St. Joseph Mission Cemetery (Old Indian Cemetery)

The St. Joseph Catholic Mission was established on Madeline Island in 1835, when Slovenian priest Frederic Baraga arrived on the island. He chose a site along Sandy Bay (Crescent Bay) at what was called Middlefort. This location was about halfway between Michel Cadotte’s fur trading fort (Grant’s Point) and the American Fur Company’s new settlement known as New Fort or Fort Ramsey (the present-day location of La Pointe). Baraga had a log chapel and residence built, and selected an adjacent site for a cemetery. The first burial that he presided over occurred in August, 1835. It is quite probable that the cemetery site included older graves, as later archaeological studies have revealed several, earlier graves nearby. Baraga enlarged his residence so that he could operate a school, and replaced his church with a larger one in 1838.

Father Baraga moved the Catholic mission to the New Fort site in 1841. He disassembled his old church and had a new church building and residence built. Another cemetery was established adjacent to the new church. Both cemeteries were used for burials until the cemetery at Middlefort was finally full. Church death records indicate that the Middlefort cemetery was used until at least until 1900. According to administrators of Holy Family Catholic Church in Bayfield, the burial plat for the St. Joseph’s Mission Cemetery at Middlefort has been lost.

The St. Joseph’s Mission Cemetery at Middlefort is the final resting place for many late-fur trade and early settlement era persons of historical note. Michel Cadotte and Chief Buffalo are both buried in graves marked by headstones. Many Cadotte, Warren, Bell, Gordon, and Buffalo family members are buried there. People interred in the cemetery represent several different cultural/ethnic groups: Ojibwe, French-Canadian, Euro-American, and Métis. Many graves in the cemetery are marked by traditional Christian stones, crosses and decorative fences. Many Ojibwe graves were covered by traditional spirit houses where food and offerings were placed for the deceased until they had passed on to the spirit world. While early Ojibwe spirit houses were covered with birchbark, those in the cemetery showed the influence of Euro-American culture in that they were made of milled lumber and resembled Euro-American-style buildings. Some of these spirit houses are extant. The presence of the spirit houses has led to the cemetery being called by the misnomer, the Old Indian Cemetery. In reality, it is the burial place of people with varied ethnic origin, who associated themselves with the Catholic Church. (Many spirit lodges were placed over graves in the second Catholic cemetery but they are no longer extant.)

Today, the fenced cemetery is all that is left of the first St. Joseph Catholic Mission at Middlefort on Madeline Island. An interpretive sign and historical plaque mark the site. The extant cemetery fence is not original, and does not accurately reflect the true boundaries of the cemetery. Many graves are unmarked and undocumented, making identification impossible.

Shoreline erosion threatened the cemetery in the mid-20th century. A local congressman assessed the need for breakwater construction to halt shoreline erosion, but public funds could not be used for the church-owned property. In 1972, the Roman Catholic Church transferred title to the cemetery to the United States Government in trust for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, allowing public funding of breakwater construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

The St. Joseph Catholic Mission Cemetery (Old Indian Cemetery) on Madeline Island has long been revered for its historical and sacred significance. It is a major attraction for summer visitors interested in learning about the island’s history and it is a sacred site for descendants and relations of those interred within. It has often become the subject of controversy when the cultural traditions, beliefs, and actions of these varied groups and individuals are at odds or are misunderstood. The cemetery is currently closed to the public but may be respectfully viewed from outside the fence.

Bristol, Linda E. Liber Defunctorum: St. Joseph Mission and Holy Family Catholic Church Death Registry, 1835-1900. (St. Paul: Sunup Press, 1994).

Mayotte, Patrick. “Madeline Island La Pointe Indian Cemetery in Need of Restoration,” News from the Sloughs [Odanah, WI]: November 1996.

Ross, Hamilton Nelson. La Pointe: Village Outpost on Madeline Island. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000).

Salzer, Robert J. and Robert A. Birmingham. Archaeological Salvage Excavations at the Marina Site (47 As 24) Madeline Island, Wisconsin. A report submitted to the Interagency Archaeological Services, National Park Service. (Beloit College, 1 April 1981).

“Catholic Church Gives Indian Cemetery Back to the Indians,” [Madeline] Island Gazette: Vol. 9 No.10, 22 October 1972.

“Cemetery Returned to Indians.” Newspaper clipping, no date, no source. Madeline Island Museum collection.

Correspondence relating to the St. Joseph Catholic Mission Cemetery, Madeline Island Museum files.

“Cemetery Needs More Attention,” Bayfield County Press: 4 September 1986.

“DA: No Crime in Croquet,” Duluth News-Tribune: 18 July 1996.

“District Attorney Closes File on Madeline Island Incident,” The [Ashland] Daily Press: 18 July 1996.

“Historic Grave Shows Neglect: Michel Cadotte, Early Fur Trader, Is Buried at La Pointe”, Milwaukee Journal: 13 November 1955.

“Hope for the Dying Cemetery,” [Madeline] Island Gazette: Vol. 4 No. 17, 15 August 1967.

“Indian Cemetery Restored,” [Madeline] Island Gazette: Vol. 4 No. 24, 11 November 1964.

Inventory of La Pointe Indian Cemetery. Readable stones transcribed, August 1971. Copy in Madeline Island Museum files.

“Ojibway Ceremony Marred By Conflicts Over Land Rights”, The Daily Press [Ashland]: 10 September 1987.

