The Grand Portage Story
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Roots of Community

Traders, who thought of themselves as the central figures of the frontier, rarely realized how unimportant their existence was to the Indian community. When the North West Company abandoned Grand Portage, the local band's world did not collapse. Ojibway life went on as usual.

In the early nineteenth century about 150 Ojibway people lived in the Grand Portage region, between Grand Marais and Fort William. They were organized into several groups, possibly divided by clan. On the south were those led by a chief named Espagnol, who often camped around Grand Marais. To the north was the band of Peau de Chat, who could often be found around Fort William and Whitefish Lake. Other loosely organized groups led by men like Shaganasheence and Grand Coquin used land in between. Grand Portage was a popular summer camping ground for all of them, though only fifty or so seem to have spent the majority of their time south of the border. [1]

Grand Portage by Eastman Johnson, 1857. The view was painted looking east from the site of the old depot toward Mount Josephine. (Eastman Johson—St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minn.)

Their small number reflects the harsh and depleted land where they lived. Ever since the 1760s travelers had been reporting that the Grand Portage region was "very destitute of all sorts of game." By 1824 a trader at Fort William wrote that moose and deer were "literally extinct. Caribou was also at a former period, and not a great many years since, very numerous. Few now are seen—the scarcity of these Animals is greatly felt by the Indians. In Winter their sole dependance for Subsistance is on Rabbits & Partridges." Five years later another Fort William trader complained that even the scant 195 who did business there were "by far too many for the district." [2]

And yet they survived, using time-tested strategies for coping with scarcity. Their relationship to the land had to be one of deep and detailed knowledge: they knew each good fishing hole, each deer yard and path, each berry patch and stand of birch. The place names they used reflected their knowledge: for example, Wauswaugoning Bay (The Bay Where They Spear Fish by Torchlight) and the Mawskiquawcawnawsebi (High Bush Cranberry Marsh River, the present Reservation River). They knew the habits and life cycles of a myriad of animals and plants. Because any one resource might fail, they always depended on a variety. Their ethic of sharing ensured that all would have enough but no one would have a consistent surplus. [3]

They moved frequently and far in order to balance the resources of the inland with those of the coast. Fish was their staple food, and the fishery was the center of social life. Unlike the Lake Superior of today, the waters then teemed with three types of trout (weighing from five to fifty pounds each), sturgeon, pickerel, pike, black bass, herring, whitefish, and crayfish. The women wove nets up to 360 feet long of nettle-stalk fiber or manufactured line, the meshes carefully measured to catch particular species, the floats of wood, and the sinkers of stone or lead. When a species began its run to shallow spawning waters—usually in late summer or fall—the men set the nets in huge semicircles from canoes. Women preserved the catch by smoking the fish or by hanging it up by the tails to dry. [4]

As winter set in, the people broke up into smaller hunting bands and moved inland to the shelter of the forest surrounding the smaller lakes, particularly Whitefish and Arrow. Winter fishing depended on a good coat of ice. Some families carefully threaded their nets under it with a long pole. Others either set baited lines or lured the fish into spearing range with a carved wooden fish on a string. If the fish gave out, the people would move on to family hunting territories. Hunting lands were passed down from father to son. [5]

When the sap began to run in March, the families often split up, the men going on a spring hunt and the women, children, and old people to the sugar bush. In those days, a stand of maple trees stretched parallel to Lake Superior from the Pigeon River to Maple Hill north of Grand Marais. One favorite sugaring camp lay between present Reservation and Trout lakes, and a well-known trail connected it to Grand Portage Bay. Just as hunting lands were partitioned among the men, so the women had use rights in certain sections of sugar bush. They tapped the trees, boiled the sap down in huge brass and copper kettles, granulated it with paddles in a wooden trough, then pressed the sugar into carved molds. After sugaring season they left all the tools in the woods with no fear that anyone would disturb them. [6]

