Voyageurs National Park

Special History:
The Environment and the Fur Trade Experience in
Voyageurs National Park, 1730-1870

Shooting the Rapids
Shooting the Rapids.
Frances Anne Hopkins, artist, 1879.
(Courtesy of National Archives of Canada)


As the fur trade spread northwestward from the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay in the eighteenth century, an organized system of transportation and supply formed over a 3000-mile canoe route between Montreal and Fort Chipewyan on the shores of remote Lake Athabaska. The "Voyageur's Highway" that threaded this vast northern wilderness included some 120 exhausting portages, 200 treacherous rapids, and 50 lakes large enough that stormy weather could imperil even the big "Montreal" canoes. At Rainy Lake, on the present boundary between Minnesota and Ontario, voyageurs on the eastward journey from the interior met crews on the westward journey from Montreal, exchanged cargoes, and turned around. This epic journey was repeated annually over a span of decades. Traversing the border lakes country in what is now Voyageurs National Park, the French-Canadian voyageurs paddled up to 16 hours a day, made encampments, traded with Indians, and sometimes met death and a lonely burial.

The purpose of this study is to investigate written records of the fur trade and glean information that will be of use to those who manage and interpret Voyageurs National Park. The fur trade covered a vast territory, but it left behind few lasting physical traces. The infrastructure for this sprawling international commerce consisted of no more than a few wilderness outposts and a far-flung system of waterborne transportation. Most of what we know about the fur trade experience comes from the traders' own written accounts–translated, edited, and interpreted by fur trade historians who have sifted diligently through these materials over the past one hundred years and more. This report is based on a review of the historical literature and a selective reading of most of the extant primary source material for information specific to the Rainy Lake Region.

Voyageurs National Park was authorized in 1971 and established in 1975. Its purpose is to preserve "the outstanding scenery, geological conditions, and waterway system which constituted a part of the historic route of the Voyageurs who contributed significantly to the opening of the Northwestern United States" (P.L. 91-661). The national park encompasses an environment of lakes, wetlands, and upland forest of approximately 218,059 acres. The park area includes four large lakes (Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point) and more than two dozen smaller ones.

Perhaps the essential words in the park's enabling legislation are "part of the historic route." The park's terrain is a representative portion of a much greater historical geography. The voyageurs' travels through what is now Voyageurs National Park were generally part of much larger journeys. Rainy Lake was a transportation hub and a strategic crossroads in the fur trade, as will be explained in subsequent chapters.

map of Canoe Routes
Figure 1. Canoe Routes through the Rainy Lake Region
(click on map for enlargement in a new window)

In this report, "the Rainy Lake Region" refers to all that area from the north shore of Lake Superior westward to Lake of the Woods and the Red River. Voyageurs National Park encompasses a part of the Rainy Lake Region (Figure 1). All of the major fur trading companies that operated in the area had posts near the outlet of Rainy Lake in the vicinity of what is now Fort Frances, Ontario and International Falls, Minnesota. Historic activities surrounding these posts give the Rainy Lake Region much of its historical significance, but the posts themselves were situated a few miles outside of the park boundary. The origin and present condition of these posts may be briefly described:

  • Fort St. Pierre. This small wintering post was built by the French in 1731. Currently there is a reconstruction of this post at Pithers Point. Although an archaeological survey was conducted at Pithers Point in the late 1950s, the exact site of the post is not confirmed.

  • North West Company Post. This post was used as a relay point for cargoes moving between the interior and Montreal. No drawing or plan of the post is known. There is a Heritage Foundation commemorative plaque at the presumed site of the post on private property near the Red Dog Inn Hotel, located on Keating Avenue and River Drive in Fort Frances, Ontario.

  • Hudson's Bay Company Post. This post was built subsequent to the North West Company post and continued to serve as a store until 1923. Plans, drawings, and photographs of this post have been collected to assist with interpretation of this site, which is similarly marked with a Heritage Foundation commemorative plaque. Some archaeological survey was done at the site in the 1980s. The site is now occupied by offices of the paper mill in Fort Frances, Ontario.

  • American Fur Company Post. This post was located on the south bank of the Rainy River near the Hudson's Bay Company post. The exact location has not been determined and there is no site interpretation.

  • Bourassa's Fort. This small outpost was built by the French and later re-established by the British in the early 1800s. Archaeological survey was done in the mid-1990s, establishing its precise location on the west shore of Crane Lake. Nothing remains of the post that is visible to the untrained eye.

