Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
NPS Logo

Growth and Change, 1793-1799

Despite the precautions of the partners of the North West Company in 1792, the problem of competition rose again in 1793. Two of the Company's employees, David and Peter Grant, left the concern in the fall of 1792 and, now, obtained backing from "the Messers Robertsons" of Montreal to begin their own establishment at Grand Portage. Simon McTavish picked up a rumor at this time that the new outfit also benefited from none other than Daniel Sutherland, his agent at Grand Portage. A student of the fur trade suggested that the agreement of 1792 itself spawned this opposition, "for the increasing organization and control of the agents left less scope for the individual trader to be given a profitable place within the concern."

Although the North West Company would not be able to dispose of this new opposition as easily as it had eradicated earlier opponents, the new company had but a toehold at Grand Portage in 1793. Macdonell observed that summer:

Between two and three hundred yards to the East of the N. W. Fort beyond the pork eaters camp is the spot Messers David and Peter Grant have selected to build upon, as yet they have done nothing to it but marking out the four corners of the ground they mean to occupy, with posts stuck in the ground. They are now off for the interior without leaving any vestage of their having been here but the four posts above mentioned. [1]

The opposition had a successful winter in the northwest and returned to Grand Portage in 1794 rich in furs. An envious North Westerner, Angus Shaw, wrote from Grand Portage that "Robertson and his partners behaves outwardly with great haughtiness, but I hope they will pay Dear for their breach of faith. They are quite elated from the Number of Packs they made last winter." [2] Nevertheless, the competitors were more of a nuisance than a threat. Greater problems came to light within the North West Company itself in 1794.

On the hand, the Montreal merchants who had joined the company in 1792 were expressing uneasiness about the flood of furs coming out of the northwest. They were very much afraid that such a volume would lower prices so that they would have to take a loss on furs coming out of Mackinac. The solution, as they saw it, was for the North West Company to reduce the scope of its activities in the northwest. They made little headway with their argument. [3]

Discontent began this year too among the younger partners in the Company. Some of them felt they were not getting a large enough share of the profits. They resented too, if only temporarily, the appointment of Simon McTavish's nephew, William McGillivray, to a partnership in the McTavish, Frobisher and Co. Finally, later that year, Montrealers heard a rumor that gunfire had broken out at Grand Portage between the North West Company and the opposition and that "men had been killed on both sides." However, as Joseph Frobisher suspected when he heard the story, it proved to be untrue. [4]

No note of these problems appeared in either of the two journals surviving from that summer (1794) at Grand Portage. John Macdonald of Garth was back again and, if his chronology is not confused, had an interesting adventure at Fort Charlotte. He alluded to the appearance of the establishment by calling it a general depot having "extensive Stores for Furs & Goods as outfits." According to his memory, Simon McTavish (who was in London that summer) sent him across the portage to Fort Charlotte to relieve the man in charge, Mr. Lemoine, who had been charged "with some nasty tricks." (It must be noted that this was only one year after Macdonell recorded that "Governor" Donald Ross was in charge of Fort Charlotte.) According to Macdonald, he "set off & in my entrance into the House met Mr. Lemoine & delivered my message. He [demurred?] & asked me to show him my orders. I pointed to my tongue & told him I got no orders. He saw it was useless to resist— & set off as told. I returned & reported."

A few days later, McTavish (?) sent Macdonald back to the Pigeon River with instructions to force the opposition to move farther away from Fort Charlotte:

I . . .told the Young Gentleman...that [illeg.] was too nigh & that he must move Some place farther. He reply'd that it was his Master who planted the Pickets that he had no authority or Power to move such pickets....I immediately said I am not told by anyone to do it but to ask you to do. But you will not do So I must.... Saying which I...pulled them up and threw them into the Pigeon River. [5]

