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Teaching the trade: Students learn about the fur trade up close

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER From left, Blackduck sixth-graders John Coller and Trevor Janssen, wearing the garments worn by voyageurs during the fur trade, examine a photograph of what the real voyageurs looked like hundreds of years ago. The two were among dozens of students who took part in an interactive presentation with Daryl Jorgenson, a Minnesota History Player who enacted the life of George Nelson, a fur-trade worker who lived from 1786 to 1859.

BEMIDJI -- Samantha Christensen was the most fashionable sixth-grader in Blackduck on Tuesday.

Sporting a traditional beaver-fur top hat, Samantha modeled for her classmates the reason the beaver fur was the most sought of all the furs from 1600 to the mid-1800s.

"This hat was so valuable, if you owned one and you died, you might put it into your will for your brother or your sister," explained Daryl Jorgenson, addressing about 40 sixth-graders in a presentation at Blackduck Public School.

Jorgenson, a Minnesota Historical Society employee, is one of its History Players. He travels the state re-enacting the lives of real-life individuals.

He was in Blackduck, Kelliher and Bemidji on Tuesday as he portrayed George Nelson, a fur-trade clerk who lived from 1786 to 1859.

"Really, the lesson itself is more about the fur trade and the interaction (with the students) rather than the man himself," Jorgenson said before his performance.

Indeed, the 45-minute presentation focused on the inner workings of the fur trade, discussing the roles played by the American Indians, the voyageurs and the clerks with fur trade companies.

Performances were brought into the area thanks to a collaboration between the North Beltrami Heritage Center, Beltrami County Historical Society and Blackduck History Center, and the Region 2 Arts Council and Minnesota State Legacy funds.

Jorgenson, who in addition to Nelson also plays Charley Goddard, a teenaged Civil War soldier from Winona, said the characters are chosen based on the amount of accompanying documentation available. For Goddard, for example, the Minnesota Historical Society has the letters he sent home. For Nelson, who as a clerk worked for XY, North West and Hudson Bay companies, the Historical Society has his journals.

Nelson's father was the only schoolteacher in his hometown so he was educated in the main room of his home along with all of the other neighborhood children.

"I got an extremely good education," Jorgenson said, speaking as Nelson. He learned to read and write and speak two languages. "Because of my education, I could do anything I wanted to do."

At 15-years-old, enamored with the voyageurs and their stories of adventure, Nelson followed one down the street, begging to hear more stories.

"And I followed him into the office of the XY Trading Co.," Jorgenson said, as Nelson. "And on that day I became a clerk in the XY company."

Jorgenson's presentation covered an array of topics, including the outerwear worn by voyageurs to protect them from the winter weather and summertime pests and also provide extra back support for lifting and carrying up to three sacks, some as heavy as 90 pounds each.

The presentation discussed the value of the different furs and the man-made tools American Indians would trade their furs for, such as a copper pot or flint and steel to make fire.

Jorgenson showed, step by step, the process used by Indians to collect and prepare wild rice.

"Without the help of the Ojibwe -- the American Indians -- it would have been very, very difficult for the fur traders and the voyageurs and the other folks in the trade to survive because they wouldn't have had the food that they needed," Jorgenson said.

The Ojibwe also saved Nelson's life in a more obvious way. He was out working in the woods, portaging with voyageurs to deliver goods. Nelson, fatigued, decided to take a rest by leaning his elbow against a barrel near a fire.

It wasn't comfortable, so he moved away to the other side of the fire.

Meanwhile, his cook lit a pipe and one of the coals from the pipe fell into the barrel that Nelson previously had been leaning against.

The barrel was filled with gunpowder.

"Boom!" shouted some of the sixth-graders.

"Boom is exactly right," Jorgenson said.

'The next thing I knew my men grabbed me and were running me down to the water," Jorgenson said, speaking as Nelson. "Before I knew it they were pushing me under the water until I was losing all of my breath."

He was on fire.

And though he and and the cook both initially survived the fire with bad burns, the cook eventually sucumbed to his injuries as Nelson pulled thorugh.

"If it was not for the help of the Ojibwe -- the American Indians who I was working with in the trade -- if it weren't for their medicines and the different plants that they gave me, I would not have survived those burns," Jorgenson said, as Nelson.

See it yourself

The performance, "Minnesota History Player -- Fur Trade Clerk, George Nelson," also will be performed tonight in an open presentation for the community.

The enactment will begin at 7 p.m. for homeschooled students and community members at the Beltrami County History Center, 130 Minnesota Ave SW.

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