Besides occupying these posts, fur traders frequently came to shore on their watery passage through what is now Voyageurs National Park (Figure 2). Traveling westward, the fur traders entered the park either on the Namakan River or through Little Vermilion Narrows. Usually, they portaged across what they called "New Portage" (now Bear River) from Namakan Lake to Rainy Lake, thereby shortening their route and avoiding a portage around Kettle Falls. From the east edge of the park to the east end of Rainy Lake was a journey of one or two days. If conditions were favorable they could traverse the length of Rainy Lake in another day. More often, it took a day and a half or two. In the two to four days that they traveled through the park, the fur traders made the kinds of stops that were typical of their journey as a whole: to have a meal or smoke a pipe, to daub fresh pitch on the canoes, to dry out wet clothing and other goods in the sunshine, to trade with Indians, and to camp overnight or wait out a storm. Fur traders also went on shorter trips from the post for purposes of trading, hunting, and fishing.

map of Voyageurs' Route
Figure 2. Voyageurs' Route
(click on map for enlargement in a new window)

In addition to archaeological investigations conducted by various agencies at four out of five of the fort locations noted above, the National Park Service (NPS) initiated archaeological investigations in Voyageurs National Park in 1979-1980. Several archaeological sites have been recorded relating to native use and occupation, logging camps, and the brief gold rush era. Sites featuring items of the fur trade include locations at Sand Point and on nearby islands in Sand Point Lake. Artifacts of the fur trade are also found on the shoreline of Rainy Lake from Kettle Falls to Soldier's Point. To date, the NPS has taken a conservative approach toward investigating these sites. Fur trade artifacts found within the park include such items as brass buttons, brass kettle fragments, a frizzen from a trade gun, muskrat spears, offset awls, a lock plate from a trade gun, spoons, and a fire steel. Some items date to an early period. A French clasp knife was probably manufactured between the 1730s and the 1760s, and an English razor bears the name of a London manufacturer of 1774-1797. With the limited amount of testing done at these sites to date, it is difficult to determine whether items were lost or discarded by fur traders or Indians, and what kinds of activity occurred at each site. Although maximum lake levels in Voyageurs National Park are higher today than they were in the fur trade era, many archaeological sites around the lake shores are on a gradient that extends both above and below the high water mark. Moreover, some inundated sites may still possess a high degree of integrity. One of the aims of this study is to provide a digest of historical documentation that will assist archaeologists in a new phase of archaeological investigation focused on potential fur trade sites.

Although the environment in Voyageurs National Park has changed markedly since the fur trade era, it still bears a strong resemblance to the wild landscape known to the voyageurs. The modern park visitor sees forested uplands, rocky lakeshores, grassy portages, labyrinthine waterways, and big waters relatively clear of vessels. Although summer homes may be seen in some areas, and resort development is conspicuous in the vicinity of Kettle Falls and the entrance to Black Bay, most of this landscape evokes a feeling of desolation and stark beauty comparable to how the land appeared in the fur trade era. And although water levels in the major lakes are now regulated by dams and the flora and fauna have been altered by logging and other human land use activities, forest composition and species diversity are more characteristic of the fur trade era than they are elsewhere in the surrounding region. Nevertheless, natural resource managers have an incomplete understanding of environmental conditions during the fur trade era--both in terms of how the environment differed from the present and how it was altered by the heavy harvest of beavers and other fur bearers.

The National Park Service (NPS) intended this special history study to have relevance for cultural and natural resource managers and interpreters on the park staff. Although each of these three staff groups is primarily concerned with different resources, park management increasingly aims at an interdisciplinary, holistic approach in defining cultural and natural resources and the stories that are imbedded in them. With that aim in view, the material in this report is organized by subject area with the hope that each staff group will benefit from having its subject area treated in a separate chapter and the subject chapters included together in a single report. If members of the park staff will consider more than the subject chapter that is pertinent to their staff group, then the interdisciplinary aim of this special history study will be met.

The report is organized in four chapters. The first chapter provides a chronological overview of the fur trade in the Rainy Lake Region as background for the rest of the report. The second chapter focuses on the fur trade experience, and is aimed at highlighting the kinds of factual detail and primary source material that will be of most interest to interpreters on the park staff. The third chapter is concerned with the material culture of the fur trade and is directed primarily toward cultural resource managers. The fourth and last chapter attempts to provide some historical perspective on environmental conditions in the fur trade era, and is intended to serve primarily the park's natural resource managers.

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Table of Contents | Introduction | Rainy Lake Region | Fur Trade Experience | Material Culture | Natural Environment | Bibliography
Last Updated: 12-Apr-2005