The Grand Portage Story
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The Boundary of East and West

The cars whish by on Highway 61, doing the Duluth-to-Thunder Bay run in speeded-up, twentieth-century time. The asphalt swoops up the side of Mount Josephine and treats drivers to a spectacular view down the North Shore of Lake Superior, a standing battle line of rock and spray. Then they're at the Canadian border. The hamlet of Grand Portage, nestled down on the coast, is invisible except for the impersonal green and white of a highway sign.

Two hundred years ago others traveled past this place, but their routes ran east-west, not north-south, and they came to different boundaries. Then, Grand Portage was one of the busiest spots west of the Appalachians. It was the most remote in a chain of rendezvous and transfer points for the industry that first put a European mark on the west: the fur trade. For most, Grand Portage wasn't journey's end; it was a place to pass on the way to somewhere else. But as with watersheds and thresholds, the act of passing Grand Portage was sometimes more important than arriving at the final destination.

Grand Portage was a crossroads where two transportation systems and two contrasting cultures met. Furs trapped and cleaned by Indian people all across the half-continent between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains were channeled through this spot. At the lakeshore the furs changed places with goods imported from around the world for Indian use. By the 1780s Grand Portage was headquarters of the famous North West Company, a commercial network that stretched from London to Oregon and the Arctic. But businesses, less permanent than peoples, came and went. Nations shouldered each other aside for a while, and in the end the spot was left in the care of its longest inhabitants, the Ojibway Indians. Today, it is still an Indian place.

Hat Point on the coast of Lake Superior as seen on a late September morning. (Ricahrd J. Novitsky)

A modern visitor to Grand Portage is surrounded by boundaries. There is, of course, the conspicuous one five miles to the north—the international boundary with the guards and drug-sniffing dogs. But it is neither the oldest nor the deepest. Long before nations, there were the boundaries of water and rock, of known and unknown, of east and west, of peoples. They are all still here, like overlapping wrinkles.

The oldest boundary at Grand Portage is very old indeed. The hills are made from some of the most ancient rock on earth. It was formed during the Precambrian era, when the only life was single-celled organisms like algae and bacteria. About 1,200 million years ago this part of the North American continent began to split apart in a huge crack that stretches down the North Shore of Lake Superior, through the St. Croix River valley, and as far south as Kansas. Basaltic lava welled up, then for some reason stopped. A scar of volcanic rock was left through what is now one of the most geologically stable areas in the world. At Grand Portage, the basalt forms huge dikes or linear hills running northeast to southwest, stretch marks along what might have been the edge of a continent. It is these dikes that form the falls on the Pigeon River, and through them the portage trail must thread. [1]

The North Shore of Lake Superior is the southern edge of the Canadian Shield—a vast country of rock scraped clean by glaciers. It offers little to support humans but is rich in one thing—waterways. Starting at Grand Portage with a canoe and a lot of energy, a person could reach the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, Hudson Bay, or the Arctic Ocean without a single portage much longer than the Grand Portage itself.

The next oldest boundary can't be found on any map. It is everywhere: the once-permeable boundary between the spirit world and the world of humans. The oldest inhabitants of this land were mysterious beings known to us only through Ojibway testimony. There were the maymaygwaysiwuk, elusive little people who lived underwater and paddled stone canoes; the michipichou, or malevolent underwater lynx; the wise thunderbirds, who made stone nests on the cloudy heights; and many more. The shores of Lake Superior were once studded with offering rocks to these beings. Both Indians and whites left gifts on these natural altars where other worlds meshed with ours. One such spot still exists at Grand Portage. On the north side of Hat Point, on a stone ledge, is a twisted cedar—the Manito Geezhigaynce, or little spirit cedar tree. Once, it was inhabited by a being that appeared to humans in the shape of a huge eagle. Travelers on the cold, angry inland ocean seldom failed to stop and leave it a gift and a prayer. Today, the spirit beings of Lake Superior have mostly gone. But once they were powers as awesome and terrible as the lake itself. [2]

A maymaygwaysiwuk as depicted by Ojibway artist Norval Morriseau

To the first Europeans who ventured into this land, Grand Portage became another sort of boundary: between the known and unknown. These men were bent on a mission of "discovery"—viewing the land through a new set of symbols, a new frame of reference. They wanted to know what use the land was to them. So they asked about travel routes and trade. The Great Lakes formed an unparalleled highway into the center of the continent. But beyond them lay the barrier of the Canadian Shield and of new, strange peoples. Only three paths crossed the shield barrier—the southernmost by the St. Louis River, which was soon closed off by war; the northernmost by the Kaministikwia River, which was long and shallow; and, in the middle, the Pigeon River route, which led by an almost uninterrupted chain of lakes and rivers clear to Lake Winnipeg and the plains. It is the main water route west of Lake Superior, and its only major obstruction is near the lake, where the Pigeon plunges through basalt chasms in a foaming chain of cataracts. To bypass it, Indian travelers had marked out an eight-and-a-half-mile overland path they called Kitchi Onigaming—in French, Grand Portage.

