Administrative History
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PART I: (continued)


The National Park Service (NPS) first became directly involved with Grand Portage in 1951 when the Secretary of the Interior designated it a national historic site under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. The NPS role as advisor under the August 1, 1951, cooperative agreement with the Band and Tribe signalled the long-awaited national attention for Grand Portage. With the introduction of the Federal Government, the MHS role there revived and, indeed, became increasingly important.

When Congress authorized Grand Portage as a Federally owned and administered national monument in 1958, the site remained in limbo until the Secretary of the Interior signed the Act of Establishment two years later. Public Law 85-910 thus allowed the NPS to identify, preserve, and interpret Grand Portage's cultural resources. The MHS played a key role in this process.

An April 4, 1961, Memorandum of Agreement with the NPS initiated a series of excavations under the auspices of the MHS. The University of Minnesota held an archeological field school at the monument in an area north of Cook County Highway 17 and east of Grand Portage Creek. In the fall of the same year, Alan R. Woolworth, MHS Museum Curator and Archeologist, conducted excavations in an elevated area near the southeast boundary of the monument. While no significant remains were discovered, test pits proved two things: 1) some areas were clear for future construction of support facilities, and 2) in the area of the reconstructed stockade, a projected three-year study was necessary to identify precisely what cultural resources lay below-grade. [16]

The 1962 field season revealed the location of four adult Chippewa burials, dating ca. 1800-1825, on a small hill east of the creek. A prehistoric lithic site (3000 B.C.) was also uncovered, yielding a projectile point, scraper, and stone blade. [17] One goal of the excavations was to uncover one of the sites of an independent fur post (primarily the X Y Company post) which reportedly was built nearby. While no significant remains of any fur trade era structures were found, remains of several modern (late 19th to early 20th century) buildings were unearthed on the beachfront. Local Indians identified the structures and told the experts that the Lake Superior shoreline had eroded 30 to 40 feet in approximately 60 years. The archeologists' hopes of finding a fur post built in the late 1790s on Superior's shore began to dim. [18]

Perhaps the partners of the North West Company knew about the erosion problem because excavators in 1963-64 learned that the exterior palisade adjacent to Lake Superior had been moved inland 20 feet "well before 1803." The 1963-64 excavations resulted in five foot wide trenches running through the exterior and interior of the North West Company depot in preparation for a complete reconstruction of palisades on their original sites. Errors from the 1938-40 reconstruction would now be corrected.

The "East Gate" was also excavated and its four original support posts were rediscovered, enabling plans to be drawn up for its reconstruction. Another important find was located west of the depot. Archeological evidence associated with an 18.5 by 52-foot building outline led to the reconstruction of a warehouse currently used for the storage of canoes and canoe-building demonstrations. Also ascertained were the tentative locations of 15 structures on the palisade's interior.

A negative note concerned some recent (1930s) construction work. It was learned that concrete footings for a propane gas tank directly east of the Great Hall, as well as the installation of sewer and water lines for an office trailer, had destroyed a section of a buried stone wall. This discovery underlined the importance of archeological investigation prior to any action which would disturb the soil of Grand Portage. [19]

The outlines of 15 post molds on the exterior of the Great Hall revealed for the first time that a large porch once graced the front of the building. A short distance to the rear of the Great Hall were the remains of a 35 by 27 foot Kitchen. Fifteen thousand artifacts were retrieved, including rosehead nails, dish fragments and liquor bottles, cutlery and woodworking tools, door and window hardware, firesteels, beads, buckles, brass tinklers, clay pipe stems and bowl fragments, and pieces of firearms. Exterior porches surrounded three sides of the Kitchen, and trash was commonly swept underneath the planks. It was determined that the Kitchen and the Great hall were constructed around the same time (ca. 1785) when the palisades were expanded to enclose additional space. [20]

A chance for further extensive excavations came in 1970, the year following the disastrous fire which gutted the reconstructed Great Hall. Before the embers grew cold, plans were being formulated for a reconstruction effort which would correct some of the historical inaccuracies of the earlier building. MHS excavations for the Perk service began in 1970, again under the direction of Alan R. Woolworth. The foundations of the turned hail had cracked considerably and the corners had never been reinforced with steel. Nothing could be salvaged. Even the two imposing fireplaces and chimneys could not be saved.

The newly reconstructed Great Hall opened to the public in 1973 but more excavations were necessary. In order to avoid in situ cultural remains, MHS archeologist Alan Woolworth led a team to find an acceptable 3 by 90 foot corridor for the placement of sewer and water mains and a sewerage lift pump station site. [21] A fire prevention system was installed because of the increased water pressure that the new water mains provided.

