Global Trade in the Wilderness

For one brief moment in time a wilderness outpost on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota was the center of an international commodity trade.  That commodity, Beaver pelts. And it was all done to make silly hats.

As the 18th Century became the 19th Grand Portage, on the US side of Pigeon River, hosted a fur rendezvous for the Northwest Fur Company.  French Canadian Voyageurs, the Pork Eaters, paddled from Montreal, up the Ottawa River into Lake Huron and then Superior with trade goods to Grand Portage.  Nor’westers paddled down from Lake Athabasca, Great Slave Lake, and the headwaters of the Fraser River to Fort Charlotte 9 miles from Grand Portage.  There they left their canoes and carried their bever furs down to the Grand Portage stockade and for about two weeks there was a rendezvous of trading, drinking and dancing.  Then the Pork Eaters brought packed up the furs into their laker canoes and headed for Montreal.  The Nor’westers carted their trade goods up the 9-mile Grand Portage to their canoes and headed out for their winter trapping and trading with Native American trappers.  All of this in the service of fashion,  to make felt top hats for the English gentry.

In 1802, almost two decades after the 1783 treaty of Paris that recognized American Independence, surveyors finally made it to Pigeon River and discovered that the Grand Portage trading post was on American soil.  (I guess the voyageurs already knew which side of the river they were on.)  So, after the 1803 rendezvous the Northwest Company disassembled the stockade and buildings and moved them north to Fort William, (Now in the city of Thunder Bay, Ontario).  The portage around Kakabeka Falls on the Kaministiquia River, the Mountain Portage, became the major route for the Norwest Company although it was a tougher route than the Grand Portage.   In 1821 the Northwest Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company and operations shifted to York Factory on Hudson’s Bay and Fort William’s importance waned.

The reconstructed post in Grand Portage sits on the Grand Portage Reservation and the interpretation includes a Native encampment outside the stockade and a discussion of the importance of Native Americans to the fur trade, from the technology that made it possible, the canoe; to the knowledge necessary to conduct trapping and trade.  The emphasis was more on Native knowledge than on the Canadian explorers, as it should be.  Who led those explorers?

Another thing that fascinated me in the fort was a map.  It showed the routes of those Canadian explorers, led by Native Americans, but it also It included our coast.  There were familiar names, Snettisham, Lynn Canal, Mt. Fairweather, Mt. St. Elias and Cape Edgecombe.  But no Sitka Sound.  It was named Norfolk Sound.  And Cross sound was Crofs Sound.  Cross Sound was named by Captain Cook because he “discovered” it on “Holy Cross” day.  I wonder it the map was one of those “Your Ses all look life Fs” bits of style poplar in the late 18th century.

One other thing I found interesting is that the hearth was big enough for the women to get inside to tend to the Dutch Oven when making bread.  Hot job.

Today there are reconstructions of the Northwest Company post at both Grand Portage and Thunder Bay.  Visitors say they look the same.  In the day they were the same.  The Northwest Company not just pulled up stakes they pulled up whole buildings.

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