The Grand Portage Story
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Across the Divide

A little west of Grand Portage lies the height of land dividing the waters of the Great Lakes from those flowing to Hudson Bay. The voyageurs had a custom when they passed over the divide. Any man in the canoe brigade who had never crossed that way before was "baptised." A clerk named John Macdonell went through the ceremony in 1793.

I was instituted a North man by Batême [baptism] performed by sprinkling water in my face with a small cedar Bow dipped in a ditch of water and accepting certain conditions such as not to let any new hand pass by that road without experiencing the same ceremony which stipulates particularly never to kiss a voyageur's wife against her own free will the whole being accompanied by a dozen of Gun shots fired one after another in an Indian manner. The intention of this Bateme being only to claim a glass. I complied with the custom and gave the men . . . a two gallon keg. [1]

Most fur traders thought little of it, but the ceremony enacted a symbolic rebirth. The divide was more than a geographical barrier—it separated two profoundly different worlds. One could not enter the west and come back unchanged. Crossing over was a watershed in most traders' lives, the point where they left home and eastern conventions behind.

In the late eighteenth century Grand Portage was the site of a schism between cultures, as British capitalism met the alien values of wintering traders whose lives had been changed by Indian tribes and their values.

Greedy and Needy Adventurers

More than land, the British inherited from the French a potential network of alliances with Indian tribes. It was only potential, though. The French had surrendered in 1760, but the English had neglected to conclude peace with their allies, the Indian tribes. Inexperienced traders started blundering west before they realized that the war was not yet over.

Alexander Henry. (C-1036121—National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario)

A twenty-two-year-old New Jerseyan named Alexander Henry was one of the first. Later called "the handsome Englishman" by the Indians, he was "about the middle size, distinguished by an easy and dignified deportment." He was candid, open, friendly—and blessed with as many lives as a cat. He would need them all. In 1761, he wrote, "proposing to avail myself of the new market, which was thus thrown open to British adventure, I . . . procured a quantity of goods" and set out for the west. "I was altogether a stranger to the commerce in which I was engaging." With foresight, he stopped in Canada to hire an experienced man, Etienne Campion, to teach him the ropes. [2]

On the way west, Indians repeatedly warned Henry not to risk his life among the Ojibway, fast allies of the French. By the time he took them seriously, he didn't have enough supplies to turn back. So he disguised himself as a voyageur and let Campion pass for the proprietor. No one was fooled. When he arrived at the Ojibway town of Michilimackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, Henry found himself thrust into international diplomacy.

Mihnehwehna—the tall, imposing chief of the Michilimackinac Ojibway—met him in a council. "Looking steadfastly at me, where I sat in ceremony, with an interpreter on either hand, [he observed] that the English . . . were brave men, and not afraid of death, since they dared to come, as I had done, fearlessly among their enemies." Then, as the young fur trader "inwardly endured the tortures of suspense," Mihnehwehna spoke:

The importance of ceremony in relations between Indians and Europeans is evident in Peter Rindisbacher's depiction of a British officer saying farewell to his Indian allies after a battle at Prairie du Chien during the War of 1812. (Peter Ridisbacher, Captain W. Andrew Bulger Saying Farewell at For Mackay, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 1815, ca. 1823, watercolor and ink wash on paper, 1968:262—Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Tex.)

Englishman, you know that the French king is our father. He promised to be such; and we, in return, promised to be his children. —This promise we have kept. . . . You are his enemy. . . . You know that his enemies are ours. . . .

Englishman, although you have conquered the French, you have not yet conquered us! We are not your slaves. These lakes, these woods and mountains, were left to us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance; and we will part with them to none. Your nation supposes that we, like the white people, cannot live without bread—and pork—and beef! But, you ought to know, that He, the Great Spirit and Master of Life, has provided food for us, in these spacious lakes, and on these woody mountains.

Englishman, our father, the king of France, employed our young men to make war upon your nation. In this warfare, many of them have been killed; and it is our custom to retaliate, until such time as the spirits of the slain are satisfied. . . .

Englishman, your king has never sent us any presents, nor entered into any treaty with us, wherefore he and we are still at war.

Lucid as this explanation of the Ojibway position was, it gave little comfort to Henry. In the end, however, Mihnehwehna decided that "you have ventured your life among us, in the expectation that we should not molest you. You do not come armed, with an intention to make war; you come in peace, to trade with us. . . . We shall regard you, therefore, as a brother; and you may sleep tranquilly."

