Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
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Genesis of the North West Company

The fortress of Quebec fell to the British in 1759. Montreal held out until 1760, not because it was a center of French military strength but because winter slowed down the British troops. Three more years passed before France ceded Canada, in 1763. Now one flag flew from Florida to Hudson Bay.

French traders had abandoned their western posts before the fall of Quebec. When Wolfe and Montcalm received their mortal wounds on the Plains of Abraham, "there was no Frenchman, save an occasional straggler, left west of Lake Superior." [1] However, this condition did not last for long. Even before the ink dried on the treaty of peace, French and British traders in Montreal were gathering the resources to renew the western trade. In 1761 the first of these moved up the waterway. Among the small number that year was Alexander Henry. Later, his namesake would be in the fur trade, thus historians have called this first Alexander "the Elder" or "Senior". He had been active in the fur trade in New York and during the war had been a civilian supplier to the British army moving on Montreal. After the fall of the town, he decided to remain there. A smart man could see opportunity in the ruins of the collapsed French trade.

Henry may have preceded Robert Rogers' 250 Rangers who went up to the former French post at Michilimackinac in the fall of 1761. If he went on to the Grand Portage that year, he may have already pushed on before a party of traders and a detachment of the Rangers arrived in the spring of 1762. [2] One of the soldiers in the escort was Thompson Maxwell, who later would be a participant in the Boston Tea Party. Reminiscing years later, Maxwell recalled the journey. He referred to the traders as the North West Company. That was the pardonable error of hindsight. There was no such firm in 1762. "In the latter part of May," he wrote, "we crossed Lake Superior, to the Grand Portage, at the northwest corner of the Lake, guarding, as we went, the goods of the Northwest Company." Maxwell set a precedent that was to be followed by most future visitors when he failed to describe the place: "There we unloaded and rested a few days and returned to Mackinaw again sometime in August." [3]

William McGillivray recounted in his narrative that between 1761 and 1763, "some English and French traders sent goods to Lake Superior, and a few went even as far north as rainy lake." [4] This renewal of the trade suffered a sudden set-back in 1763, when Pontiac resisted encroachment on Indian lands by the British. The Rangers had left Michilimackinac, and this post fell to the Indians. Pontiac then laid siege to Detroit and effectively checked the travel of traders. This hiatus lasted until 1765. It proved to be the last interruption in Grand Portage's role as the key to the northwest fur trade for the next forty years.

Also in 1763, the new British government at Quebec proclaimed an end to the French system of monopoly, but attempted to regulate the fur trade by its own means. The governor declared the Indian trade open to everyone providing a license was first secured. Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Northern Districts, assumed general control of the traders and laid down regulations. This scheme, while bringing about certain problems that will be noted, provided the basis for the strong and rapid growth of the fur trade out of Montreal. The new British traders quickly gained control of the great waterway stretching inland to Grand Portage. They spread into the southwest through the Illinois country and on to the Missouri River. They marched westward up the Saskatchewan and would soon fan out from the Arctic Ocean to the Oregon Country. They would discover the way to the Western Sea that La Vérendrye had vainly sought. Neither the Hudson's Bay Company to the north nor the American colonies to the south would be able to break into the superb line of communication that led to empires. [5]

After the threat from Pontiac had passed, the traders immediately renewed their activities. Alexander Henry grasped the lead by securing a license in 1765 to trade in the Lake Superior region, a license that in effect gave him a temporary monopoly. [6] The next year, peddlers, as the Hudson's Bay Company derisively called the Montreal-based traders, reached Lake Winnipeg and established a post amidst the ruins of the French forts.

Among the traders securing licenses at this time were Thomas Corry, an Englishman, Maurice Blondeau, a French Canadian, and James Finlay. This last was the first English trader from Canada to reach the Saskatchewan. He arrived there in 1768. [7] Others would be close on his heels. Another name destined for importance was Frobisher. Three brothers of this family engaged in the trade. Benjamin was the first to walk the Grand Portage, in 1765. Joseph followed his footprints in 1768. Thomas did not arrive at the Portage until 1773. [8]

In 1767, Grand Portage received its first literary-minded visitor, Jonathan Carver, an associate of Robert Rogers, whose Rangers had raised the first British flag at the portage five years earlier. Carver did not describe the site in detail, but his description is so matter-of-fact as to indicate that traffic on the portage was well developed.

