Looking Back on a Land Dispute in the 1950's

Sep 5, 2018

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz tells us about a land dispute on Partridge Lake in the 1950s.

Wisconsin First Nations have a rich history in the state, and this is particularly true in the Northwoods.  There are many ways of looking at history, and understanding our past through the perspective of Native Americans is not only useful, it is necessary in order to have a complete record of the Northwoods story.

For example, the life of Rose Johnson gives an illuminating illustration of what life during the first half of the twentieth century was like both for the rural poor and for Native Americans.  Rose Johnson was born on December 28, 1896, at Bearskin Lake near Harshaw.   Her father, John Escanaba, was a member of the Potawatomi Tribe and her mother counted both French and Chippewa in her ancestry.  When Rose was still a toddler, her family moved north and settled in a cabin near Star Lake.  Unfortunately, there was a tuberculosis scare in the Northwoods in the late 1890s.  Government officials stepped in to aid in eradicating the disease but were a bit more callous with Native Americans.  Officials burned John Escanaba’s cabin to the ground and forced the family to relocate to a land grant near Crandon.  The family was unhappy in the new location, and sometime before 1905 Escanaba traded some ponies for forty acres of land on Partridge Lake.

Escanaba died in 1905, and Rose’s mother married a Menominee named Jackson.  The family continued living in the Partridge Lake cabin, grew most of their own food, and cooked outside.  When Rose married Pete Johnson they built a second cabin on the land near her parent’s place.  Eventually Rose’s mother passed on, and Rose and Pete inherited the forty acres.  In the 1950s the federal government adopted a policy of tribal Termination, and part of the overall policy was to reclaim land from supposed “squatters.”  When Rose’s father traded ponies to a local logger for his forty acres of land, it was done verbally.  There was no written deed.  Rose and Pete Johnson were deemed squatters on land that they had lived on for over fifty years.  Nevertheless, the family had provided shelter to local mail carriers and helped resort owners fight forest fires over the years.  The family was well-liked, and local residents banded together with local lawyer Walter Gruenke to help Rose and Pete Johnson keep their forty acres.

Rose continued living on her father’s land till she died at the age of 80 in February 1977.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.