As European trade with the Indians grew over the years, supply depots and bases sprang up in the west. One was at Detroit, where Lakes Huron and Erie meet; one was at Michilimackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. Grand Portage was the westernmost point where goods could be delivered from the east by ship, and so it also became a hub of commerce. It was the boundary of east and west in those days, where the colonial mercantilism of Europe met a commercial system ruled by Indian values—and adapted. Here, whites learned the ways of a culture oriented not toward profit so much as prestige, not toward resource exploitation but equilibrium.

The North Shore of Lake Superior. (click on image for a PDF version)

Grand Portage's importance as a meeting place of peoples later was destroyed by another boundary: a boundary of nations, the United States and Canada. Wars and treaties in places the local people had never heard of erected an invisible barrier along the Pigeon River, slicing the Ojibway land in two. The North West Company, owned by British Canadians, was forced to abandon its headquarters at Grand Portage in 1803 and move forty miles north to Fort William on the Kaministikwia. There, using the profits made at Grand Portage, the company built another headquarters that eclipsed the old one in grandeur.

Other boundaries soon crowded close upon the Ojibway who remained. In 1854 they gave up much of the land they once used, from Grand Marais to Fort William, from Lake Superior to Rainy Lake. A reservation line was drawn around them and some 51,840 acres of their land. [3] But in the 1880s the government initiated a program to erase all boundaries between Indians and whites, to turn everyone into melting-pot Americans. The reservation was carved up into 160-acre lots surrounded by private property lines, and white settlers moved in to buy up much of the land. There was almost no space left to be Indian.

Today, much of Grand Portage Reservation's land has returned to Indian hands, and the reservation boundaries have been reasserted from within. Older cultural boundaries also are growing stronger. Slowly the world is coming to realize that boundaries can be valuable things. It is along the edges that our cultures are most creative. Where people can see what lies outside, change and innovation happen. And the places of overlap can be the most interesting of all.

From 1730 to 1805, Grand Portage was an emporium of goods and cultures as varied as any in the world. Like any place where peoples meet, it had a flavor all its own. Let's step back in imagination to a July day in the 1790s, when Grand Portage was in its heyday as a fur traders' rendezvous.

We'll spirit ourselves to the top of Mount Rose, the most prominent landmark on Grand Portage Bay. It is sunrise. To the south, the vast inland sea of Lake Superior is a plain of pewter meeting the horizon. Grand Portage Bay forms a half-circle indentation in the lakeshore, framed by Pointe aux Chapeaux (Hat Point) to the northeast and Pointe à la Framboise (Raspberry Point) to the southwest. Grand Portage Island lies in the jaws of the bay. This morning the bay and the beachline are hidden by a layer of chilly gray mist. Inland to the north, ridge upon ridge of dark green hills rise, covered with spruce, fir, and white pine.

It is very quiet. There's a smell of woodsmoke in the air, for already plumes rise from the kitchen chimney within the stockade below and from a campfire in the Indian village nearby. A dog barks; a woman hushes him. Now someone is heading toward the barn, pail banging against his leg, to milk the cows. Out on the bay the sailing ship Otter is riding at anchor. You can hear the sound, magnified by the mist, as someone starts to wash the deck. The crew is getting ready to ballast her for another run back to Sault Ste. Marie.

As the mist thins, you can see the layout of the buildings below. Close by, nestled under the hill at the mouth of a creek, is the palisaded outline of the North West Company's post, crowded with shingle-roofed buildings. Inland from it, along both sides of the creek, is a little village of white tents—the campsite of the gens du nord, or northmen, the canoemen who have transported furs here from the company's scattered posts across the west. Across the creek, near the lakeshore, lies the camp of the mangeurs de lard, or pork eaters, who paddled here from the east in freight canoes loaded with goods from Montreal. The men in both camps are voyageurs (travelers)—the manual laborers who carry the goods of the fur trade by boat or on their backs. Up to a thousand people pass through each summer during the 1790s, but there are rarely more than four or five hundred here at a time. Beyond the camps the lakeshore is cleared and fenced. Eastward down the beach lies a second post—a small, ramshackle affair only occupied in summer—that sells goods to the canoemen. On the land beyond the little fort competing companies from time to time put up buildings. In land from the camps on a ridge is a cemetery full of wooden crosses and Ojibway grave markers. To the north runs the portage trail, following the creek. It threads through a gap in the hills and meets the Pigeon River at Fort Charlotte eight and a half miles to the northwest. [4]

The High Falls of the Pigeon River, about a mile from Lake Superior. (Curtis L. Roy—National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minn.)