Some summers were spent in the sugar camp, but more often the band gathered at Grand Portage Bay. There people might spearfish by torchlight on Wauswaugoning Bay, set lines or dip fish in the Pigeon River, or make an occasional hunting trip to Isle Royale. By early autumn wild rice was ripe on the inland lakes—particularly Whitefish, Gunflint, and Northern Light—and families crossed the portage to harvest it and to hunt migratory birds in the rice beds. Not everyone in the band made each move; people were constantly splitting off, joining new groups, and trading foods. [7]

Despite their intricate adaptations to the existing environment, the Indians also altered the land in their favor. Their most important tool was fire. Deer prefer young forests with undergrowth, elk like prairie clearings, and moose, caribou, and game birds use open bogland. To provide for a diversity of species, the Ojibway set fires, creating a marbled forest where stands of young and old trees coexisted. In the grand-brulés (as the voyageurs called the burnt-oven tracts), gooseberries, raspberries, and blackberries throve—attracting bears as well as people. As burned areas regenerated, young aspen sprang up and provided food for beaver, which built dams that kept water tables high for wetland species. Over time, the Ojibway could create productive habitats for wildlife and themselves. [8]

The temporary summer village at Grand Portage was the focus of ceremonial, political, and (on rare occasions) military activities. This was not a hierarchical society like that of the fur traders. The community at large made important decisions in council, through long discussions. The leadership tended to change with the situation. There were civil chiefs (often a hereditary position), war chiefs (usually achieved), clan chiefs, religious leaders, and the "headmen" of the smaller hunting bands. One person might hold several roles, but no one had the absolute authority of a European ruler. Leaders functioned by personal prestige and persuasion. As a French observer put it, an Ojibway chief "can not say to them: 'Do this and so,' but merely—'it would be better to do so and so.'" An Englishman agreed—"All the force of their government consists in persuasion." [9]

Ojibwe Women by Eastman Johnson. (Eastman Johson—St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minn.)

We have only scraps of information about the Grand Portage band's leaders. During the 1820s a trader reported that "there is one principal chief to whom the others in great measure look up—the only name he goes by, even with the Indians, is 'Espagnol.'" Said to be descended from a Spaniard on his father's side, Espagnol was "no less celebrated from shrewdness of intellect as for valuable hunts." At an 1841 council he was described as "a tall and handsome man, somewhat advanced in years . . . arrayed in a scarlet coat with gold epaulettes . . . with the air of a prince." Since he hunted in American territory, the traders at Fort William felt that Espagnol "must be more liberally treated than any other of our Indians." Accordingly, they plied him with generous gifts, grumbling behind his back that he was "the most troublesome Indian ever I met with." In the harsh winter of 1837-38, when he was fifty-four, he became windigo—a kind of demonic possession, very difficult to cure, whose sufferers were said to crave human flesh. The next summer he converted to Catholicism at Grand Portage and took the name François. Later, he moved across the border. [10]

The Peau de Chat family, related to Espagnol by marriage, was also prominent at Grand Portage in the 1820s. The original Peau de Chat was an elderly man then, but he had at least three sons and a brother, Grand Coquin, who was also considered a chief. By 1850 their band had moved north and Joseph, one of Peau de Chat's sons, had assumed leadership of the Fort William Ojibway. A missionary the previous year described Joseph as "a man of about 40, tall and well built, with a vibrant, sonorous voice. His eloquent enthusiasm and vehement impetuosity have caused the Indians to elect him as their chief." [11]

Wigemar Wasung, Johnson's charcoal and crayon sketch of a Lake Superior Ojibway woman. (Eastman Johson—St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minn.)

Kenne waw be mint. Johnson sketched residents of Grand Portage and other north shore communities during 1856 and 1857.Wigemar Wasung, Johnson's charcoal and crayon sketch of a Lake Superior Ojibway woman. (Eastman Johson—St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, Minn.)