“Ojibway Defend Graves,” Duluth News-Tribune: 12 July 1996.

“Our View: Cemetery Should Be Closed to the Public,” The [Ashland] Daily Press: 19 July 1996.

“Respect Minority Cultures,” Duluth News-Tribune: 14 July 1996.

“Tribe Won’t Prosecute Property Owner,” The [Ashland] Daily Press: 20 July 1996.

Verwyst, P. Chrysostomus Verwyst, O.F.M. Life and Labors of Rev. Frederic Baraga, First Bishop of Marquette, Mich.. (Milwaukee, Wis.: M.H. Wiltzius & Co., 1900.)

Sheree Peterson,  Curator of Collections, Madeline Island Museum
A Historic Site Owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society

Plan your Apostle Islands Vacation

Bayfield, Wisconsin, nestled against the south shore of Lake Superior, is an excellent destination for your Apostle Islands vacation. It’s an easy drive from Chicago and the Twin Cities, and many choices await you there. In Bayfield you can find water sports ranging from fishing and kayaking to sailing and power boating. Complete boat charters are available. Walk the brick-paved streets of this quaint old fishing village and shop in the specialty and souvenir shops. Or read a book on the porch swing of a beautiful Victorian B & B. The Apostle Islands Cruise Service offers daily cruises to see the Apostle Islands and their lighthouses. The Chamber of Commerce in Bayfield can help you with hotels. Apostle Islands camping is fun for the more adventurous. Just make sure you check with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Park Service Headquarters before you make your plans. No trip to the Apostle Islands is complete without crossing the lake on the Madeline Island Ferry Line to visit scenic, historic Madeline Island. Cars are allowed on the Island, but you may prefer to rent a bike or moped and ride out to see Big Bay State Park and Town Park. Hike the lakeshore trail and see ancient rock formations. Or hike the lagoon trail for wetlands at their best. Madeline Island also offers complete charter services, and you may prefer to make the Island your base of operation. The Chamber there can help you. Start planning today for your Apostle Islands vacation.

1 Washington Avenue
Bayfield, WI 54850 (ferry landing on mainland)

Visit Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

In 1963 President Kennedy was so impressed with the beauty of the Apostle Islands, that he decreed that they should become the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and be protected for all time. You can enjoy their undisturbed wildness by visiting northern Wisconsin The headquarters of the park is located in Bayfield, Wisconsin, which is an easy drive from most places in the Midwest. Several water taxis operating out of Bayfield will take you out to the islands to camp, but you must check in with the park service before you go. Or, if you prefer, there is a cruise service that goes to the Islands and visits the lighthouses of the Apostles. Your visit to Apostles Islands National Park should include time to spend in both the quaint village of Bayfield and neighboring Madeline Island. Madeline Island is the only one of the Apostles that has year-round inhabitants, and they will gladly share with you their experiences, history and culture. Ask any local what it’s like to live on an island in the severe northern winter and you’ll hear stories of both high jinx and grim survival. A wide variety of both summer and winter activities await you in this area.  Do it all at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Good Ice Road

Island Gazette, Madeline Island In Lake Superior
From: From Vol. 46 No. 2 January 20 to March 17, 2009

A Super Good Ice Road

The Island is having one of the best ice road years in 12 years hitting 60 days of regular vehicle crossing on Wednesday, March 18th.  In 1997 we had 67 days ending on March 26th.

The Ice Road has been very wide, straight and has stayed in one place all year until March 9th when Arnie and crew moved it over closer to the trees.  The old road had finally gotten a little worn out with a few too many cracks appearing.

The Ice Road has had very heavy traffic this year, however most everyone has obeyed the 15 mph speed limit and even better than that, they have been very good about lightning up when hauling loads. Lumber trucks and other larger trucks have been ok to cross this year due to the thick ice we have had.

We have all just totally enjoyed going to the mainland to do just about anything, just because we can. We can’t go to Ashland without bumping into several Islanders on any given day.

This year was a very cold December and an even colder January with 14 days in that month alone with temperatures that were below -10 degrees made an ice road about 36 inches thick.

The boats shut down on January 1st, the earliest in 19 years when the boats quit on December 30th in 1990. The boats have quit earlier than January 1st only six times since 1963.

This cold winter will have a total of 24 days with lows below -10 degrees. We haven’t been even close to that number since 1996 when we had 28 days that cold.  That year the Ice Road lasted 71 days and the boats first run was on April 25th. Talk about cabin fever!

The 45 year average the boats are down is 78 days. We are at 62 days and still crossing with cars, but not for long. When the boats will run, however, is still nowhere in sight.

Regular car travel will be finished any day now with slush and water getting deeper and the beach approach in Bayfield beginning to thaw out.  We will likely have a few days of the winter transportation vans running and parking on the ice and people walking to shore.  4-wheel drives will likely continue to drive for a few more days, plowing through the slush, slop and water holes and tearing deep ruts into the beach on the Bayfield side, getting stuck, until they get tired of getting stuck in the sand and pulling each other out.

It appears the first boats will not run until sometime in the first week in April or later, but only the weather knows for sure.

Island Gazette, Madeline Island In Lake Superior
Evan Erickson, Publisher / Waggie Erickson, Editor
Subscription: $20/year
PO Box 400, La Pointe, WI 54850 or [email protected]