Descending Mount Rose, we find the depot already astir. The place is segregated by social class, language, ethnicity, and religion. The first enclave we come upon is the camp of the northmen, where the dialect is a French-Indian patois and the religion an Indian-influenced Catholicism. To the Anglo-Gaelic elite, these are men "of the lowest class." Their white tents of Russia sheeting seemed to a visitor in 1793 to be "pitched at random, the people of each [inland] post having a camp by themselves." The portage trail runs through the cluster of tents. Although most of the men are still sleeping off a binge from last night, some of the Indian and mixed-blood wives who have come along are already up and working. Many of the gens du nord are family men whose homes are in the west. [5]

The reconstructed North West Company depot on Grand Portage Bay as seen from Mount Rose; Hat Point lies in the distance. (Charles W. Nelson)

There are no surviving descriptions of the Grand Portage voyageurs camp, but it must have looked much like others. "We had to sit cross-leg, tailor fashion, round our dish, when at meals," said one traveler. "We kindled a fire out-doors & boiled our Tea Kettle, & the men hung their Tea Kettles on the 'tripied' to make their Soupe. Our Kitchen furniture was a Tea Kettle, a tin Kettle to cook in, a frying pan; tinned plates." [6]

Some of the women are cooking breakfast. When the northmen first arrived, the company regaled them with unaccustomed luxuries: bread, pork, butter, liquor, and tobacco. Since then, they have had to make do with the standard daily ration—"a Quart of Lyed Indian Corn or maize, and one ounce of Greece." The "Lyed Indian Corn" (we would call it hominy grits) is shipped in from Detroit, its main advantage being that it is "the cheapest provision that can be procured." Boiled into a thick pudding, this food was once declared by one of the men in charge (who didn't have to eat it) "an wholesome, palatable food, and easy of digestion." It is, however, "by no means relished by the people, as this was all they had." One trader concluded that the difficulty of reconciling "any other men, than Canadians, to this fare, seems to secure to them . . . the monopoly of the fur-trade." [7]

While here the northmen will collect their annual salary, pay their debts to the company, and renew any expiring contracts if they wish to stay in the west. Some have to visit the doctor. They also need to collect the equipment the company allows them each year: two blankets, two shirts, two pairs of trousers, and tobacco. [8]

Crossing the creek eastward by a natural ford in the middle of the northmen's camp, we come to the pork eaters' side. To judge by one description, the two camps form a contrast: while the northmen's is tidy, the pork eaters' is filthy. There is "a sort of warfare" between the two camps, for the northmen consider themselves an elite, by virtue of experience, and let the others know it. It doesn't help that the men are all "indulging themselves in the free use of liquor, and quarrelling with each other" so much that it is "a necessary precaution for the Traders at the Grand Portage to keep their men apart as much as possible." Doubtless the creek cools off many a hot temper. [9] Instead of tents, "the more frugal pork-eater lodges beneath his canoe." Some of these men are Iroquois, but most are farmers from the small French-Canadian villages around Montreal. Though they're part-timers, on the trip to Grand Portage they adopt a voyageur subculture complete with rituals and songs. (Not the sanitized versions sold in gift shops today; the words of the more authentic songs were so obscene that one shocked historian suppressed them as "unfit for publication.") As we near, we find the pork eaters to be "sinister-looking, long-haired men, in blanket coats, and ostrich feathers in their hats, smoking and cooking, and feeding the fires." They all smell of sweat and tobacco. They are dressed in "a cloth, passed about the middle; a shirt, hanging loose; a molton, or blanket coat; and a large, red, milled worsted cap" or a handkerchief wrapped around the head. Aside from moccasins, which all the lower classes wear, you see very few leather clothes here. Cloth is one of the main commodities of the fur trade, and a salesman who doesn't use his own goods is a poor advertisement. Besides, in their jobs the voyageurs are constantly getting wet, and leather gets clammy and stiff. [10]

These men are not enjoying the leisure that reigns in the northmen's camp. They are the human beasts of burden who have to transport all the goods and furs across the eight-and-one-half-mile portage. Each man, by contract, has eight "pieces" (bales, chests, kegs) weighing ninety pounds each to carry across and four bales of furs to bring back. And if there are still goods left, the men can earn a Spanish dollar for each additional package. They are also obliged to give six days of manual labor—probably felling and hewing trees, sawing boards, putting up buildings, fetching firewood, cutting hay, and other tasks much like those on their farms at home. Some of them will be chosen to man a brigade going on to a rendezvous farther west at Rainy Lake, where they will meet the canoes from Athabasca, which cannot make it to Grand Portage and back in a single season. Some pork eaters will sign on as winterers, switching places with northmen whose contracts have expired. [11]

(omitted from the online edition)
During a 1989 reenactment of the voyageurs journey, David S. Wiggins carried two bales down to the Granite River at the end of Blueberry Portage. (© Will Goddard)

A side trip over to the little fort down the shore from the pork eaters' camp brings us to a shop and canteen operated with a semblance of independence by a man named Joseph Lecuyer. In reality, though, it's a company store. Lecuyer is outfitted by, and splits the profits with, the North West Company. Here the men can buy capotes, jackets, breeches, and other dry goods. If they are tired of hominy they can splurge on better fare, and of course there is wine and rum. Lecuyer's prices would shock anyone from the east. A cotton shirt worth eight francs or less in Montreal costs twelve here, but it's still cheaper than buying things at the wintering posts. Most of the customers are northmen, who have both the need and the money for extras. But no one has cash. They pay Lecuyer in two currencies: either pactons (coarse furs or hides the company lets them bring down from the west) or bons (vouchers for wages from the company). [12]

