Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
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Grand Portage Days, 1785-1793

Although Peter Pond had rejoined the North West Co. by 1785, a considerable opposition had developed by then. This particular opposition operated under the little known title of the Montreal Company. It consisted principally of Peter Pangman, who, like Pond, was an American-born trader; Alexander Mackenzie, later to become a renowned explorer; and several other winterers. The backers of this group included an Englishman, John Gregory, and a Scot, Alexander Norman McLeod, who went by the name of Gregory, McLeod and Co. Another partner who should be mentioned was John Ross. He too was a winterer and his murder in the Athabasca Country during the winter of 1786-87 would bring a cloud upon Peter Pond; the whisper ran through the trade that he was responsible for Ross' death.

Both companies, together with some independent traders who still managed to keep a toe-hold on the business, sent to Grand Portage in 1785 £ 26,675 worth of goods. These supplies consisted of 4,850 gallons of rum, 604 gallons of wine, 12,500 pounds of powder, 444 weapons, 70 hundredweight of shot, and so forth. Thirty-eight Montreal canoes, powered by 391 voyageurs, carried the goods to Grand Portage to meet the winterers. Although the opposition was very much present, by far the greater percentage of the supplies represented the efforts of the North West Company. [1]

In 1785, the opposition built its own establishments at Grand Portage, placing one at each end of the trail. Although no detailed descriptions of these posts exist, a small amount of information is available, especially from the pen of Roderic McKenzie, a cousin of Alexander Mackenzie and a new clerk in the opposition. The post at the lake-end consisted of a substantial shed and a warehouse. It was located on or near the beach to the northeast of the palisades of the North West Company, and somewhere across Grand Portage Creek that drains into the bay. Roderic wrote that Pangman, Ross, and others had been at Grand Portage since early spring and had "of course advanced greatly the buildings for the reception of the goods from Montreal" before he himself arrived.

At the western end of the portage, the opposition erected a "hangard or store warmly put together, and sufficiently sapacious [sic] for the purpose of the season." Masson, without citing his source, said that this post stood on the north side of Pigeon River. This would have put it in the unlikely position of being across the river from the portage itself. It would seem that Masson was in error. He also said that it stood opposite "the old fort" of the North West Company, indicating that the latter had already stood there some time—a fort that, later if not already, was called Fort Charlotte. [2]

Roderic McKenzie, on his first visit to Grand Portage and being very much history-oriented recounted years later (apparently from notes made at the time) those first impressions as an employee of the opposition:

A few days after our arrival Mr. Gregory and Mr. Alexander MacKenzie arrived from Michillimackinac. Now all the Gentlemen of the [rival] Concern, abating Mr. N. McLeod, who was a dormant partner, were assembled—and set to work at the outfits for the Interior. Their clerks consisted of Duncan Pollock, Laurent Le Rout, James Finlay, Roderic MacKenzie [sic], with a few Commis-men [clerks] of an inferior description. Mr. Le Rout & Mr. Pollock did not like to engage in the drugery of the general Rendezvous—and were not often called upon to assist. Mr. James Finlay would willingly believe that he knew very little of such coarse work—so that I, who naturally could claim no privilege for any exemption, became the [fag?] of the whole—nor did I grumble at it—though it often happened that the counter became my pillow. However our busy season was soon over— our outfits, which were not very numerous nor extensive, were soon despatched, and disposed. [3]

Roderic did not go west at the end of Gregory-McLeod's rendezvous that summer. Instead he stayed at Grand Portage as an assistant to Pierre L'Anneau who was in charge of the opposition establishment. Although L'Anneau had been a trader for many years, Roderic did not think much of his intelligence. "He knew ni 'A' ni 'B'" but "was so handy that he was considered a 'jack of all trades'." To help the bourgeois and his young clerk were 18 voyageurs. These men spent the winter of 1785-86 "erecting the buildings and for the purpose of traite." Young Roderic also spent a good deal of time learning French.

