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Published: July 10th 2018
Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minnesota
It is hard to imagine that the European demand for hats made of beaver skin would be responsible for opening up an entire continent. But that is pretty much what happened up here. I was aware of the general history that French trappers had a great deal to do with exploring the interior, but I wasn’t aware of some of the more interesting details.
Trapping for furs has been around for quite some time - clothing was originally made from animal skins before we figured out how to make them from plants or petroleum. I’m not quite sure why the French ended up monopolizing the industry, except that they happened to first colonize North America in the area that was once scraped clean of good soils by glaciers. So with farming not an attractive option, the only thing their environment offered were the products of the forest, lumber and wildlife.
As settlers progressively populated the lands of the northwest, eliminating forests as they went, the fur trade was pushed further and further northwest into Canada. The vast wilderness of the Canadian forests provided ample sources for both meat and furs.
Native Americans already knew this. The Ojibwe, the major tribe on and around Lake Superior, had already established a small village at the Grand Portage area and were already very familiar with what the lands to the northwest offered. They were accomplished canoeists in their own right and had already figured out that they could use the river system to bring furs down to their homeland. But there was a major problem - the Pigeon River provided good transport and, in fact, opened into Lake Superior. But before it got there, it flowed across a good size cliff forming a completely unnavigable waterfall of about 150 feet. Both sides of the river were walled with steep canyons making a portage around the waterfall impossible.
But the Ojibwe had discovered a gap in the ridges surrounding the river about 8 miles upstream from Lake Superior. There they found a path to carry their canoes around the waterfalls - an eight-mile hike that is now known as The Grand Portage. They built a village on Lake Superior where the portage ended sheltered in a small bay.
French trappers were eager to take advantage of this shortcut and established a working
The Stockade with the Great Hall and other Restored Buildings
relationship with the Indians. As the fur trade increased, fueled by European demand for beaver hats, the Europeans worked out an elaborate arrangement with a distinctive class relationship. The ‘pork eaters’, or bourgeois, came in the summer time, rowing their canoes across the Great Lake system after the ice had broken up. Eventually making it to this site on the western shore of Lake Superior.
The ‘northmen’ were the men who caught the beavers, canoed them down the rivers of Canada, and then made the difficult Grand Portage. Not a whole lot is known about these men, but they have taken on nearly mythical status. We also know them as Voyageurs. Their relationship with the fur trading companies took on aspects of indentured servitude, and their working life was anything but easy. They also developed a very complicated relationship with Native Americans, marrying Indian women, sometimes several of them.
The meeting between the Voyageurs and the Pork Eaters, and the Ojibwe Indians, occurred in the month of July at Grand Portage. It was given the name The Rendezvous. In addition to being the place for all economic transactions, it was also one big party where the Voyageurs often
spent a good chunk of their wages on European luxuries, including rum.
The National Monument here seeks to preserve the site, as well as the actual trail used in the Grand Portage. You can hike the 8.5 mile, one-way, trail that the Voyageurs used to bring their boats, loaded with furs to Rendezvous. I can imagine that making that hike would be a thrilling way to connect with an important chapter in North American history.
We didn’t do that hike - it is longer than our limit. Instead, we took the girls up to the top of Mount Rose, a one-mile round trip hike. At the summit, there are commanding views of the bay and outstanding views onto Lake Superior. You can also look down onto the stockade that has been rebuilt to look like the original structures established there to support the Rendezvous centuries ago. The park has multiple exhibits showing what life was like there. And the visitor center film is a must-see, telling the story from the point of view of a modern day young Ojibwe. We also ate a picnic lunch right next to the bay. The weather was terrific, but the flies were
also enjoying the day so we ate quickly.
When we named this trip the Great Lakes Rendezvous, I only had some vague idea about the relationship between the French trappers and the Great Lakes. I was pleasantly surprised that we got to visit the spot where the name really takes on meaning. Warning, though, it takes some effort to get here - it is more than 100 miles northeast of Duluth and just six or seven miles from the Canadian border. But, especially for us, it was worth the effort.
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