Sometimes Lecuyer gets more colorful customers—small traders who call themselves gens libres or freemen because they're not engagés of any company. Many are mixed-bloods who trade with their mothers' tribes. They bring their furs down to sell to the North West Company. Sometimes there are enough to hold an auction. [13]

The weather has changed, as it often does here. Now there is a brisk, chilly breeze, and the lake is a dazzling field of glitter under the windy blue sky. As we stroll down to the beach, disturbing a crew of raucous gulls feeding on discarded fish guts, we see two log wharfs where the company's four skiffs are tied up. Some are rowboats and some are probably sailing dinghies, used for shuttling cargo from the sailing ship to shore. The bay here is so shallow that the ship can't come in to the wharf while fully laden, so it spends most of the time anchored out in the lee of the island. [14]

There is a shout. One of the men nearby is gesturing out toward Pointe aux Chapeaux. Around the point comes a brigade of huge Montreal canoes, paddles flashing in the sun. One canoe is flying a Union Jack, a signal that one of the company's agents from Montreal is aboard. Spectators line the beach. Some men issue from the post with muskets. As the canoes come near, they fire off a feu de joie to honor the new arrivals. The canoe crew answers by bellowing out a French song. The gentlemen passengers are dressed stylishly—you can be sure they stopped nearby last night to shave, wash, and change clothes. [15]

The gentlemen's canoe pulls up at the wharf, but most of the others must land on the beach—a tricky maneuver, for they are too fragile to touch ground. It is done this way: "The first [canoe] makes a dash at the beach. Just as the last wave is carrying the canoe on dry ground, all her men jump out at once and support her; while her gentlemen or clerks hurry out her lading. During this time the other canoes are, if possible, heading out into the lake; but now one approaches, and is seized by the crew of the canoe first beached, who meet her up to the middle in water, and who, assisted by her own people, [unload the cargo and] lift her up high and dry." Lifting the empty vessel takes at least six men, who "reversed the canoe and in an instant shouldered it, which required great expertness, as any slip or accident would have destroyed the vessel, beyond the power of repairing." [16]

These are the biggest birch-bark canoes you're ever likely to see. Thirty-six feet long, six feet wide at the middle, the Montreal canoe looks like a flimsy vessel but can carry four tons. Each one has a crew of eight to ten men. As they are unloaded we can see what the canoes hold. First there are the sixty pieces—chests, kegs, and bales wrapped in water-repellent canvas. Then the canoe equipment: two oilcloths, a mast and sail (yes, they can sail with a tailwind), an ax, a kettle, a towing line, a sponge for bailing, and a repair kit consisting of extra bark, gum, and watap (spruce root used for sewing the seams). Then there is the baggage; each crewman is allowed forty pounds of it, and gentlemen get more. When they first set out, the canoes were also weighed down with more than nine hundred pounds of food, but it is mostly gone now. All of this cargo rests on long poles laid in the bottom of the craft, which bear the weight and maintain the canoe's stiffness. According to one Nor' Wester, "An European on seeing one of these slender vessels thus laden, heaped up, and sunk with her gunwale within six inches of the water, would think his fate inevitable in such a boat . . . but the Canadians are so expert that few accidents happen." [17]

To find out what is in those pieces, we need to follow the line of men shouldering the cargo up to the gate. First, stop and look at the depot—it is an impressive sight. This is "the Head-Quarters or General Rendezvous for all who commerce in this part of the World." George Nelson, an opposition clerk who visited in 1802, wrote that "the establishment of the N. W. Co., tho' there was nothing superfluous or unnecessary, . . . was of an extent to prove at once the great trade they carried on, their judgement & taste in the regularity & position of their numerous buildings. The neatness & order of things was not [the] least part of it." [18]

The first thing you see is the palisade built of fifteen-foot-long cedar logs, only twenty paces from the shore. The logs are pointed—not to spear intruders, but to shed water. There are three gates that are barred and locked after sunset. Two of them have guardhouses where sentries stand watch all night, "cheifly [sic] for fear of accident by fire." [19]

The roof of the Great Hall rises above the palisades marking the perimeter of the reconstructed fur trade depot. (Jet Lowe, HABS MN-76-3—Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service; negative at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

It all gives the place a misleadingly military air. No one ever expects this post to be attacked—particularly not by Indians, who are welcome inside as valued customers. The palisades are there to control traffic, protecting the company's inventory from pilferers, opposition spies, and any riotous behavior from the company's own men. They also separate the classes. Inside, the dominant language changes from French to English, and you suddenly see men dressed in knee pants, stockings and buckled shoes, long-tailed coats with shiny brass buttons, cravats, and hats.