Shaganasheence, whose name meant "Little Englishman," was born at Rainy Lake but was head of a hunting band at Grand Portage by the 1820s. John J. Bigsby, a British traveler whom he guided along the boundary in 1822, recalled him as "an active young Indian." He was, said Bigsby, "a most useful fellow. Like the rest of his tribe he wore his hair long, and plaited into twenty or thirty slender strings, which were weighted with bits of white metal interwoven at regular distances. As some of these hung over his face . . . when he wanted a clear sight he somehow, in an instant, shook them all behind him." Later Shaganasheence became a Catholic and took the name Joseph. In the 1850s he represented his band in treaty negotiations with the United States. [12]

The Caribou clan has always been prominent in the Grand Portage band, and its leader through the mid-1800s was Addikonse, or Little Caribou. Those who met him described him as "statesman-like," with a "genuine dignity of mein [sic] and manner." Born about 1789, he claimed never to have touched liquor and eventually became an ardent Catholic. Well known for his oratory in treaty negotiations, he earned a reputation for "good character, wisdom, integrity and inflexible. [13]

Besides such leaders there was another kind of chief—the "fur chief" created by traders. Ever since Europeans and Indians first met, the flexibility of Indian leadership traditions had frustrated the whites. Often they had tried to impose a more formal system, and by the nineteenth century they had the power to make it stick. The traders chose men with whom they could work (or whom they could manipulate) and loaded them with gifts, uniforms, and other symbols of power. Later, government agents followed suit. Bands were forced to deal with non-Indian powers through these appointees, whom they had not chosen and for whom they often had little respect. The hereditary and clan chiefs, seeing their power undermined, protested. "You wish to snatch away my power and give it to another," Joseph Peau de Chat told British authorities in 1849. "You intend to make a dissolute savage chief of the Band. I tell you that you are usurping our authority. Neither the queen nor the chief in Montreal can ever alter what the Indians have enacted." Despite such protests, the pattern would be repeated. [14]

For a few brief years after the North West Company left, it seemed as if the tide of history might be turning in the Indians' favor. Changes began with a religious revival that reached Grand Portage about 1808. Messengers from the east brought the teachings of a man called the Shawnee Prophet. Much of his doctrine involved rejection of European ways and goods such as flints and steels: "The fire must never be suffered to go out in your lodge. Summer and winter, day and night . . . the life in your body, and the fire in your lodge, are the same. . . . You must never strike either a man, a woman, a child, or a dog. . . . From this time forward, we are neither to be drunk, to steal, to lie, or to go against our enemies." [15]

The Shawnee Prophet's religion "spread like wild-fire." At the Ojibway village of La Pointe on Madeline Island, the shores of Lake Superior were strewn with medicine bags cast into the water as the prophet required. "Drunkenness was much less frequent than formerly, war was less thought of, and the entire aspect of affairs among them was somewhat changed by the influence of one man," wrote one eyewitness. [16]

The religious groundswell soon became a political and military movement. The prophet's brother, Tecumseh, advocated tribal solidarity against invading settlers. Soon, war broke out in the Ohio River valley between the U.S. Army and Tecumseh's confederacy. In 1812 Britain joined its Indian allies in the war, in hopes of recapturing trade and territory lost in the American Revolution.

Recruiters soon appeared at Grand Portage. In 1812 the Americans heard that one of the Cadotte family and John Askin, Jr., were "collecting all the principal Chiefs" from Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, and Mackinac for a council of war. Later, trader Robert Dickson came to Fort William loaded down with medals, flags, and promises, ready to recruit Ojibway warriors. Some joined, but after two wars many had become disillusioned. "When I go war against my enemies, I do not call on the whites to join my warriors," one Pillager Ojibway said. "The white people have quarrelled among themselves, and I do not wish to meddle in their quarrels." [17]