Much relieved, Henry "assorted my goods, and hired Canadian interpreters and clerks, in whose care I was to send them . . . into Lake Superior, among the Chipeways, and to the Grand Portage, for the north-west." His men may have been among those who spent the winter at Rainy Lake. Meanwhile, a detachment of Rogers' Rangers arrived at Michilimackinac to "take possession" for the British, as they thought. This controversial corps of British-American frontiersmen was under the command of Robert Rogers, a swashbuckling war hero. The Indians allowed them to stay. The next spring the soldiers escorted a brigade of traders to Grand Portage, already the gateway for a growing British trade. [3]

But the fur trade was on shaky foundations. By 1763 the English government still had not "covered the bodies of the dead"—the Indian custom of paying restitution for casualties in war, a step necessary for peace. No councils had been held, no diplomatic relations established. Led by an Ottawa named Pontiac, the Great Lakes tribes decided to drive the British back by a series of simultaneous attacks on western posts. The Ojibway captured Michilimackinac, and Alexander Henry barely escaped death by hiding in the attic of a French Canadian. After a series of hair's-breadth escapes, Henry was rescued by an Ojibway adoptive relative. Other fur traders were not so lucky.

In 1764 the British finally caught on. They sent ambassadors through the Great Lakes suing for peace. A huge council and feast were held at Niagara. One of the Lake Superior Ojibway in attendance asked eloquently "to have liberty to trade as formerly." [4]

The next year Alexander Henry emerged as kingpin of the Lake Superior trade. He formed a partnership with a longtime trader, Jean Baptiste Cadotte, who had saved his life during Pontiac's War. Theirs was typical of many partnerships springing up, combining French-Canadian experience with British capital. Henry managed to get a monopoly of the Lake Superior trade and sent four canoes and twelve men west. Without competition, he was able to charge exorbitant prices—ten beaver-skins for a blanket, two for a pound of powder, two for an ax, one for a knife, and twenty for a gun. All his accounts were kept in beavers. [5]

But the days of the old monopoly system were numbered. New ideas were abroad in Britain—ideas of free trade, competition, and laissez-faire economics. Modern capitalism was putting down its roots, and the fur trade was one of the first laboratories in which the new theories were tested. In 1766 a traders' petition challenged the government's right to carve up markets and hand them out to whomsoever lobbied and bribed most effectively. Soon the British authorities gave in and threw the trade open to any small businessman who wanted to take the risk. [6]

Jonathan Carver. (George M. Ryan for the Minneapolis Tribune—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

During the early 1760s Grand Portage was once again a rendezvous site where the Cree and Assiniboine came to pick up trade goods from Ojibway middlemen and the occasional European trader. The Ojibway, the recognized owners of Grand Portage by this date, gladly hosted the festivities. The summer rendezvous was an old Indian tradition that included socializing, marriage, religious observances, dancing, and music as well as trade. By one account, a thousand or more people sometimes gathered at or passed through Grand Portage in summer during these years. [7]

The rendezvous of 1767 was observed by the first visitor to leave an account of Grand Portage—a portly Yankee surveyor named Jonathan Carver. He came as a member of a party sent out from Michilimackinac by Robert Rogers. Officially the group was looking for the Northwest Passage. What it was doing unofficially is less clear, though guesses ranged from inciting the Indian tribes to rebel (unlikely) to trading furs on Rogers's behalf (more likely). Carver was the only one who profited from the expedition. Rogers ended up in jail, accused of treason, while Carver went to London and published a best seller about his trip.

"Arrivd at the Grand Portage," Carver wrote in his diary on July 14, 1767. "Here those who go on the north-west trade . . . carry over their canoes and baggage about nine miles." Carver's party "found the king of the Christenoes [Cree] and several of his people encamped who was glad to see us." The "king," he wrote, was "upwards of sixty years of age, tall and slightly made, but he carried himself very erect. He was of a courteous, affable disposition, and treated me, as did all the chiefs, with great civility." The Cree and some Assiniboine had come "in search of traders from Michilimackinac with a design if possible to git some of them to go into their country and winter with them." During the war they had traded with the Hudson's Bay Company, but Carver found that "these honest people" gave an "extraordinary account" of their bad treatment by the English monopoly. Presciently, he noted that "a factory [trading post] set up at the Great Carrying Place on the north of Lake Superior and well supplyed with articles for the Indian trade would in a little time draw a great part of those innocent people who are thus treated like brutes by the company at Hudson's Bay." [8]

Flags and medals were official gifts given to Indian leaders by their European allies. This British flag, which was made about 1815, together with an older British flag and two silver peace medals, belonged to the Maymushkowaush family of Grand Portage for many generations. (Eric Mortenson—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

George III's likeness appears on this 1814 silver peace medal, with the royal coat of arms on the reverse side. The Ojibway family that owned the flags and peace medals presented them to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1979. (Peter Latner—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

There were more than three hundred people at the rendezvous, and food was scarce. Carver's party "procured some rice of this people and a plenty of fish. Otherwise we must have starvd to death." Even so, the explorers waited uneasily for a shipment of supplies from Rogers at Michilimackinac, fearing "a mutiny would break out among the people which we expected every day on account of our being in want of provision." [9]

They spent the time in councils, smoking pipes and exchanging presents. The Indians gave furs and the commander of Carver's party gave a "stand of colours" (flag) to the "chief of the carrying-place." Carver mentioned no traders' buildings, but there were fourteen or fifteen Cree dwellings and a "large house" built by the Ojibway—at one point he even called it a "castle." It may have been fortified with palisades to protect it from attack by the Dakota.