Duncan McGillivray was the keeper of the other journal that year. He paid little attention to the appearance of the area. Rather, he described in detail the serious business of setting out for the northwest. He mentioned that the canoes from the more distant posts were now terminating their journey at Rainy Lake (Lac la Pluie). Montrealers crossed the portage and went up to Rainy Lake with the new outfits and brought back the furs to Grand Portage. This scheme saved considerable time and allowed the more distant outfits to begin their long return journeys sooner. He also related that the Montrealers, or manageurs de lard, were in a rebellious mood that summer and threatened to go home without taking the furs unless they received a raise. However, once the ringleaders were separated from the rest, "a timidity was observed in their behaviour which proved very fortunate for their Masters." [6]

One of the few accounts dating from 1794 had some rather unflattering comments concerning the Indians at Grand Portage. An anonymous writer, possibly Roderic McKenzie, said that the "Chipeways about the Grand Portage are few in number—accustomed to opposition in trade they are extremely difficult to deal with." On the other hand, "the Indians of Lac La Pluie are of the same tribe, and equally vicious from the same cause—but are more useful from their knowledge of constructing canoes for the Company." The author did not mention the excessive use of liquor by both the Company and the opposition as possibly contributing to the problem. [7]

A fascinating document has survived from the North West Company's correspondence for 1794. Titled "Scheme for the NW Outfit," it describes in detail the planning that went into working out the quantity and kinds of goods needed for Grand Portage, and the number of men and canoes required to haul the goods up and bring the furs down. That year the Company sent 2,015 pieces from Montreal:

600bales, dry goods
40trunks, dry goods
30bales, Brazil tobacco
10bales, Spencer tobacco
20bales, Carrot tobacco (name derived from shape)
22cases, guns
90cases, iron
8cases, hats
20cases, knives
3cases, soap
2bales, traps
10bales, copper kettles
10bales, tin kettles
20bales, (Hams? & Cheecks?)
10kegs, sugar
8kegs, salt
32kegs, butter
100kegs, powder
80kegs, pork
230kegs, grease
40kegs, beef
400kegs, high wines
50kegs, rum
10kegs, port wine
10kegs, brandy
20kegs, shrub
3kegs, sausages
30bags, ball
20bags, shot
17bags green peas


If the returns were equal to the preceding year's, the plan continued, the Company could expect 1,839 packs of furs. The vessel, Beaver, would be able to take 500 packs down. The rest would go aboard 36 canoes, each carrying 38 packs.

Leaving Montreal that year would be 330 men, of whom 88 were going as winterers, leaving 242 to come down with the furs. These would be distributed among the 36 returning canoes at six men per boat. The few left over would come down in two light canoes. The total figure of 330 men going up was broken down as: 11 guides, 35 foremen, 46 steersmen, 32 seconds, 129 middle men, and the 88 winterers. [8]

By 1795, Frobisher and other senior partners realized that the agreement of 1792 would have to be modified because of the unhappiness of the younger partners and the continuing rivalry from the opposition. The details of this new compact are missing from the historical documents; only later references to this year indicate that a new agreement was reached. One problem that was solved involved the firm of Grant, Champion and Company. In 1792, this company had received one share as a preventive measure against its competing. By now, however, it stood accused of breaking the 1792 agreement by supplying trade goods to other rivals in the northwest. The result was that McTavish, Frobisher and Co. bought out this firm for £ 500 and assumed its debts. In return, Grant and his partners again agreed not to trade in the northwest. [9]

Despite the efforts of 1795, Frobisher found himself facing the same problems in the following year, when Alexander Mackenzie, now promoted to agent, had a discussion with him in Montreal. Frobisher informed McTavish of Mackenzie's gripes:

I have had a long Conference with Mr. McKenzie respecting the North West Business, & find the [g]rounds of his Complaints are as follows— That the Young Partners are much dissatisfied with the small Shares they hold, that... promises had been made to them by you which have not been fulfilled. That they [illeg.] your having been exempted from going to the Portage. That they have [rea]son to think their affairs are not well attended to, in the Shipping of Goods, from England, Particularly the Guns, & the Shrouds. [10]