They had good reason for skepticism. The Shawnee Prophet's promises of invulnerability in war proved cruelly wrong. Even Tecumseh was struck down in the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The religious excitement died away. Former believers "hung their heads in shame," and the name of the prophet was despised. But no better were the promises of the British. Though the Indians captured Mackinac, Detroit, and other key fur posts on the Great Lakes, the British gave them all back across the treaty table in Ghent. Indians, traders, and soldiers alike were outraged at the diplomatic betrayal. "Our negociators, as usual, have been egregiously duped," one British commander wrote bitterly. [18]

The Treaty of Ghent in 1815 set up a process for resolving the knotty problem of the boundary west of Lake Superior. The British, seeing a chance to capture back the Grand Portage, claimed everything north of the St. Louis River. The Americans responded by demanding everything south of the Kaministikwia. The dispute lasted till 1842, when both sides finally settled on the Pigeon River line but designated the Grand Portage a free passageway for both nations—which it remains today. In the mean time, the Ojibway grew used to seeing boundary surveyors. In 1822, when David Thompson passed through on a British survey team, a local chief asked him: "What is your purpose in rambling over our waters, and putting them into your books?" Thompson explained as best he could and added that "the Indians would not be disturbed in any way." [19]

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

End of a Company

Up to 1821, despite occasional contacts with warring governments, the Grand Portage band's main link to the outside world was still the North West Company, which clung tenaciously to its trade south of the border. When an American-licensed trader named De Lorme tried to pass over the Grand Portage in 1806, the traders at Fort William dispatched a crew to harass him. They "proceeded to fell trees across the road, at the portages. and on all the narrow creeks" to teach the upstart a lesson. Border or no border, the company also maintained a small seasonal post at Grand Portage and occasionally wintered its schooner at the mouth of the Pigeon. [20]

Times were changing for the North West Company. Always as much a subculture as a business, it had now become something more—a community. Two generations of mixed-blood children had grown up since the British first came west. By the 1790s, priests were shaking their heads at the size of the unbaptized mixed-blood population at Grand Portage. By 1806 the North West Company decided that the families of its men were becoming a "heavy burthen to the Concern" and instituted a penalty for marriage to an Indian woman, since "a sufficient number, of a mixed blood, can be found." Nevertheless, by the 1820s the number of traders' dependents in the west had grown to 1,200 or 1,500. Around each major fur post sprang up a little community of retired voyageurs. women, and children. Many of the mixed-bloods—or métis, as they sometimes called themselves—entered the fur trade. Others chose to join their Indian relatives, who "cherished [them] as their own." But as the population grew, both tribes and company reached the limits of their ability to feed new mouths. [21]

Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk. (Hudson's Bay Company, Winnipeg, Manitoba)

The company itself had become top-heavy with personnel. The organization was perfectly adapted to expansion—but by 1805 the continent had been spanned and the company was up against the hard reality of finite resources. In 1804 one of the partners had worried that "the hunt is declining very fast, and we are obliged every year to make new discoveries and settle new posts. . . . I believe that our discoveries are now about at an end, and that the trade cannot be extended much farther." By 1812 the Hudson's Bay Company foresaw its rival's doom: "I am afraid their ambition and enterprize have carried them too far." The North West Company either had to adapt to the stable conditions of a permanent trade or perish. [22]

The company did not die quietly. Its expanding operations had placed it cheek by jowl with its old competitor, the Hudson's Bay Company. That old fossil of feudalism had itself been undergoing changes. After 1807 a majority of its stock had fallen into the hands of an obstinate, idealistic young Scotsman—Thomas Douglas, earl of Selkirk. From his commanding position, Selkirk devised a series of humanitarian schemes aimed at aiding Scottish peasants dispossessed as a result of British industrialization. One such scheme was an agricultural colony on the Red River near the present site of Winnipeg, in the heart of North West Company territory.

Settlement had always been anathema to fur traders, and this one was no exception. A series of confrontations led to armed war between traders and colonists. In 1816 Selkirk set out for the Red River through the Great Lakes with a group of Swiss mercenaries to put the feisty Nor' Westers in their place. At Sault Ste. Marie news reached the earl of the bloodiest conflict yet: twenty-one colonists lay dead at Seven Oaks. In a rage he swooped down upon Fort William, had his soldiers seize the fort, and threw the astonished William McGillivray and his deputies into the brig.