In August some French-Canadian traders finally arrived, bringing the anxious explorers letters from Rogers. To their dismay, he ordered them on to the Pacific but provided no supplies. Sensibly, Carver and his party decided to give up. They never made it across the portage.

Mike Flatte, member of the Grand Portage Indian band in the 1920s. holding one of the British flags that had been passed down in his family; he is wearing the peace medals around his neck. (George M. Ryan for the Minneapolis Tribune—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

Many others did. In 1767 fourteen canoe crews carried £5,117 of goods through Grand Portage, and that fall just three companies sent back 4,293 beaver pelts. Some of the traders were old-timers like François Le Blanc, Maurice Blondeau, and Alexander Henry's mentor Etienne Campion. But there were newcomers, too. James Finlay, who wintered on the Saskatchewan River in 1768-69, was haughtily dismissed by the Hudson's Bay Company as "an illitterate [sic] person entirely unacquainted with Geography." Thomas Corry may have been on the Red River as early as 1766. Collectively, they were known to the English monopoly as "pedlars." [10]

But like Alexander Henry, the peddlers were often ignorant of the Indian common-law practices regarding trade. One such practice, known well to the French in the early days, held that anyone traveling through the territory of another tribe had "certain rights to pay in the places of passage." The Ojibway on the lakes west of Grand Portage wanted trade goods and were angered when traders passed through their land to reach the Assiniboine and Cree. In 1765 they began to assert their right to control the flow of traffic. [11]

This was sometimes done in a polite and formal way. When traders arrived at an Ojibway village, they were first greeted with "ceremonious presents" intended to establish a cordial relationship. The presents, mainly food, were placed in a heap; then the trader was summoned and addressed in a speech. Trade rhetoric had not changed much since La Vérendrye's day. According to Alexander Henry, "They tell him, that the Indians are happy in seeing him return to their country; that they have been long in expectation of his arrival; that their wives have deprived themselves of their provisions, in order to afford him a supply; that they are in great want, being destitute of every thing." The trader was then expected to return a handsome present and give them goods on credit. [12]

But if the trader refused to cooperate, or tried to pass through without stopping, the speeches got more hostile. When Henry made such a mistake, one chief reminded him "that we must be well aware of his power to prevent our going further; that if we passed now, he could put us all to death on our return; and that under these circumstances, he expected us to be exceedingly liberal in our presents." In essence, they required a toll like the tariffs and excises merchants paid when passing the boundaries of European countries. [13]

But the inexperienced traders saw it otherwise. They indignantly accused the Indians of extortion and plunder. The Rainy Lake Ojibway were branded as "ungovernable and rapacious," and their neighbors on Lake of the Woods came to be known as "Pilleurs," or Pillagers. (The name is still used, proudly, by the Ojibway at Leech Lake.) Even the Hudson's Bay Company heard of the "innumerable hardships which the Pedlers suffer from several Nations of Indians through who they pass in coming up from the grand carrying Place." Traders who could not adapt suffered; those who could, succeeded. [14]

One who succeeded—and paved the way for others—was Thomas Corry. This he did by acting in a seemingly unbusinesslike way. Wintering in the west in 1771-72, he fostered a reputation for hospitality and liberality. "All speak greatly in praise of the generosity of the Chief Pedler Correy," reported the Hudson's Bay Company sourly. He was "giving abundance of goods for nothing, and trading at a cheap rate." Corry particularly focused on a powerful Cree trading captain named Wappenassew, who had been leading his people to Hudson Bay since 1755. Wappenassew "lives in [Corry's] House all the winter, dines at Table with the Master, & his family are cloathed with cloth & no favour is refused." In return, Wappenassew agreed to convoy Corny's canoes past the Ojibway. Corry wrote mockingly to the Hudson's Bay Company that Wappenassew "Desired me to let you know that he Dwoe knot go to See you this Springe But . . . Will go to the Grand-portge with me. . . . [H]e hopes you will knot Bee angre with him." With his reputation for liberality ringing through the west, Corry raked in so many furs he was able to retire in two years. Where sharp dealing, European style, failed, acting with the grain of Indian trade and leadership principles brought success. [15]

By the mid-1770s the traders accepted Ojibway tolls as an established custom, and reports of conflict grew fewer. For their part, many Indians came to prefer the convenience of having peddlers deliver goods to their villages, even though the prices might be higher than those at Hudson Bay. It was a genuinely different kind of transaction than they had known before. The peddlers represented no one but themselves and therefore brought no diplomatic or military connections. Trade became less a matter of formal negotiation between leaders and more of a one-to-one relationship of salesman and customer. Many of the customers were women. [16]

The commerce through Grand Portage was "an object of considerable note" to Canada by 1778, bringing in £40,000 a year and employing about five hundred people. For a month each summer those people congregated at Grand Portage "for the refreshing and comforting [of] those who are employed in the more distant voyages." In about 1768 a trader named Erskine or Askin cleared a site just west of Grand Portage Creek for a post, and soon the traders were said to have "tolerable Houses" along the beach line of the bay, with stockades "to cover them from any insult from the numerous savage tribes, who resort there during that time." Though no descriptions survive, the posts were probably log huts shingled in elm bark, with clay chimneys and doors of untanned hide. [17]

Camp Scene at Grand Portage, 1857, by Eastman Johnson. This artist provided the earliest known views of Grand Portage. (Eastman Johnson—St. Louis County Historical Society, Dulth, Minn.)