Mackenzie, by accepting the position as agent, gave up his explorations; but the North West Company was by no means bereft of adventures. Attending the annual meeting at Grand Portage in 1797 were two bright stars named David Thompson and Simon Fraser. Fraser's glory was to come later, but Thompson's fame as a path-finder was already beginning. He had worked for the Hudson's Bay Company the past twelve years but in 1797 left that temporarily moribund organization to join the North West Company as its scientist. Before his retirement in 1812, he would explore the length and breadth of the far West, among other things opening up the upper Columbia River to the Canadians. Shortly after that retirement, he would prepare a magnificent map of the West that encompassed 1,700,000 square miles of Canada and the United States. [11]

Always the geographer, Thompson had little use for light talk in his exhaustive journals. One pauses with delight then at reading his entry for June 25, 1797, while enroute to the Grand Portage for the first time. Still on the Saskatchewan River, he wrote: "A fine Morn, but confound the Musketoes." Arriving at Grand Portage, he restricted his notes for the most part to naming all the members of the new firm that he met. On his departure for the northwest, after a stay of 18 days, he did make mention of the portage itself: "At 9 a.m. set off...across the Portage—at 10 AM the Sun was direct behind us, which I take to be the Co. of the mid of the Portage—at 11-1/2 AM came to the NWt end." Very few visitors today can walk the portage in 2-1/2 hours. [12]

When Thompson returned to Grand Portage for the annual meeting in 1798, he took the time to measure the portage itself. His notes contain the most detailed description of the trail known to exist. Although lengthy, the pertinent portions of his journal demand extraction:

June 11. In the afternoon— Measured the height of the Hill behind the Fort [Mount Rose] took a Alt de of the Hill at the Edge of the Lake 4 ft. above its level. Alt de double— 43' 45-1/2—but the Ground not permitting another Alt de I measured a Base along the Lake—calling the top of the Hill A—the spot where the Alt de was taken B—& the end of the measured Base C—Angles at BL95" 41— at C 60° 43'—Base exact 63 fath.

Hence the height of the Hill above the place of Obsn. 294.5 feet to which add 4 ft. the height of the place of Obs...& it gives 298.5 feet [The hill today is shown as a little over 300 feet above the lake.]

June 16th Measured the Grand Portage—from the west gate of the Fort [one of the few specific references to & gate on the west], Lake Superior, to the brink of the Rivulet at Fort Charlotte [Pigeon River]— 14,110 yards [8.02 miles] —1960 yards to the Parting Trees [not identified] —11,400 yards to the Meadow [not identified]—& 8 miles exact to the Door of the House of Fort Charlotte + 30 yards to the Stream.

During the five weeks he spent at Grand Portage that summer he kept busy observing both land and men. He witnessed the arrival of the Otter and of the Montreal canoes. He measured Mount Josephine, to the northeast of the fort, finding it to be 741 feet 11 inches above Lake Superior. He noted the arrival of Duncan McGillivray in a litter from the upper country, McGillivray having suffered a leg wound. On July 4 he saw "the Sloop" arrive from Ste. Marie, and watched it depart on July 9 laden with furs. At the time of his own departure for the upper country, he took time to visit "the Perdrix," which must have been Pigeon Falls. He recalled that "the whole is not above 50 feet perpend: in my opinion—the Fall is very high falling over black Rock—40 yds. below there is another shoot of abt 14 ft. perpend." [13]

Another exploration of importance that occurred in 1797 happened by accident. Earlier this account made note of the attempts of Edward Umfreville in 1784 to find a new route to the northwest in case Grand Portage was claimed by the United States. Although his route from Lake Nipigon to Lake Winnipeg was lengthy and by no means convenient, the Company continued to rely on its potential use in case Grand Portage had to be abandoned. As late as 1788, Frobisher had written that "some years ago...we explored another Enterance into the country by the way of Nipigon," and should Grand Portage be lost, "we should suffer no material injury." [14]

