Administrative History
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A 1958 Act of Congress (P.L. 85-910) authorizes the establishment of Grand Portage National Monument. This Act, along with numerous other laws under whose authority the National Park Service functions, provides the legislative vehicle for the preservation of the monument and the interpretation of its international significance during the northwest fur trade of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Public Law 85-910, approved on September 2, 1958 (72 Statute 1751), states that the function of the national monument is "for the purpose of preserving an area containing unique historical values" and "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same." [1]

Establishment of the national monument, comprising 709.97 acres on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in northeastern Minnesota, was contingent upon relinquishment by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the Grand Portage Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe of land titles and interests within the proposed monument boundaries to the Department of the Interior. The national monument was established on January 27, 1960, when Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton accepted the last such relinquishment from the Indians. The subsequent official announcement was published in the Federal Register on March 31, 1960. [2] This Notice of Establishment revoked the Designation Order of September 15, 1951, which had previously declared Grand Portage a national historic site. Administered by the National Park Service, Grand Portage's cultural resources are preserved and interpreted by the Federal Government for the enjoyment of the American people.

Map of Grand Portage National Monument. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window).


The national monument consists of a large tract of land on Grand Portage Bay, Lake Superior, where some structures of the depot of the North West Company have been reconstructed. This area, which is adjacent to the Grand Portage Indian Village, is connected to a 100-foot-wide strip of land centered on the historic Grand Portage to State Route 61; from Highway 61 to Fort Charlotte, the portage is approximately 600 feet wide. The trail stretches 8.5 miles from Lake Superior to Fort Charlotte, another depot site of the North West Company on Pigeon River (see Appendix B). No historic structures remain from the fur trade era at either site; nor have any illustrations or detailed descriptions of the depot buildings been discovered.

Archeologists from the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) have uncovered rich archeological evidence from the fur trade era The information garnered from a succession of archeological excavations has enabled historians not only to understand better this capital of the northwest fur trade but also to piece together a rough picture of how Grand Portage appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.


Because Grand Portage is in the center of an Indian reservation, the special relationship which exists between the Federal Government and the Indian people is also apparent in the 1958 Act. Within the monument, the Secretary of the Interior is empowered to "grant recognized members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe the preferential privilege to provide those visitor accommodations and services, including guide services, which he deems are necessary" (Section 4). Tribe members are to be given preferential employment "in the performance of any construction, maintenance, or any other service within the monument for which they are qualified" (Section 5). Tribe members are to be encouraged to produce and sell native handicrafts at the monument while the Interior Department pledges not to "interfere with the operation or existence of any trade or business of said tribe outside the boundaries of the national monument" (Section 6).

The Indians are also guaranteed the right to traverse the monument property for the purposes of "logging their land, fishing, or boating, or as a means of access to their homes, businesses, or other areas of use, and they shall have the right to traverse such areas in pursuit of their traditional rights to hunt and trap outside the monument." The Secretary does, however, reserve the right to regulate the conditions under which monument property may be traversed if it should affect the monument's preservation and interpretation of its unique historic features (Section 7).

"Subject to the availability of appropriated funds," construction and maintenance of docking facilities are to be in the Grand Portage vicinity for use at the monument. Tribe members are granted use of this marina free of charge (Section 8). Also subject to available funds and personnel, the Department of the Interior is pledged to provide "consultative or advisory assistance" to the Indians for development projects on lands adjacent to Grand Portage National Monument (Section 9).

Should the national monument for any reason be abandoned by the Federal Government, title to the property will revert automatically to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the Grand Portage Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (Section 11). [3]

Other legislation affecting the monument includes the Webster-Ashhurton Treaty with Great Britain of August 22, 1842, Act 2 (8 Statute 573) which states that "all the water communications and all the usual portages along the lines from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods, and also Grand Portage, from the shore of Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, as now actually used shall be free and open to use of the citizens of both countries. This has been interpreted to mean that the portage is open to British and Americans as a fur trading route (see Appendix C). Also applicable to the management and preservation of the monument is Section 106 of the National historic Preservation Act of 1966, as well as the Antiquities Act of 1906, and Executive Order 11593.