He told his readers that "those who go on the north west trade, to the Lakes De Pluye [Rainy], Dubois [Lake of the Woods], etc. carry over their canoes and baggage about nine miles, till they come to a number of small lakes." He wrote that "at the Grand Portage is a small bay, before the entrance of which lies an island that intercepts the dreary and uninterrupted view over the lake, which otherwise would have presented itself, and makes the bay serene and pleasant." Carver was always interested in Indians and here he met "a large party of Killistinoe [Cree] and Assinipoil," who "were come down to this place in order to meet the traders from Michilimackinac, who make this their road to the northwest."

These traders had not yet arrived, and both Carver and the Indians, their provisions low, waited impatiently. When the Montrealers did arrive, Carver was unable to procure sufficient supplies from them to continue his explorations; thus he had to "return to the place from whence I first began my extensive circuit." His account made no reference to either any ruins of a fort from the French period or an establishment erected by the British. The only structure that he noted was "a large house" that belonged to the Chippewa leader in that part of the country. [9]

The evidence is scanty, but it seems probable that Carver arrived at Grand Portage one year before the British began to develop the lake-end of the trail. Many years later, Maurice Blondeau testified about the early days at Grand Portage. He recalled that when he was first there, in 1766, the forest had not yet been cleared from the shore of the bay. However, two or three years later, which would be after Carver's visit, the waterfront was cleared of its growth. Blondeau did not make it clear if a fort was erected at that same time. [10]

After 1769, when Guy Carleton assumed the governorship and loosened restrictions on the fur trade, Grand Portage entered the records with increasing frequency. Of the 76 trading licenses that Governor Carleton issued in 1769, three designated Lake Superior and two others involved the Sea of the West, that is, Lake Winnipeg. These latter two involved Maurice Blondeau (3 canoes and 19 men) and Laurent Ermatinger (2 canoes and 15 men). The next year saw Blondeau sending four canoes and twenty men with goods valued at £1,506. At this time, 1770, Benjamin Frobisher, then associated with the Montreal firm of Todd, McGill and Co., acquired a license to send three canoes to Michilimackinac and Grand Portage. His brother, Joseph, apparently spent the winter of 1770-71 trading with the Indians on the Red River. The years 1771-74 saw licenses issued to such people as Thomas Corry, Franceway, the Frobishers, Blondeau, Ermatinger, and James McGill. In 1774, Samuel Hearne of the Hudson's Bay Company, who was watching the rival peddlers with intense interest, reported that more than 60 canoes had come inland from the Grand Portage. [11]

Laurent Ermatinger, from his desk in Montreal, sent a flurry of letters during these years to his partners at Michilimackinac and Grand Portage. From them, a glimpse of the operations may be seen. In one of these he introduces the name of Pangman as being a merchant at Grand Portage (1772) Peter Pangman will return to this narrative later. In a letter to Forrest Oakes at Grand Portage, also in 1772, he advised Oakes to have the voyageurs who brought the trade goods from Montreal to carry the pieces across the portage. This "very good skeeme" will allow Oakes to proceed into the interior more quickly. The North West Company would later employ this same technique so as to allow the wintering partners from the more distant posts to make the turnabout more quickly.

In 1774, Ermatinger informed Oakes of changes taking place in the trade. He mentioned the forming of partnerships among the hitherto fiercely competitive traders. "Messers Todd and McGill setts out Next Week...the former has sold his share of concern in the North West Trade to Mr. Charles Paterson who setts out to Winter in that Quarter with McGill." He added that "Adhamar and Blondeau are also concerned in that Trade. A good many Goods are going this Year into the Northwest which I am afraid may Hurt the ensuing Year's Trade." [12]