The depot is a crowded, bustling village. The best description of it was written by a clerk named John Macdonell in 1793: "The buildings within the Fort are sixteen in number made with cedar and white spruce fir split with whip saws after being squared, the Roofs are couvered with shingles of Cedar and Pine, most of their posts, Doors, and windows, are painted with spanish brown. Six of these buildings are Store Houses for the company's Merchandize and Furs &c. The rest are dwelling houses shops compting house and Mess House." Another visitor added that the "Dwelling Houses, Shops & Stores &c. all . . . appear to be temporary buildings, just to serve for this moment." [20]

Here, there is shelter from the wind. From the clang of hammer on anvil you can tell that the blacksmith is busy repairing some guns, traps, or other iron tools. There is a cooperage, too, with barrel staves and hoops stacked in front. Two Indian women are sitting under an awning, watching the hubbub and talking softly in Ojibway. We will follow the moccasined feet of the voyageurs along the dusty path to the warehouse. [21]

Looking toward the lake along the eastern palisade wall. (Curtis L. Roy—National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minn.)

Inside is a scene of controlled confusion. As the pieces come in, each is weighed to make sure nothing is missing. (The weights were marked on them before they left Montreal.) Some are promptly unpacked by a crew of clerks busy sorting merchandise and making up outfits for the various posts. Each bourgeois or department head has put in an order for next winter's trade in his district, and the clerks must assemble the goods and make sure he is accurately charged. Some trusted men are making up new bales for the clerks to mark with the company's name, the year, the district they're bound to, and their weight. As yet there are few furs here; they are being stored at the other end of the portage. As these warehouses empty of goods they will gradually fill with furs. The packages for the farthest posts have to go off first. The onset of winter is an unforgiving deadline, and it comes as early as October in some parts of the country. [22]

A picket from the original palisade wall excavated in 1936. (Ralph D. Brown—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Step closer to see what they are packing. One bourgeois' shopping list from 1801 called for "coarse woollen cloths of different kinds; milled blankets of different sizes; arms and ammunition; twist and carrot tobacco; Manchester goods [cotton]; linens, and coarse sheetings; thread, lines and twine; common hardware; cutlery and ironmongery of several descriptions; kettles of brass and copper, and sheet-iron; silk and cotton handkerchiefs; hats, shoes and hose; calicoes and printed cottons, &c. &c. &c." And, of course, "Spirituous liquors." [23]

It is worth noting that six out of fourteen categories in this list are cloth. Proud as the traders are of their flintlock guns, the truth is they mainly run blanket and fabric shops. The other thing to note is that this list omits mention of goods most traders think of as "women's"—beads, needles, awls, ribbons, jewelry, vermilion. These are among the most profitable items carried. [24]

Leaving, we'll pass other warehouses: one holds enough liquor to float the company's ship, another is piled with food to provision the northern brigades. Gunpowder is kept in a powder house well away from any fires. In the off-season, account books are stored there for safekeeping. [25]

Tools of the clerk's trade; (from top) a candlestick base and candle snuffer, found at the site of Fort Charlotte, and an inkwell, excavated at Grand Portage, that was designed for use with a quill pen. (top, middle: Peter Latner; bottom: Eric Mortenson—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

We have already met some clerks. They are the lowest members of the fur trade's upper class. Many are young, for it is an entry-level position. They all lodge together in a dormitory-like building within the stockade. Some of them are "sober decent young Gentlemen." Others, for the first time "freed from the shackels of a Strict parent," are beginning to "run riot" and indulge in "all the foolish & vulgar language of the lowest of our crew." Still others are homesick teenagers who are constantly "chasing back a flood of tears." It is an uncertain time for them. Though they're hard at work, they don't yet know where or with whom they will be spending the winter. [26]

There are more clerks at work as we enter the countinghouse. It is an office lined with tall writing stands holding huge, leather-bound ledgers. The floor is gritty with blotting sand, and the clerks' fingers are black with ink. Here is where all the accounting is done. This is a complex job, for each district has separate accounts, and the furs coming in belong to a different year's accounts than the goods going out. The job is made even more complex by the variety of currencies in use. The lower classes are paid in French currency—francs, livres, louis, and sous—while the gentlemen use British—pounds, shillings, and pence. But Spanish dollars or piasters are also used, and the British currency is divided into two valuations, Halifax and sterling. Then, because of the inflated prices in the west, a new kind of currency has come into use there: Grand Portage Currency, or G.P.C. Twelve pounds G.P.C. equals one pound sterling. One hundred pounds G.P.C. can buy a colt, and six hundred to one thousand is a typical yearly wage for an engagé. [27]

The countinghouse is also the equivalent of a personnel department. Here is where all the winterers must come to settle their accounts. If they have bought anything from the company over the winter the price is deducted from their wages, and if anything is left over they can either get bons to spend here or drafts to send home. They can also sign new contracts. All supervisors are supposed to have their men's accounts straight before coming down to Grand Portage, but they often don't do it and have to be nagged. [28]