Small room in the Great Hall at Fort William, 1816. This sketch is said to have been drawn by Selkirk while he and his soldiers occupied the fort. (attributed to Lord Selkirk; Selkirk Papers, SM, F 481, in MU 3279—Archives of Ontario, Toronto)

During the winter that Selkirk and his mercenaries occupied Fort William, he turned some attention to the old Grand Portage. He moved at least one building there from Fort William and grazed some of his many cattle on the ruins of the North West Company's headquarters. He also set his soldiers to cutting a thirty-six-mile road between Fort William and the Pigeon River. Where it ran is unclear; some said the southern terminus was at Fort Charlotte, others chose Goose Lake (perhaps today's North Fowl Lake). The remains of some cedar log bridges were still visible in the late 1800s. [23]

The conflict had weakened both companies. Selkirk's untimely death from tuberculosis opened the way for reconciliation. In 1821 William McGillivray once again led his partners into a merger—but this time it was the North West Company that was absorbed, and McGillivray met the same fate he had once served to Alexander Mackenzie. "I part with my old troops to meet them no more in discussion on the Indian trade," he wrote during his last visit to Fort William. "This parting I confess does not cause me much regret. I have worked hard & honestly for them. . . . We had too many storms to weather from without and some derangement of the household but, thank God! the whole is done with honor." [24]

Those who had no fortunes to retire on could not console themselves with thoughts of honor. With the merger, the Hudson's Bay Company abandoned the Great Lakes shipping route in favor of the cheaper sea route through Hudson Bay. Hundreds of clerks and voyageurs became unemployed overnight, and the provisioning and canoe-building industries that had supported the north shore Indian bands collapsed. Like Grand Portage before it, Fort William became a backwater post and soon started falling into decay.

In the 1820s the fur trade made a strained transition into a modern business. It was a bottom-line, acquisitive sort of era, with little time for the niceties of tolerance. George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company's Northern Department, looked on the Indians not as partners but as laborers: "However repugnant it may be to our feelings, I am convinced they must be ruled with a rod of iron, to bring, and to keep them in a proper state of subordination," he wrote in 1822. Once freed from competition, the company began to cut back on diplomatic gifts, reduce the quality of its goods, and evict Indian families who had settled at the posts. Food, which had usually been exchanged as a gift, became a commodity to be purchased with labor. In the view of William Warren, a trader's mixed-blood son, "The Indian ceased to find that true kindness, sympathy, charity, and respect for his sacred beliefs and rites, which he had always experienced from his French traders." In the minds of the British, the Indians had become no more than "the hunting-slaves of a company of whites in Leadenhall Street." [25]

The traders could get away with such attitudes because of a shift in food relations. As métis labor became available, the posts—Fort William included—had developed agriculture and fisheries to an extent that made them nearly independent of Indian hunters. At the same time, game was so depleted that the Indians came more often to the posts during scarce times. The former reciprocal relationship began to lean toward Indian dependence. In July 1827 the traders at Fort William reported fifty Ojibway people living at the post, some laboring in the potato fields in return for food. By the next January the count had grown to seventy-two, and the larders were strained. "They have been always accustomed to be maintained at the Establishment during this month and next," the proprietor had explained to his cost-conscious superiors. "It is found impossible to refuse support . . . without great hazard of displeasing them and perhaps of losing them altogether." [26]

