Grand Portage:
A History of The Sites, People, and Fur Trade
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After the Fur Trade

Sometime between 1803 and 1807, George Heriot learned of Grand Portage's great days. This deputy postmaster of British North America would gather his facts in a book about travel through the Canadas. He would describe the old North West Company post as a

large picketed fort, with three gates, over two of which are guardhouses. The ranges of buildings for stores and dwelling houses...are very extensive. The upon a great scale, seventy canoes per annum having been constructed.

He said that the XY's post "was about a quarter of a mile" from the North West's, and "consisted of a fort, picketed, and of buildings on the same plan as those of the latter, but upon a more circumscribed scale." Heriot was not extravagant in disclosing his sources, yet his descriptions have the ring of accuracy and should not be dismissed lightly. Possibly, they are as accurate as any. [1]

Several students of the fur trade have stated that the unified company retained a fort of sorts at Grand Portage after 1804. This may have been the case, but the evidence is not firm concerning this point. To be sure, the term "Grand Portage" continued to be used after the firms moved to the Kaministikwia. This oddity may be explained, however, by Article 21 of the North West's Agreement of 1802:

That whenever the Grand Portage is mentioned in this Agreement it is understood to mean the place of rendezvous, for conducting and managing the general business of the Concern in the Summer, but should the parties concerned determine. . . to remove and change such place of rendezvous from the Grand Portage to any other place on Lake Superior more convenient..., the name of such place shall be taken and considered as applying in the same manner to all the purposes of this agreement and being syonimous [sic] to the Grand Portage.

The grand old name had now become a general term meaning the place of rendezvous. [2]

One trader who did return to Grand Portage, in 1806, was none other than Dominique Rousseau, who had taken the North West Company to court in 1803. He was no luckier this time. Although the Big Company had left, the £ 500 damages still rankled, and its men felled trees across the old portages and creeks of the old trail to thwart Rousseau's canoes when they attempted to enter the interior. Once again Rousseau brought suit, but this time he and the giant settled out of court. [3]

In 1815, Lewis Cass, then Governor of Michigan Territory, entered the records of Grand Portage when he wrote the acting Secretary of War recommending additional army posts in the northwest. It was his opinion that "if the British traders are eventually to be excluded, a post near the Grand Portage will be necessary." Even if British traders should be allowed in U. S. Territory, "the post would still be necessary to ensure a collection of the duties and to enforce the regulations." He also thought that "a display of the power of the United States in that remote quarter would be productive of salutary effects upon the minds of the Indians." However, Cass' recommendations met with silence. [4]

The Grand Portage posts grew old and disintegrated. The once-famed carrying place had a brief return to prominence when Great Britain and the United States attempted to define the boundary between Lake Superior and the Lake of the Woods in the early 1820s. The Treaty of Paris, 1783, had defined this particular section of the international boundary on the basis of very inexact knowledge of its geography. The Treaty of Ghent, 1814, called for adjudication of this and other disputes involving the demarkation. It is not the intent of this report to analyze the millions of words written about this problem between the 1820s and the settlement in 1842. it is enough to note that at one point the Americans claimed the Kaministikwia River as the rightful boundary while the British dipped far enough south to say that the St. Louis River (Fond du Lac) was the stream meant by the negotiations of 1783.

Although the North West Company had moved north to the Kaministikwia the British were quite concerned that the Grand Portage route might again prove useful. The Canadas called on none other than William McGillivray to submit testimony supporting the St. Louis River. However, McGillivray died in 1825, before the problem was resolved. Both sides made extravagant claims and both misused the history of Grand Portage and the other routes to serve their respective ends. But as a result of the controversy one may glimpse the appearance of Grand Portage in the years 1822-23.

John Bigsby, who accompanied British officials through the area in 1822, later recalled his impressions of the fabled land. He learned that the North West Company "formerly had an important post here, of warehouses, stables, gardens, etc., which occupied a flat, backed by high hills." He had the fortune to walk the portage itself:

We left Lake Superior on the 29th of June [1822], and walked over woody hills and waded through swampy bottoms to the west end of the portage (eight miles and one-sixth), greatly annoyed by mosquitoes and the closeness of the air, the path, such as it was, being overrun by briers and coppice. The trees were sometimes large, and fruits were in blossom. [5]

Joseph Delafield, an American surveyor, traveled over the portage in 1823. He was not impressed with his hike over the old trail: "These two first posts [i.e. the distance between resting places] are very bad. There is a considerable ascent, and where it is not rock, it is mud; and the old road is so closed with a young growth of trees and bushes, that it is very difficult to carry anything the size of a canoe piece without injury." He did not make the eight miles the first day. On the second, he wrote: "Continue to labor on the Grand Portage; the road very bad, from the rain of yesterday." At the end of this day, he arrived "with all the luggage at the second river [creek?] that crosses the road & encamp, the canoe being advanced several posts beyond. At this place there is a little clearing now covered with high grass [Thompson's prairie?] It has every appearance of having been the common stopping place of the traders who formerly used the route."

