canadian historians about Holywater Spring, but they are very difficult, if not impossible to verify.

In one, the Rev. Georges Antoine Bellecourt, who established a Catholic mission in Pembina in 1849 and later set up a church and school at what is now Walhalla in 1853, is said to have sanctified Holywater Spring for use in his church and mission work.

Father Bellecourt, of which the community of Belcourt was named, was an interesting individual.

The church in New Brunswick asked him in 1831 to go to St. Boniface, Manitoba and minister the Chippewa. He learned the language and translated the Bible into the Chippewa language.

In 1848, he arrived in Pembina and began a mission. He also counseled the Metis to resist Hudson’s Bay Company authorities as he believed the Metis weren’t getting fair trade on their furs.

According to Canadian history, Bellecourt also counseled Louis Riel at Pembina long before the Riel Rebellion against the Canadian government at Batoche.

In 1853, Bellecourt moved his headquarters to St. Joseph, which is now Walhalla. There, he set up a church and a school and even though he was a trained priest, began work as a missionary, preaching to the Metis and the few people of European descent who were living in the area at the time.

The energetic priest spent 16 years based at St. Joseph/Walhalla before the church sent him back to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1859.

While in St. Joseph, he sometimes moved with the Chippewa on buffalo hunts. The tribe trusted Bellecourt as years earlier he stood up to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

At some point in time during his 16 years in St. Joseph, Bellecourt arrived at what is now Dunseith and discovered Holywater Spring.

It was also during this time that the Chippewa, Sioux, Cree and Assiniboine tribes became war like in the area of what is now northeastern North Dakota, massacring numerous settlers who were arriving after the establishment of present-day Walhalla in 1845.

It is, apparently a legend, but Bellecourt believed the water from Holywater Spring would reduce the tensions between the tribes.

Historians believe, but aren’t able to verify, that Bellecourt was a good negotiator and by this time, being fluent in English, French and Chippewa, he was able to diffuse dangerous situations after the initial battles in the early 1850s that included owners of the first printing press brought to Walhalla.

In 1859, following a vacation Down East, the church transferred Bellecourt back to Charlottetown where he began his ministry to the Acadians.

Described as descendents of the French colonists and indigenous peoples of Atlantic Canada, the Acadians were essentially the same as the Metis on the prairie, descendents of the French fur traders and Chippewa women.

Thus Bellecourt had experience when he arrived in Prince Edward Island. In fact, the Beaver, Canada’s history magazine, describes how Bellecourt wrote a Chippewa grammar book and later translated the entire Bible into Chippewa while at St. Joseph. He took those items back to Prince Edward Island to use them in his preaching of the Acadians.

When we consider pioneers who were here during the early days and before, there were some colorful characters and the first who comes to mind are Theodore Roosevelt and James J. Hill.

Father Bellecourt rarely gets historical recognition, even though he was an important link to the history of the state’s northeast and is perhaps responsible for stopping the bloodshed between the local tribes and settlers.

Perhaps Father Bellecourt should be a bigger name in our state’s history.