The Grand Portage Story
NPS Logo

First Contact

If histories of North America were written fairly, they would begin not with the nations of Europe but the nations of this land. In 1640 the Great Lakes region was a complex patchwork of territories belonging to powerful, populous confederacies: Iroquois, Algonquian, Huron, Ottawa, Dakota. It was they who shaped the fur trade.

North of the lakes dwelt the many allied groups who spoke Algonquian languages—among them the Cree, Ottawa, Ojibway, Menominee, Potawatomie, and Nipissing. They were hunters, fishermen, and traders, inventors of the birch-bark canoe and experts of the waterways. South of the lakes lived semiagricultural village dwellers—the Dakota, Fox, Winnebago, Miami, and the tribes of the powerful Iroquois league. Neither fences nor maps delineated the boundaries between these groups, but the lines were no less real for being immaterial. There was no love lost between the Algonquians and their southern neighbors. The Algonquian word for Iroquois was Nadoweg, or adder; the word for Dakota was Nadouessioux, or like an Iroquois. [1]

In the earliest written records Lake Superior is called Lac des Nadouessioux for the Dakota people who occupied its southern and western shores. On the north shore lived the Cree. West of the lake, the border line between these groups ran approximately along the present international boundary. In the seventeenth century Rainy Lake was called Lac des Cristinaux for the Cree, and Lake of the Woods was Lac des Assiniboiles, for the Assiniboine, a group of Yanktonai Dakota who had splintered off and become allies of the Cree, enemies of their old kinsmen. [2] Grand Portage, lying in the contested zone between the Cree and Dakota, was thus at a strategic location. It and the Kaministikwia River were the only routes the Assiniboine and other, more western tribes could take to the Great Lakes.

Despite political tensions, commerce flourished among the communities. The southerly tribes traded corn and tobacco for dried meat and skins. Northerners could always sell crafted articles like fishnets, snowshoes, and birch-bark containers. The Ottawa and Huron traded with the Winnebago of Wisconsin for "light earthen pots, and girdles made of goat's hairs, and small shells that grow att the sea side." The Ojibway and Cree were sought out for medicines. [3]

Trade was an old activity in North America. Over the years economic strategies, trading routes, and customs had become entrenched. When the French arrived on the St. Lawrence River, eager to barter their blankets, nightcaps, sheets, swords, axes, kettles, prunes, and crackers for Indian furs, they could do nothing but adapt. They could not have imposed a European-style trading system on the Great Lakes if they had tried. The Huron and Algonquians became their mentors, middlemen, and protectors. [4]

Patterns of Settlement of Indian Confederacies in the Great Lakes Region in the Seventeeth Century.

Binding Ties

Present-day entrepreneurs would find the trading system that the French encountered very alien. To begin with, many sales strategies that we now take for granted didn't work.

If European-style merchants want to sell more, they cut prices. If they want their suppliers to produce more, they pay more. If goods are scarce, prices are expected to rise; if they are plentiful, prices will go down. None of these axioms of economics worked in North America, for a simple reason: all are based on the assumption that the customer's desire for goods is limited only by his or her ability to pay. But Indian customers did not want to accumulate unlimited material goods.

Huron women traveling with their children and possessions on their backs. The tumpline or leather strap across the forehead was adopted by voyageurs as a way to balance heavy loads on their shoulders. (detail from Novae Fraciae Accurata Delineatoio, 1657, map attributed to Francesco Bressani—Canadian Association of Geographers, Montreal, Quebec)

This choice was partly due to their life-style. When a family moves six or seven times a year, possessions are merely more inconvenient baggage. But much more important were cultural values. In Indian society, property ownership was not the route to power or prestige. Community leaders were expected to share all they had. Gift giving was applauded, hoarding was condemned. Children were not promised material rewards. Praise and honor were the motivating forces, and these were refined into as many gradations and symbolic expressions as we have material status symbols today. Shame was far worse than poverty. [5]

The result could be ruinous to European traders. When costs went up and a trader raised prices, the Indians often saw it as an act of bad faith and refused to buy. When prices went down, they did not stock up but merely bought as much as they needed for the present. "People would suppose it would rouse their attention to industry, having goods at a lower price, but far to the contrary," wrote one disgruntled trader. Others accused the Indians of "laziness" and "improvidence"—the angry businessman's code words for "nonmaterialistic." The Indians' refusal to become embroiled in the European economic system was to frustrate traders for two hundred years. [6]

But the failure of the usual European sales techniques didn't mean there was no way to stimulate trade. The traders merely had to find what motivated their customers. The answer lay in another characteristic of commerce. Nowhere is it an entirely secular, politically meaningless, morally neutral activity. It is always entwined with sociopolitical values.

