Voyageurs National Park

Special History:
The Environment and the Fur Trade Experience in
Voyageurs National Park, 1730-1870

Voyagers at Dawn
Voyagers at Dawn.
Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1871.
(Courtesy of National Archives of Canada)

Chapter Three
Material Culture

This chapter examines the documentary record for what it reveals about the material culture of the fur trade. Its target audience is cultural resource specialists who manage Voyageurs National Park resources relating to the fur trade. Its purpose is to supplement existing knowledge about the fur trade experience within the park as revealed by archeological investigation, and to assist future archeological studies.

The University of Minnesota conducted an initial archeological survey of Voyageurs National Park in 1977, and the NPS undertook more extensive work in 1979 and 1980. These investigations have yielded a considerable amount of information about Indian occupation of the area in late prehistoric and historic periods. Prehistoric sites date from the Archaic period down to the Terminal Woodland period. Relatively few sites are associated with the fur trade era. There is a paucity of sites dating from about 1600 to about 1730, leading investigators to speculate that Indian use of the national park area was at a low point during the 17th and early 18th centuries compared to the previous fifteen centuries. There are several sites with some material dating from about 1730 to 1870. Historic sites mostly date from post-1870 and are predominantly associated with Ojibwe occupation or lumbering.

Some sites within the park have yielded artifacts associated with the fur trade. In some cases, it is not clear whether the artifacts reflect sites of actual encounters or habitations during the fur trade era or whether the artifacts were lost or discarded at a later time. For example, Jesuit trade rings were found together with items of English and American manufacture at Sand Point, and Ojibwe probably occupied this site during the French period as well as later in the fur trade era. Items of English manufacture were found on islands near Sand Point, but the collection of other material from these sites suggests that they date from a later period. Ojibwe occupation sites dating from the historic period are concentrated around Black Bay, Moose Bay, the west end of Kabetogama Lake, Crane Lake, Sand Point Lake, and perhaps Kettle Falls. Some of these occupation sites possibly date back to the fur trade era. Numerous local artifact collections contain significant numbers of artifacts from the fur trade era, suggesting that there are many more sites remaining to be officially recorded.

Archeological investigation is complicated by the fact that water levels have been altered since the fur trade era. Dams constructed in the early 1900s at Kettle Falls, between Namakan and Rainy lakes, and at International Falls, Minnesota, below the outlet of Rainy Lake, raised water levels in all four major lakes in Voyageurs National Park. No doubt many archeological sites connected with the fur trade are to be found along historic portages or lake shores that now lie under water. Archeologists have investigated submerged canoe wrecks or their sunken cargo in various rapids in the Boundary Waters, but no such underwater investigations have been made within the park.

The fur trade was fundamentally concerned with the exchange of products. Europeans brought to this exchange goods such as guns, blankets, brass, and liquor, while Indians traded furs, skins, isinglass (a gelatin derived from sturgeon bladders used as a clarifying agent and glue), and other animal products, as well as food stuffs such as wild rice, fish, and pemmican. Many of these items were so perishable as to disappear entirely from the archeological record, while other items could have a long life perhaps even being passed from generation to generation. Since the trade involved great distances, items changed hands and moved around extensively. Yet the system was such that trade goods were seldom stockpiled or amassed in large quantities. There were exceptions. Indians sometimes cached their products rather than trading them immediately in order to await more favorable conditions for travel or barter. As the pelts accumulated at each trading post, the trader pressed and wrapped the pelts in canvas for shipment by canoe. These packs of so-called "made beaver" (a unit of measure equal to one prime beaver skin) were occasionally lost in canoe accidents. Similarly, European goods were wrapped in assorted bales and transported by canoe to the trading posts. Occasionally such cargoes sank to the bottom of a lake or river with an errant canoe. Many fur trade artifacts, together with the remains of actual canoes themselves, have been recovered through underwater archeology. These sites are concentrated below treacherous rapids or waterfalls. None is known to exist within the relatively calm waters that flow through Voyageurs National Park, although cargoes might have been lost at such treacherous locations as Kettle Falls and Brule Narrows.

Besides the exchange of goods, the fur trade involved an elaborate system of transportation and supply. European and American traders sought to develop efficient routes for travel and the movement of goods. While their transportation system generally made use of natural waterways, some efforts were made toward improving these routes, particularly along portages, which they often described as "roads." Place names, landmarks, and improvements made along such "roads" were all part of the cultural landscape of the fur trade.

Finally, the fur trade drew thousands of Europeans and Americans into the North American interior far in advance of permanent white settlement, and this population required habitations. These wilderness installations varied in size and duration. In general, they can be classified into four tiers. In the first tier, there were a few major depots where goods were stockpiled for distribution: the Hudson's Bay Company's York Factory and Albany Factory, the North West Company's Grand Portage and Fort William, and the trading center known as Michilimackinac that passed from French to British to American control. From these depots, goods were distributed to a second tier of establishments known as posts, forts, or houses. (These three terms are used interchangeably below.) These posts could have a population of a few dozen men and their families. They might be comprised of a post and stockade as well as outlying residences, livestock barns, vegetable gardens, and cultivated fields. Post traders often sent their subordinates to occupy satellite posts, usually described as subposts or outposts. This third tier in the system consisted of smaller, more ephemeral establishments that were typically dependent on the larger post for provisions. In the fourth tier were camps of various kinds. Where there was competition from other traders, as at Rainy Lake, men were sent to occupy overnight camps, or "watching tents," where they could hail Indians and direct them to the post. Watching tents are mentioned repeatedly in the Rainy Lake post journals, but there is no evidence that they consisted of anything more than a canvas shelter. To help with provisioning the post, the traders also established fishing and hunting camps. In addition to these various habitations belonging to Europeans and Americans in the fur trade, Indians occupied their own camps. White and Indian habitations sometimes overlapped, as when both groups used the same fishing places or Indian groups camped in the vicinity of the post.

This chapter discusses the material culture of the fur trade as it was expressed in products of the trade, transportation, and habitations.

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Table of Contents | Introduction | Rainy Lake Region | Fur Trade Experience | Material Culture | Natural Environment | Bibliography
Last Updated: 01-Oct-2001