But the Grand Portage band had a bargaining chip for dealing with the Hudson's Bay Company. It was created by the boundary. To the south, where the British could not legally trade, the remnants of the North West Company's old Fond du Lac Department were now in the hands of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. The change in ownership meant little at the bottom, where the employees were mostly second- and third-generation traders connected to the Ojibway by marriage or blood. In charge of Fond du Lac (at present-day Duluth) was an experienced trader named William Morrison. The North West Company had no sooner ceased to be than Morrison was laying plans to move in on the British. In 1822 Ramsay Crooks, the American Fur Company's general manager, wrote that "Morrison will establish some new posts along our northwestern border. The old Grand Portage is allowed to be within our line, and there the N. W. have always had a good little post, since they retired to Fort William. An outfit from the Fond du Lac department should be sent to that place under some active men; and in order to keep our opponents on their own side of the boundary, our clerks or traders are to be made customhouse officers." [27]

The "active men" they sent in 1823 were a sullen clerk named Bela Chapman and several malcontent voyageurs. On the advice of the Indians, Chapman built his post at Grand Marais, a spot he glumly called "Fort Misery." He was ill-suited to winning over the Indians, whom he believed to "cheat lie and steal, the Devil is not a match for them. . . . [I]t is a pity such Indians should have a trader. . . . [M]ay they never return." Not surprisingly, he did little business. His presence was, however, of great use to the local Ojibway. who instantly reported the news to Fort William. The Hudson's Bay Company cut its prices and sent men to winter with the band "in order to prevent them from going towards the Americans." Espagnol expertly played the rivals off against one another. Chapman observed that "the Indians are not two well pleased with them [the Hudson's Bay Company] for all their low prices and fair promises[.] [T]hey say high time now they have an opposition." At the same time, the chief assured the British company of his loyalty: "They are very partial to us and say that if we would establish a post at the Grand Marrais, we would be sure of the best part of their hunts." In spring, Chapman made a trip to Grand Portage to get Espagnol's furs, but failed: "I have tried the force of flatery & of Lying & of Rum and he has withstood all." The Grand Portage Indians were putting their money on the English. [28]

The story was the same the next year, when John Johnston, half-Ojibway son of a longtime Sault Ste. Marie trader, made the trip to trade at Grand Portage and found that "persons in the service of the Hudson Bay Company carried off in trains [dogsleds] the band of Chippeways." By 1831 the border was the site of such "a constant, strenuous and desperate opposition" that a U.S. Indian agent recommended a military fort at Grand Portage to protect the "lives and property of our citizens." But the competition was quashed like others before it—not in the marketplace, but in smoke-filled rooms. In 1833 the two fur companies came to a secret—and highly illegal—agreement: American Fur would withdraw from the border in return for a payment of £300 a year from the Hudson's Bay Company. The only ones to suffer were the Indian customers. [29]

The Americans, however, still had plans for Grand Portage. The pact with the Hudson's Bay Company prevented them from trading furs, but it said nothing about fish. In 1834 John Jacob Astor withdrew from the fur trade, and a new American Fur Company was organized with Ramsay Crooks as president. Crooks quickly moved to diversify the Lake Superior trade. In 1836 he sent William A. Aitken, Morrison's successor in the Fond du Lac Department, to find sites on the north shore for commercial fisheries. Grand Portage and Isle Royale were the main locations Aitken chose. By the fall of 1836 American Fur had a crew of coopers and boatmen at Grand Portage under the direction of Pierre Coté, a mixed-blood from Fond du Lac. [30]

Father Francis Xavier Pierz. (St. Benedict's Convent Archives, St. Joseph, Minn.)

The Grand Portage fishing station operated much like a fur post. The American Fur Company provided the nets, barrels, and salt; the Indians provided much of the labor and know-how. From August to November they set nets where trout and whitefish congregated along the coast from Grand Marais to Pigeon River. Indian women cleaned the fish and salted them down in barrels, which Coté then purchased for three dollars apiece. The twenty Indians employed produced three hundred to five hundred barrels a year, which were picked up by the company's schooner, the John Jacob Astor, to be shipped east. An even larger operation on Isle Royale produced as much as two thousand barrels. [31]

Grand Portage had again become a bustling establishment by 1839. A visitor that year said there was "One dwelling House for Coté, situated on a gentle rising ground, overlooking the Bay, a dwelling occupied by his son on the West side, and a new Store fronting this last building on the East Side, forming a hollow square; Two mens houses, 1 Coopers Shop, 1 Fish Store, Stable Barn, Root house &c below or near the beach, placed here and there without order or symetry. . . . The dwelling houses and Store on the hill are finished in a Substantial manner and all new." There was also "an appology for a Store house" on Grand Portage Island and a three-acre field of potatoes that produced 200 to 250 bushels a year.