In Indian society, trade was a public ceremony. To open trade was to cement an alliance—a relationship imbued with many mutual obligations, including political and military aid, social duties such as food sharing, and intermarriage. Politics and trade were inseparable, as the French soon found out when they became entangled along with their Algonquian partners in a war against the Iroquois.

They also found themselves enmeshed in a fabric of kinship. In native American society, family was a civil body as well as a biological one. It was, in fact, the Indian equivalent of a legal and judicial system. The family enforced codes of behavior. If you were injured, it was your family's obligation to seek either revenge or reparation. If you injured another person your entire family was jeopardized, since the victim could legitimately punish any of your kin. You were expected to treat kin in a moral, altruistic fashion, sharing food and taking their part in disputes. Where no kinship ties existed, you could act in a self-interested, exploitative way. [7]

It was to both the traders' and the Indians' advantage to be considered each other's kin. To the trader, the relationship meant the difference between being outside and inside the law. To the Indian, it meant a trader was obligated to support his extended family in need. It was easier for a European to join an Indian family than vice versa. Marriage was one route into the system. Another was adoption, an institution so respected that, according to an Ojibway writer, "Whenever these ties have been disregarded or grossly violated, the occurrence is told in their lodge tales, in terms to teach the rising generation never to do likewise." Though European society had no similar entree for Indians, native people tried to incorporate themselves into an imaginary French "family" by addressing Canada's governor as "Father" and referring to themselves as his children. Unfortunately, this rhetoric seldom excited the intended sense of parental obligation. [8]

During the 1600s most trading occurred at French towns along the St. Lawrence, particularly Montreal and Quebec. Large tribal delegations traveled east to meet the French governor and bargain directly with merchants. The customs followed in these visits set the tone for the fur trade to come.

Trade was a highly stylized activity. Once, when the French tried to hurry the process, the Huron "expostulated against the methods of our merchants in completing the trade in an hour." The elaborate etiquette often included a feast, the smoking of pipes, and the exchange of generous gifts. All were highly symbolic. The sharing of food cemented kinship and political ties; as one astute trader observed, "without the help of the pot you cannot have friendship." The pipe solemnized the occasion, calling on sacred powers to witness. The gifts reflected honor upon the giver and created respect for his position, but they were also invitations to reciprocity. Gifts remained a crucial part of the Indian-white relationship. [9]

Then the oratory started. The French found Indian trade rhetoric startling. The Indians' first strategy was usually to shame the traders into generosity, using a concept in Indian ethics called (in the Ojibway language) jawendjige, to take pity. Nicolas Perrot, who spent more than thirty years trading with the Great Lakes tribes, described its use between two Indian groups. The Dakota, who were trying to open trade with the Ottawa, "began, according to their custom, to weep over every person they met, in order to manifest the lively joy which they felt in meeting them; and they entreated the strangers to have pity on them." When the Ottawa gave the Dakota gifts, the latter "declared that they placed great value on these, lifting their eyes to the sky, and blessing it for having guided to their country these peoples." The Dakota "loaded them with endearing terms, and showed the utmost submissiveness, in order to touch them with compassion and obtain from them some benefits." [10]

Goods that French traders commonly traded to the Indians in exchange for furs, as reported in 1703 by the adventurer Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de Lahontan. "Fusee" was the English term for fusil, or musket. (Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de Lahontan, New Voyages to North-America, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, vol. 1 [Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1905]—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Unaccustomed to such behavior, traders at first tended to take it all at face value. When an Indian delegation wept and said families were starving, the traders believed it. When the Indians called them gods, they half believed that, too. Many mistook the rhetoric for subordination or begging. They were wrong—it was partly polite manipulation and partly insistence that the traders live up to the social obligations they had incurred by opening the trade relationship. If it didn't work, the Indians turned to other strategies. They invoked past favors and played rival traders off against one another. As early as 1611 the French were complaining that "these Indians are now too sharp and crafty" in their bargaining. [11]

