Native News

‘I’m glad it’s home’: A family heirloom links back to Bemidji’s founding and Indigenous history

Two people look at wood
Newell Carson (right) shows museum director Emily Thabes (left) a ramrod Shaynowishkung fashioned himself out of wood. The musket is thought to have been made around 1850 by a company in England that produced firearms from 1850-1900.
Mathew Holding Eagle | MPR News

Updated 11:02 a.m.

This story begins with an anxious exchange between an Ojibwe leader and a young settler during a period of uncertainty. Now the object central to that exchange can be found at the Beltrami County Historical Society.   

Newell Carson recently traveled over 1,000 miles from his home in Kalispell, Mont., to donate a musket gifted to his family. It came from Shaynowishkung (He Who Rattles) who was also known as Chief Bemidji.   

According to an expert gunsmith the musket was made around 1850, by a company in England. Its stock is fashioned out of what is presumed to be English walnut while the metal lock plate features an intricate engraving. After leaving England the gun likely traveled through Canada before making its way down to America. Shaynowishkung probably traded furs for the gun.

“This is where it belongs,” Newell said during a gifting ceremony at the BCHS. “It’s for the people in the area to appreciate, to enjoy it. And I’m just so happy that we’ve reached this day.”

A closeup of a weapon
The musket’s stock is fashioned out of what is presumed to be English walnut while the lock plate contains an intricate design. Shaynowishkung probably acquired the gun through trade with fur traders.
Mathew Holding Eagle | MPR News

Early Bemidji 

Shaynowishkung is held as Bemidji’s first permanent settler. Historical accounts show he was a peacekeeper between Ojibwe people and settlers. Today he’s immortalized with a bronze statue which stands on the banks of Lake Bemidji.  

He frequented Carson’s Trading Post, the first white-owned business in the settlement. It was started in 1888 by two brothers, Marion Ellsworth Carson and George Earl Carson. Newell’s grandfather was their younger brother. His name was Joseph Evan Carson. 

Newell Carson spoke fondly about the relationship between Shaynowishkung and his grandfather. 

“Chief Bemidji for whatever reason took a liking to my grandfather as a youngster and helped him a great deal in his youth,” he said. “Growing up learning the ways of both peoples.”

Three people hold weapon
Newell Carson (center) along with his cousin Dr. Carson Gardner (right) present Beltrami County Historical Society Executive Director Emily Thabes (left) with a musket given to the family over a century ago by Shaynowishkung (He Who Rattles), also known as Chief Bemidji.
Mathew Holding Eagle | MPR News

Newell’s cousin is White Earth Nation health director, Dr. Carson Gardner. His first name is an homage to the family’s storied history. Gardner said family lore surrounding the gun begins with a time Shaynowishkung stopped at the trading post for supplies. The chief walked in and set his musket against a wall. Little Joseph Evan, who was 5 or 6 years of age at the time, couldn’t resist.  

“He walked over and put his hands on the loaded musket,” Gardner recounted. “And Shaynowishkung saw that and realized the danger and went right to Evan and took the gun away from him.” 

Then the chief gave the young boy a stern lecture for mishandling the firearm.  

“The story I recall as a child from my grandmother is that Evan cried and Shaynowishkung had a kind and gentle heart,” Gardner said. “And he talked to Evan and reassured him, ‘It’s OK, I’m not mad at you, you’re not going to be hurt, but you need to be careful, you could hurt yourself.’”

A family gift

In 1893, one of the Carson brothers, Marion Ellsworth, married Shaynowishkung’s daughter, Mary (Bahgahmaushequay). Then when Joseph Evan was around 9 or 10 years old the chief gifted the musket to him. 

“That is a very typical Anishinabe, Ojibwe kindness and generosity,” Gardner said. “Shaynowishkung was saying ‘You wanted this gun? We’re family now. So here it is.’” 

The musket stayed in the family. Eventually it was passed down to Newell’s father, who at the request of Dr. Charles Vandersluis, a cofounder of what would become the BCHS, loaned it to them for close to 37 years. But Newell disagreed with his father’s decision. 

“The gun has been very meaningful to me for my whole life. As a youngster I wanted to shoot it. And my father disallowed that,” he remembered. “But I was unhappy when Dr. Vandersluis borrowed it because I felt very possessive and wanted to keep it.” 

His father said the gun’s home was in Bemidji and was an important part of its history.  

A bronze statue
A bronze statue of Shaynowishkung stands on the banks of Lake Bemidji. Shaynowishkung, an Ojibwe leader, is credited with being the first permanent settler in the area.
Mathew Holding Eagle | MPR News

After it passed to him, Newell requested the musket’s return so the gun’s provenance — its origin and authenticity — could be documented.  

“My dad said, ‘That’s where it belongs,’” he said. “And it took me years to come to realize that he was absolutely right.”

And now it has returned. 

“It’s meaningful to me, not so much to my son, much less to his daughter, and another couple generations, it will mean nothing,” Newell said. “And so, by having it here, where everyone can appreciate and enjoy it, it’s the right thing to do.”

Beltrami County Historical Society Executive Director Emily Thabes is grateful for Newell’s decision. 

“History is a living, breathing thing,” she said. “We are always learning and growing from this and so the more that people are willing to contribute to that and share their stories and share the artifacts that have so much meaning to the entire community that's such a powerful thing.” 

Thabes said because the gun was a gift to the family the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act does not apply.   

But why did Newell change his mind about where the musket belonged? 

“Maybe it was just as simple as maturity. I don’t think there was a real tipping point. I think it was a gradual understanding that the old man wasn’t so dumb,” he laughed. “I now appreciate fully his wisdom. Because he was right. This is where it belongs. And I’m glad it’s home.” 

The musket — a goodwill testament to a bygone era — will be on display at the museum beginning June 1.  

Correction (May 16, 2024): An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Dr. Charles Vandersluis. That has now been corrected.

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