Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
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The French Régime

The names of the North West Company partners sound like a roll call of the clans of Culloden. These men were hardy, courageous, shrewd and proud. They spent a good part of their lives travelling incredible distances in birch-bark canoes, shooting rapids, or navigating inland seas. They were wrecked and drowned. They suffered hunger and starvation. They were robbed and murdered by the Indians, and sometimes by one another. They fell the victims of smallpox, syphilis, and rum. Yet they conquered half a continent, and they built up a commercial empire, the like of which North America at least has never seen.

— W. Stewart Wallace, Documents Relating to the North West Company

Daring, ambitious Samuel de Champlain, son of a French sea-captain and the father of New France, exposed the secrets of the great waterway that led from the unknown interior of the New World to the salt water of the lower St. Lawrence. He and his men overcame the Lachine Rapids of the St. Lawrence, just above the future site of Montreal, traveled by canoe up the Ottawa, sweated across the portages, discovered Lake Nipissing, and became the first Europeans to gaze across Georgian Bay, that huge arm of Lake Huron. The year was 1615, just eight years after Champlain had founded Quebec city.

In that short time the officials of the new colony had already recognized the economic potential of what would come to be called the fur trade. By unlocking the geographical secrets of the new land, Champlain provided the basis for the certain expansion of that trade and for the feats of exploration that his successors would make during the 150 years that the colony would belong to France.

Shortly after Champlain's travels of 1615-16, his one-time servant, Étienne Brulé, possibly became the first European to gaze upon a still larger body of water, the grey-blue inland sea to be named Lake Superior. Historians must use "possibly" when discussing Brulé, for this son of the forest did not record his wanderings in writing nor did his hand trace any maps.

The colonists did not stampede to follow these first explorations. The fur trade remained far behind the fishing industry in importance throughout the seventeenth century. Not until a rage for hats made of beaver fur swept over Europe toward the close of that century did the trade begin its rapid rise to prominence in Canada's early history. [1] Meanwhile a few French continued to push westward, justifying their effort on an elusive dream of an easy passage to the Western Sea and on carrying Christianity to the Indians. [2]

In 1659 two brothers-in-law entered on Lake Superior in the spirit of exploration. Pierre Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, both French born, slipped away from Three Rivers in defiance of the royal governor's decree that no one could engage in the fur trade without a permit. They passed the winter in the bleak rocky land to the north and west of Lake Superior, the Fire Country, returning in the summer of 1660 loaded with furs. Students of this expedition and of a second by this pair a few years later have concluded that they did not pass near the subject of this report, the Grand Portage. [3]

Later, these two adventurers, running into the disfavor of the governor at Quebec, changed their allegience to an alien country, England, where they provided the stimulus that created the Hudson's Bay Company, the longest lived of all the great fur-trading companies.

The evolution of the fur trade in French Canada proceeded apace with the growth of the colony. At first any would-be trader, who had both the nerve and the capital, could undertake trade with the Indians of the western country. The resulting reckless competition, combined with losses inflicted by the fierce raids of the Iroquois (New France's lasting enemy), brought on increasing governmental control. Champlain himself arranged for a monopoly of sorts, which at first was little more than a loose association of those involved. In 1627, however, the Company of New France gained a more real monopoly. Although the names of the companies and their members would change from time to time, and the concept of monopoly would be modified to meet changing conditions, governmental control by means of licenses characterized the fur trade throughout the French régime. [4]

As the trade slowly increased, French settlement moved up the St. Lawrence so that the sources of trade goods would be closer to those involved in the trade. A fort grew up at Three Rivers in 1634. Another settlement began at the head of navigation in 1641-42. Located below the Lachine Rapids, near the junction of the rushing Ottawa and the stronger, quieter St. Lawrence, this settlement would go down in history as one of the great French cities of the world by the name of Montreal. Before the end of the régime, a system would evolve, at least rudimentarily, in which the interior traders would share their profits and risks with the Montreal merchants.

At their maximum development, the French posts would be of three kinds: the "free" posts, such as Detroit and Michilimackinac; the king's posts, such as Tadoussac and Toronto, and those posts leased to individuals, which included Sault Ste. Marie and St. Joseph's. All were under one degree or another of governmental control; each enjoyed a monopoly within a prescribed geographic area; all were required to sell their furs to the King's stores at fixed prices. The trade was marred from time to time by greed and corruption. [5]

Gradually, posts came into being along the Great Lakes. However, the north shore of Lake Superior presented a formidable barrier that took time to breach. Large navigable rivers did not cut troughs through that lonely land of the glacier-scoured Laurentian Shield, a cold land of rock, lakes, and forests. Eventually, the early explorers discovered three practical routes that crossed "the height of land" to the drainage basins of Lake Winnipeg and, ultimately, Hudson Bay. The St. Louis River (the Fond du Lac), after a leisurely trip through northeastern Minnesota, empties into the southwest corner of Lake Superior at the present city of Duluth. By traveling up that stream and making portages to other rivers, men discovered that they could reach Rainy River near what is now International Falls. Of the three routes, this was by far the longest. Almost 200 miles to the northeast, the Kaministikwia River adds its waters to Lake Superior by means of Thunder Bay. [6] The explorers found that they could travel up this small river and by making portages from lake to lake and stream to stream could cross the land to Rainy Lake. The early French, at least until La Vérendrye, used this route more than the other two.

