Long before the resorts, the loggers and the dam that created the Whitefish Chain, the many lakes that now form the chain were home to the original Minnesota hunters fishermen- Native Americans.
Evidence of residents in the Whitefish Chain area goes back 2,000 years, when Woodland Native Americans traveled through the rivers and lakes seeking deer, elk, antelope and bison that lived here. While they broke up into smaller groups in the winter, they came together in the summer to bury their dead, and several archaeological sites- burial mounds- are located near the Whitefish Chain.
One of the most written about and well-known Native American historical events on the Whitefish Chain is the battle of Cross Lake, where the Dakota and Ojibwe met in a gruesome fight.
It’s believed that the battle took place in the spring of 1800. The Ojibwe and Dakota (or Sioux, as they were often called) were fierce enemies. The Ojibwe were camped on on a point of land between Cross and Rush Lakes, north of the modern location of The Wharf.
The Ojibwe had set up an encampment there, perhaps because of the presence of a stand of sugar maples, as it was syruping season. The ice had not yet left the lake, and several men left on an early-morning hunt.
On the shore of Cross Lake, though, they looked out over the lake to see several wolves sitting on the ice, observing the Ojibwe camp. As the Ojibwe men walked out toward the wolves, though, the wolves suddenly took to two feet and carried their skins behind them- they were Dakota warriors in disguise.
The Ojibwe hunters ran back to their camp, yelling warning to their tribe. But the Ojibwe were caught unprepared for battle, while the Dakota had been preparing all along. It's believed the Dakota been following the Ojibwe on their trip north from a gathering at the Crow Wing River.
The Ojibwe were also terribly outnumbered, with less than 200 of their own tribe against an estimated 300 Dakota.
Suddenly, lines of Dakota issued from the woods across Moonlight Bay on Cross Lake. Their walk en mass from the woods onto the ice was described as confident and filled with contempt. This was misread by the Ojibwe, though, who believed this march may be a peace-making overture. In the past, large numbers of the tribe had marched out holding a calumet, or peace pipe. The Ojibwe couldn’t see a calumet, but they were too far away to tell.
Two young Ojibwe men ventured onto the ice toward the oncoming Dakota, only to be met with a hailstorm of arrows. While the men were injured, they were able to return fire. Ojibwe watching from the shore saw the fight start, and took to arms.
Finding they were sorely outnumbered, the Ojibwe were soon turning to flee, but it was only minutes before the Dakota surrounded the Ojibwe and moved in for the kill.
Stories told about the battle say that the ice was red with blood that day.
Ultimately only seven men, four women, and three captured children survived of that Ojibwe tribe. Three of the four women who survived had left to take extra food to a cache, and upon their return saw the fighting and fled. The fourth was a young woman who climbed a tree and waited silently, watching the battle below. She stayed in the tree until the Dakota left with their spoils, and later related the events of the terrible day for years to come.
Today the location of the battle is just like the rest of the Whitefish Chain- beautiful forests and shoreline, dotted with houses and cabins. No evidence remains of the Battle of Cross Lake.
Information from this story is from A Taste of History, a book of Crosslake area history compiled by the Crosslake Historical Society. The book is available at Judy's House of Gifts in Crosslake. The story on the Battle at Cross Lake published in the book was originally written by Carl Zapffe.