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MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY PRESS
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Chapter One The Story of the Grand Portage
Solon J. Buck
In the 1600s, several European countries were regularly sending ships across the Atlantic for trade purposes. While the Spanish were looking for gold, the French further north were seeking "soft gold"-furs, especially beaver. Clothing made or trimmed with beaver fur became high fashion in Europe. In the wilderness, beaver skins served as currency for guns, kettles, blankets, and other articles of trade.
Champlain founded Quebec in 1608 and the French continued to move westward, following the St. Lawrence River and then exploring the Great Lakes. In 1731 Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Verendrye, is thought to be the first white man to reach Grand Portage, "the great carrying place." Located on Lake Superior, Grand Portage was the starting point for nine-mile portage to the Pigeon River bypassing the falls.
Solon J. Buck discusses the significance of Grand Portage during its most important century. Under French control until the French and Indian War in 1763, Grand Portage fell under the control of the British partnered with joint stock companies like North West (NW) or XY, and finally came under control of the United States, which received the territory in the 1783 treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.
Modern mapmakers have the disagreeable habit, in the interest of economy, of dismembering the state of Minnesota and depicting the northeastern corner separately on a little inset map. Few people today realize that this little triangle of land, so cavalierly treated by our draughtsmen, was during many years the scene of more human activities than took place in all the rest of the state; that more than thirty years before the founding of Fort Snelling, which we are wont to look upon as the real beginning of Minnesota history, upwards of a thousand white men were assembled year after year at a post within this area; and that here occurred the only military operations of the American Revolution within the borders of the state.
The explanation of the importance of this region is to be sought in the realm of geography. The Pigeon River, which now forms the international boundary at Lake Superior, was, in the days of water transportation, the best natural highway between the Great Lakes or the St. Lawrence system and the great northwestern section of the continent, with its thousands of lakes and streams draining into the Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean. But the Pigeon River, through the last twenty miles of its course before it flows into Lake Superior, is so obstructed by falls and by cascades in rocky canyons as to be impossible of navigation. On the Canadian side the land is too mountainous and the distance too great for portaging to be practicable; but on the American side the line of the lake shore is roughly parallel to the river, and about seven or eight miles from the mouth of the river a little bay forms a natural harbor from which a portage of about nine miles over not too difficult country can be made to the Pigeon River above the cascades.
That this Grand Portage or great carrying place, as it was early designated by the French, was used by the Indians for generations before the advent of white men in the region is almost a certainty, although apparently not susceptible of proof. When and under what circumstances the first white man crossed the portage and who he was are questions which cannot now be answered. Nor do we know who was the first white man to visit the little bay at the eastern end of the trail, which takes its name from the portage. Radisson and Groseilliers are believed to have reached the north shore of Lake Superior in 1660, but it is not likely that they went as far east as Grand Portage. Du Luth coasted along the north shore in 1679 and established there a fort or trading post, the location of which is generally believed to have been near what is now Fort William, about thirty miles northeast of Grand Portage. Some writers assert that this post was located at Grand Portage and was thus the first establishment of white men in Minnesota, but the evidence in the main is against this interpretation. It is highly probable, however, that Du Luth or some of his men entered the bay at Grand Portage, and they may have traversed the portage itself. Fort Kaministiquia, as Du Luth's post was called, was maintained for several years, then was abandoned, and was reestablished in 1717. That the traders who made this their headquarters failed to discover and make use of the Grand Portage is unbelievable.
The first white man to leave a record of the use of the portage, however, is the Sieur de la Vérendrye, who crossed it on his famous expedition along the boundary waters in 1731. In his account he called it the Grand Portage and refers to it in such a way as to lead to the inference that it was already well known by that name. From this time until the French and Indian War, French traders were pushing constantly farther and farther into the great Northwest, and the indications are that practically all the traffic passed over the Grand Portage route. A post was undoubtedly established at the eastern end of the trail, where the goods destined for the trade were landed from the large canoes used on the lake and prepared for the nine-mile carry to the Pigeon River. At the western end of the trail, where the goods were loaded into smaller canoes suitable for river transportation, some sort of shelter probably was erected during the French period, but of this no information has been found. During the last conflict between the French and the English in America, which terminated with the surrender of Canada in 1760, the trade on Lake Superior and westward appears to have been abandoned, and the Indians were forced to resort to the posts of the Hudson's Bay Company far to the north or to get along without white man's goods.
