Of the legendary Native American figures associated with Itasca County, perhaps none has more mystique than Busticogan. Busticogan, or “Busti,” as he is sometimes referred to, is particularly well known for the heroism he displayed during the deathly outbreak of smallpox in 1883. But accounts diverge widely, and it is often difficult to separate truth from legend. Analyzing and sifting through the stories about Busticogan presents a good opportunity to demonstrate a critical process used by historians.

Here is one account of Busticogan’s exploits, on file at the Historical Society:

“… He was a commanding man. He was also an imposing, though not fearsome, personage. He was a big man — he stood at least six feet tall,with hulking shoulders, somewhat stooped, friendly and gregarious. When the settlers came he was already old, and much respected for an act of heroism and courage of some years earlier. There had been a smallpox epidemic in the northwest [of Itasca County], mercilessly wiping out the few settlers and lumberjacks. Now smallpox is deadly to an Indian. Whether Busti had it then or earlier I do not know, but he bore the pockmarks. At any rate, to help the suffering whites Busti walked to Duluth and back in the bitter Minnesota cold, to bring back the life saving serum. The grateful government recognized his heroism by giving him a township of land where he had lived. They also built him a frame house, but he wouldn’t live in it. He accepted it as a tribute and mark of honor, but he pitched his ‘bones’ and draped his skins in a wigwam beside it, and there he lived.

This account certainly gives us a heroic image of Busticogan. But how much of this is true? Without a doubt, there is a gem of truth. But a critical examination leaves questions. First, what could be meant by a ‘serum’ used in the treatment of smallpox? Smallpox is a viral infection, and is incurable. It was eradicated in the twentieth century through inoculation; that is, the human host population was rendere immune to the contagion, and this led to its disappearance. Thus, the idea that there was a “serum” obtained by Busticogan is unfounded.

However, one error does not necessarily invalidate the entire account. The next step for the historian interested in the truth is to look for additional sources that would corroborate or contradict the preceding account. And, indeed, other sources do exist. Here is another account of the smallpox incident, published in 1975:

“The logging camp incident, as recalled by historian James Knight of Bigfork who knew the chief, came about when Busticoggan [there are many ways to spell the name] and his wife approached the camp while returning from a winter trip to Canada. They found the camp water hole frozen over, the horses in the barn but unfed, and no smoke coming from the bunkhouse chimney. They went in to investigate. Death and critical illness had visited the camp in the form of a smallpox epidemic. Those who didn’t come down with the disease abandoned the sick, so great was the fear of the then often-fatal illness. Those who came down with the disease were in various stages of infection. Some had already died, others were too weak to get out of bed, and mid-winter cold was about to claim the rest. Without concern for their own health, the chief and his wife thought only of the human suffering and did all they could to help. They built the fire, fixed food, brought in water and fed the horses. The dead had to be removed and cremated. There were seven who did not make it. The chief and his wife remained at the camp until the men recovered enough to help themselves. For this outstanding act the Indian couple were neither given nor asked for any reward.”

Yet another account comes from the pages of the Herald Review. Bob Anderson of Bigfork wrote a short biography of Busticogan that contains a reprint of a 1938 Herald Review article (the exact issue is not specified). According to this article:

“Chief Busticogan… was the hero of the smallpox epidemic. Busticogan was one of the few Indians, who in former years had the disease, and recovered. A crew of United States surveyors were working northeast of the present Bustitown and members of the party contracted the disease. Busticogan happened that way and learned of the situation. He turned in and cared for the surveyors, supplying them with fuel and treating them with such rude medicines as were available. All of them recovered and to show its gratitude, the United States government is said to have rewarded Bustucogan his choice of lands in the township which bears his name. A farm was also cleared and plowed for him and a log cabin was erected for his use. Busticogan afterwards lived in a wigwam pitched beside the log cabin.” It must be remembered that this newspaper account was written half a century after the event.

Consider how different these three accounts are. Only the first has anything to say about walking to Duluth to retrieve a serum. According to the last account, all of the afflicted individuals recovered, but the preceding accounts mention the death of many of those struck by the illness. ABout the only thing the stories agree on is the heroism of Busticogan; in the first and third accounts we are not told that he had a wife. And were the afflicted persons surveyors or lumberjacks? Surveyors for a logging company perhaps?

A significant difference between these versions of events is that in the second account, a source is cited. We are informed that the information provided came from “historian James Knight of Bigfork”. Indeed, James Knight is well known among local historians for his book We Homesteaded. Knight, we are told, “knew the chief”, but his book states that his family did not move to the region until 1901. Thus, he may have actually heard Busticogan’s version of events, but he was not himself a witness to those vents. This causes one to wonder if Knight derived his information from talking to Busticogan himself or another eyewitness, or if he received it second hand in the form of a developing oral tradition. If the latter is the case this means that, in the parlance of historians, Knight’s account is derived from a secondary rather than a primary source: a primary source is contemporary with the event. If Busticogan spoke directly to Knight, that would mean that Knight had access to a primary source. In the case of Busticogan and his exploits, primary sources are difficult to come by.

However, this does not mean that the sources are available have no value. Knight apparently did know Busticogan in his youth, and he would have been aware of what was believed Busticogan by those long acquainted with him. (In examining our first source, it may appear that the writer knew Busticogan as well, since she affirms that he “bore…pockmarks.” But since the writer of that article is still living, and since Busticogan died in 1908 or 1910– sources disagree– it is not conceivable that she met the man.)

Based on these and other sources, it is safe to say that there was a smallpox epidemic (and, indeed, this is corroborated by public health records), that Busticogan and possibly his wife responded heroically, and that their actions probably saved at least some lives. Beyond this, not much can be established. The notion that Busti walked to Duluth to retrieve a serum is certainly apocryphal, but that in no way diminishes the stature of Busticogan.

One thing is certain: in history, as in other endeavors: “truth” is an elusive quarry.”

– page 41