Despite the fact that the North West Company used to expect its clerks to cross the portage between a late breakfast and an early lunch, with a hangover, Delafield wrote at the end of the second day: "Consider the distance come this day to be about one third of the portage."

The third day was as difficult: "I advanced before the men to the third river [?] & encouraged them to get that far with the baggage." The men camped this night at "a little mud hole called a spring," but the canoe was sent on to the Pigeon River. And Delafield took heart, for the road this third day was "level and without rocks."

On the fourth day, in the afternoon, the party reached the Pigeon, "thus having passed the Grand Portage in three full days' work, and one broken day, it being rainy." He noticed that old Fort Charlotte was gone: "There is scarcely a trace remaining of its former condition except the cleared ground. A few stumps of burned pickets assist in tracing the extent of the former enclosures, and that is all. It is a pretty place," he added, "& a profusion of wild roses and sweet pea and high growth of grass...afford a momentary reconciliation to the spot." One other thing caught his attention: "The landing place or dock of the old North West Co. is still entire and affords some accommodation." This is the earliest notice that the Company invested in a dock at the western end of the portage. Considering the current of the river and the general setting, one assumes that the structure must have been parallel to the bank, providing a firm platform for loading and unloading large numbers of canoes. [6]

Not only had the structures at Fort Charlotte disappeared, all was gone at the eastern end of the portage. The British government had hired none other than the great map-maker, David ("Mr. Astronomer") Thompson to assist in its survey of the boundary. Thompson, one hopes with a slightly bleary eye, gazed on the scene at Grand Portage Bay in the mid-1820s. All he could find of the grand old fort was some red clover blooming over depressions in the ground where once structures had stood. Another explorer, Stephen H. Long, on an expedition for the U. S. government in 1823, traveled down the Kaministikwia route in 1823. Although he did not see the Grand Portage, he delivered its epitaph, saying that it was "seldom travelled." [7]

Life was still to be found at Grand Portage. As they had since time before history, the Chippewa Indians continued to gather there, particularly in the summer months. The Hudson's Bay Company, having absorbed the North West Company in 1821, continued to trade with these Indians at Fort William. An American trader, attempting to take on the gigantic company in 1824, arrived at Grand Portage to carry on local trade. He wasted his time. The British may have lost the territory, but they still knew how to do business with Indians. They "carried off in trains the band of Chippeways," leaving the American wholly frustrated. [8]

In 1831, Henry Schoolcraft, U. S. Indian Agent at Sault Ste. Marie, repeated the sentiments of Lewis Cass 16 years earlier, by recommending a military post at Grand Portage. He thought that such a fort would end "warfare between the Chippewa and Sioux nations." He recognized that the area had long, cold winters, but thought that Grand Portage "might be occupied as a summer encampment, by a part of the troops from Fort Brady and be left by them before the setting in of bad weather." Destined to fame as was Cass, Schoolcraft had no more success than he in interesting the Department of War in the site. [9]

An occasional trader set up his goods at Grand Portage in the 1830s and '40s. In 1831, a lone, unnamed American trader secured a license for the area. Four years later, the American Fur Company's Ramsay Crooks paid a visit to the British at Fort William. Soon thereafter he wrote his subordinates to "explore the north shore to the old Grand Portage." Crooks was not interested in challenging the British in the northwest trade, rather his interests were in establishing a fishing station. From 1836 to 1840, the American Fur Company operated such a station at Grand Portage under the supervision of Pierre Coté.

Assisting Coté were two coopers (for barrel manufacture) and a handful of helpers (3 in 1838, 9 in 1839). Indians did most of the fishing, the Company supplying them with nets, salt, and barrels. A company inspection report of 1839 described the fishing station:

The Establishment at this place consists of One dwelling House for Coté, situated on a gentle rising ground, overlooking the Bay, a dwelling occupied by his son on the West side, and a new Store fronting the last building on the East side, forming a hollow square; two mens houses, 1 Coopers Shop, 1 Fish Store, Stable Barn, Root house etc below or near the beach, placed here and there without order or symmetry.... The dwelling houses and Store on the hill are finished in a Substantial manner and all new.

