Minnesota: Grand Portage

The strategic location of this town was particularly important in the fur trading business from about 1770 to 1790. Today, the site consists of a reconstructed stockade at Grand Portage Bay, as well as reconstituted eight-and-a-half-mile Grand Portage Trail, available for hiking. A reconstructed Ojibwa village is also on this site.

Site Office

Grand Portage National Monument

P.O. Box 668

315 South Broadway

Grand Marais, MN 55604

ph.: (218) 387-2788

fax: (218) 387-2790

Web site: www.nps.gov/grpa/

The Grand Portage area was an important center of commerce from about 1770 to 1800. Christened Grand Portage by the French in 1722, this eight-and-a-half-mile land trail bypassed the unnavigable lower Pigeon River and provided the way for trappers (mostly Native Americans) from the West to get their furs to Eastern and European markets. In the 1770’s, it became the headquarters of the North West Company. From here it controlled a fur-trading empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Due to the harsh terrain and the abandonment of the Grand Portage area by the fur traders in the early nineteenth century, no original structures remain. Reconstructions erected since the late 1930’s include the Great Hall (where huge banquets were held for those important in the fur trade), a voyageur encampment (voyageurs were those who went west and traded with the natives for furs), and an Ojibwa village.

Early History

The Grand Portage area had been a crossroads of many cultures even before the arrival of Europeans. In the seventeenth century, the area was claimed by both the Cree and Dakota tribes, who traded actively with each other as well as with tribes such as the Ottawa and Huron, from adjacent areas. Also present were the Ojibwa, although they did not become dominant until many years later. According to Ojibwa legend, the oldest inhabitants of this area were the Maymaygwaysiwuk, small, elusive people who lived underwater and traveled in stone canoes. The Indians left rocks along the banks of Lake Superior as offerings to these creatures.

The Great Lakes provided a superb route to the interior of the North American continent. The main water route west of Lake Superior was the Pigeon River, which leads all the way to Lake Winnipeg. This river and the lakes adjacent to it are all navigable except for a single eight-and-a-half-mile area just west of Lake Superior. Here the Indians carved out a land path they called Kitchi Onigaming, translated by the French as “Grand Portage.” Grand Portage was the farthest point west that goods could be delivered by boat from the east, so it became a center of commerce in the important fur trade. The westerners (mostly Indians, along with the Europeans who traded with them) would come to the Grand Portage area every summer and exchange their furs for the goods they needed to sustain themselves through another hard winter.

First European Explorers

By the time the first Europeans, the French, arrived in the area, the fur trade was already booming. The French had firmly entrenched themselves in this trade by the late seventeenth century. The French developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the natives and adapted well to Indian social and business customs such as gift giving and pipe smoking. This was a major reason why the Indians chose to fight with the French during the French and Indian War, instead of the British, who were much less interested in adapting their ways to those of the natives. Although Grand Portage became British property at the end of the war in 1763, many French remained to become an integral part of the fur trade under the British.

It was not until the British takeover that Grand Portage achieved the central role for which it is celebrated today. The fur trade continued to grow and, in 1765, the North West Company was founded by British and Scottish businessmen. It dominated the fur trade in the area until the early nineteenth century. The North West Company constructed a stockade at the Lake Superior end of the Grand Portage Trail in 1768, and other buildings soon followed. The most memorable and important of these was the Great Hall, where feasts and gatherings were held when the eastern and western traders met each summer.

Trade Entrepot

The separate and distinct groups that gathered each summer included Ojibwa traders; the “northmen,” those who transported the furs in their canoes from the north and west to Grand Portage; the “pork eaters,” who brought the goods for trade from Montreal; the “voyageurs,” who carried the goods of the fur trade in boats or on their backs. This last group in particular was romanticized by various nineteenth century writers. Also present at this gathering were the clerks, those who did the menial tasks of counting the furs and sorting them for shipment to the east. These men were quite young and toiled in this difficult area in hopes of getting shares in the company. Those in charge of the gatherings were the owners of the North West Company, who associated only with the clerks and the Ojibwa traders.

The entire trade process took at least a year and sometimes more. Each spring, the goods from Europe and the eastern provinces had to be ready for shipping to Grand Portage. These included food, clothing, cooking implements, and various other goods for the whites and the Indians. When these goods arrived in time for the summer convention, the furs collected over the previous year had to be cleaned and packaged and ready to be shipped east. The voyageurs carried the goods in and out in ninety pound bales, and the outgoing goods were then put in large canoes for delivery to larger ships for eastern shipment. All these bales had to be watertight, as the canoes had to travel over the extremely treacherous Ottawa River.

The company would not be paid for the furs until they were received in Europe, nearly a year after they arrived at Grand Portage. The northmen and the other workers were, likewise, paid once a year, though they could draw goods and money at the company store against their future wages. (The store always made at least 50 percent profit on the goods it sold.) This arrangement left many of these men in constant debt to the company, a situation that tended to cause discontent.

The northmen and the Ojibwa obtained all of the furs, so it was upon their efforts that the trade was totally dependent. As might be expected, these two groups intermingled over time, and many of the white northmen married Ojibwa women and lived out their days as part of the Indian culture. This intermarriage was also beneficial to their business with the Indians. Because these northmen were totally isolated from the European world for eleven months of the year, their relationship with the natives was even more vital.