The French had their own trade rhetoric. In contrast to the Indians', it consisted of extolling themselves and their goods. "Throw aside your bone bodkins," Nicolas Perrot told some Mascouten women. "These French awls will be much easier to use. . . . To you who are old men I leave my kettle; I carry it everywhere without fear of breaking it." Perrot swept grandly from tribe to tribe, spreading a gospel in which trade was redemption: "The sun has never been very bright on your horizon; you have always been wrapped in the shadows of a dark and miserable existence, never having enjoyed the true light of day, as the French do. . . . I am the dawn of that light, which is beginning to appear in your lands . . . who will soon shine brightly and will cause you to be born again, as if in another land, where you will find, more easily and in greater abundance, all that can be necessary to man." [12]

Lahontan's account of the value of different kinds of furs. (Louis Armand de Lom d'Arce, baron de Lahontan, New Voyages to North-America, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaites, vol. 1 [Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1905]—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Extravagant as Perrot's rhetoric was, he probably believed a good portion of it. The French, and other Europeans who followed them, were unshakably convinced of the superiority of their own technology. The sight of Fox women slicing meat with their exquisitely sharp flint knives struck Perrot as pitiful. The Indians did not see it that way. They valued trade goods, as one Frenchman observed, "not so much for their novelty as for the convenience they derived therefrom." Convenience is the key word. The goods did not radically alter Indian ways of life but made those ways more convenient. There is little plausible evidence that Indians depended on these items or starved without them, as self-important traders sometimes claimed. A century later traders were still struggling to keep their customers from going back to older technologies. Traders had to live in Indian villages, a British merchant argued, in order to "excite a desire in them to have the commodities of Europe . . . without which they would . . . only hunt for sustenance and a few skins to make themselves cloathing." [13]

In 1671 Perrot acted as translator for the French at a grand convocation of the Lake Superior tribes, held at Sault Ste. Marie. It was the opening of formal diplomatic relations with the Cree, Monsoni, Nipissing, Ojibway, and other northwestern tribes. The Indians believed the French were asking "for permission to trade in the country, and for free passage to and from their villages." The French believed they were taking possession of the land in the name of Louis XIV. Ojibway oral tradition preserved Perrot's words in recognizable form until the speech was written down in the 1850s. The Ojibway cited it as evidence of how well the French had "assimilated themselves to the customs and mode of life" of the Indians. [14]

But it was only rhetoric.

The Ojibway Empire

By the time the French arrived in the Lake Superior country, the fur trade was already thriving there. From the beginning, the French depended upon Indian middlemen to bring them furs from the west. During the first half of the seventeenth century the Huron had organized convoys to carry furs to Montreal. But a ruinous war with the Iroquois scattered the Huron in 1648-49, and another league took over the middleman position. Their very name, Ottawa, meant trader. [15]

The middlemen played a crucial—and profitable—role. They were not hunters but shippers and brokers, accustomed to bargaining with both Indians and Europeans. Typically, middlemen tried to keep their position by preventing direct contact between the French and client tribes. The Huron had done so by spreading rumors that the French were "unsociable, rude, sad, melancholy people who lived only on serpents and poison." The Ottawa strategy was to open up new markets far west of where the French had set foot. [16]

The French were aware of their dependence on the Ottawa, who "alone supply us with two-thirds of the Beaver that is sent to France." "They get their peltries, in the North, from the people of the interior," one official reported, adding that "they go in search of it to the most distant places." [17]

One of those "distant places" was, very likely, Grand Portage. In the 1660s one group of Ottawa set up headquarters at Chequamegon Bay on the south shore of Lake Superior. From there, the middlemen made trading expeditions north and west. They visited Lake Nipigon, where, according to Perrot's rather owlish report, they secured from the residents "all their beaver robes for old knives, blunted awls, wretched nets, and kettles used until they were past service. For these they were most humbly thanked." They probably rendezvoused with the Cree and Assiniboine at Grand Portage. [18]

But the Ottawa's domination, like that of the Huron, was undermined by war—this time with the Dakota and Fox. In 1671 the Ottawa abandoned their insecure outpost on Lake Superior, opening up the way for a new and more lasting middleman empire. This time it was the Ojibway.