More field work in 1975 revealed new clues as to the location of the legendary "Boucher's Fort" or "Little Fort" which was believed to be 100 yards east of Grand Portage Creek. Archeologists uncovered traces of two buildings believed to date from ca. 1800-05. The structures could have been associated with the X Y Company. [22]

In addition to archeological surveys within the monument's boundaries, the MHS engaged in a series of underwater explorations. The Underwater Research Program collected a variety of historic artifacts. Conducted offshore of the North West Company depots at Grand Portage and Fort Charlotte, the studies began in 1963 and continued from 1971 to 1976. The water routes of the voyageurs were hazardous even for the most experienced men. Canoes laden with goods were difficult to maneuver in swiftflowing water and were in constant peril of striking a submerged rock. The Montreal Canoes (used on the Great Lakes) and North Canoes (used on rivers and inland lakes) could capsize or the wood could split and send the cargo to the bottom of a lake or river. Some of the artifacts retrieved from these underwater expeditions are now on display at the monument. [23]

The MHS role at Grand Portage has been significant. The concern and foresight of the Society for its preservation in responsible in large part for the survival of the monument in the face of modern encroachments.

One individual at the MHS in particular has devoted much of his professional career to Grand Portage. Alan R. Woolworth, Archeologist, former Curator, and presently a Research Fellow, has spent two decades intensively researching years of archeological field studies, most of which he directed. Woolworth has written nearly a dozen technical reports for the NPS which evaluate and interpret the thousands of artifacts which have been uncovered. These reports have been used by the NPS to guide reconstruction of the palisades, Great Hall, Kitchen, and Canoe Warehouse, and to "provide data for the development, conservation, and interpretation of the site." In 1975, the NPS commissioned Woolworth and his wife, Nancy, to compose a comprehensive cultural resource for Grand Portage which was completed in August 1982.

Woolworth outlined other "less apparent" areas of assistance that the MHS has provided at Grand Portage:

. . . a deep concern for maintaining the integrity of the Grand Portage natural setting; the fostering of an awareness of the depot's significance amongst the Minnesota Congressional delegation; general support of the National Park Service's work at the site; and an impressive number of publications concerning Society research along the north shore of Lake Superior, at Grand Portage, and along the Voyageur's Highway from the Grand Portage to the Red River of the North.

The Society's rich manuscript collections and library have also been used steadily by historians of Grand Portage and of the fur trade. Some of these scholars have been Solon J. Buck, Lawrence J. Burpee, Wayne E. Stevens, and Grace Lee Nute. The Society's Audio-Visual Library has also furnished many illustrations to he used in the interpretation of the Grand Portage region. [24]

Some individuals within the MHS have suggested that the Society is the best suited agency to operate Grand Portage National Monument. This attitude was voiced in 1977 when an MHS report submitted to the State Commission on Minnesota Resources—A Historic Interpretation Program for the State of Minnesota—was critical of the NPS interpretive effort at Grand Portage. The recommendations of the seven-member task force were compiled by Rhoda Gilman, Supervisor of Research. She wrote:

Generally speaking, Grand Portage has had a rather low priority with the National Park Service. Its short tourist season and comparative isolation make it a difficult place in which to work and to attract tourists. (Year-round offices and residences of Park Service personnel are located 40 miles away in Grand Marais.) In line with Park Service policy, personnel are rotated frequently, and few of those involved with interpreting Grand Portage have had any particular interest in the site or chance to develop a knowledge of it. [25]

In concluding remarks, Gilman stated that the "committee feels strongly that the MHS is the agency best suited by experience, resources, and interest to communicate the story of this major Minnesota historic site." She added that the MHS was "framing a proposal under which it would accept on contract from the Park Service the responsibility for all historical interpretation at Grand Portage." [26]

Park Superintendent Ivan D. Miller reviewed the report and informed MHS Director Russell W. Fridley that it was "less than objective and accurate," and noted its negative tone. He expressed surprise at the suggestion that the NPS would even consider relinquishing its interpretive role or that the MHS was the "best suited" agency to control the monument. Miller wrote:

The National Park Service recognizes the need for improving the interpretive program at Grand Portage, but we would hope that the Service's role as the Nation's principal agency for preserving the environmental and cultural values of our national parks and historical places, would be strengthened by the Society's continuing cooperation and support. [27]

Miller continued:

The National Park Service has not forsaken Grand Portage. We have a small, but energetic staff, striving to carry out our responsibilities to preserve and interpret this important historic site. We are here because we want to be here, and are committed to preserving and interpreting this nationally significant site within the constraints and realities of our situation. We will continue to look to the Minnesota Historical Society for advice, counsel, and support in carrying out these efforts. This response to the comments in the report is a reflection of our concern for the Monument and a reaffirmation of our request for the support of the Society. [28]

Director Fridley responded by explaining the "impatience" of some members of the Society

...the Minnesota Historical Society greatly appreciates the efforts and accomplishments of the National Park Service at Grand Portage. The NPS rescued this extremely historic site, has preserved it and has made it available to the public. We applaud your efforts.

...we have a tendency, I am afraid, to be a bit impatient concerning interpretive activities at Grand Portage. Grand Portage is of very great historical importance in Minnesota. But from a national standpoint, it is thought to be of lesser importance. Obviously, this affects the funding available for interpretation at Grand Portage.

There was a time last fall when some people suggested that perhaps the Minnesota Historical Society should "take over" the interpretation at Grand Portage. But this idea received no official consideration with the Society, and was quickly disregarded. Nonetheless, it seems to have crept into Rhoda's report. [29]

Despite isolated incidents like this, NPS/MHS relations remain good. It is still the view of the Society that the Park Service is the only logical agency to interpret the story of Grand Portage. [30]

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Last Updated: 27-Jan-2005