National Native American Heritage Month: John Beargrease, Rural Mail Carrier

John Beargrease, who was also known as Eshquabi, was born in the vicinity of Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior in 1858. He was the son of Moquabimetem, a chief of the Ojibwe people in that region. (The Ojibwe people are part of the group of Native American tribes collectively called the Anishinaabe.) Moquabimetem also went by the name John Beargrease the Elder. By the 1870s, this family had settled with other members of the Ojibwe tribe in the Minnesota community of Beaver Bay on the North Shore. In 1879, John Beargrease the Younger first took on the pivotal role of transporting mail in the general area where they lived.  

In the mid-1850s, the U.S. Congress had mandated regular mail delivery to far-flung, isolated communities in that section of the Midwest. This directive was a lot easier said than done, however. Mail service throughout the region proved to be sporadic at best for the first several years, due in large part to the lack of navigable roads and an overabundance of rough terrain and bad weather conditions. Beargrease, as someone very familiar with the area and able to travel through there successfully and safely for such pursuits as hunting and fishing, agreed to help bring the mail to residents in remote locations.

Over the next couple of decades, Beargrease used several means of transportation to fulfill his duties as a mail carrier. His specific route was between the village (now city) of Two Harbors and settlement (now city) of Grand Marais in Minnesota, but he also delivered mail to other communities as needed. 

When the lake was frozen and heavy snow covered local footpaths during the winter, Beargrease typically used a sled pulled along by a team of four dogs to deliver large bags of letters to their destinations. He eventually also used horses for making his mail-delivery rounds in inclement winter weather. In warmer weather, Beargrease often took to the water and performed his mail runs via a row boat that he fitted with a mast and sail. He would also deliver mail by foot.

Along with getting the mail to communities on his route, Beargrease proved to be a vital link for area residents in other ways. He frequently proved to be the best and sometimes only source of reliable information when it came to everything from snow depths and other weather conditions in the vicinity to major news from the outside world.

Beargrease’s regular job as mail carrier ended in 1899 after dependable roads had been built in the region to make it easier than before for others to deliver the mail. Beargrease continued to help transport letters whenever his services were needed, though. He died in 1910. To help commemorate his legacy and now-legendary status in that part of the United States, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has been held each year since 1980 on a long stretch of the North Shore.

For more information on John Beargrease, please check out     https://postalmuseum.si.edu/node/1846

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