"Amongst so great a number of people not the most moral or enlightened," one trader wrote, "it is easy to conceive that there must infallibly be Jarring & disputes." And jarring there was. Grand Portage in these years was described as "a pent-up hornets' nest of conflicting factions intrenched in rival forts." A typical company consisted of a single entrepreneur, backed by a merchant who supplied credit and goods, in charge of as few as three or as many as sixty hired men. Alexander Henry represented one of the larger firms when he arrived in 1775 with sixteen canoes and fifty-two men. He "found the traders in a state of extreme reciprocal hostility, each pursuing his interests in such a manner as might most injure his neighbour." They lured each others' employees away, stole furs owed to other companies, sold liquor, reneged on debts, and generally acted (according to the Hudson's Bay Company) like "wild fellows . . . going about Sword in hand, threatening the Natives to make them trade." It is no wonder that "the winter . . . was one continued scene of disagreements and quarrels." [18]

This was the negative side of the system the British had introduced. But in capitalism, a free market never lasts long. The merchants themselves, who only ten years before had been singing the praises of free enterprise, now preached the evils of competition. It "occasioned such disorder," they said, that it caused "manifest ruin to some of the parties concerned and the destruction of the Trade." Their solution: monopoly. [19]

But not the old style of monopoly granted by the government. Though the most powerful traders lobbied hard to reintroduce such a system, the tenor of the times was against it. The more modern form of monopoly evolved through merger, when companies realized it was in their own interest to cooperate rather than compete. By pooling their resources, they were able to squeeze smaller businessmen out of the market.

Several forces nudged the fur trade toward monopoly. First was the high cost. A great deal of capital was needed for a long term, and few small businessmen could get enough credit. Next were the complex logistics of transportation and supply in the northwest. As journeys stretched far beyond Grand Portage, it became less possible for lone proprietors to manage it all. They needed business managers in the east and depots along the way. And then there was the need for supervision and control of traders in the west. Not only did lawlessness make life unsafe, but traders soon found that their Indian customers "could entertain no respect for persons who had conducted themselves with so much irregularity and deceit." [20]

A number of fluid coalitions formed in the late 1770s. One that prefigured later events came together in 1775. Alexander Henry, with his penchant for being in the right place at the right time, was one member. The others would become key figures in Grand Portage's history.

"An Englishman they call Joe" was how the Hudson's Bay Company first heard of Joseph Frobisher. Everyone called this "kind and friendly" Yorkshireman by his nickname in those days; later he would be "Mr. Frobisher" to the elite of Canada. He was oldest of a trio of brothers who entered the Grand Portage fur trade in 1765. They had been among the rush of traders stopped by the Rainy Lake Ojibway in 1769 but had gotten to Lake Winnipeg the following year. The brothers made a good team. Benjamin was the brains of the enterprise and soon established himself in Montreal, where he handled the administration of the family business. Thomas was a dependable trader. But Joseph was leader in the west. He had managed to lure an experienced Frenchman, Louis Primot, away from the Hudson's Bay Company and with his guidance set up the first post on the Churchill River. The year before Alexander Henry met him, Joseph had spent a nightmarish winter on the Churchill, so starved that when he came crawling back to Cumberland House the Hudson's Bay Company men found the sight "really shocking. One or two of his men dyed for real want, and one of them Shott by the Indians for Eating human flesh, the Corps of one of their deceased friends. Mr. Forborsher himself ware so destresst that he eat . . . many of his Furs." Yet after a trip to Grand Portage for supplies, he gamely headed back west. [21]

Lurid tales also hung around another of the men Henry met that summer of 1775. Peter Pond was a Connecticut native on his first trip to the northwest. He was a loner, eccentric even among frontiersmen. "He thought himself a philosopher," one acquaintance wrote, "and was odd in his manners." His own fancifully spelled memoirs reveal a quarrelsome, shrewd man with a Yankee twang and a keenly satirical sense of humor. Pond had been involved in the fur trade south of the Great Lakes since 1765. While in Detroit he had dueled with another trader and (according to Pond) "the Pore fellow was unfortennt [unfortunate]. I then Came Doan the Cuntrey & Declard the fact But thare was none to Prosacute me." The pattern of violence would be repeated. In 1782 he wintered with Jean Etienne Waden, a Swiss immigrant with a reputation for "strict probity and known sobriety." As another trader put it, "Two men, of more opposite characters, could not, perhaps, have been found." A quarrel ensued, and Waden was shot. Pond was accused of the murder, but again the courts seem not to have acted. Though free of jail, Pond would never again be free of suspicion. [22]