A Paris furrier's shop in the mid-1700s as depicted in an engraving in Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie. Boxes holding muffs line the walls. (Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers: Recueil de Plances, vol. 3 [Paris, 1765]—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

The French first met the ancestors of the Ojibway along the north shore of Lake Huron and at the strategic junction of Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. They did not call themselves Ojibway. but went by the names of their many small, independent villages organized around clan groups, including the Awause (Catfish), Amik (Beaver), and Noka (Bear). These clan-villages eventually gave rise to the Ottawa and Potawatomie tribes as well as the Ojibway. (In those early times the tribal divisions of today had not yet solidified.) In all three tribes, many of the ancient clans still survive. [19]

By the 1660s the proto-Ojibway had begun to consolidate at Sault Ste. Marie, where the fisheries supported a summer population of one thousand or more. When the French established a mission there, they called the people Saulteurs (people of the falls). The Ojibway called the French Wametigoshe (people of the waving stick, for the priests' crosses). [20]

In the 1670s this small, obscure tribe began a westward expansion that would continue until the group occupied an area from Ontario to Montana, the largest geographical distribution of any tribe in North America. Their energetic participation in the fur trade was one motive for this expansion. [21]

The tribe divided at the Sault, part going along the North Shore of Lake Superior, part along the south. They were not to meet again for about sixty years—three generations—when they both reached Grand Portage. By then the two groups, who may have stemmed from different clan villages to begin with, had contrasting life-styles and dialects. The north-shore Ojibway depended entirely on hunting, fishing, and gathering. They lived in small, widely scattered groups and maintained a system of family hunting territories. The south-shore Ojibway hunted and fished but also farmed, gathered wild rice, and made maple sugar. They lived in large summer villages, where they gathered yearly to celebrate the rites of their religious and curing society, the Midéwiwin.

The north-shore Ojibway were probably first to reach Grand Portage. In 1736 a group of the Awause clan had a summer village at the present site of Thunder Bay, where they probably traded as middlemen to the Cree. The Caribou clan, today common at Grand Portage, was said to be part of this northern group, as was the Pike clan. [22]

The south-shore Ojibway had a more eventful journey. The Dakota, who (according to crusty old Perrot) were "not very solicitous for the friendship of any one whomsoever," at first opposed their movement west. But in 1679 the Dakota met the Ojibway in a council at the present site of Duluth. There, the tribes hammered out an agreement. The Dakota would allow the Ojibway access to their hunting lands along Lake Superior. In return, the Ojibway would supply them with French trade goods. [23]

Buttressing the Ojibway position in the council was the presence of a Frenchman, Daniel Greysolon, sieur Du Lhut, a soldier turned independent trader. His friends described him as a man "of inviolable fidelity," and his enemies called him a deserter and illegal trader. After leaving the council he coasted up the north shore, passed Grand Portage, and established a trading fort at the mouth of the Kaministikwia River, where Thunder Bay now stands. Traveling up the Kaministikwia, he met with the Assiniboine and negotiated for their furs. [24]

Meanwhile, some of the Ojibway established a town on Chequamegon Bay, near the old headquarters of the Ottawa. The Ojibway commercial alliance with the Dakota lasted for fifty-seven years. During that peace they flourished, and trade flourished with them.

The King's Estate

Du Lhut was not the first Frenchman to pass by Grand Portage. In 1660 a group of Ottawa and Huron took two young Frenchmen—Pierre Esprit, sieur de Radisson, and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart, sieur des Groseilliers—on a lucrative but illegal (unlicensed) trading tour of Lake Superior. Whether they passed Grand Portage is uncertain, but they did meet with some northern Indians (probably Cree) who told them of an alternate route into the continent via Hudson Bay. When the pair returned to Quebec, the French government slapped them with heavy fines for unlicensed trading. Disgruntled at this treatment, Radisson took his information to England, where he found investors who persuaded Charles II to charter a new company. Starting in 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company founded a string of trading forts on the shores of Hudson and James bays, far to the north of Lake Superior. [25]

Meanwhile, back on Lake Superior, a Jesuit missionary named Claude Allouez canoed along the coast in 1667 and clearly showed the mouth of the Pigeon River on his 1670-71 map. An anonymous prospector brought back a copper sample from the Grand Portage area in 1671. In the years after Du Lhut's visit, Jacques de Noyon further developed the Kaministikwia route. In 1688 he established a post on Rainy Lake and traveled as far as Lake of the Woods. [26]

