Minnesota’s Grand Portage National Monument Commemorates the Historic Fur Trade Era

Reconstructed Great Hall at Grand Portage National Monument. Photo by Rufus Sarsasparilla via Wikipedia.

Grand Portage National Monument, originally established as a National Historic Site on September 15, 1951, commemorates a vital infrastructure component of the historic North American fur trade. The North West Company, the most successful fur trading company in North America, operated a summer headquarters and western supply depot at Grand Portage from 1778 until 1802.

If you want to visit the Grand Portage National Monument, you need to travel about as far north as you can go without crossing into Canada. The smallish park (710 acres) is in northeastern Minnesota’s famous Arrowhead region, and is completely surrounded by the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. The 74-square mile reservation, home of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe), extends about 18 miles along the Lake Superior shoreline and is bordered by a national forest. This situation compels the Ojibwe to maintain amicable working relationships not only with the National Park Service, but also the Border Patrol, the .U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Grand Portage National Monument commemorates the historic fur trade at a vital transit corridor and summer headquarters location. Grand Portage functioned primarily as a place of consolidation and transfer for pelts taken in winter hunting/trapping grounds in interior Minnesota and Ontario. Transported upstream and eastward as far as possible, these furs then had to be moved overland on a trail connecting to Lake Superior. Having reached Lake Superior, the furs could then be transported down the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River system and transferred for shipment to European markets.

Grand Portage has a deep and interesting history. Various Indian tribes probably began using Kitchi Onigaming (“the Great Carrying Place”) as long as 2,000 years ago when traveling from Lake Superior to winter hunting grounds in interior Minnesota and Ontario. By the 1730s, French fur traders were using this passage to penetrate as far west as Lake Winnipeg and gather a rich supply of beaver pelts, primarily through trade with Indians.

After the British routed the French in Canada and seized control of the Canadian interior and upper Great Lakes in the 1760s, it was England’s turn to control Grand Portage and reap the advantages of this gateway into rich northern fur bearing country. A British fur trading company, North West Company (NWC), was the single most successful fur trading company in North America. Based in Monreal, and run mostly by Scots immigrants, it operated from the 1770s until 1821 when it was finally absorbed into the Hudson’s Bay Company.

With the permission of the Ojibwes, the NWC operated a summer headquarters and western supply depot at Grand Portage from 1778 until 1802. There the company conducted business, hosted a summer rendezvous, and flourished. Finally, pressured by the United States (the new landowner of Grand Portage), the NWC decamped 50 miles north to Fort William, Ontario, taking the buildings with them.

When you visit Grand Portage National Monument today you will find a reconstructed palisade wall, the rebuilt Great Hall (see accompanying photo) and kitchen complex , a canoe warehouse with authentic canoes, and the 8.5-mile Grand Portage corridor/trail that connects the summer headquarters compound to old Fort Charlotte (unrestored) on the Pigeon River border with Canada.

The new visitor center, dubbed the Grand Portage Heritage Center is the park’s pride and joy. Opened just a little over a year ago (August 10, 2007) after nearly half a century of negotiations and delays, the 16,600-square foot building houses exhibit galleries (Ojibwe culture and the fur trade), a bookstore, multi-media programs, park offices and a classroom.

If you want to get the most out of your visit, plan to be at the park during the second weekend of August. That’s when the park’s North West Company Rendezvous takes place, and it’s really something special. Held in conjunction with the Rendezvous and Pow Wow hosted each year by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, this annual gathering at the park celebrates the time when furs from wintering posts were delivered down the historic Grand Portage. The North West Company Rendezvous (or Grand Rendezvous) features an encampment of re-enactors from across the United States and Canada who hold workshops and demonstrate the skills, crafts, games, contests, music, and dancing of the historic fur trade era.

Hearty Traveler congratulations to Grand Portage National Monument on its 57th anniversary.