Despite Pond's dangerous shortcomings as a partner, he was a brilliant explorer. In 1778 a group of traders backed him in an expedition to the fabled far-north realm of Athabasca. There he met tribes that had never had a trader among them. They gave him more furs than he could carry back to Grand Portage. Ever after, Pond felt as if Athabasca belonged to him. [23]

But perhaps the most important member of the 1775 coalition was not even present at Grand Portage. Simon McTavish was one of Pond's financial backers. They may have met in the 1770s when McTavish was getting his start shipping rum from Albany to Detroit. Born in Scotland, McTavish had come to America penniless at age thirteen. Although he claimed to be a devotee of "good wine, good oysters, and pretty girls," business was his true love—not to say obsession. And he excelled at it. A visitor to Montreal in 1804 wrote that the masterful McTavish was "entirely unequalled here in acuteness and reach of thought"; other associates gave him the derisive nickname "Marquis" for his domineering manner. In an era when most merchants were investing in the trade southwest of Lake Superior, McTavish turned his prodigious energy north to the Grand Portage trade. About 1774 he and a partner bought a "perniauger"—a wooden canoe—to ship furs between the portage and Sault Ste. Marie. He whisked from Montreal to Grand Portage to Albany to London—but never once west of Grand Portage. Though he would become the mastermind behind the North West Company, he never dealt with an Indian for furs. [24]

With cooperation breaking out all over, the 1775-76 season was very profitable for the traders. Henry and the Frobishers brought back more than twelve thousand beaver skins, and McTavish's associates secured £15,000 worth of furs. But when Henry came to Lake of the Woods on his way down, he heard disturbing rumors. The Indians told him that "some strange nation had entered Montréal, taken Québec, killed all the English, and would certainly be at the Grand Portage before we arrived there." It was the Bastonnais, they said—the Bostonians. It was only too true. War had broken out again, this time between Britain and the American colonies. [25]

The fur trade had a lot to do with the war. Ever since 1763 it had been British policy to protect the lands and sovereignty of the Indian tribes west of the Appalachians from encroachment by American colonists. The British did so for the sake of Canada's economy. That colony's largest industry was the fur trade, which depended on preservation of the wilderness and the Indian hunting culture. When the Quebec Act of 1774 set aside the Ohio frontier for the use of traders and Indians, the Americans were outraged. One of the freedoms they fought for in their revolution was the freedom to take Indian land and destroy Indian life-styles. [26]

The Bastonnais never made it to Grand Portage, but the Redcoats did. In 1778 a number of traders petitioned the government of Canada to send troops to protect their investments during the summer rendezvous. Their request had more to do with labor problems, however, than marauding rebels. They wanted the troops to enforce voyageur contracts and payment of debts, track down "canoe men who have run away from their masters," and take over the expensive diplomatic duty of "giving colours and other marks of distinction" to the Indians. The government, on its side, was suspicious about the quantities of guns, ammunition, and blankets being shipped to Grand Portage, which might easily find their way into the wrong hands. To keep an eye on all this, it agreed to send an officer and twelve men from the King's Eighth Regiment of Foot. [27]

A consortium of traders furnished the soldiers with canoe transportation, a guide named "Big Charlie," and accommodations at the portage. By this time at least one trader lived on the bay year round. John Askin, a Michilimackinac merchant, instructed his clerk at Grand Portage, Joseph Beausoleil, to "have a house ready" for the soldiers "which they can use until able to provide for themselves. It should have a chimney. Also be so good as to have your men prepare 200 pickets, 14 feet in length, and have them put on the beach between the old fort and yours." [28]

In May 1778 Lieutenant Thomas Bennett, one other officer, five soldiers, and seven canoemen set out from Michilimackinac. They brought two small cannons, gunpowder for ceremonial salutes, and carpentry tools for erecting a fort—plus dry goods, tobacco, and one hundred gallons of rum "to enable [Bennett] to receive the visits from the Indians." The summer passed placidly. The soldiers began the erection of a small fort and cleared a road (the site of neither is known). The fort was still unfinished when they left in August, expecting to return the next year. But by 1779 soldiers were needed elsewhere, and the troops never made it back. [29]

