As the nexus between the Pigeon River and Lake Superior, Grand Portage has been an important Minnesota site for centuries
Jul 24, 2018 05:16AM
● By Editor
By Lizzie Ehrenhalt | Minnpost - July 23, 2018
Grand Portage (Gichi Onigamiing) is both a seasonal migration route and the traditional site of an Ojibwe summer village on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior. In the 1700s, after voyageurs began to use it to carry canoes from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River, it became one of the most profitable trading sites in the region and a headquarters for the North West Fur Company.
Indigenous people have used the eight-and-a-half-mile pathway that connects the Pigeon River with Lake Superior since at least the beginning of the first millennium CE. Though the river provides the fastest route from the lake to inland forests, its lower twenty-one miles are full of rapids and waterfalls. To bypass this rough stretch, Indigenous travelers carried their canoes overland and entered the river at its easternmost navigable point. Ojibwe and other Anishinaabe people called the area — and still call it — Gichi Onigamiing, the great carrying place.
Around 1680, a group of Ojibwe people migrated westward along the northern shore of Lake Superior to Thunder Bay and, eventually, Grand Portage Bay. Gichi Onigamiing became a crucial part of their seasonal cycle, which was structured around the earth’s changes and their resource needs. During the winter, they lived in hunting camps at inland sites like Brule, Whitefish, and Arrow Lakes. In the spring, they moved to maple sugar camps before returning to summer villages at Gichi Onigamiing and other sites around Lake Superior. A white cedar tree (manito gizhigans: spirit little cedar tree) growing from the rocky shore on the eastern edge of Grand Portage Bay became a sacred landmark.
After Pierre de la Vérendrye landed at Gichi Onigamiing on August 22, 1731, the site grew into a major rendezvous point for the fur trade, and Europeans began to refer to it as Grand Portage. By 1784, the North West Fur Company was running two operations on the site: Fort Charlotte, at the western end of the portage, and a trading depot at its eastern terminus. Company clerks expanded the depot to include, by 1793, sixteen wooden buildings: shops, private lodgings, a mess hall, an accounting office, and six storehouses, all surrounded by gated log palisades.
Activity at Grand Portage, as at other trading posts, followed a seasonal cycle. Only a few company employees stayed on site in winter to maintain buildings while the majority traveled to hunting and trapping sites. Every year in June, however, they reunited at Grand Portage for the Great Rendezvous, a two-month celebration with feasting, dancing, and socializing. There, Ojibwe hunters and trappers exchanged animal furs for traders’ goods like sugar, flour, tobacco, gunpowder, and guns.
Influential traders passed through Grand Portage and noted it in their journals, including David Thompson and Alexander Henry the Younger — both employees of the North West Company. The French-Ojibwe Collin family (Antoine and his sons Michel and Jean-Baptiste) worked in and around Grand Portage for over four decades, first for the North West Company (1790s–1821) and then for the Hudson Bay Company (1821–1830s).
Grand Portage’s heyday as a trading site arrived in the late 1790s, when the North West Company and its rival, the XY Company, competed most fiercely. Limited business resumed in 1821, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fort at Grand Portage Bay, and continued into the 1830s. By the 1840s, however, fur trading no longer promised large-scale profits, and companies abandoned their forts.
After the fur-trade era, Ojibwe people remained near Gichi Onigamiing. The first Treaty of La Pointe (1842) reserved the right of the Lake Superior and Mississippi River Ojibwe to use the portage. The second treaty of that name (1854) established the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, one of the seven federally recognized reservations of Ojibwe in Minnesota.
Between 1939 and 1940, workers employed by the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reconstructed Grand Portage’s Great Hall on its original foundations. Twenty years later, the Grand Portage Ojibwe ceded 709.67 acres of their reservation to the National Park Service, allowing the site to become a National Monument on October 15, 1960. Fire destroyed the Great Hall on July 15, 1969, but the reconstructed palisades and East Gate remained intact. In 1974, a rebuilt Great Hall opened to the public.