Lost names and forgotten graves: Minnesota’s unidentified dead and the legacy of Ellen McArthur
Ellen McArthur was 22 years old when she vanished while on a spring walk to a relative's home and became the state's earliest missing person's case. More recently, her case created a spark for a team to research and identify a host of skeletal remains from unmarked graves.
Ellen “Helen” McArthur mysteriously disappeared while walking to Crow Wing Village on a warm spring day nearly 150 years ago. She was Minnesota’s earliest missing person’s case.
Before the invention of television, radio, internet and hand-held devices, the telegraph was the only 19th century communication technology that was then available. Regardless, the entire nation was soon abuzz with newspaper headlines embellishing her sudden vanishing. One newspaper story reported that she had eloped with a lumberjack, another claimed that she ended her life by filling her large shawl with stones and then drowned herself in the nearby Mississippi River, and other articles claimed she had been murdered.
Ellen’s parents were convinced she wouldn’t have “destroyed herself” in the river. The countryside was scoured by family and friends trying to locate any sign of her. Her mother suspected two men, who had been encamped nearby, were responsible for her disappearance. But nothing could be proven, and Ellen was never heard from again.
Fast forward to January 2014. I had received an email from Brainerd historian Carl “Fert” Faust with an attached electronic file titled, The Blueberry War, Compilation. Early planning for the inaugural Brainerd History Week celebration was then underway. A reconciliation ceremony between the city of Brainerd and Minnesota Ojibwe or Chippewa tribes was to be included in the schedule of events.
Carl inquired if I would review the file and uncover more details about the tragic and legendary events of the Blueberry War of Brainerd. Having previously read the fragmented account of the story within the centennial book produced for the city of Brainerd’s 100th birthday in 1971, I eagerly set out to rediscover much of the lost record of the “Blueberry War.”
Piecing together the past
This investigation quickly transitioned into a major study of these historic events. Applying new research techniques, which included powerful new web-based tools such as digitized newspapers, nearly 550 newspapers articles were amassed from across the nation that revealed startling new details.
Many forgotten aspects of the tragic 1872 events were soon exposed, and a far more comprehensive story was pieced back together.
Ellen “Helen” McArthur was the daughter of David and Nancy McArthur, the sixth of 11 children born and raised by the couple. Her father was a prominent farmer and an early Crow Wing County commissioner. The family had already settled on their farm near Crow Wing Village before the Minnesota Census was collected in 1857. Her mother’s sister was married to Col. Clement H. Beaulieu. “Clem” was known as the founder of both Crow Wing Village and Crow Wing County.
In 1872, Ellen was 22 years old, and she had been living on the family’s large farm located 1.5 miles east of the fading village of Old Crow Wing. She mysteriously disappeared while walking to the “Clem Beaulieu house” at Crow Wing Village on Sunday, April 28, 1872. Her destination had been the home of her aunt and uncle.
Brainerd’s darkest hour
About two months after Ellen disappeared, two “mixed-blood” men, having both Ojibwe and European ancestry, were arrested at the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation, accused of murdering her. These were the men that Ellen’s mother had earlier suspected may have been involved. An Ojibwe woman had allegedly overheard that they might be responsible for Ellen’s sudden disappearance, and the men were placed in Brainerd’s jail.
Just after midnight, during the wee hours of Saturday, July 20, the suspects were taken from the jail cell by a group of five men, with permission granted by the Crow Wing County sheriff.
The suspects were separated, “encouraged to talk,” and forced into a confession. One of the suspects led the party of men to an old campfire pit, where they supposedly had burned Ellen’s remains after she was killed. A gruesome discovery of charred bones was recovered from the cold ashes and delivered to a doctor in Brainerd for examination.
A Brainerd newspaper story then forewarned of vigilante justice.
On Tuesday, July 23, before the suspects had a trial, the “prophecy rang true” and the suspects were forcibly removed from Brainerd’s wooden jail, marched in front of an angry and determined lynch mob, while much of Brainerd’s population, all compelled by morbid curiosity, witnessed the unfolding tragedy. At twilight, the men were hanged from a limb of an old Norway pine adjacent to the original Last Turn Saloon on the corner of Fourth Street South and Front Street. One of the men was also shot multiple times after he quickly untied his hands from his bounds and while trying to free himself of the noose tightly wrapped around his neck.
It was Brainerd’s darkest hour.
The 2014 reconciliation was intended as a healing of that wound.
The ‘Blueberry War’
Fears of retaliation by Ojibwe tribes encamped nearby prompted the sheriff to telegraph the governor of Minnesota to request troops to defend the remote town from imminent reprisal. The violent 1862 U.S.-Dakota War of Minnesota was still fresh in the minds of some of the terrified pioneers of Brainerd.
For the first time, Minnesota’s National Guard was deployed by the governor and they were transported by train from St. Paul. Arriving at the Brainerd Headquarters Hotel, the troops quickly treated with the leaders of the Ojibwe camped on the west bank of the river. It was learned that the Indians’ true intent was to trade and sell their harvest of fresh blueberries.
A St. Paul newspaper dubbed the event as the farcical “Blueberry War,” prodding the governor for being an alarmist. But Ellen McArthur’s story didn’t have a peaceful ending. The burned bones recovered from the fire pit were later identified as belonging to a deer.