Ermatinger's letters reflected the condition of the fur trade in 1775, fifteen years after the British had captured Quebec. While there was still a number of French Canadians engaged, the number of British was growing ever larger, whether they be new immigrants or migrants from the southern provinces. Yet the common heritage of these newcomers did not prevent their being ruthless adversaries. None of them hesitated to employ liquor to bend whatever Indians to their ends. Ermatinger alone, in 1775, sent about 48 barrels of rum to his trader. [13] The traders inflicted ruin upon one another as well as debauching the Indians with liquor whenever possible. The full story of bribery and violence will never be known, but blood was spilled and, in the end, relations with the various tribes were of a far lower level than during the French régime. Alexander Henry arrived at the Grand Portage in 1775 and reported that he "found the traders in a state of extreme reciprocal hostility, each pursuing his interests in such a manner as might most injure his neighbor. The consequences", he added, "were very hurtful to the morals of the Indians." [14]

From this turmoil, several traders were sufficiently foresighted to recognize that success in the fur trade would be more assured if they could agree on becoming partners, partners with sufficient drive and loyalty to the cause that together they could exert an influence on the trade far beyond that which any one of them could exert alone. The year 1775 saw such an arrangement come into being. It was not a formal, legal organization in the present-day sense. And the name North West Company was not yet born. But it was these northwesterners who in this year formed the nucleus of what would eventually become the fabled organization of history.

Exactly what happened in this year is not known. The written record is not extant. What is known is that a license was granted to a combine that included James McGill, Benjamin Frobisher, Maurice Blondeau, and Alexander Henry for twelve canoes with 78 men to go to Grand Portage and beyond. A military guard escorted this convoy from Michilimackinac to Grand Portage. The theater of operations appears to have been the Saskatchewan River. Of great importance was the fact that the fur returns of the combine in 1776 were considerable. Historians of the fur trade mark this successful cooperation as the beginning of similar combines that led to the formation of the North West Company. [15]

The formation of this combine did not by any means eliminate opposition—then or in the future. Eight other licenses were issued in 1775, including those of Laurent Ermatinger and Peter Pond. Grand Portage became busier. Alexander Hamilton described it this year in a little more detail than heretofor: "The transportation of the goods at this grand portage, or great carrying-place, was a work of seven days of severe and dangerous exertion, at the end of which we encamped on the river Aux Groseillers", another name for the Pigeon. He described the portage as consisting of "two ridges of land, between which is a deep glen or valley, with good meadow-lands, and a broad stream of water. The lowlands are covered chiefly with birch and poplar, and the high with pine." [16]

By 1776 the American Revolution was in full blossom. This cataclysmic event had little immediate effect on the Montreal-based fur trade, other than to hurry the consolidation of interests as a reaction to any potential threat by the Americans. It was in this year that Laurent Ermatinger used, for the first time, the term North West Company in a letter to an associate. [17] Ermatinger himself continued to operate as an independent trader. He wrote Oakes at Grand Portage in April, reflecting the impact of the Revolution: "No Powder can be Sent to you this Spring. All my Powder (which was a considerable Quantity) and the rest of the Merchants also, was in the Kings Stores, from thence on Board a Vessel and in going to Quebec was thrown overboard." Furthermore, "the Continental Troops are so much in want of [blankets] that I really don't believe they will Lett any go out of this Province." E. E. Rich, in a recent study, states that in this year, because of the southern problem, the traders shifted their supply base from Michilimackinac to Grand Portage. [18]

The Montgomery-Arnold invasion of Quebec during the winter of 1775-76 slowed down the trade, but by no means halted it. Nor did the British restrictions on shipping in the Great Lakes. At no time was the Grand Portage itself threatened. Its steady growth as the gateway to the west was reflected in the licenses of 1777. Although only eight of the 121 issued were for Grand Portage, each of these eight licenses represented larger consignments of goods than theretofore. A positive effect of the Revolution was the flight of a number of Loyalist merchants to Montreal from the American colonies. Most noticeable among these were Simon McTavish and the firm of Phyn and Ellice. [19]

Traders continued to reach the Grand Portage in 1778 and 1779. The British commander at Michilimackinac, Maj. Arent Schuyler de Peyster, continued to provide escorts across Lake Superior. In 1778 the officer in charge of this guard was Lt. Thomas Bennett, 8th Foot. John Askin, at Michilimackinac, alerted one M. Beausoleille at Grand Portage of Bennett's coming: "You will have an officer and several soldiers to pass the summer at Grand Portage. I beg you to try and have a house ready to receive them so that it may be let to them. The place must have a Chimney." Askin recognized the existence of one fort, and perhaps two, at Grand Portage in this letter Although his reference is not wholly clear, he wrote: "You will have the goodness to have 200 pickets forty feet long made by your men and errected as a barrier between the old fort and yours." If, as is likely, Askin was writing as the Michilimackinac representative of the embryonic North West Company and if Beausoleille was its Grand Portage representative, it may be deduced that the combination had recently erected a fort of its own, and that for a longer time there had been another "old" fort at the clearing on the bay. In this same letter, Askin made a reference to the North West Company when he added that it would be "the great Company's duty to furnish a dwelling for the officer and his soldiers".