Many outstanding works on the fur trade and the role of Grand Portage have been written, and no attempt will be made here to recapitulate the fascinating story of Grand Portage other than to mention the highlights of this historic place. [4]

Grand Portage exists because of its geography. French fur trappers and traders journeyed into the unknown interior of western Canada. From Montreal, these hardy men, called les voyageurs paddled their canoes toward the west across the Great Lakes. By 1679, they had ventured to the westernmost terminus of Lake Superior searching for a water route to the northwest interior of the continent. The voyageurs learned from the Indians the route from Lake Superior to the lakes and rivers systems of the northwest via the Pigeon River, the modern boundary between the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, the lower 20 miles of the Pigeon are a series of cascades and rapids which make navigation impossible. The Indians showed the voyageurs a footpath they had long used to bypass the tumultuous cascades to the more tranquil, navigable reaches of the river. Le Grand Portage or "the Great Carrying Place," which traversed an ancient pre-glacial stream bed, thus became a critical link on the "Voyageur's Highway."

Over the Grand Portage, voyageurs portaged tons of furs and goods. Each year more than a thousand white men gathered on the rendezvous to trade and plan their respective policies. The principal trading firm was the North West Company (known as the Nor'Westers) formed in 1784, but other rivals established their own fur depots on each end of the trail. Most notable among these corporate and independent competitors was the X Y Company. Grand Portage was also visited by early explorers who passed through the region on their way to map and chart the vast North American continent.

Grand Portage was first mentioned in the writings of a French officer called "Pachot" in 1722. [5] A succession of manuscripts on file in places like the Minnesota Historical Society further elucidate the Grand Portage story, but most are of such a generalized nature as to be frustratingly inadequate to piece together a comprehensive study. Further archival investigations in France, Canada, and Great Britain are needed to complete the tale of this period.

During the American Revolution, British troops were dispatched to Grand Portage to guard the economically strategic area from disruption and quell any rebellion among the Indians who might be inspired by the patriots of the 13 lower Atlantic colonies. The only British contingent in Minnesota consisted of an officer, a sergeant, and five soldiers of the King's Eighth Regiment of Foot. After spending only a few months at Grand Portage during the rendezvous of 1778, the troops were reassigned to Fort St. Joseph (Michigan) after Colonel George Rogers Clark defeated the British at Fort Sackville in early 1779. [6]

Following a half century of heavy use, Grand Portage and Fort Charlotte (named after the consort of King George III) were both abandoned by 1804 after a revenue officer of the new American republic announced that U.S. import duties would soon be levied. American troops had already occupied Mackinac and asserted dominance over the lower Great Lakes. Officials of the North West Company decided not to risk a confrontation with the United States and chose another site farther north and east on land which could without challenge be identified as Canadian soil. The North West Company located their new fort on the Kaministiqwia River and utilized a rediscovered portage. Company officials named Fort William for William McGillivray, a principal director. Its site is in a Canadian Pacific Railway yard in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Today the reconstruction of Old Fort William covers 10 acres and has dozens of structures as well as employees. The development cost the Province of Ontario well over $35 million).

When Grand Portage was abandoned by the British, the physical buildings of the depot on Lake Superior went into swift decline. Undoubtedly, the North West Company salvaged some of the buildings for its new location at Fort William 40 miles to the north and east, and local Indians probably used some of the palisades for kindling. Fire and natural decay also helped reduce the "emporium to stone rubble and foundation depressions." In 1821 the North West Company itself ceased to exist. The hardy Nor'Westers, who had ruled the continent's first commercial empire, merged with their major competitor, the Hudson's Bay Company, and their lively legacy faded into history. In July 1822, a boundary arbitrator visiting Grand Portage wrote, "scarce a vestige remains of all the former factories; they are covered with rank Grass, and in places a little red Clover." [7]

Grand Portage did not remain desolate forever. In the mid-1830s and early 1840s, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company and a few independent traders operated a fur and fishing post there. It proved to be less than lucrative and was soon left to the Indians and missionaries.