The Hudson's Bay Company looked askance at all this activity employing its erstwhile hunters. Though Crooks had carefully obtained their consent, the men at Fort William were astonished at the scale of the operation. In 1837 about a hundred Indian men with their families were fishing at Isle Royale. Even the traders at Lake Nipigon worried that "the establishment of the old Grand Portage by the American Fur Company . . . will cause many from this place to wish to pay them a visit next summer." And they suspected that that "spiteful wasp" Pierre Coté was not above trading furs on the side. [32]

The boom lasted only five years. The fisheries proved so productive that American Fur was soon buried under a glut of salt fillets. At the same time the panic of 1837 ruined the market for specialty foods. Desperately the company tried to get rid of the fish in New York, the Ohio River valley, and as far away as Texas, with no success. By 1841 Crooks had cooled on fish: "We are not inclined to prosecute the business with our former energy," he wrote. The next year his company failed, and the fisheries were never reorganized. [33]

The Path of Souls

The year-round presence of the Coté family brought a new element to life at Grand Portage: Christianity. Pierre and his Ojibway wife, Margareth, were devout Catholics who aroused their neighbors' interest by reading from a prayer book translated into Ojibway by Lake Superior's most famous missionary, Father Frederic Baraga. By 1837 they had created such curiosity and hope about Catholicism that the chief of Grand Portage requested a missionary. That fall, Baraga himself arrived for a short visit from his headquarters on the south shore. The next year he sent a Slovenian priest, Father Francis Xavier Pierz, to establish a mission church. [34]

It was not that the Ojibway lacked a religion. Ojibway life was so infused with religion that there was scarcely an act without a spiritual component. To them, the natural world was permeated by the sacred. One could not hunt an animal without first reaching an agreement with its spirit, or gather an herb without leaving an offering to the earth in return. One could not travel a stream without its permission. Natural events had meaning for those who could read them: the robins called for rain, meteors foretold sickness, and the owl was a harbinger of death. "We respect everything," said one Ojibway holy man. "We believe in the God, the Manitou, but we also believe in trees." [35]

For the Ojibway, ignoring the sacred was perilous. Acts like naming a child or singing a song could invoke grave powers. People paid strict attention to dreams, in which they glimpsed a world more real in some ways than the waking one. At puberty children fasted to seek a vision of their animal spirit guardian. "Without such a vision," wrote a modern Ojibway author, "a person was considered a child for life. And life had no meaning." The guardian protected and guided the person through life. There were many dangers—not only from temptations to err, but from ill-wishing manitous and men, "You couldn't laugh at a Indian years ago, or poke fun at him, because they were so powerful," said one Ojibway. [36]

There were many overlapping religious practices and organizations at Grand Portage. A prophet, or lessakid, could communicate with the spirit world through the shaking tent ceremony. There was a mysterious association called the Wabenowin, whose members studied the sky and revered the spirit of the morning star. Best known was the Midéwiwin, which Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft called a "grand national society devoted to the mystical arts." It was a medical fraternity and an organized priest hood in one. Members of the Midéwiwin were also the guardians of tribal history, myth, and tradition, inscribed on birch-bark scrolls. Membership in the society was limited, and initiation was achieved after years of instruction and payment. There were degrees of membership, each with its own secrets and techniques. The Midéwiwin met at Grand Portage in July for eight-day ceremonies. [37]

Despite these ancient beliefs, the social strains created by disease, war, and the fur trade left many Ojibway searching for new answers. The Shawnee Prophet's revival had proved illusory, but the hopes it had aroused still lay under the surface. [38]

Then, just before the new priest arrived, a miracle happened. A man who had been suffering from a seemingly fatal disease despairingly cast out the charms and medicine bags from his home, whereupon he recovered. When Father Pierz's boat arrived the cured man "walked into the water until it reached his waist, in order to be the first to shake my hand. All the rest, too, gave me a hearty reception."