The third passage lay about thirty miles by water southward of the Kaministikwia. This the explorers came to call the Pigeon River. Today it marks a small part of the boundary between the United States and Canada. The lower few miles of the Pigeon are not navigable. Here the river rushes between narrow walls, its rapids swirl over rock masses, and large crashing waterfalls cause men to gaze with awe. However only five miles by canoe from the mouth of the Pigeon River, toward the southwest, lies a small, sheltered, gentle bay. Here, from ages unknown to history, the Indians had developed a trail that led almost nine miles across the hills to a point on the Pigeon that lay above the rapids and falls, The French were the first Europeans to discover the trail and they named it le Grand Portage, the Great Carrying-Place.

Although this last route had more portages than either of the others, it was the most direct route to western lands and was destined to become famous. For a brief time, before revolutions and international relations changed the course of nations, this small piece of land tied together the fur trade of the west and the capitals of Europe and parts of Asia. And across its green miles, there strode a grand assemblage of traders, explorers, scientists, and financiers. The strategic geography of this small neck of land, the vitality and stature of the men who came here and the economic wealth that poured over the trail have for generations captured, if not stunned, the imaginations of generations of students.

Daniel Greysolon, the Sieur Du Lhut, known too as the King of the Woodsmen and as an honest man, may have been the first identifiable Frenchman to visit the Grand Portage. In 1679 he paddled along the north shore of Lake Superior, intent on establishing a trading post. Most historians believe this post to have been at the mouth of the Kaministikwia, although a few believe that he selected the mouth of the Pigeon. In either case, it is possible that he learned of the Grand Portage either through his contacts with the Indians of the area or by personal exploration. [7] However, Du Lhut failed to record this event, if indeed it occurred, thus he did not earn for himself the title of discoverer of the Grand Portage.

A decade later, in 1668, Jacques de Noyon, a twenty-year-old French Canadian born at Three Rivers, was at the mouth of the Kaministikwia. He traveled up that river, passing through Dog Lake, Dog River, Height-of-Land Lake, Lac des Mille Lacs, and the Seine River to reach Rainy Lake. At the west end of Rainy Lake he built a small wintering post. He traded with the Assiniboines and, traveling still farther westward, reached at least the Lake of the Woods. But, like Du Lhut, he failed to note the existence of the Grand Portage. [8]

In discussing these documented explorations it is important to note the coureurs de bois, the runners of the woods, a group of half-legendary, mostly illegal, independent traders, who avoided securing licenses to collect furs throughout the wilderness. They could find their heroes in Radisson and Groseilliers who had defied the government in trading with the Indians. Secretly slipping away from the settlements, avoiding the king's agents en route, and adopting the customs of the Indians, they traveled far and wide in the regions of Lakes Superior and Michigan. A 1681 letter describes their activities:

There are two sorts of Coureurs de bois. The first go to the original haunts of the beaver, among the Indian tribes of the Assinibouets, Nadoussieux, Miamis, Illinois and others, and these cannot make the trip in less than two or three years. The second, who are not so numerous, merely go so far as the Long Sault, Petit Nation, and sometimes to Michilimackinac. [9]

These wide-ranging free spirits too may have known the Grand Portage and their moccasins may have crushed its dew-laden grass blades. Yet, whether because of illiteracy or because the nature of their business discouraged record keeping, these romanticized wanderers failed to meet the test of history as its discoverers.

In the years following Jacques de Noyon's activities a lull occurred in activities along the north shore of Lake Superior. One of the reasons for this was the French capture and temporary ownership of the British posts on Hudson Bay. When the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, returned these forts to the Hudson's Bay Company, the French turned once more to breaking through the barrier of the Shield. While the trade in the Illinois was more lucrative than the northwest, France considered it important to gain the allegiance of the Indians north and west of Lake Superior in order to discourage them from trading with the British to the north.

In 1717, Lt. Zacharie Robutel, Sieur de la Noüe, left Quebec with 32 voyageurs to reestablish Fort Kaministikwia on a permanent basis and to open trade with the interior. From then until the fall of New France, French traders and military were active at this establishment. It would be but a matter of time before Grand Portage entered the historical record. [10]

The time came in 1722 when a French officer, known only as Pachot, wrote that the most favorable route for trading west was by way of the Pigeon (he called it the Nantokuagane) River which, he said, was about seven lieues (about 18 miles) distant from the Kaministikwia. While the officer was a little short in his estimation and while his description implied that he had not seen the Pigeon himself, there is little doubt but that he knew of the existence of the Grand Portage. [11]

Despite the constant westering of the French, almost a century and a quarter passed between the founding of Quebec and the first documented crossing of the Grand Portage. In 1731, Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye sailed toward the Grand Portage with the intention of crossing it in a major effort to find the Western Sea. Born to the governor of Three Rivers in 1685, La Vérendrye, as he is known to history, had served in the army in France. Returning to Canada, he had acquired command of the trading posts on Lake Nipigon north of Lake Superior where he had resided from 1727 to 1728. Here he had had Indians sketch maps of the routes to "the great river of the West" and had decided he would travel by way of the Pigeon River.