The United States purchased the area from the Chippewa Indians and set aside a large area as an Indian reservation. Gradually, the reservation was broken up, with allotments given to the Indians and the remainder sold to lumbering interests or opened to homesteaders. For a half century, Grand Portage was quiet village of Indians, missionaries, and fishermen, its historical significance appreciated only by historians and a few knowledgeable residents.

Revived interest in Grand Portage came following World War I. By this time, the famous trail was choked with brush, and Indians were constructing homes around the historic depot site. Little physical evidence remained of this once bustling center of commerce. During this same time frame, the United States was opening up to the common man, thanks to the automobile and a rush of road building. This rapid advance of "progress" meant that even remote Grand Portage could possibly become mired in a frenzy of private development.

The 1920s, however, also saw progress toward conservation. Minnesota, like other states, initiated its own park system. Preservation of this vestige of the fur trading past led to the introduction of the Minnesota Historical Society into the story of Grand Portage.


Not since the organization was founded in 1849 had the annual convention of the MHS been held outside the Twin Cities. Under the direction of MHS Superintendent Dr. Scion J. Buck, the precedent-breaking meeting was scheduled for July 28-29, 1922, in Duluth. Buck needed to broaden the base of the Society and gain added public support. He also wanted the Duluth location to complement the theme of the 1922 convention=—the great northwest fur trade.

Buck shared the fears of a local Grand Portage resident that the encroachment of settlers in the area and the fencing-off of a portion of the trail would soon spell the doom of the historic site. Something had to be done immediately to save Grand Portage from destruction. In June 1922, MHS Field Secretary Cecil W. Shirk and Paul Bliss, the latter a feature news writer for The Minneapolis Journal, traveled to Grand Portage Village, hiked up the decaying trail, and arrived at the Pigeon River terminus site of Fort Charlotte. Their report, in the form of a lengthy newspaper article, included a resounding endorsement for the preservation of the valuable historic resources of Grand Portage. This "rediscovery" of Grand Portage piqued public awareness and began a long process toward the attainment of national monument status.

On July 10, two other men retraced Shirk's and Bliss' steps. Dewey Albinson and A. C. Eastman of Minneapolis were sent to Fort Charlotte by the Society to investigate, map, and photograph the area. The maps that artist Dewey Albinson drew and the equally valuable photographs formed the basic foundation of all future investigative work.

During the two-day MHS Duluth convention, scholars presented papers on the fur trade and the need for the preservation and interpretation of local historic sites. Dr. Buck read a paper entitled "The Story of Grand Portage from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River." Emphasizing the increased attention on Grand Portage, one of the five resolutions adopted by the 1922 convention called for the Minnesota Legislature to establish a state park at Grand Portage to include the historic trail, Split Rock Canyon, and the cascades and falls of the Pigeon River.

After the convention, Buck visited Grand Portage himself and then with State Auditor Ray P. Chase he helped draft legislation establishing a state department of parks to acquire, preserve, and interpret historic and scenic attractions. In a 1923 statement to the Minnesota legislature, Chase called for the establishment of "Fort Charlotte State Park" and a list of other proposed state parks. Calling it "the most picturesque part of the North Shore of Minnesota," he expressed hope that neighboring Ontario would soon act to set aside adjacent lands for an eventual international park. Consultations with the U. S. Department of Interior resulted in dashed hopes for government intervention to preserve Grand Portage. All Indian reservations, the Department stated, fell under the Land Allotment Act of 1889 which appointed the Federal Government the guardian, or trustholder, of all Indian reservation lands. Even if the Grand Portage Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe agreed to the idea, it would still require an Act of Congress to acquire the land from the Indian allottees. [8]

While the State Legislature failed to act on Chase's recommendations, hopes for preservation of Grand Portage persisted. The MHS, as well as local groups and the Thunder Bay Historical Society of Ontario, continued their efforts. An international group, the Quetico-Superior Council (QSC), formed in 1927 to promote the idea of a 10-million-acre forest/wilderness preserve to straddle both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. [9] Although unable to accomplish their original goal, the QSC achieved limited success in that both the United States and Canada have designated various areas along the Ontario-Minnesota border (such as Grand Portage) for preservation and public enjoyment of the natural environment.