In November, 1761, a British garrison took possession of the post at Michilimackinac or Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Shortly before this, however, one Alexander Henry, who had outfitted at Albany, New York, arrived at the post prepared to engage in the Indian trade on the upper lakes, and soon after other English traders made their appearance in the vicinity. If a narrative written nearly sixty years afterward is reliable, a party of these traders, accompanied by a military escort, made its way through Lake Superior to Grand Portage in May, 1762, this being the first voyage through Lake Superior under the British flag. This, if true, would indicate that Grand Portage was recognized at this time as the most important place in the western part of Lake Superior. The Indians of the Northwest, however, did not welcome the substitution of the English for the French; in 1763 the post of Mackinac was surprised, the garrison was massacred, one of the traders was killed, and the others were taken captive. This outbreak, which was a part of the conspiracy of Pontiac, put an end to British attempts at trade in the Northwest until the close of the Indian war in 1765.
In that year Alexander Henry began trading operations at Chequamegon Bay, on the southern shore of Lake Superior, whence he dispatched an agent with some Indians to Fond du Lac; and in a year or two traders were established at various places around the lake and were making their way over the Grand Portage to the old French posts in the interior. When Jonathan Carver, in 1767, found himself stranded on the upper Mississippi for lack of supplies, which he had expected to get from traders at Prairie du Chien, he determined to go to Lake Superior "in hopes of meeting at the Grand Portage ... the traders that annually go from Michilimackinac to the northwest; of whom I doubted not but that I should be able to procure goods enough to answer my purpose." Arriving at Grand Portage in July, Carver found about three hundred Indians assembled there "to meet the traders from Michilimackinac, who make this their road to the Northwest." The Indians received him kindly, gave him much information about the lakes and streams of the interior, and entertained him with a marvelous incantation and a prophecy, which was promptly fulfilled. Finally the traders arrived, but Carver was unable to procure from them the supplies which he needed for the continuance of his explorations and so he made his way eastward through Lake Superior. Carver makes no mention of any post at Grand Portage and from his narrative it is evident that at that time the place was occupied only intermittently.
Alexander Henry made his first trip to the country west of Lake Superior in 1775. Arriving at Grand Portage on June 28, he "found the traders in a state of extreme reciprocal hostility, each pursuing his interests in such a manner as might most injure his neighbour. The consequences were very hurtful to the morals of the Indians." The transportation of Henry's goods across the portage was "a work of seven days of severe and dangerous exertion."
The rapid increase in the trade by way of Grand Portage is indicated by a memorandum drawn up by General Haldimand in January 1778. At that time it amounted annually to forty thousand pounds and employed five hundred persons, who, "for about a month in the summer season, have a general rendezvous at the Portage, and for the refreshing and comforting those who are employed in the more distant voyages the Traders from hence have built tolerable Houses; and in order to cover them from any insult from the numerous savage Tribes, who resort there during that time, have made stockades around them." The memorandum goes on to state that there was some jarring of interests at Grand Portage and that from the lack of officers representing the government in the region the traders had found it necessary to provide some show and parade such as the firing of cannon to signalize the arrival of the brigades and the distribution of medals-the purpose of this being to impress the Indians.
The antagonisms among traders representing separate interests, possible dangers from the Indians, and above all the fear that disaffected persons at the portage might send supplies to the American troops then operating in the Illinois country were the reasons for the sending of a military expedition from Mackinac to Grand Portage about June 1, 1778. On May 18 John Askin, the commissary at Mackinac, wrote to M. Beausoleille, the clerk of the Northwest traders at Grand Portage, to inform him that he would have "an officer and several soldiers to pass the summer" there, and to direct him to have a house, equipped with a chimney, ready to receive them. The letter concludes with the following remarkable sentences, of which no explanation will be attempted: "I need two pretty Slave girls from 9 to 16 years old. Have the goodness to ask the Gentlemen to procure two for me." The officer detailed for duty at this northwesternmost point of British military operations during the Revolution was Lieutenant Thomas Bennett of the Eighth Regiment of Foot, and his detachment consisted of about twelve soldiers. Their operations at Grand Portage included the construction of a small fort, at the expense of the traders, and possibly the laying out of a road across the portage. Apparently they left in the fall, for the next year the traders petitioned for another detachment. Major De Peyster, in command at Mackinac, protested that, in view of the imminent danger of his being attacked by the rebels, he could not spare the troops; and no evidence has been found as to whether or not they were sent.