There seems to have been an atmosphere of religious excitement that first year. The Cotés supervised the erection of a large cedar-bark chapel on the spot where Midéwiwin ceremonies had always been held. Pierz soon baptized sixty-four people ranging from five days to seventy-five years old. The high point was the baptism and wedding of the chief, Espagnol, which took place "with all [the] formality of the church service. He presented himself for this holy performance in a white coat trimmed in yellow, his loins girded with a beautiful red girdle, with red trousers stitched in white and with yellow shoes. I decorated him with a rosary and hung a beautiful cross around his neck after the custom of all the Catholic Christians in Indian country. His seventy-year-old bride appeared in a black dress . . . covered with white embroidery from head to foot and sprinkled with bright colored glass beads."

To most missionaries of the nineteenth century, faith was inseparable from culture—to be Christian, one must live as a Euro-American. Like the Shawnee Prophet before him, Pierz set out to change the Ojibway lifestyle, this time to include agriculture. He distributed tools and seeds, and the band enthusiastically cleared land along the Pigeon River for vegetable gardens and fruit trees. To inculcate European language and literacy, Pierz started a school that was attended by fifty-eight Ojibway and seventeen "French" (métis or French Canadian) students. "Here I preached to them every morning and evening," he wrote, "and held school for them the rest of the day, which every one under fifty faithfully attended. I taught four different groups in turn every day, reading, singing and religion."

For a year all went well. But in 1839 church politics resulted in Pierz's unwilling transfer to Michigan. Three years later he was able to return for a summer, at which time he moved the mission to the cleared farmland along the Pigeon River. There the Ojibway built him a new birch-bark chapel lined with cedar mats, big enough to hold a congregation of seventy. Pierz reestablished the mission school and revived his farm. He introduced cows, pigs, hens, and grain and taught the band the use of the sickle, scythe, plow, and hoe. But after he left that fall, Grand Portage was to see only brief missionary visits until 1848.

In that year three Jesuits arrived to revive Pierz's mission on the Pigeon River. What they found was a discouraging sight. "Here and there, a few unfinished houses, then, on a height of land in the centre, near the river bank, a wooden church which formerly lacked only a roof, but which now falls piece by piece; a little farther along was a house—if you would like a one-roomed cabin which lets in the light of heaven through the openings in the roof. That is the house we are to occupy." The Jesuits stuck it out for a year, but in 1849 the mission burned to the ground and the priests moved north to Fort William.

In 1854, and for twenty-three years thereafter, it fell to Father Dominique du Ranquet to commute by dogsled and canoe from Fort William to minister to the Grand Portage band. At first he used a bark chapel in the village. Then, in 1865 a new log church was consecrated to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Though covered with siding and paneled inside, that chapel still stands on the hill back of the reconstructed fur post, the principal church of the Grand Portage Reservation.

There are times in history when events seem poised to go several ways. For Grand Portage, as for much of the Minnesota region, the 1840s were such a time. A unique sort of community had sprung up in the wake of the fur trade: a multilingual, multiracial frontier polyglot reflecting each wave of culture—Indian, French, and British—that the land had appropriated to itself. Such communities operated by their own values and rules, sometimes developed their own distinctive art styles, and were linked all across the west by a webwork of kinship, commerce, and shared history. If left to develop another forty years, communities like Grand Portage might have reached a cohesion and identity that would have resulted in a far different cultural and political voice for the west in the years that followed. But events were to carry Grand Portage into a different future.

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Last Updated: 15-Jul-2009