An Archeological Survey of Development Projects Within Grand Portage National Monument, Cook County, Minnesota
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Chapter 3

In order to appreciate the duration and diversity of human occupation in northern Minnesota, it is appropriate to review the culture history of this region. The general area has been occupied by human populations virtually since it was opened to that possibility by the retreat of glaciers after the last Ice Age. Furthermore, it was the first area in what is now Minnesota to be settled by European peoples. Indeed, the region about Grand Portage probably reached its zenith in terms of population density and economic prosperity during the Fur Trade era of the late eighteenth century.


Little directed research has been carried out at prehistoric archeological sites in or around Grand Portage National Monument. Several apparent prehistoric sites are known to be present, but to date excavations have focused primarily on those sites that were contemporary with the trading post. Accordingly, the prehistory of this specific region is not well understood.

It should be noted, however, that considerable archeological research has been carried out on nearby Isle Royale in Lake Superior (e.g., Griffin 1961; Bastian 1963) and within the border lakes region to the west (e.g., Lynott et al. 1986; Stoltman 1973). Across the international border in Canada there also has been a good deal of prehistoric archeological research performed in recent years (cf. Reid 1988). Those efforts provide the basis for constructing the general culture history summarized in the paragraphs that follow.

Paleo-Indian Period

This is the earliest known period of human occupation in the eastern woodlands of North America. Date ranges for the Paleo-Indian period vary from region to region across the continent, depending partly on when particular areas were opened to the possibility of occupation after the retreat of glacial ice. In general, this period typified by big game hunting and lanceolate, fluted points can be said to begin around 10,000 B.C. and end around 6,000 B.C.

Archeological evidence representing the Paleo-Indian period is relatively sparse in the regions bordering the western end of Lake Superior. Further, the few known sites date from the final stages of the period, owing to the fact that glaciers lingered longer in those northern latitudes. In fact, most of the evidence relates to the last of three successive Paleo-Indian complexes, the Plano complex (ca. 6,500 B.C.-6,000 B.C.). The Brohm site, located near Thunder Bay in Ontario, is one of the better known Plano sites in the region.

Archaic Period

During the Archaic period, which dates generally from 6,000 B.C. to 100 B.C. in this region, climatic changes of the post-Pleistocene led to new human adaptations. Subsistence strategies were now more generalized, with populations exploiting a wide variety of game and wild plant foods. Tool kits typical of this time period are also more diverse, including many varieties of chipped and ground stone artifacts. Furthermore, the Late Archaic is known for its elaborate burial ceremonialism expressed in regional styles.

The Archaic period is better represented in the archeological record of northern Minnesota. In the border lakes region, however, only a few sites have been excavated. Therefore, knowledge of Archaic peoples in Minnesota's far northeast is limited. In view of the fact that the earliest sites discovered thus far on Isle Royale date from the Archaic, it is probable that the Grand Portage area was occupied at least seasonally during this period.

Woodland Period

In much of the United States, the Woodland period is divided into three distinct substages, with manifestations dating as early as 2,500 B.C. in the Southeast. In northern Minnesota, however, chronology does not conform to the general sequence elsewhere. Indeed, ceramics, which are the hallmark of this period, do not appear until about 100 B.C. Accordingly, it is sufficient to divide the period simply into two major substages: the Initial Woodland and the Terminal Woodland (Lynott et al. 1986:23).

The Initial Woodland in northern Minnesota and neighboring regions is typified by a prehistoric group known as the Laurel culture (100 B.C.-A.D. 700). Evidence indicates that the Laurel peoples were hunter-gatherers who subsisted largely on fish, moose, caribou, and beaver. It should be noted, however, that most knowledge of the Laurel culture derives from burial mound sites; relatively few habitation sites have been excavated to date. Sites representing the Laurel culture are known from as far west as east central Saskatchewan and as far east as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The type site and several other important locales, however, are located in the border lakes region west of Grand Portage.

The Terminal Woodland, which is the last prehistoric period in northern Minnesota, corresponds with a culture called Blackduck. Economy of the Blackduck culture differs from Laurel adaptations largely in the former's intensive use of wild rice. Hunting and gathering of other resources continued to be important; however, inclusion of wild rice in the subsistence strategy enabled a more sedentary existence. Distinctive tool assemblages and ceramic types also make the two cultural groups readily discernible. What became of the Blackduck peoples is unknown; some have speculated that they migrated further west, whereas others believe that through continued adaptation they became the historic Cree. In any case, evidence of the Blackduck culture disappears from northern Minnesota about A.D. 1500.


The Grand Portage region has a long and interesting history, which extends back to the earliest French explorations of the western Great Lakes. It was, in fact, the first area settled by European peoples in what is now the State of Minnesota. Grand Portage enjoyed its greatest period of importance during the eighteenth century, particularly during British dominion of the fur trade in this area. After the nineteenth century, however, when most trading activities were moved north of the Canadian border, the post at Grand Portage fell into decline. In later years commercial fishing and lumbering bolstered the economy somewhat, but those eras were both short-lived.

Establishment of a reservation for the local Ojibway (Chippewa) band in the mid-1800s formalized the Indian community that had existed at Grand Portage for some years. Since that time, life on the reservation has involved continuous adaptation to changing government policy and economic conditions. Today, services related to tourism and recreation provide livelihoods for many of the local residents.

In the following paragraphs, a brief overview of the Historic period in this region is presented. The summary is necessarily cursory and deals only with the major events and trends of each dominant period up to establishment of the reservation. The early history of Grand Portage is chronicled in much greater detail by Woolworth and Woolworth (1982), and the reader is referred to their overview. Thompson (1969) also offers a well-referenced history of the fur trade era at Grand Portage, including several pertinent appendices. In addition, an excellent summary of historical developments on the reservation has been published by the tribe (MCT 1983).