But the few who left records were far outnumbered by the shadowy coureurs de bois—illegal traders who were flocking west from the French settlements on the St. Lawrence. By 1680 one writer estimated there were eight hundred coureurs in the west. Surreptitiously supplied by Quebec merchants, these young men made two- to three-year voyages, living in Indian villages where (according to Perrot) they "made themselves like unto the savages [and] forgot what was due from them to French subordination and discipline." They made fabulous profits—figures up to 700 percent were rumored. "Where . . . there is lucre there are people enough to be had," commented Radisson. The government desperately tried to suppress them but lamented that "it is not easy to catch [them] unless we are assisted by disinterested persons; . . . the woods and the rivers afford them great facilities to escape justice." [27]

A portion of the map drawn by Claude Allouez in 1670-71; "Lac Tracy" was an early name for Lake Superior. (Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, The Geology of Minnesota, Vol. I of the Final Report [Minneapolis: Johnson, Smith & Harrison, 1884]—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Why did the government care so much about coureur activity? To put it in modern terms, these men were tax evaders.

Many people have a misconception that frontiers are lawless places devoid of governmental controls. But paperwork, regulations, and tax collectors were consistently among the first things Europeans sent to their American frontiers. The French system of regulating trade was based not on modern business principles but on medieval aristocratic privilege. The St. Lawrence watershed was seen as an estate of the French king. He granted certain companies and individuals the right to develop its trade through a system of monopolies—a word that had a different meaning than it does today. Then, a monopoly was a license granted by the king, giving its owner the right to exclusive trade in a certain area. The monopoly holder paid the king handsomely for the privilege, hoping to recoup the expense in profits. The payment was used to finance the army and government of Canada.

The Lake Superior trade was broken up into several monopolies, each centered on a military post—Kaministikwia, Nipigon, and Chequamegon among them. Starting in the 1680s the government issued licenses, called conges, which allowed private merchants to send canoes west—for a price. The licenses required them to operate out of certain posts, and the furs could only be sold at fixed prices to government stores. The posts were commanded by military officers who "acted as Magistrates, compelled the Traders to deal equitably, and distributed the King's Presents" to the Indian tribes. The officers were intermediaries, "regarded by the Indians as their partner, to whom they address themselves for counsel in their affairs." [28]

But the French government constantly changed its mind about how best to regulate the fur trade. In 1696 it revoked all trading licenses and restricted trade to a few garrisoned posts in the east. In 1715 licenses were reinstated. Two years later a new commandant, Zacharie Robutel, sieur de La Noüe, came to the Kaministikwia to oversee the revival of trade. He found that while the French had been away, the Assiniboine and Cree had gotten used to trading at the English posts on Hudson Bay. There they could get higher prices for furs, cheaper goods, and better quality cloth, blankets, and kettles. The French had only one thing to offer that the English couldn't: convenience. If the Indians could "obtain their supplies at their door, they would take them, whatever the price may be." Home delivery became the French marketing strategy. And Grand Portage was to provide a means toward achieving that goal. [29]

Proposals for establishing a chain of posts from Rainy Lake to Lake Winnipeg started circulating as early as 1717. The Assiniboine and Cree, who were fighting a war with the Dakota to the south, saw trade as the route to a French military alliance. Eager to entice these Europeans to their land, they started spreading stories about the wonders of the west—mountains of sparkling stones, tribes of dwarves, and "a great river which flows straight towards the setting sun." In the late 1720s these tales fell on the receptive ears of a new commandant at Lake Nipigon—Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye. In 1729 a Cree named Auchagah gave him a map of the route connecting Lake Superior to the northwest via Kitchi Onigaming—the Grand Portage. [30]

One version of the map drawn by Auchagah in 1729 showing the route to the northwest from Lake Superior. (Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, The Geology of Minnesota, Vol. I of the Final Report [Minneapolis: Johnson, Smith & Harrison, 1884]—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Posts of the Western Sea

The man who pioneered the fur trade route that made Grand Portage famous was not even interested in furs. La Vérendrye was, in fact, such a poor businessman that his years in the west left him deeply in debt. His real passion was geographical discovery. What he sought beyond Grand Portage was the Northwest Passage—a water route to the Orient.