There is one class of person we have not yet met: the bourgeois or partners, the elite of Grand Portage society. They are the owners of the company, both the shareholders and management. They are about to hold a meeting in the Great Hall, so we will peek in on them. [29]

It sounds as if we have stumbled upon a suburb of Inverness: the Scottish accents are thick enough to cut. All are talking at a great rate. For one thing, most of them have been isolated for months, directing their departments in the west, and this is their one chance to socialize. But it is also serious business. The exchange of information is almost as important at Grand Portage as the exchange of goods. They're talking about which regions had the best returns last winter, who had conflicts with the Indians, where food was scarce, what sorts of goods sold best, how the opposition did. Every year the company's distribution of posts and goods changes in response to changing conditions. If the company is not well coordinated, two posts can end up competing while another region is left without traders. [30]

They're also gossiping hard about each other. At their annual meeting important personnel changes will be made. Some partners will retire, others will go on leave according to a strict rotation system. They will have to decide which clerks to promote or whether to reward a successful partner with another share in the company. There is a lot of lobbying. One faction suspects another of intending to promote a partisan clerk despite his obvious incompetence, and they're collecting votes to block the move. Some partners are campaigning to get certain districts. The factions often break down along family lines, for a good many of these men are related. [31]

There is a stir as a new person enters: the agent from Montreal we saw arriving. The men in the room greet him as "Mr. McGillivray." He is a representative of the firm of McTavish, Frobisher and Company, the North West Company's Montreal supplier. McTavish, Frobisher now has two agents here; the other one, Mr. Mackenzie, has been supervising depot operations since early June. These two are the North West Company's link to the east. They are also the most powerful men here, since their firm holds almost half the shares in the North West Company. The talk now shifts, for Mr. McGillivray has news about how furs are selling in London and Moscow and how tariffs, insurance, and government regulations are affecting the trade. He is also gathering information. The wintering partners' news about the quantities and kinds of goods the Indians are buying influences the overseas orders his company will place this fall. The Indians are exacting customers, and their needs and tastes are unlike those of Europeans. Whenever war or disease breaks out among the Indians, it has a ripple effect in London, Lisbon, and Holland. [32]

The sound of drums from outside interrupts the talk. An Ojibway delegation has gathered in the open square before the Great Hall to perform an honor dance for the visiting dignitaries. The men's clothes are bright with feathers, quillwork, and beads, and they jingle with tiny hawk bells as they move. The women wear cloth dresses fringed with metal cones cut from kettles, which make a swishing, tinkling sound. As the drums start to beat, a crowd forms. The gentlemen come out to stand on the porch of the Great Hall and watch. At the end, they present the dancers with a ceremonial gift of shrub (rum punch) and invite the chief inside. There they will exchange elaborate speeches and gifts. The chief will present them with furs and they will present him with a uniform coat, a hat, and other marks of distinction. [33]

Ojibway dancers during Rendezvous Days at Grand Portage National Monument in the 1970s. (Curtis L. Roy—National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minn.)

We will leave them talking and head on. As we pass by the kitchen complex, the smell of baking bread is mouthwatering. You also catch a whiff of fresh-cut hay and manure from the barn. The company doesn't do a lot of farming here; the men say that "nothing but potatoes have been found to answer the trouble of cultivation." They do have livestock, though: horses and oxen for hauling loads, sheep and pigs for meat, and cows for milk, butter, and beef. The animals numbered twenty-three in 1787, and probably there are more by now. [34]

As we come near the north gate, we have to sidestep a moving line of men almost buried under huge packs. They are setting off on the portage, so we follow. It is hard work keeping up. They move at a fast trot through the northmen's camp, across the stream, and into the woods.

The ninety-pound pieces are balanced high on each man's back, the lowest one being tied to a strong leather strap called a tumpline or portage collar, which passes across the man's forehead. (The idea was borrowed from Indian women, who traditionally carried a family's belongings from camp to camp.) The men walk bent forward with knees flexed, balancing most of the weight on their shoulders. "He is not looked upon as 'a man' who cannot carry two [pieces]," wrote one trader. "There are many who even take three and outrun their fellows." When the men get to competing with each other, they can travel the Grand Portage and return, fully loaded, "in the course of six hours, being a distance of eighteen miles over hills and mountains." [35]

The Grand Portage trail in the summeritme. (Curtis L. Roy—National Park Service, Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minn.)