Despite this ace-in-the-hole, the Company learned with pleasure in 1797 of another route that lay within British possessions and was more practicable than Lake Nipigon. This proved to be none other than the old Kaministikwia route so well known to the French a half a century earlier, but which had been forgotten due to the popularity of Grand Portage. Its rediscovery came about when Roderic McKenzie was on his way down to Grand Portage that summer:

I met a family of Indians at the height of land; from whom I accidentally learned the existence of water communication a little way behind parallel to this, extending from Lake Superior to Lake La pluie [Rainy Lake] . . . . This was excellent information—of course I immediately engaged one of the Indians to meet me . . . in Lac La coir to show me this new Route.

The Indian failed to keep the appointment, but McKenzie had already learned all he needed and "proceeded without him, and reached an Establishment of the Company's" someplace above Kaministikwia. From there he traveled down to Lake Superior, then along the coast to Grand Portage, "and was the first by that communication that appeared there by water direct from Lac La pluie." He soon learned that it had formerly been used by the French and found it "most astonishing that the North West Company were not acquainted with it sooner."

McKenzie's discovery would soon become most important to the North West Company. But even before then, Simon McTavish recognized its value. Upon learning of the route, he wrote that it "would be more advantageous and easy for us than the Grand Portage." As if foreseeing events, McTavish said that "no time ought to be lost in moving our place of Rendezvous" to the Kaministikwia. [15]

Meanwhile, the opposition more firmly entrenched itself at Grand Portage. The competition of 1793 and its four stakes that Macdonell had observed had been replaced now by more substantial rivals, ensconced in a solid structure. Innis named this latest opposition as consisting of John Mure, Quebec; Forsyth, Richardson & Co.; Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy & Co.; Phyn, Inglis & Co.; and Leith, Jamieson & Co. Of these, Forsyth, Richardson & Co. was the most active. By 1798, the initials XY marked their bales of furs, and they became known, unofficially at least, as the XY Company. No direct evidence exists, but those who have studied this competition have concluded that, it adopted XY simply because they followed the W of the North West Company's seal. [16]

William McGillivray and Alexander Mackenzie, the agents of McTavish & Frobisher at the Grand Portage in the summer of 1798, decided to crack the whip against at least part of this opposition. Together they wrote a letter to Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy & Co. This firm had apparently been a signatory to the agreement of 1795 and thereby had promised not to compete with the North West Company. The two agents wrote that in their opinion, "the Canoes, Men, and Property you have sent and brought to this Place have been avowedly designed for the North West Trade, we consider to be a direct breach of the agreement." This company replied that it was not responsible for the actions of one of its members, Mr. Gerrard. And for the moment the matter rested. [17]

Despite this continuing opposition, which would grow still stronger, the North West Company thrived during the 1790s. Between 1784 and 1788, the annual returns had amounted to £ 30,000 sterling. Between 1796 and 1799, the returns averaged out at £ 98,000 sterling. They would continue to rise. By 1798, the Company employed well over 1,200 men, many of whom attended the annual rendezvous at Grand Portage. [18]

Details of the men and the companies involved in the northwest trade are too great to be captured in capsule form. Still, a glance at the myriad of facets that involved Grand Portage is to be found in an XY ledger that discusses its "Outfit of 1799." Here one finds an entry concerning the manufacture of 442 corn flour bags. Another note records the purchase of two "Iron Brands." Still another comments on the making and painting of 21 canoe oil cloths. The Grey Sisters (of Montreal?) received £ 362.12 for making capots, blankets, sleeves, leggings, mantels, robes, and shirts for the Company. One La Framboise earned himself £ 1.7 for preparing a map of the northwest. (One wonders if David Thompson ever saw it.) Forsyth, Richardson & Co. received a sum of money "on account of young men brot out from Scotland as apprentices via George & James Keith affecting the concern." Invoices concerning this recruiting dealt with bedding bought at Aberdeen, transportation to London, board in the city, and getting the young men's baggage aboard ship. An inventory taken during the lull of spring in 1799 showed supplies remaining at

