Conservation through Science under God

Flashback: Running a 20-mile trapline
Nov 5, 2020 08:11 ET

[Reprinted from original]

It was a different time in McLeod County, almost an entirely different world. It was the late 1860s. The Civil War was over, and there was an influx of immigration into central Minnesota. Most who came to the North Star State had the intention to farm. Their dream was a house, a good crop, and to raise a family in peace. Others, however, came for adventure, and though the region may not have been as “wild” as it was prior to the Civil War, those seeking a life of adventure could easily find it.

One such man was named John Borden. John was originally from Indiana but came north to trap. He’d lived in the McLeod County region on and off for several years and was well acquainted with the land, and in 1866 he located here permanently. While others looked to farm, John lived the life of a fur trapper. He spent his days running trap lines, hunting fur-bearing animals, and doing his best to survive in the wild countryside.

In the 1860s, though it could seem scarce at times, wildlife abounded by today’s comparisons. The land was dotted with waterholes and lowland cattails that were filled with waterfowl. On the prairies were the prairie chickens that nested in the tall grasses, and in the woods were white-tailed deer and the occasional bear. In the early days, the hunters would even come across a bison on occasion.

Hunting was a good way to survive, but it was trapping where men like Borden found money. Trapping had been a way to achieve wealth for decades, but by the 1860s the market bottomed out and fur held little value. That didn’t stop Borden, however, as he looked to the land, and fur, as a means of wealth. He spent a great deal of his time trapping along the border of McLeod and Renville counties. He caught mink, otter, beaver, skunks and muskrats. He was willing to travel long distances, and at one time covered a trapline that ran for 20 miles. The main animal being trapped in the region was the muskrat, and in 1866, Borden harvested 1,600 of them. The hides were worth 13 cents apiece and needed to be hauled into St. Paul to receive payment.

Though men like Borden enjoyed their life in the wilderness, they still yearned for some comfort. At some point, Borden decided it was time to build a cabin. He took lumber from an old house in Plato and used it to build a shack. It was small, but a popular place for others like Borden to stop and rest. According to stories, on one night the cabin slept 18 people.

The era of the 19th-century survivalist/trapper in central Minnesota was short-lived. Several trappers worked the countryside in the early part of the century, but by the late 1850s the prices of fur plummeted. Men like Borden worked the traplines for a few more years after that, but the world around them was changing fast. By the 1870s and 1880s, railroads began coming into the region and the “wilder” areas were shrinking. By the turn of the century, the landscape that the fur trappers lived in was all but gone. It would be a quiet end to a way of life lived by countless men of the time.