"As a man he is mild and firm," wrote Charles de La Boische, marquis de Beauharnois, who, as governor of Canada, got to know La Vérendrye well. Beauharnois could have added "stubborn," as well. What the explorer didn't have was a flair for self-promotion or politics—failings that would be his downfall in the end. [31]

In 1730 La verendrye tried to interest the French government in financing an expedition to discover the Pacific Ocean via the "river Nantouagan"—the Cree name for the Pigeon. But Louis XV was short on cash and wanted to privatize the exploring business. Instead of money, he gave La Vérendrye a monopoly of the fur trade west of Grand Portage. The explorer would have to finance his own expedition through sale of furs. Unwarily, La Vérendrye agreed.

From the start the venture was a family affair. La Vérendrye's four sons and one nephew eventually joined him in the west. "La dame de Varennes" (presumably his wife) took care of the business in Montreal, buying licenses and organizing canoe brigades. His guide was Auchagah, "the man most capable of guiding a party" and "greatly attached to the French nation." [32]

"We arrived on the twenty-sixth of August [1731] at the Grand Portage," La Vérendrye later wrote. "All our people, in dismay at the length of the portage . . . mutinied and loudly demanded that I should turn back." This revolt delayed him several months, but by the next summer he had crossed the portage and reached Rainy Lake. From there more than fifty canoes of Cree conducted him to Lake of the Woods, where they had selected a spot for him to build Fort St. Charles. He set his men to improving the waterways and portages and soon had reduced the latter from forty-one to thirty-two. [33]

The border lakes were thickly settled in those days. It wasn't unusual for three thousand people and more to gather at the posts of "La Mer de l'Ouest" that La Vérendrye established. La Marteblanche, the chief at Lake of the Woods, received him cordially, assuring him that "the Kaministikwia road will always be a smooth one for the French" and pledging that the Cree "make one and the same body with us [the French]." To establish kinship ties they adopted Jean-Baptiste, La Vérendrye's eldest son, and petitioned the governor of Canada to reciprocate by "admit[ting] them to the number of your children." [34]

But La Vérendrye soon realized what a precarious position he was in. War parties were constantly leaving to attack the Dakota and their allies the Ojibway. The explorer preached peace but all the while did a brisk business in "powder, bullets, guns, butcher's knives, daggers, gunflints, awls, tobacco, etc." He was an arms dealer in a war zone. Nervously he wrote Quebec recommending the manning of a post on the Mississippi River, to establish good relations with the Dakota and defuse tensions. The post was established—and soon was supplying arms to the other side. [35]

In 1734 the Cree demanded that La Vérendrye live up to the implicit obligations he had undertaken by opening trade and assuming kinship with them. They asked him to send his son with them on a war party. "I was agitated, I must confess," he wrote, "and cruelly tormented by conflicting thoughts. . . . Who could tell whether my son would ever return?" And yet, if he refused, the Cree might "take the French for cowards." He finally agreed. It was a fatal mistake. [36]

In June 1736 a group of twenty-one Frenchmen led by Jean-Baptiste de La Vérendrye was attacked by a Dakota war party on an island just east of Fort St. Charles. Every one was killed. To make sure the French knew the reason, the Dakota arranged the decapitated bodies as if in a council circle and wrapped the heads in beaver skins. [37]

This was not the last time fur traders would meet with violence. But it is worth noting that it was neither random nor pointless. La Vérendrye had forfeited all claim to peaceful relations with the Dakota by dealing arms and participating in war. In almost every other instance of violence in the historical record, traders made similar mistakes.

If the French had not been integrated into the Indian system of kinship and justice, the incident of 1736 might have become just another historical footnote. But custom required their adoptive relatives and trading partners to mete out a just revenge. The result was a major realignment of political alliances on Lake Superior.