This halfhearted show of military muscle was by no means the most important impact the American Revolution had on the Grand Portage fur trade. As the Great Lakes region became embroiled in war, commerce shifted north and Grand Portage's share increased. But the trade, up to now almost free of regulation, began to labor under wartime restrictions. The British military commanders, believing that fur traders were basically a pack of "greedy and needy adventurers," would have liked to shut them out altogether. But they did not dare—partly because furs were "the staple trade of this Province," pumping £200,000 into Montreal's economy, and partly because the officials feared alienating the powerful western tribes, whose military aid might be crucial in the war. So they satisfied themselves with regulations. All private shipping on the Great Lakes was banned, and traders were required to transport goods via military vessels—an unreliable solution that produced more than one gray hair. In 1778 the military capriciously blocked food shipments, raising the specter that "some of the People in the Back Country in all probability will perish for want." The next year the licenses were issued so late that the goods could not reach the west. [30]

Brass button from the uniform of a British King's Eighth Regiment soldier. The button was found by archaeologists at the site of Fort Charlotte. (Peter Latner—Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul)

The effect was to consolidate the trade in the hands of a few Montreal merchants. With the Great Lakes closed off, American traders—among them Simon McTavish—had to move to Montreal to stay in business. In 1779 representatives of nine Montreal companies met at Grand Portage and agreed to pool their resources. Although this one-year partnership was considered "little better than an armed truce," it was the nucleus around which the North West Company would form. Between them, the Frobisher brothers and McTavish controlled a quarter of the shares. That proportion would grow. [31]

It was during the American Revolution that the fur trade achieved the organization that would characterize it for the next twenty years. Later, the system would become more elaborate and the jobs more specialized, but the underlying division of responsibilities was between the merchant and the winterer.

"This adventurous Traffick"

The separate jobs of merchant and winterer originated in the French era as a practical necessity—given the distances and slowness of travel, no one person could handle every aspect of the business. But as the British refined the system, the differences between the two sets of men grew. The jobs required talents so different and produced experiences so alien to one another that two distinct "job cultures" began to evolve.

The sloop Welcome, an armed ship that carried fur trade goods on the lower Great Lakes during the American Revolution. Similar ships were used on Lake Superior. (Karl Kuttruff—Mackinac Island State Park Commission, Mackinac Island, Mich.)

The Montreal merchants needed skills in administration, supervision, finance, and marketing. Because Canada had few industries of its own, almost all goods had to be imported. The merchant was in touch with an exporting house in London that purchased specialized goods designed for the Indian trade from around the world. The tobacco came from Brazil via Portugal, the beads came from Venice or Holland, vermilion from China, knives from Sheffield, and cloth from Leeds and Manchester. The Montreal merchant placed his orders in the fall. The goods were packed, insured, and shipped the next spring. They arrived in Montreal in June, too late to go west that year. The merchant stored some of the goods in his capacious warehouses and sent others out to be "made up" into articles desired by the Indians. He hired seamstresses to sew cotton into shirts, wool into leggings, blankets into capotes. Silversmiths created beaver pendants, arm-bands, gorgets, and brooches. [32]

By early spring, everything had to be ready for the merchant's employees to start packing up the lighter goods for shipment west. Packing was a skilled job. Bales could not weigh more than ninety pounds. They had to be watertight and contain a variety of merchandise so that one or two could be lost without disaster. Meanwhile, the merchant was hiring canoemen and guides in the rural French-Canadian communities around Montreal. He was purchasing special freight canoes made in Trois Rivières and arranging cargo space on ships that went via the Great Lakes. Everything had to be ready by May, when the ice broke and ships and canoe brigades set off for Grand Portage. From that point on, all were racing the clock. They had only five months before ice set in again.

Transportation west of Montreal was the merchant's largest single cost, accounting for about half the year's investment. It was mainly a labor expense. The canoes went via the portage-strewn Ottawa River, a route Benjamin Frobisher called "eminently dangerous [I]t is [due] to [the voyageurs'] dexterity alone and the knowledge they have of the management of Canoes . . . that so few accidents happen." A canoeload of goods worth £500 at Montreal was worth £750 at Grand Portage, just from transportation expense. It was cheaper to send goods by ship via the Great Lakes, and many heavy and bulky items went that way. But ships were subject to government regulations, were slower, and were less likely to arrive on schedule—and timing was everything in the fur trade. So the canoes continued to go.

One of the merchant's main logistical problems was feeding his employees on the way to Grand Portage. Each canoe set off from Montreal with about a thousand pounds of biscuit, pork, and peas, which lasted only as far as Michilimackinac. There, new supplies had to be waiting. Ships brought flour and corn from Detroit. The Ottawa and Ojibway who farmed on the shores of Lake Michigan sold huge quantities of corn, beans, and maple sugar to provisioning agents at Michilimackinac, who supplied the northwest brigades. Shipments of food also had to be waiting at Grand Portage or there would be mutiny. [33]

Ship cargoes, canoe brigades, provisions, and everything else had to converge on Grand Portage in early July, when the people from inland began to arrive. The merchants had two weeks to get everything over the portage. Without telephones, reliable mail, or motor transportation, the logistics must have been a nightmare. Benjamin Frobisher said only that it required "the utmost dispatch." [34]

