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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 02 2013

Eriksmoen: Man of firsts in Minnesota was second white North Dakotan

The second white man to become a permanent resident of North Dakota (Joseph Rolette was first) also became the holder of a number of original records in another state.

In Minnesota, Charles Cavileer opened the first harness shop, established the first drug store and was appointed as the first librarian. In 1851, he was appointed U. S. Revenue Collector of Customs and assigned to what is now northeastern North Dakota. Except for seven years in Canada, Cavileer lived the remaining 51 years of his life in what was to become North Dakota.

Charles Turner Cavileer was born March 6, 1818, near Springfield, Ohio, to Charles and Rachel (Trease) Cavileer. In the later 1830s, he moved to Mount Carmel, Ill., to learn the trade of making saddles and lived with his cousin Charles Constable, a young lawyer. At Mount Carmel, Cavileer became friends with William Reynolds Brown, a carpenter. Looking to advance their careers, both men traveled to St. Louis in April 1841. While there, they met Benjamin T. Kavanaugh, superintendent of the Methodist missions, in what is now Minnesota, to the Dakota and Ojibwe/Chippewa Indians (up until 1849, most of the current state of Minnesota was part of Iowa Territory).

He had built a mission at Kaposia in southern Minnesota, land that was the traditional home of the Mdewakanton Dakota Indians and birthplace of Little Crow, the tribal chief. After the Ojibwe in his mission were attacked by a band of Little Crow’s Indians, Kavanaugh decided to set up a new mission at Red Rock, just south of St. Paul. He had gone to St. Louis to get a couple of teachers for his school and was also scouting for someone to construct the buildings. Cavileer and Brown fit his need perfectly, and he convinced them to return to Red Rock with him.

They arrived in Red Rock on May 18, 1841, and began construction work and also purchased a small farm. Cavileer also scouted out the land along Lake Superior trying to figure out his next venture. Trained as a saddle maker, he opened a harness shop in St. Paul.

One of the people Cavileer got to know was Dr. John J. Dewey, the first physician in Minnesota. Dewey was the only doctor, and he also had to dispense all of the medicinal needs out of his office. He was looking for someone who had purchasing and retailing experience. Cavileer was ready for a change and, after selling his shop, established a drug store with Dewey in 1848.

In March 1849, Minnesota Territory was created, and President Zachary Taylor named Alexander Ramsey as governor. Both were members of the Whig Party, as was Cavileer. As Ramsey worked his way through appointments to various offices, he came to the position of territorial librarian. On Nov. 6, 1849, the governor appointed Cavileer to that position. No longer able to run the drug store, he sold his half interest to Dewey.

At the time, Minnesota Territory contained all of present-day North Dakota except the region west of the Missouri River. The northern part of the territory along the Red River had been the location for important trading posts for over 50 years. The first post was built on the east side of the Red River in 1793 but soon went out of business.

In 1797, the North West Company built a post on the south bank of the Pembina River. A second post was built just north of the North West Company in 1801, which was absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. In 1843, Norman Kittson was sent by the American Fur Company to establish a post in the area.

Furs and other goods were smuggled freely between Canada and the U.S., and the American government sought better accountability.

In October 1850, President Millard Fillmore appointed Cavileer as U. S. Revenue Collector of customs. Cavileer crossed the Red River into present-day North Dakota on Aug. 16, 1851, and began his duty of collecting fees. Cavileer not only collected fees from all the traders, mainly from the Hudson’s Bay Company that brought their goods into the U.S., but as the only government agent in the area, he was “a representative of every branch of the U.S. civil service.”

When Cavileer arrived, he estimated there were “about 2,000” inhabitants living in the area. Most were Indians and Métis, and the only three whites were Kittson, Joe Rolette, and himself.

Although 1851 became a difficult year because of heavy rainfall and the subsequent flooding of the Red River that damaged or destroyed all of the structures in Pembina, Cavileer fell in love with the area and the people. He became “a friend of the Sioux and Chippewa bands” and was given the affectionate title “Longbeard” by the Sioux.

Kittson first contracted for mail service in 1847 and built the first post office there in 1851. Because he was away from Pembina for much of the time, he appointed Cavileer as assistant postmaster, a position he held until 1854. This helped Cavileer financially because with the election of Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, in 1852, he was replaced as customs collector in 1853.

Kittson then brought Cavileer in as a partner in a fur trading enterprise he had with William Forbes. Three years later, Forbes withdrew and was replaced by George Culver and John Farrington, two businessmen in St. Paul. Cavileer left the enterprise in 1857 and moved to St. Boniface, Manitoba, where he was involved in “an extensive merchandise business.”

In 1863, Cavileer returned to Pembina after signing a contract to make hay for the U.S. government. On April 28, 1865, he was appointed postmaster of Pembina, an office he held for the next 20 years. In 1866, Yankton attorney Enos Stutsman was appointed as treasury agent. Stutsman was sent to Pembina to prevent smugglers from coming across the border, and he and Cavileer became very good friends.

Stutsman was elected to the upper chamber of the territorial legislature in 1872. During the session in 1873, when it was determined that a new county would be created from the western portion of Pembina County, Stutsman had it named after his good friend. In the paperwork process, the spelling erroneously ended up as Cavalier and has remained that way ever since. Similarly, when the community of Douglas Point, 30 miles west of Pembina, changed its name in 1877 to pay homage to the county’s veteran settler, they also chose Cavalier.

Charles Cavileer died on July 27, 1902.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.