During the winter Roderic lost much of his respect for his boss: "By degrees I could perceive a gradual change gaining ground for the worse in Monsr. L'aneas [sic] conduct & I made it my duty to keep a sharp eye over my gentleman." On his return from a fishing trip in December, McKenzie learned that L'Anneau had been on a monumental binge. Unhesitatingly he called the old bourgeois "into the office", demanded the keys to the fort, and "assumed the charge and became master. This," he said, "pleased all." McKenzie was a man on the way up.

Roderic made reference to the North West Company's post, which he called the "old fort". The bourgeois there was a Mr. Cloutier, "a very respectable old man," and the clerk was James Givens, "that year from Montreal." Although their companies were engaged in ruthless competition, the two clerks got along very well through the long winter. Roderic also developed friendships with the Indians who had visited the area for a short time in the fall. [4]

When his bosses arrived at the Grand Portage rendezvous in 1786, they found McKenzie still very much in control. During the winter he had finished the "complete Establishment for all purposes," and had succeeded in persuading the local Indians, except one family, to camp and trade "within the limits of our Establishment," to the exclusion of the North West post.

The summer of 1786 was relatively unnoteworthy in McKenzie's memory. Gregory and McLeod continued their opposition. Although they had but a small portion of the whole trade, they made a determined effort that year. James McGill, associated with the North West Company and a successful Montreal merchant, wrote John Askin: "Your Friends of the Northwest are making a larger outfit this year than they did last." He added that Gregory and McLeod planned to build a small vessel at the Portage. It is possible McGill meant Grand Portage, but more likely he was using the term generally and may have meant the portage at Sault Ste. Marie where ship-building was more likely to be carried on. While Grand Portage had a "canoe yard," it does not seem probable that ship carpenters and the necessary supplies would have been present to build even a "small vessel."

Roderic could not recall much about that summer except that it was "nearly the Same as the year preceeding." When the outfits were ready to start inland, he found himself relieved of his year's duties and assigned to Cousin Alexander, bound for the English River. He was about to become a nor'wester. [5]

As uneventful as 1786 was, 1787 brought significant changes to the fortunes of the North West Company. On April 15, Benjamin Frobisher died. Simon McTavish, a financial wizard and a man so fond of money he was called "the Marquis", wrote Joseph Frobisher a letter almost immediately. He began: "Ever since the death of my worthy Friend, your Brother, I have been considering in what manner our business in the N. W. can be best managed." He pointed out that the Agreement of 1783 was coming to a close. Noting that he himself found it difficult to run his Montreal business as well as to attend the annual meeting at Grand Portage, he assured Joseph that, now with Benjamin gone, he would find it equally exhausting. Since it was important that a merchant be present at the rendezvous, would, he asked, Joseph consider an arrangement that would require only one of them going up each summer—in short, uniting into one company. He reminded his friend that together they would hold "near one-half the Concern."

Frobisher replied on April 22. He agreed with McTavish "that throwing our interests together seems to be the most certain means of giving stability to our concern." As far as making alternate visits to Grand Portage, he had no good objection, "unless I urge that a single Person is more proper for that Business than one who is married." [6]

Negotiations between the two continued throughout the summer and fall until, on November 19, an agreement was reached and there emerged the powerful firm of McTavish and Frobisher. Throughout the rest of the existence of the North West Company, this firm would be the dominant element in the organization. [7]

Also in 1787 Gregory and McLeod gave up their short-lived opposition. They made an arrangement with the North West Company whereby they received a share of the stock. Their employees, such as Roderic McKenzie and Alexander Mackenzie, found themselves now in the employment of the Big Company.