As middlemen between the French and Dakota, the Ojibway were in a delicate position. The events of 1736 forced them to choose between alliances. But it was not a very hard decision. Traders and goods had begun flowing into the Dakota country by more southerly routes. In particular, the French post on the Mississippi undercut the Ojibway middleman position. The Dakota, no longer needing them to supply trade goods, began to resent the Ojibway presence in their lands. The Ojibway. having lived there for almost three generations, were not about to leave. They decided to fight for the territory they had originally entered as guests. [38]

The Dakota-Ojibway conflict that started in 1736 was to evolve into one of the most long-lasting wars in North American history. It soon stretched along a standing front from central Wisconsin through Minnesota to the Red River of the North. By blocking all travel and trade across this line, the war had a major effect on the fur trade. It redirected traders to safer, more northerly routes—particularly the Grand Portage route. And much to the satisfaction of the Cree and Ojibway. it blocked off European access to the Dakota market.

The first group of southern Ojibway in the Grand Portage area arrived in 1736 as war refugees. They settled on the Vermilion River east of Rainy Lake. Soon they spread out to occupy the waterways from Grand Portage to Rainy Lake, with their main town at the latter spot. From there they started pushing south toward the Dakota settlements at Leech, Red, and Sandy lakes. Before forty years were up, all of northern Minnesota would be theirs. [39]

An Ojibway village stood at Grand Portage by 1742, when a French missionary wrote that the chief there was "very influential . . . a man of decision whose intrepidity produces an impression on the others." This chief planned to lead a war party gathered from bands as far away as Nipigon, Kaministikwia, and Rainy Lake. But what his name or clan was, the records do not say. [40]

The French government's reaction to the debacle on Lake of the Woods was: "most annoying." Officials quickly closed down the post among the Dakota and briefly considered recalling La Vérendrye. The only one who never seems to have considered giving up was La Vérendrye himself. After contracting with the Cree to escort canoes safely to Grand Portage each spring and fall, he turned west. The local Indians tried to stop him, assuring him that the plains tribes "did not know how to kill beaver" and "were people without intelligence." But the more westerly Cree and Assiniboine lured him on, choosing post sites, erecting buildings, and seeking out new markets for him. Before long, French forts were scattered all across western Canada at strategic points where tribal rendezvous occurred.

Ever searching for the elusive western sea, La Vérendrye sent his sons on forays up the Assiniboine and Missouri rivers. Neither seemed to be the road he sought. At last he turned to the Saskatchewan River, establishing his farthest post near present Prince Albert, Saskatchewan—a spot as far from Grand Portage as Grand Portage was from Montreal. [41]

But trouble was brewing back east. As Canada's sympathetic governor, Beauharnois, put it, "glory cannot pay the expenses." Yet the government continued to refuse financial support. Every year La Vérendrye's debts mounted. By 1739 he could barely get supplies on credit and was contending with lawsuits and warrants for the seizure of his goods to satisfy bad debts. Though he leased out the trading rights at his posts beginning in 1742, his merchant partners were often defeated by the logistical difficulties of the long distances, and La Vérendrye had to borrow money to feed his men. [42]

Worse were his political problems. The cynical French minister in Paris had no concept of the distances La Vérendrye was covering and was ready to believe the worst. He wrote that the explorer had "for several years been solely occupied with his own affairs, he has done nothing for the service; all those journeyings of his ending in nothing but trade with the savage tribes. . . . Content with the profits accruing from this trade, that officer was very slack in pursuing the discovery which ought to have been the principal object of his efforts." [43]

In 1744 La Vérendrye was forced to retire as commandant of the Posts of the Western Sea. He left the west an embittered man. His "zeal," he wrote, was "a matter of ridicule." "If debts . . . of more than forty thousand livres are an advantage, I can flatter myself that I am very rich, and if I had gone on I should have become richer still." [44]

The opening words of La Vérendrye's letter to Beauharnois telling of a trip west in 1738-39. "I had the honor. Monsieur." he begins. "last year to inform you of my departure from Michilimackinac with six canoes carrying twenty-two men, equipped in such a way as to travel fast." (George M. Ryan for the Minneapolis Tribune—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Five years later administrations changed, and La Vérendrye was reappointed to his post in the west. Zeal restored, he submitted a plan proposing to discover the western sea via the Saskatchewan River. Had he done it, he might have stumbled on the headwaters of the Columbia River, as David Thompson was to do more than fifty years later. But he died before he could set out and never got a chance to prove that his last scheme could have worked. [45]