Bennett, because of the delayed arrival of reinforcements from Niagara, set out from Michilimackinac with only five soldiers and seven French Canadian civilians. He apparently did more during his stay at Grand Portage than soothe the Indians' feelings. In a letter to Governor Haldimand in 1779, Major de Peyster added a postscript: "I should be glad to know if your Excellency will please to allow the officer any pay for his laying out and directing the route at the Portage." Whatever engineering talents Bennett lent to the improvement of Grand Portage have, unfortunately, been lost to history. [20]

In this same year, 1778, a new combination of traders and merchants came into being that probably justified Askin's term "the great Company". The Frobisher brothers joined with Simon McTavish (recently from New York), McGill, and others to back the trading expedition of Peter Pond. These men, particularly the Frobishers, McGill, and McTavish were soon to be among the most powerful merchants in Montreal and the wealthiest men in Canada.

They already were men of means, particularly among their fellows at the Grand Portage. They were already acquainted with the hard life of the canoe and the portage. But it is hardly conceivable that they would have lived in simple tents or huts at Grand Portage during the meetings. Their means and tastes lead one to expect that the portage already had a fort that was at least as comfortable as those in the interior. While Askin did not make clear if the fort of 1778 was the one later to be described as the North West's stockade, its existence can not be doubted. [21]

Further evidence of forts and the system that was evolving at Grand Portage appeared that year in a memorandum prepared for Governor Sir Guy Carleton at Quebec. The memorandum noted that the fur trade now amounted to about £ 40,000 sterling and employed almost 500 people. The traders "have a general rendezvous at the Portage, and for the refreshing and comforting those who are employed in the more distant voyages the Traders from hence have built tolerable Houses; and in order to cover them from any insult from the numerous savage Tribes, who resort there...have made stockades around them." [22]

The war dragged on in 1779. This year the British Army had to turn down the request for an escort across Lake Superior. Nevertheless, the fur traders continued along the lines of consolidation, and the North West Company took on a more definite form. A complete roster of those who "joined their stock together and made one common interest of the whole" that year is difficult to ascertain. Innis, in his monumental study, The Fur Trade, listed only ten shares out of a possible sixteen. E. E. Rich, in a more recent study, Montreal and the Fur Trade, lists more names but does not show the number of shares each held. Elaine Mitchell listed still a different assortment, but noted a total of 16 shares:


Todd & McGill-2 shares
B. & J. Frobisher-2
Holmes & Grant-2
Wadden & Co.-2
Ross & Co.-1
Oakes & Co.-1


Todd & McGill (James)
B. & J. Frobisher
Holmes & Grant
Wadden & St. Germain
McTavish & Small
Patterson & McGill (John)
McBeth (acting for Peter Pond).


Todd & McGill-2 shares
B. & J. Frobisher-2
Holmes & Grant-2
Wadden & Co.-2
Ross & Co.-2
Oakes & Co.-2
McTavish & Co.-2
McGill & Patterson-2

These partners limited their agreement to one year. It was a busy year. The increase of activity at Grand Portage was indicated in a petition of the merchants wherein they claimed that 800 men were now involved in the northwest trade. Of these, 300 came to the Grand Portage during the summer rendezvous. [23]

The organization of the North West Company, then and later, might be abhorred by a modern corporation lawyer but, as E. E. Rich has pointed out, "it was never a company in the strict legal sense which would have made it a corporate unit in the eyes of the law, responsible for its debts, accountable for its action, and capable of being sued as a single body. Rather," he writes, "it was a copartnership . . . wherein individual partners took action for the common interest . . . members . . . traded outside the Company as well as within it." [24]