The reorganized North West Company now had twenty shares rather than sixteen. The new firm of McTavish and Frobisher directly controlled seven of these. Those who held two shares each were Robert Grant, Nicholas Montour, and Patrick Small. Seven men received one share each: John Gregory, Peter Pangman, Norman McLeod, Alexander Mackenzie (all four of the late opposition), Peter Pond, George McBeath, and William Holmes. [8]

This new amalgamation would prove its worth. An astute scholar writes that after this reorganization the North West Company's character and exploits make the Hudson's Bay men seem colourless, methodical, and uninspired. It was a potent blend of managerial capacity, ruthless enterprise, and buoyant courage." [9]

A side note on Grand Portage in 1787 is found in an inventory of livestock. On the list appeared six horses, one three-year-old colt, five cows, one bull, two oxen, two calves, and six sheep. [10]

Shortly after its reorganization, the Company submitted a request to the government at Quebec for a grant of land along the portage itself. It proposed to build a wagon road over the nine miles of trail so as to reduce the back-breaking labor of men carrying the tons of furs and supplies—work that has become glamorous only in hindsight. The Council at Quebec, apparently fearing that such a grant would give the North West Company complete control of this strategic neck of land, refused the request in 1788. One writer believes, however, that eventually the trail was improved sufficiently to enable ox-drawn carts to travel on it. Evidence to support this improvement is slight. [11]

This same year, 1788, saw Peter Pond go down to Grand Portage for the last time. Although he had been linked to violence in the far northwest, such as the murder of John Ross, he had accomplished much in the years he had been a winterer. He had opened the Athabaska country to the trade. He had proven that trade could be carried out over extremely long distances. And, not least, he had gained a good grasp of the geography of the north. He had determined that he would find the river that Captain Cook of the British Navy had said flowed into the Pacific. At his Athabaska Department he had become acquainted with the existence of a river flowing northward. At first he had decided that it drained into the Arctic Ocean, but, by 1785, had changed his mind and decided it was the river Cook had seen. He himself did not get to explore that stream. Another man would achieve that goal—Alexander Mackenzie.

Following the reorganization in 1787, Mackenzie went to the Athabaska to take the department over so that Pond could explore his magic river. However, the Company now decided that Pond's presence in Montreal was more essential, and the 48-year-old trader sped down the waterways on his final journey. Before he left, he told Mackenzie all he knew about the land and he fired the enthusiasm of the younger man to find the way to the Pacific. Mackenzie traveled down the river of Pond's dreams. When he reached salt water and realized that the river—which now bears his name—did not flow into the Pacific, Mackenzie was greatly disappointed. Yet the result of this extraordinary voyage of discovery contributed to the rapid expansion of the North West Company's empire of trade. [12]

When Mackenzie returned from his remarkable trip, he went down to the annual meeting at Grand Portage in 1790. If he expected acclaim from his associates, he was disappointed, for "my Expedition is hardly spoken of but this is what I expected." He wrote Roderic McKenzie that he "found all very quiet" at the Portage. "Everybody had plenty of letters and news from Montreal except myself." [13]

The rendezvous may have been quiet in 1790; nonetheless the associates did write a new agreement that year. Again, the shares amounted to twenty. Alexander Mackenzie increased his shares from one to two. In addition, by agreeing to buy out Peter Pangman, who hoped to retire in 1791, he found himself with a larger voice in the Company's affairs. [14]

Innis wrote that this agreement of 1790 was significant because now, for the first time, the charter took into account the consolidation that had been effected by the absorbtion of Gregory and McLeod. The agreement set forth the manner of operation from the fur sales in London, through the operations of the merchant houses in Montreal, to the annual rendezvous at Grand Portage, and on to the departments in the trading country of the Northwest. [15] Among the details of organization, a few stood out as illustrations of the maturity the company had reached. From now on, two winterers could go below each year on a rotation basis (Article 3). Neither McTavish nor Frobisher would have to attend the rendezvous in person. From now on they would employ agents to represent them on this annual trek, beginning with John Gregory and Daniel Sutherland (Article 4). McTavish himself was to move to England where he could more directly control both the purchase of goods and the sale of furs (Article 4). The agreement was to last seven years. Should the partners then wish to dissolve the company, "the Forts, Buildings, and fixed property at the Grand Portage [were] to be sold in Four lots, at public sale, to the Highest bidder." (Article 12). The number "four" is tantalizing; were they perhaps referring to the North West's posts at either end of the trail and the two establishments of the defunct Gregory and McLeod? [16]