French Period

Pierre Boucher is credited with providing the earliest descriptions of the Grand Portage vicinity in 1664, though the first known specific mention of Grand Portage (or "the great carrying place") in the historic record derives from the chronicles of Pierre Margary for the year 1722. It is likely, however, that earlier French explorers of Lake Superior, such as Groseilliers, Radisson, and Du Luth, were aware of its presence in the mid-1600s, as well as its potential as a transportation route. Moreover, it is virtually certain that native peoples were well acquainted with this land route to the interior waters long before the arrival of Europeans (Woolworth 1969:7-9; Woolworth and Woolworth 1982:22).

The trader La Verendrye landed at Grand Portage Bay on August 26, 1731, having left Montreal with his three sons and a party of 50 soldiers and voyageurs in June of that year. After wintering near the Pigeon River, several members of the party went up the portage and continued on to Rainy Lake, where they established Fort St. Pierre. In the summer of 1732, the rest of the party made their way across the portage and continued as far as Lake of the Woods to found Fort St. Charles. From that time forward, it seems that the Grand Portage was traversed frequently by French fur traders. Although many traders no doubt used the Wisconsin-Fox River route to the interior, the Grand Portage route became increasingly important during this period. Nevertheless, there is no good evidence that the French ever established a permanent trading post or settlement at the Lake Superior terminus during the eighteenth century. One can surmise that some sort of storage buildings existed, at the very least, but the historical record is silent on this matter (Blegen 1975:57; Woolworth and Woolworth 1982:26-30).

British Period

The trade was active through Grand Portage under the French, but it was not until after resolution of the French and Indian Wars transferred hegemony to the British that Grand Portage gained its significance as a center for the fur trade. Sometime around 1762 traders came in force to this area, and in 1768 John Askin, an entrepreneur from Michilimackinac, cleared land and erected buildings to service his trading interests (Blegen 1975: 71; Woolworth and Woolworth 1982:34).

By 1783 a merger of several trading partnerships at Montreal created the North West Company, and there after Grand Portage was the primary entrepot for trade to the northwestern interior. At that time a more substantial post was built on the lakeshore at the western end of Grand Portage Bay. Goods could be transported there by ship, repackaged, and sent up the Grand Portage to the Pigeon River on the backs of voyageurs. From that point, goods could be taken to the interior by canoe. Meanwhile, bundles of furs were carried down the trail to be loaded on ships returning to the eastern ports.

Under the North West Company, the trade flourished at Grand Portage. In the 1790s, a stockade surrounded 16 buildings, and wharves and docks at the waterfront could accommodate a 95-ton schooner. At about this time, Fort Charlotte was built at the Pigeon River end of the portage in order to facilitate the transfer of trade goods and furs (Blegen 1975:72-73).

The trade was so lucrative at Grand Portage that the competing XY Company established a second post there in 1797-1798. Some seven years later, that rival partnership was absorbed by the North West Company. By that time, however, much of the trade had moved north across the international boundary to Fort William (Blegen 1975:81).

The North West Company began construction of Fort William in 1802 after a land survey established the fact that Grand Portage was located within United States territory. Therefore, in order to avoid taxation and other complications derived from conducting their trade on foreign soil, the British abandoned Grand Portage by 1804 (Woolworth and Woolworth 1982:45).

American Period

The trade did not end at Grand Portage with departure of the North West Company; nor did the native population vacate the area. Smaller American concerns continued to keep the trade alive for awhile, though the portage from Fort William to the Pigeon River dominated commerce in the area. By the early 1830s, the Grand Portage route was no longer a viable alternative.

Nevertheless, it was during this period that history records the first conclusive mention of an Indian "band" at Grand Portage. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft notes in 1824 that some 60 souls were living at Grand Portage and dealing with British traders to the north. Of course, local Indians had been associated with the fur trade at Grand Portage since the very beginning, but no known source mentions the existence of a permanent native village until this time (Hickerson 1974:85-86).

The census of 1824 indicates that the village at Grand Portage was rather small in comparison with contemporary Ojibway settlements of the western Great Lakes. Subsequent counts show that population fluctuated from year to year. By 1842, however, the population had more than doubled, exceeding 150 persons by all counts (Hickerson 1974:85-86).

Shortly after the fur trade was eclipsed at Grand Portage, commercial fishing briefly arose. Beginning in 1836, the American Fur Company operated a fishing station of several buildings near the former trading post. That industry operated at Grand Portage into the 1840s, but it did not manage to draw natives away from the fur trade at Fort William as the British had feared. The increased commercial activity, however, is likely to have promoted growth of the population.

According to historian Nancy Woolworth (1965:305-308), Father Franz Pierz arrived in Grand Portage on July 29, 1838, to live among the local Ojibway. Soon thereafter he established a mission and school, both of which greatly influenced the populace. The missionary did not limit his efforts to the spiritual condition of his charges. Indeed, he sought to make radical changes in their lives including the introduction of limited farming and several attempts at relocation.

Hickerson (1974:119) points out that the Ojibway at Grand Portage traditionally were collectors, rather than producers, of food. They subsisted mainly on wild game and plant resources, especially fish, wild rice, and maple sugar. Furthermore, their hunting and trapping territory was quite extensive, including lands on either side of the international boundary.

The Grand Portage band was also something of a maverick faction of the Ojibway tribe, inasmuch as they had closer affiliations with the British. Perhaps for this reason, the Indians living at Grand Portage were excluded from negotiations that led to the American treaty of October 4, 1842. They were, however, party to the treaty signed at LaPointe, Wisconsin, on September 30, 1854, which established the Grand Portage Reservation. By that time, the native population at Grand Portage was between 150 and 200 (Hickerson 1974:89-90, 115).

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009