Bottineau in Bottineau
The trouble with this story about Bottineau in Bottineau is that it doesn’t seem Pierre Bottineau, the entrepreneurial Metis for whom Bottineau, North Dakota, is named, ever had anything to do with the city or county of that name. So why am I talking, then, about Bottineau in Bottineau? Because Pierre Bottineau does now reside in the city and county of Bottineau—in bronze, as a statue alongside the courthouse.
The fellow who dug up the story of how Pierre Bottineau came to be cast in bronze as public art is Karl Larson, one of my fine seminar students at NDSU. I send the students out to document monuments and memorials across the northern plains as an exercise in collective memory and local identity.
So poor Karl got a little concerned about his assignment. We presumed that a monument should have some specific relationship to its location; it should be an intersection of history with community. Karl was supposed to determine that relationship, that intersection—and he found out there really isn’t one. So I told him, that’s a good story, too, so write it up.
Pierre Bottineau is indeed a historic figure on the northern plains. Anyone who has heard Virgil Benoit, from the University of North Dakota, do his portrayal of Bottineau is aware of that.
Born near the present location of Grand Forks on the first day of the year 1817, Pierre Bottineau lived his life as a man of the border. He was Metis, with a father of French lineage and a mother who was Ojibwe.
After working for the Hudson Bay Company as young man, he developed a close relationship with the US Army, guiding forces out of Fort Snelling, acting as an interpreter of several Indian languages. He guided the Pacific railway survey across Dakota Territory in 1853. He was an early settler and investor in Minneapolis and the founder of several Minnesota towns. In 1862, when the Dakota laid siege to Abercrombie, it was Bottineau who slipped away and brought forces from Sauk Center to relieve the siege.
Pierre Bottineau lived the latter years of his life in Red Lake Falls, a town he founded in 1876. He died while on a moose hunt in 1895, to be eulogized by newspapers across the region.
His memory, though, is a little ambiguous, because he was a man of the border. Whites valued his services, but never fully accepted him, because he was a mixed-blood. And much of what he did for the military and for developers worked against the interests of Indian landholders.
Still, there came a time late in the 20th century when citizens of Bottineau, seeking to spruce up the courthouse grounds, wanted some public art. They liked the statue of Leif Erikson done for Minot’s Scandinavian Heritage Park by local sculptor Arlen Evensen, and so they commissioned him to cast a likeness of the man for whom Bottineau County was named.
The statue of Bottineau thus erected in 1998 stands seven feet tall atop a granite pedestal. It is perhaps unfortunate he is clothed in fur-trapper regalia, complete with traps on his pack, because that was not his occupation, but perhaps that appeals to public expectations.
At the dedication ceremony Professor Benoit urged those attending to “continue to unveil” Bottineau’s “complexity and interesting history” and to “never bury the monument.” Bottineau, Virgil was intimating, was worthy of memorial and of contemplation even if he hadn’t had anything to do specifically with the community that erected a statue of him. That was good advice Virgil gave us.