Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
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Archeology at Grand Portage

In 1936-37, the Minnesota Historical Society carried out the first archeological investigations at Grand Portage. The U. S. Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsored the excavations as a CCC project. The supervisor of the project, hindered by a lack of funds and other problems, reported only briefly on his findings. In the early 1960s, Alan R. Woolworth, Minnesota Historical Society, analyzed the field notes, photographs, and artifacts of that first archeological work and recreated the results in a masterful report, "Archeological Excavations at the Northwest Company's Fur Trade Post, Grand Portage, Minnesota, In 1936-37," 224 pages, plus plates and catalogues.

This appendix makes no attempt to duplicate Woolworth's report or the others mentioned below. It tries only to summarize them and to urge all concerned with Grand Portage to study them.

The 1936 project was primarily exploratory in nature. It located the outline of the stockade, found traces of one gate, discovered two interior stockade walls, and located two former structures within the stockade. The next year's project also concentrated on the stockade area. During this period the foundations of the Great Hall were discovered. In addition, the archeologist discovered the remains or traces of 12 other structures or possible structures and a well. In addition he found a considerable number of artifacts, many of which were subsequently lost. Based on this work a conjectural reconstruction of the Great Hall was completed in 1940. It is fair to say that more historical research should have been done before this reconstruction took place.

Future planning and interpretation at Grand Portage must take the Woolworth report into the greatest consideration. This writer fully agrees with Woolworth's conclusion that

Further archeological excavations must be conducted within the stockade well in advance of any structural restorations. Fortunately, there remain a considerable number of unexcavated areas which will be productive of further structural evidence. It will also be possible in some instances to re-excavate structural sites and to recover more information concerning them.

In 1951 Grand Portage became a part of the National Park System. A decade later archeology was renewed when the University of Minnesota carried out excavations in compliance with a Memorandum of Agreement with the National Park Service. Later that season fall of 1961, the Minnesota Historical Society continued this project. This season, work was concentrated at selected sites outside the stockade, to the east. In his report, "Archeological Test Excavations at Grand Portage National Monument, June-September, 1961," Archeologist Alan R. Woolworth concluded that

no significant archeological remains were found in the area initially tested which lie north of the lakeshore road and east of the road which leads to the Grand Portage Reservation School. No significant archeological remains were found in the elevated area about 400 yards east of the Grand Portage stockade, and now occupied by two local Indian houses.

Woolworth again made recommendations for the future. He wrote that excavations should be made directly north of the lakeshore road and east of Grand Portage Creek where there was some evidence of an Indian lodge and possibly other structures. He also recommended that excavations be made south of the lakeshore road and immediately east of Grand Portage Creek. He referred to this latter area as the traditional XY Company area. (This writer suggests that the XY Company post was farther to the east, but that the traditional area, above, is nonetheless important.)

One year later, 1962, Woolworth carried out the fourth season of archeological work at Grand Portage. The projects this year involved additional work on the features uncovered in 1961 and work on the traditional XY site that Woolworth recommended a year earlier. His report, "Archeological Excavations at Grand Portage National Monument, 1962 Field Season," was issued in December 1968. Again no attempt is made to recapitulate the report; planners should refer to it directly.

In the vicinity of a small hill, east of Grand Portage Creek, four human burials were located. Woolworth believes these to be probably Chippewa Indians, ca. 1800-25. A number of interesting artifacts were found in these graves. About 100 feet east of this hill, Woolworth made the important discovery of a 60-foot long palisade. This is the most important structural evidence yet found outside the stockade. Also, a large number of useful artifacts, related to the fur trade, were recovered during the 1962 dig.

Once again Woolworth made important recommendations for future archeological work. He urged excavations in the area where he located the palisade and the region south of the old road and east of Grand Portage Creek—approximately the area suspected of being the Montreal campground.

The archeological work to date has played a substantial role in our understanding of Grand Portage. Considerable excavations remain to be done, and these will further enrich our knowledge. In this particular situation, where documentary evidence of the physical aspects of the area is quite incomplete, archeology is a most important discipline. Here history and archeology complement each other to the highest degree. Yet, one additional word is offered. Even when a particular piece of ground is found to contain little or no physical evidence, this fact does not lessen its historical importance if in fact a historical event occurred there—e.g. the voyageurs' campground. Modern conveniences must respect history per se as well as its artifacts.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009