After the busy weeks at Grand Portage, the merchant still couldn't relax. Furs were perishable and had to get to England that year. Wolf, moose, and other heavy hides could go east via ship, but fine furs went by canoe. In Montreal they were sorted and graded, then insured and placed on ships for England, where they were auctioned the following spring. The merchant had to keep abreast of the varying prices. Since many furs were reexported to Russia, France, and Holland, tariffs and wars had a major effect on the market. Payment for the furs did not reach Montreal until May or June. [35]

The merchant got no return on the goods he had sent west until the following year. From ordering to getting a return took almost four years. This turnaround time drove out small businessmen faster than anything else. The merchant had to be his own banker. Although the whole structure was built on borrowed money—the London exporter gave credit to the merchant, the merchant to the winterer, the winterer to the Indian—most bills came due in a year, and returns took longer. It is no wonder Benjamin Frobisher called the business "precarious," or that another trader, John Inglis, described it with understatement as "this adventurous Traffick" [36]

And, of course, nothing ever went as planned. The ships needed repairs or were late, orders got lost, people failed to deliver goods and food as promised. Canoes were wrecked, taxes increased, war inevitably broke out somewhere. It was a business no sane person would invest a penny in.

But as any investment advisor will say, a great risk may carry the potential for great profit. Because of their control over so many aspects of the trade, the merchants could (and did) pass on their expenses and risk to their hapless partners in the field, to their young clerks, and even to the voyageurs. They sat at the center of the immense web of trade relations, pulling strings in London, Montreal, and Grand Portage. The ones whose capital and organization did not fail eventually became "a kind of commercial aristocracy, living in lordly and hospitable style." In Montreal they "took the lead in all assemblies, clubs, and other circles of society: their name influenced the tone of public opinion." They were among the most powerful men in Canada. [37]

While the merchants were risking their money, the winterers in the field were all too often risking their lives. Many of their business skills were interpersonal ones derived from years of experience. Winterers were trained through a long apprenticeship in the ways of Indian diplomacy and trade. The ones who adapted best succeeded. This made their skills seem less valuable to the outside world, and their rewards were less than those of their merchant partners. Many winterers dreamed of earning enough to move to Montreal and become a merchant; only a very few ever did.

Once past Grand Portage, the winterer entered a world where he and his men were entirely dependent upon the Indians who made the canoes they traveled in, provided the food they ate, guided them, interpreted for them, and shared geographical knowledge. The Indians picked sites for their posts, made their snowshoes and moccasins—and hunted, trapped, and cured the skins that the traders sought. Almost all communication and news came through tribespeople, who often kept traders in the dark about competitors' prices and practices. In fact, the Indians constantly used the traders' dependence to assert control over commerce.

One of the winterer's main worries, like the merchant's, was transportation. The brigades left Grand Portage in July and had to reach their wintering spots—some of them two thousand miles distant—before the rivers froze in October. As Benjamin Frobisher admitted, the travelers "are exposed to every misery that it is possible to survive." There were "strains, ruptures, and injuries for life" incurred in portaging. There were terrifying canoe accidents. Loss of life became so routine that traders who had seen it over and over made calm notations like, "lost two men and eleven pieces of goods." [38]

The worst hardship was lack of provisions. Though the canoes set out one-third full of food, it soon ran out and "they must and always do, depend on the Natives . . . for an Additional Supply." At Rainy Lake the traders bought wild rice and fish from the Ojibway; at Lake Winnipeg they could get pemmican. This mixture of buffalo meat and grease was purchased in huge quantities from Plains Indian women and shipped north to depots along the trade routes. One trader testified that "without this provision, which could not be obtained in any other part of the Country, [we] would be compelled to abandon the most lucrative part of the Trade." [39]

Once at his wintering post, the trader advanced goods to the Indians who came in, then sat down to wait for spring, when the trappers would come back with their furs. Most of the winterer's time was spent in excruciating boredom. "I rise with the sun," trader Angus Shaw wrote to a friend, "and, after debarbouilling moo visage [shaving], I take a walk to my traps, return to the house, eat Tollibees [a fish] about nine; then take another walk or work all day at something or other. About 7 p.m., I again eat tollibee boiled or roasted and pass the rest of the evening in reading or writing. When Indians are about the house I, of course, attend to the interests of my employers. Indeed, my dear man, I find time very long, which I fear may affect my constitution; but there is no help to it." [40]

Some of the winterers played the violin, gardened in spring, and read romances or travel books, dreaming about people doing really adventurous things. Others succumbed to depression, dwelling morbidly on how they were "self-banished in this dreary Country an[d] at such a great distance from all I hold dear in this World." To relieve the monotony, the men regularly celebrated holidays "as is usual for them, that is in drinking & fighting." They went to visit other posts even in the most dangerous subzero weather, just for some conversation. The trip to Grand Portage was so much the high point of the year that they began thinking about it in January. "I am fully bent on going down," one wrote a friend. "I think it unpardonable in any man to remain in this country who can afford to leave it." [41]

And yet, year after year, they went back—for during the long, slow months of winter an alchemy took place. Every year a few of the men who went in for the money, fully expecting to return, became absorbed by a culture whose slow rhythms and nonmaterial values took over their minds and hearts.