With him in 1731 were three sons: Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, and François, and his nephew La Jemeraye. At Michilimackinac, a Jesuit priest, Father Messayer (or Mesaiger) joined the expedition. Counting everyone, including the soldiers and the voyageurs, the party amounted to 50. On August 26, the expedition reached the Grand Portage. In a letter written by the governor of New France the following year, one senses that, although this was the first documented visit, the site was already well known. The Marquis de Beauharnois wrote that he had received letters from both La Vérendrye and Father Mesaiger, who informed him about their experiences at "the portage of Nantaouagan", that is, the Grand Portage. [12] The experiences described were not entirely pleasant.

On arriving at the portage, which La Vérendrye described as being from three to three and one quarter lieues (7.5 to 8.1 miles) long, he was disappointed to learn that "all our people, in dismay at the length of the portage... mutinied and loudly demanded that I should turn back." Out of the group, La Vérendrye finally found one voyageur who would cross. La Jemeraye, the nephew and who was second in command, one of the sons, and the lone volunteer set off across the portage to establish a post on Rainy Lake. La Vérendrye led the rest up the coast to the fort at Kaministikwia to pass the winter. [13]

La Jemeraye threw together Fort Pierre that fall on the outlet of Rainy Lake, wintered there, and returned across the Grand Portage in the summer of 1732 to report to La Vérendrye. By June 8 all was ready and La Vérendrye led the whole group across the portage and on into the interior of the country, taking "great care to improve all the portages" along the way.

He pushed on to the Lake of the Woods where he built Fort St. Charles, said to be a stockaded enclosure 100 feet square having four bastions, two gates, and one watch tower. La Vérendrye's and his sons' travels of the next dozen years, which were sufficient to mark him one of the great men of discovery, need only to be summarized here. In 1734 he founded Fort Maurepas on the Red River that flowed north in to Lake Winnipeg. Four years later he constructed Fort La Reine (Portage la Prairie today) on the Assiniboine. Also in 1738, he visited the Mandan Indians on the Missouri River.

Two of his sons, François and Louis-Joseph (a fourth son who joined his father in 1735), searched still farther westward for the Western Sea. Students still disagree on their route but some conclude that the mountains the young men saw were the Black Hills. La Vérendrye himself received credit for discovering the Saskatchewan River and for traveling up it as far as it forks, in present Saskatchewan. Other forts built by the family included Dauphin on Lake Winnipegosis and Bourbon near the mouth of the Saskatchewan. During these years, La Vérendrye visited Quebec from time to time to renew his support. Chances are high that he and his people continued to use the Grand Portage route, which the explorer himself recognized as having more portages than the Kaministikwia route but being one-third shorter and having fewer rapids.

Despite its success at exploration, the family traveled in the shadow of death. La Jemeraye died in 1736. That same year Indians killed Jean-Baptiste, Father Jean Pierre Aubneau, and about twenty voyageurs at the Lake of the Woods. Louis-Joseph was drowned at sea in 1761 while enroute to France. Pierre traveled eastward to Prince Edward Island (Isle de St. Jean) around 1746. He made at least one more visit to the west, then faded from history. François lived the longest, dying in Montreal in 1794. La Vérendrye himself gave up his western travels in 1744. He died in Montreal in 1749, greatly in debt toward the end. He did not find the Western Sea, but he did mark a land that would become an empire for others after him. Most important to the moment, La Vérendrye placed the Grand Portage on the maps and he bridged the gap from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg. [14]

Only ten years elapsed between the death of La Vérendrye and the fall of Quebec to General Wolfe. Small notices in the accounts of the time indicate that the French continued to be active west of Lake Superior in the last days of New France.

The question arises whether or not the French erected any kind of post at the Lake Superior end of the Grand Portage, as they had at the mouth of the Kaministikwia. The evidence is inconclusive. A writer, early in the present century, said that La Noüe himself erected a fort at Grand Portage between 1718 and 1720, while he was in command of Kaministikwia. However, he cited no sources and subsequent research has disclosed no evidence to support this. Solon Buck, an ardent student of Grand Portage, wrote that a post undoubtedly was established at the eastern end of the trail during the French period, but, alas, "of this no information has been found." [15] Sir Alexander Mackenzie, of whom much is to be said later, wrote that the French had a "principal establishment" at the mouth of the Kaministikwia, but made no mention of a fort at Grand Portage. [16]

In 1750, Jacques R. Legardeur de Saint-Pierre became the commander of the "posts of the Western Sea". He made his headquarters at Vérendrye's Fort La Reine on the Assiniboine. One of his men, Boucher de Niverville, traveled up the Saskatchewan in 1751 and built Fort La Jonquière in the evening shadows of the Rocky Mountains. In 1753, Legardeur's replacement, Chevalier de la Corne, visited Grand Portage. La Corne was the last of these governors. He returned to Quebec in 1755. The fires of war in North America and Europe were about to be formally lit. [17]

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009