Grand Portage£ 2099. 19. 11
Michilimackinac313. 4. 4
Lake La Pluie548. 1. 9
Red River492. 13. 3
Fort Du Prairies1520. 15. 4
Athabasca576. 6. 11[19]

From another source, one learns that the XY Company had some kind of uniform in 1798 for its principal men. John Cameron had written to Angus Shaw, now in Montreal, asking his friend to send him a suit. Shaw replied that he "could find you the Suite of Cloathes but the Agents told me that a Sute of Uniforms were going up (some made here and the Grand Portage) for all the Gentlemen in the North." He had concluded therefore that it was "best not to send any of another collour or ffashion." [20]

The winter of 1798-99 was unusually severe at Grand Portage. As late as June 1799, ice was still holding up some of the North West Company's ships in the Great Lakes. Nevertheless, Agent Alexander Mackenzie reached Mackinac from Montreal by June 4. Here he found letters from various winterers throughout the northwest, letters that had reached Mackinac by various means both in the past fall and this spring. In a long rambling letter, Mackenzie reported back to Montreal on the state of the fur trade. He discussed the opposition who also were preparing to cross Lake Superior to Grand Portage. He wrote about the various successes the winterers had had against the Hudson's Bay traders. The Company's ship had been able to make one visit to Grand Portage already this spring and had found "the people there all well and the business of winter compleated. We lost several head of Cattle owing to the hay having Rotted last season."

Twelve days later he was at Grand Portage. Here he penned another long letter, this one directed to the winterers, some of whom would meet it and read it on the way down, greatly hungry for news of the outside world. Others who were spending the summer in the northwest, would eventually receive a copy too, and their memories would be sharpened. A good part of this letter dealt with the activities of the opposition, warning the winter partners that competition would be strong again this year. On the whole, however, Mackenzie did not think much of Forsyth, Richardson & Co.'s efforts to hire skilled interpreters and guides. He discussed the opposition's organization, saying that it had 20 shares. Forsyth, Richardson & Co. and Leith, Shepherd & Co. together held 12 of these. Daniel Sutherland, former agent of the North West Co., but now the opposition's Montreal agent, held one share. So did "Mr. Sharp" who was the agent at Grand Portage. Four winterers also held one share each: "Desrivieres formerly La Violettes partner, Rochblanc who was Clerk to Mr. Grant, Alexr. McKenzie [no known relation] & McDonell from Detroit." The other two shares had not yet been awarded.

Mackenzie informed the winterers that the Company had purchased land from Indians "on either side of the River Camenestiquoid" (Kaministikwial?) and on the north (British) side of Sault Ste. Marie, where it was building a canal to ease transportation around the sault. [21]

Despite Mackenzie's scoffing, the XY Company, offered formidable opposition in 1799. Forsyth, Richardson & Co. took the lead in the organization, while Phyn, Inglis, & Co., now based in London, handled the sales.

As for Mackenzie, he was anything but happy. He continued to be the voice of the junior members' complaints. He possibly had made up his mind earlier, but this year was his last with the North West Company. When the annual meeting was over, he left Grand Portage for Montreal, then went on to England. Some historians have claimed that Mackenzie was a bitter enemy of Simon McTavish and could no longer work with him. Others have said that Mackenzie's bitter enemy was William McGillivray, McTavish's nephew, and he was jealous of McGillivray's rapid rise. The Great Discoverer himself did not say explicitly which of the two troubled him the most. In any event, 1799 marked the end of his engagement as agent.

His cousin, Roderic, wrote that at the general meeting, Alexander announced that "feeling himself uncomfortable he could not think of renewing his engagements, and was determined to withdraw from the Concern." The wintering partners argued against his decision, saying he had "their sole confidence" and that "they could not dispense with his services." All protestations were in vain.

