By Sled or by Sail: Native American Mail Carrier John Beargrease


By Patricia Raynor, Loan Coordinator

Mail Carrier John Beargrease with a dog sled containing mail
Courtesy Bay Area Historical Society

There are many legendary star route mail carriers but there is probably only one that has a sled dog race named after them. The 27th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will take place in Minnesota January 31th thru February 3, 2010.

John Beargrease was not the first mail carrier on the north shore of Minnesota, but he is perhaps the most famous. The first mail contract to deliver the mail from Superior, Wisconsin to Grand Portage, Minnesota was awarded in 1856.

John, born in 1858, was the son of an Anishinaabe-Ojibwe chief, who had moved his family to Beaver Bay on the north shore by the 1870s. In 1879, John Beargrease and his brothers began carrying the mail via dog sled and boat primarily between Two Harbors and Grand Marais, Minnesota. At the time that John began delivering mail, there were no established roads. The only way to deliver the mail to the communities on the North Shore was via boat on the lake if it was still navigable or via dog sled if the lake was frozen and there was sufficient snow. John was just as famous for delivering mail via row boat equipped with mast and sail as he was for his delivery via dog train.

Regular mail delivery was extremely important to the early north shore settlers as it was a vital link to the rest of the world. Because of the rugged conditions, mail delivery provided the only means of communication to the isolated communities in which the settlers lived.

In 1890, steamboats began delivering the mail during the navigational season, thus ending John’s year-round mail delivery contract. However, he continued to deliver the mail during the winter months until 1899, when his star route contract expired due to the completion of the road between Two Harbors and Grand Marais. John’s 20 year career as a star route mail carrier didn't end there, however. Until 1908, he sometimes helped his younger brother Joseph deliver mail on his old route. John died in Beaver Bay in August of 1910. However, his legendary mail service has not been forgotten. There are even a few Minnesotans who believe that John Beargrease should be commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.

To learn more check out:

John Beargrease and the Anishinaabe

  • Lancaster, Daniel. Legend of Minnesota’s North Shore. Duluth, MN: Holy Cow! Press, 2009. Duluth Minnesota.
  • Visit the National Museum of American Indian’s “Our Universe” exhibit or view Anishinaabe/Ojibwe collections on line at

Star Route Service


Patricia Raynor

About the Author
Patricia Raynor: "I have worked at the Smithsonian Institution since 1990 and served as the collections coordinator for the National Postal Museum's inaugural exhibitions. I am now the museum's loan coordinator and liaison for the Smithsonian Affiliation's Program. My activities include memberships in the Smithsonian's American Indian Employee Network and Loans Forum, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums in which I served on its Registrars and Program Committees."