By this time the Northwest trade had grown to such proportions and the competition between different interests was resulting in so many abuses that movements were underway for consolidation; and, after several preliminary "joint stocks," the famous North West Company was organized in 1783. The next twenty years comprise the greatest period in the history of the Grand Portage. The North West Company had a fort or stockade on the bay, which consisted of an enclosure of palisades twenty-four by thirty rods in size. The buildings within the fort, according to a contemporary description, were "sixteen in number made with cedar and white spruce fir split with whip saws after being squared, the Roofs are covered with Shingles of Cedar and Pine, most of their posts, Doors and windows, are painted with Spanish brown. Six of these buildings are Store Houses for the company's Merchandise and Furs, &c., the rest are dwelling houses shops compting house and Mess House-they have also a wharf or quay for their vessels to unload and Load." The company had a vessel of ninety-five tons burden which made four or five trips to Grand Portage each summer. In the bay was a large canoe yard where seventy canoes were constructed annually for use in the trade.
During July and August, Grand Portage was a very busy place. Here the brigades from Montreal, with goods for the trade of the ensuing winter, accompanied by two of the Montreal partners, met the wintering partners and other traders coming in from their posts scattered throughout the Northwest from the upper Red River to Lake Athabasca. Here was held the annual meeting of the company, at which arrangements were made and agreements entered into for the ensuing year. Here the employees received, and largely spent, their annual wages. The partners, traders, clerks, and guides, to the number of two or three hundred, lived in the fort and ate in the great dining hall, and outside were the camps of the pork-eaters and the winterers, as the canoemen from Montreal and the interior respectively were called. These engages subsisted principally upon pork and hominy, with plentiful supplies of liquor and tobacco; but the food served in the dining hall included bread, salt pork, beef, ham, fish, venison, butter, peas, corn, potatoes, tea, and wine. There was even plenty of milk, for a herd of cows was kept at Grand Portage. In the evenings the great hall was often the scene of much merriment, and interesting accounts may be read of festive balls at which the dusky maidens of the forest are reported to have danced very well and to have conducted themselves with much propriety. Besides the resident Indians, many others congregated about the fort during the summer.
The task of transporting the packs of supplies and furs across the portage was a long and arduous one and required the services of a hundred men for several weeks. Parts of the trail were often in very bad condition being "knee-deep in mud and clay, and so slippery as to make walking tedious." The packs weighed ninety pounds each and two or more were carried by the men on their backs, the round trip of eighteen miles requiring about six hours. How many thousands of trips back and forth across this trail were made during the entire period, it is impossible to estimate, but it is small wonder that the soil still shows evidences of the trampling of many feet. In 1788 the company requested a grant of land along the route to enable it to construct a wagon road over the trail. The request was denied by the council at Quebec, probably because it would have given the company a monopoly of the route, but later on the trail was improved so that ox-carts could be used on it.
At the western end of the portage, where it met the Pigeon River, was another stockade enclosing several buildings, which was known as Fort Charlotte. Here the goods were stored until the traders were ready to load them into their canoes and start for the wintering grounds. Of the history of this fort little has been ascertained as yet, but it evidently was a place of considerable importance for many years.
The North West Company was not able to maintain a complete monopoly over the trade that passed across the Grand Portage. Rival companies were established from time to time, usually to flourish a few years and then amalgamate with "the Great Company." One of these companies, the XY Company, which operated from 1797 to 1804, had a separate establishment at Grand Portage and also, probably, at Fort Charlotte, for the map drawn by the surveyors for the boundary commission in 1824 indicates the outlines of two stockades at the western end of the portage.
Excerpted from The North Star State
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