The number of young Scots, recruited in the homeland, increased rapidly during these years. Coming to Canada first as clerks, many of them remained with the company through the best and worst of times, eventually becoming wintering partners. A few rose into the highest positions of leadership, eventually to assume control of the organization as the founding members gradually retired. One of these young Scots was John Macdonald of Garth—he was always quick to add the "Garth" in order to identify himself among the many other MacDonalds. His grand uncle had met Simon McTavish on one of the latter's visits to Britain. John was bound to the company as a clerk. He arrived at Quebec in April 1791 at the age of 17. Traveling to the Grand Portage with McTavish himself, Macdonald left Lachine on July 15 "in a large Birch Canoe maned by sixteen choice Voyageurs & our Cook." They traveled the route that the voyageurs had known since the beginning:

We landed at St. Ann...and proceeded on the Lake two Mountains—which was the first lake of any magnitude...came to the River Ottawa...left it & made our way to Lake Nepisingue—crossing that Lake... reached Lake Huron by French River...proceeded on Lake Huron to the Sault St. Mary's where the Company has an establish t on the South side of the Sault. . .We made the Portage after some short stay— & proceeded in our frail Boat, on the Lake Superior to the Old Grand Portage where we got in safely the fourth or fifth day after a visit to some Trading Posts.

He remembered that the men already gathered at the rendezvous welcomed the arrival of McTavish with "great rejoicings."

Several Partners were there from the interior as well as the Agents from Montreal...The [total?] ensemble seemed Huge to me. During a stay of perhaps a fortnight here, I had a quarrel with a Clerk a large English Man of the name of Harris. he threw a Loaf of Bread at me & I called him out—with my pocket pistols. Again, he took a rope & said this is my pistol, he was afterwards under my command & a very good fellow—but no Trader.

At the rendezvous, Macdonald came under the care of Angus Shaw, a bourgeois who took excellent care of his men. When everything was ready, "we started in his Canoe—a much smaller size than the canoes from LaChine untill we overtook his Brigade of Loaded Canoes—that had left Fort Charlotte on the North end of Grand Portage some days previous." His familiar handling of the term Fort Charlotte indicates that the post had been called that for some time. [17]

Neither Macdonald nor anyone else made mention of the alleged visit to Grand Portage that summer of Count Paolo Andreani, from Milan, who had become famous for making a pioneer balloon ascent in 1784. Andreani did not have much to say about the post. He recognized that Grand Portage was "the central point of this trade," and that the North West Company's post was "kept in good repair, and garrisoned with fifty men." At the height of the rendezvous, however, there was "in this place...frequently a concourse of one thousand people and upwards." [18]

After his visit to Grand Portage in 1791, Simon McTavish sailed to take up residence in London. Hardly had he got settled when he learned disturbing news from his partner, Joseph Frobisher. James McGill had called on Frobisher to warn him that a group of traders and merchants was planning to offer the North West Company fresh opposition. Among these were traders who, like the company, had been operating in the country south of the Great Lakes, out of Detroit and Michilimackinac. The Treaty of Paris, 1883, had assured the American Republic its right to this country. The British traders realized that their operations there would sooner or later be restricted. Planning the future, these men now looked to the northwest country as a source of continuing profit. Among those in the new scheme were Alexander Todd, a business associate of James McGill, and the ex-winterer, Alexander Henry, now a merchant in Montreal.

