History & Culture

Gichi Onigaming, The Great Carrying Place

Gichi Onigaming is the Ojibwe term for the “Great Carrying Place” an apt name for 8.5-mile portage trail that allowed American Indians, explorers, and voyageurs to bypass high falls, cascades, and gorges, and has been a critical transportation route for thousands of years. Because of the area’s geology, topography, natural resources, and strategic location, the trail was part of an ancient transcontinental trade route connecting the Great Lakes to the interior of the continent.

The dynamic enterprise that thrived along the Grand Portage forged diverse relationships between American Indian and non-Indian peoples. The adoption of native technology and the cultural exchange that took place led to pioneering exploration of the continent. The portage also enabled European expansion into the northwest in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was a focal point in developing the international boundary between Canada and the United States in the 19th century. The Grand Portage trail remains an international road. Under the terms of the Webster- Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the use of the trail remains free and open to citizens of both the United States and Canada. Without the Grand Portage, Canadian and American political history and national boundaries might have been quite different.

Minnesota: Grand Portage National Monument
The Grand Portage Story

Historic buildings on a bay with a peninsula showing an island on the horizon.
Isle Royale can be seen from Grand Portage National Monument beyond Hat Point on the horizon

NPS photo

Homeland of the Grand Portage Anishinaabe

Grand Portage National Monument is within the homeland of the Grand Portage Anishinaabe. Approximately half of the land for the national monument was donated by the Grand Portage Band. This community is the homeplace and center of tribal government for the Grand Portage Band (the Band) of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe). Their intimate knowledge of and connection to the land, water, plants, and wildlife of the area allowed them to endure in the sometimes harsh environment before and after European exploration and nation-building. As other cultures explored this area, the tools and technologies of the Ojibwe were adapted by newcomers to exploit the natural resources as global commodities. The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) have persevered here for centuries, through the European incursion into this continent and division into two countries, the United States and (then British) Canada.

Fur Trade and the North West Company

The Grand Portage, bypassing unnavigable portions of the Pigeon River, connects Fort Charlotte with Lake Superior, where thousands of tons of furs and materials were transported to Europe and beyond. The footpath and depot sites served as the headquarters and central hub for the North West Company as it competed in the global fur trade. The North West Company depot acted as the rendezvous point to exchange North American furs for Eastern trade goods. Between 1731 and 1804, thousands of men shuttled tons of supplies and furs over the portage and in and out of warehouses at either end of the woodland trail.

Grand Portage National Monument

The historic portage corridor is of paramount significance and is the reason for Grand Portage National Monument. Bordered on the north and south by the Grand Portage tribal land, on the east by Lake Superior, and on the west by the Pigeon River and Canada, the monument is 710 acres and consists of two “districts,” which are connected by the Grand Portage trail. The eastern, or lakeshore, district consists of the major visitor service area with a reconstructed stockade, a great hall, a kitchen, Anishinaabe Oodena (Ojibwe Village) a canoe warehouse, and two historic gardens. It is here that the bulk of interpretation of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) heritage and the fur trade occurs. The western, or Fort Charlotte district, is named for the historic Fort Charlotte, which today is a camping area with primitive campsites, a point of debarkation for modern canoe travelers, and a destination for hikers from the lakeshore. A vernacular monument made of river stones marks one end of the Grand Portage trail, or Fort Charlotte in general. From Fort Charlotte, canoers embark on the Grand Portage trail, which is the culmination of an incredible canoe voyage and “portage experience” beginning at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and the Quetico and La Verendrye provincial parks (known in total as the Superior-Quetico complex). At the end of this trip, canoers portage their supplies the final 8.5 miles to reach Lake Superior.

Isle Royale National Park

For the Grand Portage Band, Minong (Isle Royale) is traditional cultural property, a place to connect and practice their traditional heritage that has included hunting and trapping, maple sugaring, fishing, plant gathering, and spiritual practice. Grand Portage National Monument is near Isle Royale National Park, which is visible from the Heritage Center. The Monument supports Isle Royale management by providing direction to an embarkation point for boat transportation, supporting operations logistics to the island, providing select administrative functions including participation in the Tribal Self-Governance Act agreement with the Grand Portage Band, and providing museum and archeological assistance. This has resulted in a close, cooperative relationship between the two parks.

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    Last updated: April 30, 2022

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