The years 1740-45 were the height of the French fur trade, and a heavy traffic passed over the Grand Portage. A lease to conduct trade in the posts of "La Men de l'Ouest" went for eight thousand livres, but the cost did not stop the merchants. In 1740 one sent five canoes and thirty-two men through Grand Portage, and in 1743 another sent eight canoes and fifty-eight men. In the lists of voyageurs engaged for La Men de l'Ouest in the 1750s, one can find many names that would stay prominent in the fur trade for years: Parrenteau, Forcier, Gauthier, Landry, Charbonneau, and Laplante, to name a few. [46]

Despite all this activity, neither archaeology nor documentary research has proved whether the French built a post at Grand Portage. In 1936 archaeologists found traces of a building, measuring about eighteen by thirty feet and oriented north-south, constructed in the French style in the center of the palisaded area. No datable artifacts were found, however, and subsequent excavations did not reveal the location of the structure. If it was a French building, it probably looked like the "Hogstye" of a post the Hudson's Bay Company emissary Anthony Henday came across on the Saskatchewan in 1754-55. "It is 26 feet long; 12 feet wide; 9 feet high to the ridge; having a sloping roof; the Walls Log on Log; the top covered with Birch-rind, fastened together with willows, & divided into three apartments: One for Trading goods, one for Furs, and the third they dwell in." The courtly commandant of this log hut gave the visiting Briton a chivalrous welcome. He was, Henday said, "dressed very Genteel, but the men wear nothing but thin drawers, & striped cotton shirts ruffled at the hands and breast." There was "a good deal of Bowing and Scraping between us." [47]

French trading practices had matured over the years and by now contrasted markedly with those of their English rivals. At the posts on Hudson Bay, the Indians were not allowed into the forts but were forced to trade through a window. "Fraternizing" was strictly forbidden. The French had learned by painful experience to base their system on accommodation to Indian institutions. "It is surprising to observe what an influence the French have over the Natives," Henday reported back to Hudson Bay. They "talk Several [Indian] Languages to perfection: they have the advantage of us in every shape; and if they had Brazile tobacco, which they have not, would entirely cut off our trade." Another Hudson's Bay Company official admitted that the French ascendancy was due to "kind offices and liberality in dealing, which we think of no consequence." [48]

Archaeologists provide one source of information about life at Grand Portage. This broken case bottle, recovered at the site of Fort Charlotte in 1963, is one of the few objects found from the period of the French fur trade. (Peter Latner—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Hand-painted French faïence plate found at Fort Charoltte. The verse reads: "At the bottom of my bottle / I imprison love / For the juice of the grape / Makes my heart burn with passion." (Peter Latner—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Of course, not every Frenchman got along this well in Indian country. La Vérendrye's replacement, Jacques le Gardeur, sieur de St. Pierre, passed across the Grand Portage in 1751 and found little good to say about the country. "This route is of the most difficult nature," he wrote. "Great experience is necessary to know the roads. Bad as I had imagined them, I was surprised at the reality." Though he was "very well received" by the Indians, he found them "unsettled and very impertinent," with a "want of subordination" due to the "too great indulgence with which they have been treated." He sent an ensign to outdo La Vérendrye by founding a fort near present Calgary, in the very shadow of the Rocky Mountains—the farthest west the French ventured. But the outpost was soon abandoned, and St. Pierre passed along his command to the Chevalier de La Corne. [49]

It became La Corne's duty to preside over the final French withdrawal from the west. In 1754 war broke out between the French, English, and Indians on the Ohio frontier. The French and Indian War soon engulfed the colonies of both European powers, then merged into the greater conflict of the Seven Years' War in Europe. The battle lines in America paralleled older Indian conflicts—the Algonquians sided with the French and the Iroquois with the English. In 1755 La Corne closed up the posts of La Mer de l'Ouest, and by 1759 all of Lake Superior was officially abandoned. The fort at Kaministikwia was destroyed by fire, and the forty-ton ship that had plied the waters of Lake Superior was sunk. [50]

France had need of its allies, for the war was mainly decided by Indian armies. François de La Vérendrye. a son of Pierre, came back to raise troops among the tribes of Lake Superior. The Ojibway, loyal to the French and alarmed at the prospect of a British-Iroquois takeover, responded. The war leader Mamongeseda, whose father had come from the Caribou clan at Grand Portage, led a party of Ojibway who fought alongside the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. But their efforts were not enough. Quebec fell, then Montreal. In 1760 the French surrendered, and in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, they ceded Canada to British control. [51]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009