During his visit, McGill had suggested to Frobisher that the North West Company increase its shares to twenty-four, "giving the four additional shares to all those Gentlemen upon certain terms & Conditions." Such an arrangement would allow the "Gentlemen" an entry into the northwest and avoid the problem of opposition. Frobisher wrote McTavish that he had asked McGill to inform the parties that the present agreement concerning the North West Company was binding and could not be changed until the partners met at next year's rendezvous at Grand Portage. [19]

The partners met on schedule in 1792, and for two weeks the winterers delighted in "refreshing & refitting & meeting the Montreal Agents." The business of the threatening competition came up as Frobisher had predicted. Following the example of 1787, the partners voted to expand the company and admit the outsiders. The members did not follow McGill's recommendation of four additional shares; rather they increased the number to 46.

All the partners of 1790 remained in the company, several of them increasing their shares. Three winterers were added: Angus Shaw, Cuthbert Grant, and Roderic McKenzie. The potential opposition was admitted under the names of Todd, McGill & Co. (2 shares); Forsyth, Richardson & Co. (2 shares); Alexander Henry (1 share); and Grant, Champion & Co. (1 share). McTavish, Frobisher & Co. increased its own shares to 12, thus continuing to dominate. The agreement was to become effective in the spring of 1792 and to last for six years. [20]

John Macdonald of Garth, finishing his first season in the northwest, came down to Grand Portage with the fur-laden canoes that summer. There he met Alexander Mackenzie. He learned that Mackenzie was planning on a second major trip of exploration, still determined to find a river leading to the Pacific. Macdonald's grandfather had asked Mackenzie to take the young clerk with him on any future trip, and Mackenzie now offered John the opportunity. However, John had "got attached to Mr. Shaw and expressed my reluctance & therefore declined."

While Mackenzie was firmly placing himself in history in 1793 by being the first man in history to reach the Pacific in the northern part of the continent, young John returned once more to Grand Portage. In his old age he recalled that summer of youth and strength:

Made our way in full spirits & health to head Quarters, where as in all future cases we met the gentlemen from Montreal in good fellowship after a twelve months absence. The men were always regaled with plenty—a feast on arrival of Bread and Pork—an unusual diet—& a cup to make them merry—there were usually about 6 to 8 hundred men on the ground on a Summer (illeg.)

The[y] regaled generally about a couple weeks—when we [illeg.], made up our crews & prepared to return to winter, each to his own alloted Department under its apointed Bourgeois & Clerks. [21]

Macdonald possibly met a new clerk who arrived at Grand Portage in 1793, John Macdonell, who has been described as a naive but very game tenderfoot. He was also enthusiastic about everything he saw and experienced. Of the thousands of men who came that way only he described the Grand Portage with any degree of thoroughness. He signed his engagement on May 10, 1793, at Montreal, agreeing to serve for five years as a clerk at a salary of £ 100 and "found in necessaries." He set off on May 25: "Embarked at Lachine on board of a Birch Bark canoe, the first that I remember to have been in." Several weeks later, in July, his brigade of canoes had crossed Lake Superior and was but one day from Grand Portage:

Here Mr McLeod and I shaved and shifted being the last night we shall sleep out, wind and weather permitting; this side of the grand portage—Leaving pointe au pere we paddled two pipes [smoke breaks] and put to shore to give the men time to clean themselves, while we breakfasted—this done a short pipe brought us to Pointe au Chapeaux [Hat Point] around which we got a sight of the long wished for Grand Portage. The beach was covered with spectators to see us arrive, our canoe went well and the crew sang paddling songs in a vociferous manner.

Macdonell observed that the establishment was located "in the bottom of a shallow Bay perhaps three miles deep and about one league and a half wide...from Pointe aux Chapeaux to pointe a la Framboise" (Raspberry Point). The company's post stood "on a low spot which rises gently from the Lake. The pickets are not above fifteen to twenty paces from the water's edge." He noticed that immediately behind the fort stood "a lofty round Sugar loaf Mountain the base of which comes close to the Picket on the North West Side." That hill today is called Mount Rose.