The following year, 1780, the partners made the decision to renew their association, this time for three years. Again, they decided upon sixteen shares. Those having two each were: Todd & McGill, Holmes & Grant, and Wadden & Co. Represented by one share each were McBeath & Co., Ross & Co., and Oakes & Co. Lacking a copy of the agreement itself, one cannot make an accounting of the sixteenth share, unless Peter Pond received it. Despite the air of confidence shown, the partners later agreed to end this agreement in 1782 instead of 1783. [25]

Alexander Henry, possibly an independent trader at this time, stepped back into the picture in 1781. Reflecting the dreams of the early French explorer, he petitioned the Canadian government for permission to set out from Grand Portage, "150 leagues from Mackinac," in order to cross the continent to the Pacific. Official reaction to this request is not known. But it would not be Alexander Henry's destiny to be the first across the continent. The year 1781 was too early. In his petition, Henry described the portage, saying that "the Carrying Place is Twelve Miles over and no other Method of Transporting Canoes and Goods, but by Canadians, who are very Expert in that bussiness." [26]

By the time of the rendezvous in 1783, the members of the association were ready for another reorganization. Among the worries that concerned them was that the United States had won its rebellion and now had control of the southern shores of the waterway. The Montreal-based traders felt that only consolidation would assure their continued supremacy of this route.

The new company that emerged from the negotiations is regarded by some authorities as the true emergence of the North West Company. Although further readjustments would mark the coming years, the pattern of operation was now well established. Also, the new organization was more formal than its predecessors. Then, too, Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher and Simon McTavish began their rise as the most powerful of the associates. From now on, if not earlier, these three would not be seen west of Grand Portage. In the future, they would manage their commercial houses in Montreal, act as creditors for the wintering partners (those who ran the far flung posts in the northwest), and serve as middlemen between the winterers and the European markets. They would visit the rendezvous at Grand Portage each summer where the business of the company was carried out.

The sixteen shares that year seem to have been divided as follows: McTavish—3, the Frobishers—3, George McBeath—2, Robert Grant—2, William Holmes—1, Patrick Small (who was closely allied with McTavish)—2, Nicholas Montour (who was closely allied with the Frobishers)—2, and Peter Pond—1. [27]

Peter Pond, busy in the interior, did not come out to Grand Portage until 1784. When he learned that his share of the concern was only one-sixteenth, he was quite unhappy. Apparently he felt that it had been his brains and brawn that had developed the system on the Red and Saskatchewan Rivers and points beyond. He may have had a fiery temper and less regard for human life than some of his associates, yet only a strong man could have developed a system that coaxed the Indians to trap (a woman's work) and bring their pelts to the Company's posts rather than to the Hudson's Bay establishments on Hudson Bay. Some of the members, he noted, such as George McBeath, had never been beyond the Grand Portage, yet had two shares. Pond refused to sign the agreement and, rather than return to the upper country, went down to Montreal. There he talked with Peter Pangman about beginning their own company. But before he and Pangman got fully organized, Pond reconsidered and eventually rejoined the North West Company. Pangman, however, held out, and, in 1785, formed an opposition.

This rebellion of Pond's would be repeated by others throughout the history of the North West Company. "Without a charter and with no legitimate monopoly," wrote Paul Phillips, "the company's whole history was a struggle for existence against rebellion from within and opposition from without." [28]

Besides Pond's dissatisfaction, the Company had other worries in 1784. Many of these concerns arose from the now-successful American Revolution. A worry that would exist for many years was that the Company's near-monopoly of the Great Lakes, as well as its ports at Detroit, Michilimackinac, and even Grand Portage, might be threatened by American claims. Strange as it may seem, the British traders had no knowledge of the old French route up the Kaministikwia. This year the company sent Edward Umfreville to explore for an alternate route that would be outside American territorial claims.