The description added the interesting note that a second storehouse stood on the island (called Sheep Island in the report) at the mouth of the bay. Here the company vessels put off their cargoes of salt and picked up the barrels of fish. Such a procedure confirmed the shallowness of the bay, and also implies that the piers of the fur trade days were no longer serviceable. Finally, the report noted that Coté had three acres of potatoes. Despite the excellent whitefish and other delectables of Lake Superior, the fishing station was unable to make a profit. Crooks knew when to close down a business and, in 1842, the station's activities came to an abrupt stop. [10]

At the same time Coté operated his business, three Slovenian priests arrived in the Lake Superior region to work among the Indians and the few stray whites scattered along the western shore. One of these, Father Frederic Baraga, was destined to become famous in Minnesota history. His two associates, Fathers Francis Pierz (or Franz Pierç) and Otto Skolla, along with Baraga, came to know Grand Portage.

Baraga apparently first visited Grand Portage in 1838. Observing the absence of religious activity among the fishermen and the Indians, he persuaded Father Pierz to go there the next year to establish a mission. Pierz remained a year on this first endeavor:

I have made a beginning of agriculture by laying out a beautiful kitchen garden, a large cultivated field, and a little nursery planted with fruit seeds from Carniola [present Yugoslavia].... My house for the present is a small cabin of huge unhewn logs, chinked on the outside with mud plaster and white washed on the inside with white earth. It is provided with windows and a stone fireplace.... My church is made of cedar bark, thirty feet wide and forty feet long and displays real workmanship.

Despite this considerable beginning, Pierz chose to start again at the mouth of the Pigeon River when he returned briefly in 1842. Still later, Father Skolla made itinerant missions to the area, describing the site in 1846. He saw the ruins of Pierz' second church, on the Pigeon. At Grand Portage, he wrote, no white men's houses still stood, "only poor Indian huts. The number of savages is about eighty, including children." Other priests visited the area in the late 1840s. but most of their activity seems to have been located at the mouth of Pigeon River, rather than at Grand Portage itself. [11]

In 1854, one Thomas Clark operated a trading store at Grand Portage. Two years later a post office was opened, H. H. McCullough being the postmaster. McCullough seems to have replaced Clark as the one and only trader by then. However, being active in other interests as well, he hired Henry Elliott and his wife to operate the store. He maintained ownership of the post until 1863, when he sold it along with several other establishments he owned to P. E. Bradshaw, Superior. [12]

An explorer, S. J. Dawson, traveling from the Red River to Lake Superior in 1858, found the portage still passable. He gave no details as to its condition, but he concluded that the route by way of the Kaministikwia was superior if a little longer. He purchased supplies at McCullough's store; otherwise, he made no comments on Grand Portage. [13]

After the Civil War, notices of Grand Portage became even more rare. From time to time, the Chippewa Indians would gather there to collect their annuities. In 1865, a log church, "Our Lady of the Holy Rosary," was built and still stands. Sometime before 1900, a Canadian professor, George Bryce, visited the site. He said that he was able to see timbers in the water that marked the former wharves, "which were extensive." He followed the old trail and found impassable, but "with weeds and grasses grown up." A few years later, Solon Buck visited the site of Fort Charlotte and discovered "remnants of an ancient dock on the bank of the Pigeon River." [14]

There is still an Indian village at Grand Portage. Its population is about 500. The trail may still be walked. Archeologist have uncovered traces of the former greatness of the forts. Together these evidences stir the imagination of that time when great explorers and exuberant voyageurs enlivened the dark forest on the shore of Lake Superior.

French, Canadians, Scots, English, and Americans carved an empire that, in the words of Innis, extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Their enterprise built the foundations of the modern nation, Canada. French Canadians supplied their young men, the voyageurs, who sweated and sang their way West. The Anglo-American merchants contributed capital and managerial skills. The Indian gave his canoe, corn, and pemmican, all essential to success. Adventure, economics, and geography came to focus on one small place; and the explosion opened half a continent.

I have worked hard and honestly for them, and I am satisfied that I have at least, done my duty. I have been an agent or Director, since 1794—and Chief Superintendent since 1799. The management has not been easy, for we had many storms to weather from without, and the Household.

William McGillivray,
shortly before his death.

So dat's de reason I drink tonight
To de man of de Grand Nor' Wes',
For hees heart was young, an' hees heart was light
So long as he's leeving' dere I'm proud of de sam'
blood in my vein
I'm a son of de Nort Win' wance again
So we'll fill her up till de bottle's drain
An' drink to de Voyageur.

William Henry Drummond,
"The Voyageur "

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009