He wrote that the gates in the palisades were closed each evening at sunset. The bourgeois and the clerks slept in buildings within the fort, while the engagés slept outside the walls. Two sentries stood guard at night, not for fear of attack but to keep a lookout "for fear of accidents by fire." He added that "a clerk a guide and four men are considered watch enough." His description of the structures within the fort are all too brief, but they are the best that exist:

All the buildings within the Fort are sixteen in number made with cedar and White spruce fir split with whip saws after being squared, the Roofs are covered with Shingles of Cedar and Pine, most of their posts, Doors, and windows, are painted with Spanish brown. Six of these buildings are Store Houses for the company's Merchandise and Furs, etc., the rest are dwelling houses shops compting and Mess House—they have also a wharf or kay for their vessel to unload and Load at.

From his account, one learns that the engagés who came down with the furs from the northwest camped apart from the canoemen from Montreal. He noted that little mixing occurred among the men from the northwest, each outfit keeping pretty well to itself: "The North men while here live in tents of different sizes pitched at random, the people of each post having a camp by themselves and through their camp passes the road to the portage—They are seperated [sic] from the Montrealers by a brook." This implies that the northmen and the Montrealers kept Grand Portage Creek between them, the latter being on the beach east of the creek, the former camping west of the creek and north of the stockade.

Macdonell also commented on the portage itself. He found it to be "three leagues from one navigation to the other which caused great expense and trouble to the company." When he walked the trail he learned that it was "full of hills" and that the voyageurs had divided the distance "into sixteen poses or resting places." At the Pigeon River end of the portage he visited Fort Charlotte, then under the charge of Donald Ross, who had been there so long he was called "Governor." The young clerk noted that a voyageur received six livres of northwest currency for each piece or bundle he carried across the portage. Macdonell reflected that this northwest "currency existed long before the Northwest Company had a being and I believe before Canada was taken from the French." He did not however use the term "bons" that was given by others to a kind of currency in use at Grand Portage about this time.

Another item that caught Macdonell's interest was the North West's fleet on the Great Lakes. In addition to the brigades of canoes that left Montreal each year, the company, as has been noted, employed schooners on the lakes to carry products, particularly food, to Grand Portage. Macdonell wrote:

The only vessel on Lake Superior (in 1793) is the new one Mr. Nelson was building when we passed Pointe aux Pins and is to be called the Otter; the Athabaska, which sailed the Lake before her is to be floated down the falls of St. Mary, to help the Beaver to bring the needful from Detroit and Mackinac to the Sault, which the Otter is supposed sufficient, to convey from St. Mary's to the Grand Portage and in return she takes a cargo of Furs to the Sault when they are arrived from the North—Part of the Company's Furs are sent Round the Lakes in Shipping, but the Major part goes down the ottawa in the Montreal canoes.

The gathering at Grand Portage anxiously awaited the arrival of the new ship. Almost 1,000 men occupied the area and food was running low. Macdonell figured that only six days of subsistence remained in the stores. True, the voyageurs did not demand much—"a full allowance...while at this Post is a Quart of Lyed Indian Corn or maize, and anounce of Greece." The Otter arrived before the shortage became acute. She had had some trouble because of an absence of favorable winds, but by ten a. m., August 12, "she anchored at the wharffe having entered partly by sailing and partly by towing."

Business wound up and the new outfits were put to gether for the coming winter's trade. Macdonell crossed the Portage again and prepared to set off for the Red River. Until now acquainted only with the large Montreal canoes, he took note of the smaller craft on western waters: "These N. W. Canoes are about half the size of the Montreal or Grand [Ottawa] River Canoes and when loaded to the utmost can carry a Tun and a half." The enthusiastic novice set out for the Red River, crossing the "height of land" on August 11. Here he became a "Northman" by observing the ritual of one of the old hands "sprinkling water in my face with a small cedar Bow dipped in a ditch of water and accepting certain conditions . . . particularly never to kiss a voyageur's wife against her own free will the whole being accompanied by a dozen of Gun shots." He, in turn, gave a drink to each of the voyageurs. [22]

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009