Under normal circumstances, the trip is more leisurely. The men stop about every half hour at a place on the trail called a pose; the Grand Portage has sixteen of them. As we catch up with the pork eaters at the first pose, we find them smoking their pipes and doing a certain amount of grousing. As one traveler noted, "The young men . . . now began to regret that they had enlisted into this service, which requires them, as they say, to carry burdens like horses, when, by remaining in their own country, they might have laboured like men." [36]

The company did try to use wagons or oxcarts on this trail but "without success." Horses and oxen were "only useful for light, bulky articles; or for transporting upon sledges, during the winter, whatever goods may remain there." In later years, there are a few mentions of a "public Road" fit for carts and wagons, but little is known about it. [37]

The first part of the trail runs almost due north, following the creek, but soon it angles off to the west. There are landmarks along the way: the parting trees, the fountain, the meadow. The first written description of the trail, in 1775, said that it "consists in two ridges of land, between which is a deep glen or valley, with good meadowlands, and a broad stream of water. The lowlands are covered chiefly with birch and poplar, and the high with pine." Others found it a less sylvan scene, especially as its intensive use increased. In 1800 "the Portage was very bad in some places, knee deep in mud and clay, and so slippery, as to make walking tedious." Another traveler complained that "where it is not rock, it is mud." The mosquitoes are "ferocious." [38]

The time it takes to carry over the goods for each district's brigade varies: "seven days of severe and dangerous exertion" for one group, "five day's hard labor" for another. In 1784 the North West Company could get the baggage for all its brigades across in fifteen days, but those times are long gone. [39]

The sight of the Pigeon River through the trees is a welcome one. The trail comes down the north bank of Snow Creek, passes the North West Company's Fort Charlotte, and meets the river at a large wooden dock. The fort, named for the wife of George III, must remain a mystery until archaeological research reveals its nature. Almost no written record of it survives. The most detailed description (by traveler George Heriot, who did not stop here) says only that it is "a stockaded quadrangle, with buildings and stores within it." Another source adds that there are "extensive Stores for Furs & Goods." We know it must have warehouses, a yard for storing and repairing canoes, and living quarters. From time to time opposition companies also put up posts across the creek. [40]

The dock area is a scene of bustle and confusion, for a brigade is about to set out. On the grass some men are working on their upended canoes, patching holes with birch bark and watap, then caulking the seams with a mixture of pine pitch, tallow, and charcoal heated on a fire. Other canoes are pulled up at the dock for loading. These are the North canoes used throughout the west—smaller than Montreal canoes, but still bigger than modern ones. They are twenty-five feet long and are paddled by four to six men. They can carry about 3,700 pounds but are light enough for two men to haul over a portage. As you peer in, you can see that the twenty-three to twenty-five pieces of goods they carry is only two-thirds of the load. The rest is food and baggage. [41]

Each brigade is made up of four to eight canoes, and their departure is carefully spaced two days apart to prevent the portages inland from getting crowded. When two groups use the same portage at once, pieces inevitably get mixed up or left behind. The brigades bound for the farthest posts set off first. On the first day they only go as far as a spot called "the Prairie," just beyond Partridge Falls, where they make "merry upon some small Kegs of Wines which is generally given them on their engagement at G[rand] P[ortage], and one and sometimes 2 Gallons to each man." This "regale" is "generally enjoyed at this spot where we have a delightful Meadow to pitch our Tents and plenty of elbow room for the men to play their antic tricks." [42]

A traveler through Canada about 1805 depicted a dance in a hall similar to the one at Grand Portage. People from many backgrounds came together at these festivities, including African Americans who participated in the fur trade either as traders or slaves. (George Hariot, from his Travels through the Canadas [London: Richard Phillips, 1807]—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

No sooner has the brigade set out than we see another group of canoes coming downstream, loaded with furs. With a good deal of exuberant swearing the men pull up at the dock and begin to unload. Their furs have all been pressed into bales. Though the pelts were cleaned by Indian women to prevent them from rotting, the smell is strong. There are things besides furs, too: kegs of castoreum, a liquid from the glands of beavers, used in perfume making and for baiting traps, and some bags of pemmican and buffalo grease for provisioning outgoing brigades. The furs will be stored here at Fort Charlotte till the pork eaters shuttle them back across the portage. At the other end they will all be sorted and inventoried, checked against the bourgeois' accounts, then remade into bales for shipment to Montreal, where they will arrive in September. [43]

We will follow the northmen who are heading across the portage, carrying only their own baggage and looking forward to being "regaled with plenty, and feasted on bread and pork . . . and a coup to make them merry." By the time we reach the main depot again, the dinner bell is ringing and people are flocking toward the Great Hall. We have to leave our engage companions behind, for only the higher ranks are allowed to eat in the Great Hall. [44]

The long room is crowded with tables. Almost a hundred well-dressed men are standing by their chairs in a hush of expectation, their eyes on the head table. At last the bourgeois enter, dressed "fit to appear at court," and take their seats. With a thunderous scraping of chair legs on the board floors, the rest then sit down. Everyone is arranged strictly by rank: bourgeois at one table, head clerks next, then apprentice clerks, interpreters, and guides. Their manners are formal; they are careful to refer to everyone above them in the social scale as "Mister." The North West Company's "strict rules of subordination" are never forgotten. [45]