The Revolutionary War

Grand Portage was considered of sufficient importance by the British for them to send an officer and twelve men to guard it during the Revolutionary War. However, these soldiers spent most of their time dealing with labor problems, as the northmen, pork eaters, and voyageurs began to realize that the company was getting wealthy at their expense, while they often ended the year in debt.

In the mid-1770’s, a North West Company trader named John Macdonell wrote this description of the Grand Portage trading post:

All the [sixteen] buildings within the fort are . . . 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 storehouses for the company’s merchandise, furs, etc. The rest are dwelling houses, shops, counting houses and mess house. They also have a wharf for loading and unloading.

This same writer gave a brief description of life at Grand Portage during the annual meeting: “[The] Northmen while here live in tents of different sizes pitched at random . . . [this camp is separated from] that of the pork eaters by a brook.”

The American Revolution increased traffic at Grand Portage, as the rest of the Great Lakes area was embroiled in war. The British military quickly began taxing and tightly controlling all private trade in the Great Lakes area, requiring, for instance, that all goods be carried on military ships. As a result, smaller traders were mostly squeezed out. Nine Montreal companies, under the leadership of Simon McTavish, merged their resources into the North West Company and, in effect, took almost total control of the fur trade in 1779. These were the prime years of the fur trade at Grand Portage.

The Ojibwa People

The Ojibwa were a vital part of the fur trade, but their numbers were greatly diminished by the smallpox epidemic of 1781 to 1782. By most estimates, two-thirds of the Indian population died in this plague. The fabric of Ojibwa society never truly recovered from the loss of so many clan leaders, chiefs, artisans, and historians. The fur business was likewise hurt, though those who remained picked up the slack within a couple of years.

By the early 1780’s, Grand Portage achieved what seemed a permanent place in the fur trade. There were a number of permanent structures, an Indian village, year-round employment, and great prosperity. With the ending of the Revolutionary War, however, the British made a major error in their land settlement with the Americans. The boundary line was drawn across the middle of the Great Lakes, leaving Grand Portage, along with virtually every other important fur trading post, on the American side. Fortunately for the fur trade, the new American government left things as they were at the trading posts, and allowed them to continue operation as before.

American Takeover

Meanwhile, disagreements among the principals in the North West Company caused new competitors to come into the market. Among these was John Jacob Astor, who contracted with one of the new companies to import furs to New York. By the early 1790’s, the Americans felt the need to take control of the Great Lakes area. The Jay Treaty of 1794 made the Grand Portage area off-limits to the British and, in fact, precipitated their abandonment of Grand Portage. The North West Company decided to reactivate an old French route by the Kaministikwia River and held their last rendezvous at Grand Portage in 1802. Upon leaving, they destroyed all the structures they had built.

Grand Portage next figured in history during the War of 1812, when the Ojibwa and other local tribes joined the British to try to oust some of the American settlers who were encroaching on their land. They were unsuccessful. The Treaty of Ghent ended the war and paved the way for the Americans and British to declare the Grand Portage area a free area for Americans, British, and Canadians, which it remains to this day. The fur trade, however, was firmly entrenched to the north and did not return.

Nineteenth Century Developments

The mid-1830’s found Grand Portage a prosperous fishing station, with twenty Indian employees producing three hundred to five hundred barrels of fish a year. The Panic of 1837 ruined the fish market, however, and all the fisheries were closed shortly thereafter. The 1860’s brought a major religious revival among the Indians. In 1865, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church was built and is now the house of worship for the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Minnesota.

Trade continued in the Grand Portage area throughout the nineteenth century, though never at the level of the glory days. Scandinavian immigrants began populating the area during the late 1800’s. Timber and mining were important sources of income for these people, along with the revitalized fishing business. The forests and the mines were depleted by the early twentieth century, but the fishing business continued until the 1950’s when pollution destroyed it. The Ojibwa have continued to live in the area and have opened a gambling casino there.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Restoration of the site began in the 1920’s, when the Grand Portage Trail was reopened. In 1936, a portion of the North West Company depot was reconstructed with funds from the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Archaeological research and reconstructions continued until World War II. By the mid-1950’s, the reconstructed buildings had fallen into disrepair and remained in decline until 1958, when the area, part of the Ojibwa Reservation, was ceded to the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of the Interior had designated Grand Portage a National Historic Site in 1951 and, after the cession, reconstruction began in earnest. In 1969, lightning and fire destroyed the CCC reconstruction of the Great Hall, and this structure was rebuilt using the best archaeological evidence available.

Excavation continues in the Grand Portage area, and it is hoped that enough evidence will surface so that Fort Charlotte, at the far end of the portage, can also be reconstructed. The many structures that have been reconstructed already, along with the portage route itself, make a visit to the Grand Portage area richly rewarding.

For Further Information

  • Blegen, Theodore Christian. Minnesota: A History of the State. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1922. Provides little information on Grand Portage, but much on the fur trade in general.
  • Gilman, Carolyn. The Grand Portage Story. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1992. By far the best source of information on the site. It includes much detail on the lives of those who worked in the area, both European and Indian, as well as the latest archaeological information.
  • Holmquist, June Denning. Minnesota’s Major Historial Sites. 2d ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. Also of interest. Gives a more concise overview of Grand Portage.
  • Lass, William E. Minnesota: A History. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. With a historical guide prepared by the editors of the American Association for State and Local History. The book covers the fur trade in the early history of the state, but not specifically in Grand Portage.