Finally, after four long years without closure, Ellen’s scattered skeletal remains along with identifiable clothing and the large shawl she carried were all found a little over a mile northeast of Crow Wing Village. Her broken-hearted family interred Ellen into a private grave on the family farm.
Stricken with sadness, her mother died just three years later. Her widowed father sold the farm and relocated to White Earth to be nearer to some of Ellen’s siblings.
But Ellen’s resting place was not permanent.
Her private grave was nearly forgotten until county officials determined it was located along a survey line for a new county road. As early as 1902, the Brainerd Daily Dispatch reported that Crow Wing County officials were considering moving the isolated grave. The finished road was slightly narrowed at the site and she was left in place.
Then, in 1959, construction crews were widening the same township road and nearly plowed over her grave. Answering a proposal by the county to have the grave moved, John “Pete” Humphrey, the founder of Crow Wing State Park, requested and received written permission from descendants of her siblings, to exhume Ellen’s remains from the old family farm, which was located near intersection of today’s Highway 371 and 58th Street Southwest, to be reinterred in the Morrison plot within the Catholic Cemetery at Crow Wing State Park.
According to the McArthur 1980 family reunion newsletter, some correspondence in the private collection in the “McArthur family trunk,” Pete Humphrey had communicated with family members that Ellen’s skeletal remains were photographed during the reinterment.
Armed with this new information, I set out to locate copies of those photos as a part of my investigation, with the hope that there might be photographic evidence that could determine Ellen’s cause of death.
‘Giving back their names’
In June 2015, copies of the photographs were discovered in the private library collection of archaeologist and historian Douglas A. Birk. The photos were included in a Crow Wing file given to Doug by Pete Humphrey many years earlier, before the latter passed away.
Having obtained copies of the photographs, I contacted Minnesota’s only forensic anthropologist, Dr. Susan “Sue” M. T. Myster, a professor at Hamline University at St. Paul, to review the images for evidence of possible trauma. Myster was involved with many high-profile criminal cases, including identifying the skeletal remains of Katie Poirier, and she was with investigators at a Paynseville farm where the bones and a jacket were unearthed, which belonged to a boy that went missing from St. Joseph, Minnesota, in 1989.
Surprisingly, I learned that Myster and her husband worked as college students under Doug Birk’s tutelage at an important archaeology site near Little Falls during the 1980s. It’s a small world. During my initial meeting with Myster at Hamline University, I was offered a tour of her classrooms and the osteology lab at Hamline University.
We paused in front of a wall-sized rack containing dozens of large wooden drawers. Myster explained that each drawer contained unidentified human skeletal remains encountered and recovered from unmarked graves throughout Minnesota. Each skeleton, many partial, were all non-American Indian, and all had been determined to have passed away at least 50 years prior. Nor were they the focus of any active criminal investigation.
“Giving back their names” kept Myster awake at night, hoping that research methodology might one day allow for the identification of all the skeletons stored in the lab. Ironically, the disappearance of Ellen McArthur was a cold case Myster referenced in some of her classes. Because of that familiarity, Myster was eager to review the photos of Ellen’s skeletal remains. During her study of the images, she identified possible trauma that might indicate Ellen’s cause of death.
Myster then inquired about the research techniques that were applied during my investigation, and she suggested that I apply the same investigative approach to identify three test cases of unknown skeletons stored at the osteology lab.
The internet has truly become a powerful research tool. Within hours, a possible identity was located that matched the biologic profile of a skeleton discovered in a 19th century grave, that had been disturbed during a 2014 construction project in Hastings. That methodology of research, including both the osteology study and historical investigation, which provided the possible identity for the Hastings case, was the basis for State Archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd’s testimony to the Minnesota House of Representatives Legacy Funding Finance Committee. The grant request was necessary to finance Gronhovd’s proposed comprehensive study to identify all the skeletal remains stored at the osteology lab at Hamline University.
With the project ultimately funded by state lawmakers, I was formally added to the team of osteologists and specialists, in the role of historical investigator.
Surprisingly, the final case studied during this project included a skeleton discovered by Doug Birk in 1958. That 19th century grave was disturbed during construction of Highway 371 near Round Lake in Crow Wing County. A few years ago, Birk told me the story of the discovery of this skeleton. During our project’s study of this case, a possible identity was provided, but Birk never heard the resolution of this case. My friend and mentor passed away unexpectedly three years ago. He would have been pleased to know this case might have closure.
The initial two-year project is now wrapping up, but some of the DNA comparative tests are still pending. For some of the cases, we may never be able to confirm all their identities either due to degraded DNA, or because there are no surviving descendants or relatives to provide a comparative saliva-buccal swab DNA sample.
The team’s measurable results were unexpected and surprising. At the beginning of the project, we estimated that 25%-33% (1/4 to 1/3) of the individuals might be identified. Overall, the team provided possible names or identities for well over 80% of the individual skeletons investigated during the duration of the project.
The project team is now planning a day-long presentation in a public forum, hosted by the Hamline University Center for Anthropological Services. The date and time of this event will be announced later this spring.
None of this would have occurred if Ellen McArthur hadn’t disappeared so mysteriously and tragically in 1872.
But her story is not over. Her legacy is now helping provide names for Minnesota’s forgotten dead.
Jeremy S. Jackson is currently writing a manuscript that includes many additional details of the disappearance of Ellen McArthur, the tragic lynching, and the “Blueberry War” of Brainerd. He also continues his work with the project team to recover identities for Minnesota’s historic human remains.