The white tablecloths are set with pewter utensils, pearlware dishes from England, Chinese porcelain, and stemmed wine glasses. The menu consists of "bread, salt pork, beef, hams, fish, and venison, butter, peas, Indian corn, potatoes, tea, spirits, wine, &c. and plenty of milk." As one clerk put it, "the best of everything and the best of fish." There is plenty of imported Spanish and Canary wine, too. [46]

On most nights, when dinner is over the tablecloths are removed and the lower ranks leave. Then the bourgeois, along with some select head clerks, will start drinking in earnest, while the other clerks relax outside, "cracking their jokes at the expense of their superiors." There's a lot of after-dinner talk; most of the men are old friends, and as one said, "when People meet in this Country as it is so seldom not a moment is to be lost, but improved by keeping up an agreeable (if possible) conversation, and in smoking the sociable Pipe." Their talks give them "much the same satisfaction and delight that two old Soldiers have when they meet after a long separation." [47]

An Ojibway camp in the 1840s included dwellings covered with birch bark; the tent on the right was probably that of the artist, Paul Kane. (Paul Kane; ROM 946.15.32)—Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto)

But when dinner is over tonight, everyone leaves and the servants start clearing away tables and lighting lamps for a North West ball. "This evening the Gentlemen of the place dressed & we had a famous Ball in the Dining Room," wrote one clerk. "For musick we had the Bag-Pipe the Violin, the Flute & the Fife, which enabled us to spend the evening agreeably." Dancing is the main attraction: jigs, reels, and hornpipes set to rollicking Celtic tunes, danced stiff-armed and with fancy footwork. The men's partners are "this Countries Ladies"—the Indian and mixed-blood wives and daughters of traders. They are polite, doubtless stylishly dressed, and "danced not amiss." Now and then the bagpipe will break off and play a mournful Scottish ballad, and everyone will sing. Liquor is never absent; soon all are thoroughly mellow. [48]

Outside, the light from the windows lies golden on the porch. Out on the bay the moon is painting a path of silver across the lake. Climbing up into the guardhouse where the fire watch is on duty, we can see campfires dotting the beach like stars. The strains of an old French chanson rise from one of the camps, competing with the muffled fiddle music from the Great Hall. There is a sound of drumming from one cluster of campfires, and we realize there is still one place to visit. The guard will let us out the gate so we can walk through the cricket-filled darkness to the Ojibway camp.

As we approach, some dogs run up to greet us. We thread our way past drying racks, where the women were smoking fish today. Some of the houses are tipi-shaped but covered with huge sheets of birch bark instead of skin. Others are long A-frame structures covered with bark and woven rush mats. These are big enough to house several related families at once. The largest is a "Grand Lodge," where feasts and public ceremonies are held. [49]

A lot of the people are outside. One crowd is gathered around a campfire where four men are playing the moccasin game. While one man hides a marked bullet under one of four moccasins, his partner drums and sings in a high falsetto voice. As the music reaches a crescendo, their opponent strikes one of the moccasins with a stick, guessing that is where the special bullet is hidden. They keep score with marked sticks. Everyone is wagering heavily on the teams. The onlookers are all dressed in cloth, but the effect is not European. The women wear calf-length dresses held up by shoulder straps and decorated with intricate ribbon appliqué. The men wear calico shirts, woolen loincloths, and beaded bags. If it were colder, the women would put on detachable sleeves and the men would wear leggings. The firelight glints on their silver jewelry and beads.

In the shadows behind one lodge a teenaged boy and girl are whispering to each other, heads close. Another boy is softly playing a courting flute outside the house of a girl he fancies. The evidence of the day's work is all around: fishnets hanging out to dry, copper pails of berries sitting high on food racks, a half-finished canoe staked out on the ground, a moose-skin stretched on a drying rack. Despite this, there is an air of leisure, of time to spare, that contrasts with the harried bustle of the post.

We lift the blanket hung at the door of one house, and the residents welcome us hospitably. The interior is lit by two campfires, and on the floor are fresh cedar boughs that give off a pungent scent at every step. The woman of the house offers us some wooden bowls of fish soup, then settles back to some handwork she is making to sell at the post; the gentlemen like to take Indian souvenirs when they go back east. The women's conversation, spoken in Ojibway and Cree, is mostly about the Indian families who are constantly coming and going. In the rear of the lodge some men trade stories about the animals they killed last winter, the ones that got away, and adventures with frostbite and forest. One old man pipes up with the story of how he once killed a bear with only a knife. They've all heard it before but listen politely. [50]

This is why the fur trade exists: these are the people who buy the goods, make the canoes, hunt the animals, and cure the skins. They guide the traders along the waterways and supply them with food through the winter. The depot and all the people in it collect and transport the products of Indian labor. The white people make a lot more bustle and noise, but the fur trade is really an Indian industry. If the Indian life-style should cease to exist, so would the fur trade.

It is late, time to leave our hosts and their century behind. The intricate mesh of jobs, languages, and people that is the fur trade has only about fifty more years to exist in this region. But before we return to our own time, perhaps we should look even farther back to find out how this vast cooperative commerce first came about.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009