Joseph Frobisher, in Montreal, was disgusted. He wrote Simon McTavish: "McKenzie's abrupt departure...proceeded I believe from a fit of ill humour, without any fix'd plan or knowing himself what he would be at. He has repeatedly thrown out hints to me respecting your misunderstandings to which I have listen'd with indifference." Frobisher further characterized the great explorer with the devastating remark, "you know him to be vindictive." [22]

With or without Mackenzie, the fur trade would continue. One result of the continued gnawing of an opposition was an increase of rum among the Indians. The North West Company had never hesitated to use it as a trade good in opposition to the Hudson's Bay Company. However, with the advent of the XY Company, liquor flowed even more freely in the battle for furs. From 1793 to 1798, the average annual amount of liquor dispensed by the North West Company was 9,600 gallons. During the years 1802-04, when the XY Company was most active, the average annual distribution of liquor by the North West Company alone was 12,340 gallons. [23]

The summer of 1799 presented other bits of news that affected Grand Portage. During this year, the Charlotte transported the Company's goods on Lakes Erie and Huron, up to Detroit, then on to Sault Ste. Marie. The Otter continued to transport supplies from above Sault Ste. Marie to Grand Portage. A letter concerning the Charlotte gave a glimpse of her cargo: "The Charlotte sailed from [Detroit]...for the Sault...she had for loading 619 bags of hulled corn containing 1365 bushels, 16 bags of Oats, and the whole of the goods you sent up for the Grand Portage." The Detroit agent, Angus Mackintosh, reported that the XY Company had "entered seriously into measures to prosecute that trade. They determined to get a vessel built here during the ensuing winter [1799-1806] of Forty Tons burden...[for use] on Lake Superior." [24]

A final note from Alexander Mackenzie this summer informs us that at Grand Portage, the opposition now had a "Hangard & House erected by Men at a Dollar per day." This is the first definite acknowledgement of the XY Company's facilities. [25]

Before leaving the eighteenth century, note should be taken of two accounts that presented themselves to the British public as accurate accounts of the now-romantic spot. Priscilla Wakefield wrote one of these books, entitling it Excursions In North America. Hasty readers have decided that her leading character, one Arthur Middleton, was a visitor to Grand Portage. However, in her preface, Wakefield cheerfully acknowledged that her hero was but a literary device and her information about Grand Portage came from the traders and travelers who had actually been there. Keeping in mind that her description is a highly filtered one, it is presented here, mainly for curiosity:

The Grand Portage, where we landed, is situated on a pleasant bay . . . . The fort is picketed in with pallisadoes, and incloses houses built with wood and covered with shingles. These are for the accommodation of the merchants and their clerks, during their short stay there. The north men live in tents; but the more frugal pork eaters, or [Montreal] canoe man, lodges beneath his canoe.

We mess at the first table, with the merchants, clerks, guides, and interpreters . . . on fresh meat, salt pork, fish, and venison; but the poor canoe-men are obliged to be satisfied with a pudding of hominee. [26]

Another book published at this time, by an author who did not see the Grand Portage—but who did not hesitate to describe it—is a travel account by Isaac Weld, Jr. In contrast to Wakefield's hero, Weld actually traveled in Canada, but not as far West as Lake Superior. His description is wholly borrowed:

Those intended to bring back [to Montreal] cargoes immediately, stop at the Grand Portage, where the furs are collected ready for them by the agents of the company. The furs are made up in packs of a certain weight, and a particular number is put into each canoe. By knowing thus the exact weight of every pack, there can be no embezzlement; and at the portages there is no time wasted in alloting to each man his load, every one being obliged to carry so many packs.

He also learned from his sources that the North West Company had a "regular" post at Grand Portage and that it employed "about two thousand men" in the upper country. [27]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009