One who recorded such a transition was a young man from an evangelical Christian family named Daniel Williams Harmon. He set out from Vermont for Grand Portage in 1800, when he was twenty-two, spurred by his "roving disposition" and by "hopes of gaining a little Gold." It was nineteen years before he returned east. [42]

At first Harmon was repelled by fur trade life. Accustomed to strict observance of the Sabbath, he was shocked to see men playing cards, dancing, and conducting business on Sunday. They "lay aside the most of Christian and Civilized regulations," he accused, "and behave but little better than the Savages themselves." Even his bourgeois, whom he admired, "gives in too much to the ways and customs of the Country he is in." For his own part, Harmon read the Bible and prayed to return home unchanged.

He had come west full of prejudice about Indians, and his first contacts with them were contentious. After refusing some men a gift—not realizing he was spurning their oldest customs—he concluded that "their fondness for our property and our eagerness to obtain their Furs" was "all the friendship that exists between the Traders and Savages of this Country." [43]

But gradually he began to adapt. He learned to smoke a friendly pipe with his customers, to be generous and not grasping. The real change started when he went en dérouine—to visit the Indians in their villages. Once, after a long trip by dogsled, he arrived late and half frozen at a cozy Indian lodge. The woman of the family told him to "remain quiet & smoak" by the fire while she unharnessed his dogs and fed them. Though it was near midnight, people all over the village rose to invite him to their homes to eat. At last he bedded down under a warm buffalo robe. "We met with more real politeness (in this way) than is often shown to Strangers in the civilized part of the World, and much more than I had expected [to] meet with from Savages as the Indians are generally called, but I think wrongly."

He began to find interest in the change of the seasons, the wildlife, and Indian horticulture and cooking. He even became interested in their religion, writing respectfully of their reverence and sacrifices and admitting they might "believe rightly." But he still couldn't adapt in one way—sexual mores. All around him, traders were marrying Indian and mixed-blood women à la façon du pays—according to the custom of the country. There were many practical advantages to it: a wife gave a trader family ties in the Indian community and a partner who knew the crafts, language, and customs. In 1802 a Cree chief offered Harmon his daughter. "He almost persuaded me to accept of her, for I was sure that while I had the Daughter I should not only have the Fathers hunts but those of his relations also, of course [this] would be much in the favor of the Company." He also admitted "a little natural inclination" which "was nigh making me commit another folly, if not a sin,—but thanks be to God alone if I have not been brought into a snare laid no doubt by the Devil himself." Harmon remained chaste. [44]

Daniel Williams Harmon. (William Tefft Schwarz—The Bennington Mseum, Bennington, Vt.)

Three years later it was a different story. When a fourteen-year-old mixed-blood girl was offered him he gave it "mature consideration" and "finally concluded it would be best to accept of her, as it is customary for all the Gentlemen who come in this Country . . . to have a fair Partner. . . . When I return to my native land [I] shall endeavour to place her into the hands of some good honest Man, with whom she can pass the remainder of her Days in this Country." But this resolution, like others, gradually faded. At first, Harmon could not think of her as his wife. When their son was born in 1807 she was "the Woman who remains with me." By 1810 she was "my Woman." By 1819 she was "the mother of my children," and parting with her was unthinkable. One of his last diary entries showed what kind of man he had become: "I now pass a short time every day, very pleasantly, teaching my little daughter Polly to read and spell words in the English language. . . . In conversing with my children, I use entirely the Cree, Indian language; with their mother I more frequently employ the French." When eventually he did return east he took his family with him, but he found it impossible to stay and moved back west till age forced him to retire from the trader's life.

Harmon, like many another winterer, had been appropriated by the land where he lived. It now seemed senseless to him how "we are continually harassing and teasing ourselves in hopes of gaining Masses of Silver and Gold"—an attitude diametrically opposed to the capitalist goals of self-interest and accumulation of wealth. He had concluded that "a person . . . can be as virtuous in this as in any other part of the World." Winterers like Harmon absorbed Indian values into their own belief systems. Some formed a new blend so thorough that they came to feel out of place in their boyhood culture. One, in deciding not to write the son of an old friend in the east, said, "I am an Indian, he is a Christian, he will not like such a rough correspondent." To these men, and even more to their children who followed them into the business, the fur trade was a way of life, a family tradition, an adopted culture—not a business ruled by balance sheets and bills. Old traders often died in what eastern friends considered "poverty and obscurity," but surrounded by large, loyal families. Today, their descendants are often found on reservations, where the generous values they learned from the Indians survive. [45]

The merchant and the winterer were the two types of men who met each year during the rendezvous at Grand Portage. Each depended on the other. But there was also a rift between them that grew larger as the years progressed. They were from opposite sides of the divide.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009