Since few accounts of Grand Portage existed by which to justify its significance, a search of primary documents, manuscripts, and other archival information was soon underway. One of the greatest of the fur trade historians, Grace Lee Nute of the MHS, conducted her own intensive research during the 1920s and 1930s. Nute wrote a series of books which elucidated Grand Portages role in the fur trade. The most notable are The Voyageur, The Voyageur's Highway, and Rainy River Country.

The bicentennial commemoration of Pierre La Verendrye's August 22, 1731, landing at Grand Portage afforded the opportunity for the MHS to hold its 1931 convention at the historic site. More than 1,000 people attended the festivities, sponsored by the Cook County Historical Society (CCHS), and $2,500 was raised for local improvement projects. The Crawford Cabin, hand-constructed around 1900, was moved to the site and converted into a museum operated by the CCHS. A replica of the North West Company dock on Grand Portage Bay was also constructed on the original pilings. The Indians cut the timber for the cribwork while the Minnesota Highway Department donated surplus planking from a dismantled bridge. The dock remained in use until it was destroyed by an ice storm in 1951. [10]

The deepening Great Depression stalled any further development. Economic hardship hit the already poverty-stricken Grand Portage Reservation especially hard. In 1935 the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) within the Consolidated Chippewa Agency of Minnesota appealed to Washington for the necessary funding for emergency relief work. To everyone's surprise, the CCC appropriated, in February 1936, $6,200 for palisade reconstruction work at Grand Portage. A stipulation, however, specified that the money for construction materials and one-dollar-a-day wages had to be spent by the end of the fiscal year, July 1, 1936.

The Indian Service appealed immediately to the MHS for help. No one knew the dimensions, type of building materials, or exact location of the palisade. The Indian Service pressed for swift action to get the project underway. The MHS, however, insisted on basic surface examinations before any construction began. An archeological expedition under the direction of MHS Museum Curator Willoughby M. Babcock and Ralph D. Brown, an archeologist formerly with the Works Progress Administration's Historical Records Survey, soon arrived at Grand Portage and began excavation work. [11]

An agreement was made with the CCC to use the appropriated funding past the deadline as work teams labored, cutting the needed timber and surveying the site. The archeological investigation uncovered the location of a palisade bisecting the interior of the stockade and an entrance gate facing east. The following year's work revealed the location of 13 structures including the perimeters of the stockade and, the site of the "Great Hall." The later was the meeting place, dining hail, and recreational facility for the North West Company clerks and partners.

The archeologists were able to determine from artifacts that four distinct building methods were used, as well as the outlines of buildings, the types of materials, and the color of paint (from a discarded paint bucket with vestiges of Spanish brown hue). Enough had been learned to reconstruct the stockade and produce a conjectural replica of the Great Hall on its original 95 by 30-foot foundations. Reconstruction work, delayed for two years, progressed from 1938 to 1940.

The MHS supervised the work and provided valuable technical assistance. By 1940 the Great Hall was completed. It contained a museum with Indian crafts and interpretive exhibits, and a souvenir/sandwich shop operated by the Grand Portage Band (of the Chippewa Tribe). [12]

The reconstruction effort, while it probably achieved the best results possible under the constraints of time and money, was not totally satisfactory. Many historical inaccuracies were apparent in the structure. In reviewing the project, an MHS official stated, "Historical values were incidental, and funds were not provided for a full scale interpretation of these archeological excavations." [13]

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II, Grand Portage was "literally abandoned and neglected." [14] Government organizations placed full concentration on the war effort to the detriment of Grand Portage, which languished until well after the Allied victory.

Assisted by the Indian Service and Duluth businessmen, Boy Scouts North Star Council 286 of Duluth began the laborious task of clearing the Grand Portage in 1946. Removing dead trees and underbrush, the Boy Scouts, joined by some of their Canadian counterparts, cleared the entire 8.5-mile trail over three successive summers. [15] The historic route was now accessible as an attraction for the growing number of hiking and canoeing enthusiasts.

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Last Updated: 27-Jan-2005