Umfreville had worked for the Hudson's Bay Company during the 1770s but, after a series of misadventures and a falling-out over pay, had joined the North West Company as a clerk in 1783. Now he explored a route that led from Lake Nipigon, north of Lake Superior, through the "Fire Country" of the Shield, to Lake Winnipeg. However, this route was too long and had too many extensive portages ever to become a popular alternative to Grand Portage. [29]

During the American Revolution, the Montreal merchants had lived under strict and severe regulations issued by the British authorities concerning transportation on the Great Lakes. Although these merchants had continued to send trade goods to Grand Portage by means of canoe brigades up the Ottawa, and they had managed to keep a schooner or two on the Great Lakes, they felt the urgency to expand their tonnage on the Lakes once the war was over. The Frobisher brothers petitioned Governor Haldimand on this problem in 1784. They pointed out the growing importance of Grand Portage by saying that, by July 1785, the North West Company would have an interest there of "£ 50,000, original Cost, in Furrs, to be sent to Montreal by the returns of their Canoes, and in goods for the Interior Country." They requested permission to construct a vessel at Detroit, which they would then get up over the Sault Ste. Marie for transporting goods on Lake Superior. The governor granted his permission.

The Company built the Beaver at Detroit, "measuring no more than Thirty-four Feet Keel, Thirteen feet Beam, and Four feet Hold, at a cost of £ 1,843.13.2 York (Toronto) Currency." Despite her small size, the Beaver could not get up the Falls of St. Mary's. The company would try again later, but it kept this vessel on the lower lakes, transporting goods from Fort Erie to Detroit and on to Michilimackinac and St. Marie's. [30]

In both 1784 and 1785, the company, through the Frobishers, wrote at length to government officials at Quebec requesting a monopoly at Grand Portage and for the northwest trade. These were lengthy pleas, and their contribution to history was a description of the fur trade as it was carried on from Montreal and Grand Portage.

The Frobishers mentioned their concern about Americans challenging the northwest trade. They told about Umfreville and his associate, Venance St. Germain, searching for a new route. As proof of the North West Company's value to the crown, they offered to survey all the West between the latitudes 55 and 65. In return, they asked for "an exclusive right to the passage they may discover . . . and also of the Trade to the North—West either by that passage or by the present communication of the Grand Portage for Ten Years only, as a reward for their services."

The lieutenant governor forwarded the memorial to London with the recommendation that it be approved. He did not ordinarily like monopolies, but in this case he thought it might be to the Indians' advantage: "The returns might be very great for a short period, but [otherwise] the Indians would be drowned in rum and . . . [competition, and this] would be the occasion of endless quarrels and bloodshed." The company failed to obtain an exclusive right to the trade.

According to the memorials, British traders, probably including Alexander Henry, reached Rainy Lake in 1765 and Lake Winnipeg in 1767. The Frobishers said that they themselves first entered the trade in 1769, when they formed a connection with the Montreal merchants, Todd and McGill. They recalled the ruthless competition of those early years, and noted that the major survivors had united to form one company "under the title of North—West Company, of which we were named the Directors, dividing it into sixteen shares."

The memorials explained the system as it had been inherited from the French and improved upon during the past twenty years: "Two sets of men are employed... making upwards of 500; one half of which are occupied in the transport of Goods from Montreal to the Grand Portage, in Canoes of about Four Tons Burthen, Navigated by 8 to 10 men." The other half were "employed to take out such goods forward to every Post in the interior Country to the extent of 1,000 to 2,000 miles and upward . . . in Canoes of about one and a half Ton Burthen, made expressly for the inland service, and navigated by 4 to 5 men only."

The Montreal canoes "sett off early in May, and as the Provisions they take with them are consumed by the time they reach Michilimackinac, they are necessitated to call there" to pick up additional supplies for themselves and for the canoes coming down to Grand Portage from the interior. The Montreal canoes had to be at Grand Portage by early July "for the carrying place being at least Ten miles in length, Fifteen days are commonly spent . . . by the Canoemen" in transporting the goods to Pigeon River. As for the winterers, "their general loading is too-thirds Goods and one-third Provisions, which not being sufficient for their subsistence until they reach winter Quarters, they must . . . depend on the Natives." However, "in winter quarters . . . they are at ease, and commonly in plenty, which only can reconcile them to that manner of life and make them forget their Sufferings in their Annual Voyage to and from the Grand Portage."

Peter Pond, back in the company by 1785, supported the memorials. He was certain that the company had accomplished explorers who could conduct the survey. Furthermore, he warned of foreign competition. He had learned that the Russians had a port on the Pacific coast and that the Americans were preparing to sail in that region. In the end, neither the Frobishers nor Pond were able to sway the British government to their ends. [31]

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009