Grand Portage

An Emporium of Goods and Cultures on the North Shore of Lake Superior

Think of a single place from which you can choose a route that will take you to the Pacific coast of North America, the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico. The place is located along the north shore of Lake Superior in the far northeastern corner of what is now Minnesota. This is Grand Portage.

Grand Portage is located near the mouth of the Pigeon River. This river forms an almost unbroken chain of lakes and rivers that stretches from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg. It is the main water route west of Lake Superior. The only major obstruction is near the lake. To bypass it, the Indian travelers had marked out a 8.5 mile overland path they called “Kitchi Onigaming”. The French called it Grand Portage.

The 8.5 mile trail from Lake Superior to the Pigeon River may not be the longest portage “16 pose”, or the most difficult, but clearly it was one of the most important. It was the starting place for sending European trade goods to the west and northwest lands unknown to the Europeans and the departure point for the furs traveling back to the European markets.

By 1731 the French trader La Vérendrye was the first European to visit Grand Portage. By 1742 an Ojibwe village stood at Grand Portage. In 1767, fourteen canoe crews carried 5,117 lbs. of goods through Grand Portage and that fall just three companies sent back 4,293 beaver pelts.

The Post at Grand Portage

At first many of the different traders built trading houses to hold their goods for the coming year. With the formation of the North West Co., most of the different trading houses were abandoned for one large post. The exceptions were the various companies that formed in competition with the North West Co.. At times they built houses near Grand Portage.

By 1787, the North West Co. had 23 farm animals at Grand Portage. In 1793, there were 16 buildings inside the stockade. They were made from cedar and white spruce split with whip saws, the roofs covered with shingles of cedar and pine. Most of the posts, doors and windows were painted Spanish brown. Six of the buildings were store houses for merchandise and fur. The rest were dwelling houses, shops, a countinghouse and mess house. The largest of the buildings was the great hall. This was where the gentlemen of the company did the company business, entertained, dined and where the Montreal agents slept.

Each spring while the Montreal brigades were bringing trade goods to Grand Portage, the wintering brigades were bringing the year’s trade of furs. The result was Rendezvous.

From 1730 to 1805, Grand Portage was an emporium of goods and cultures as varied as any in the world.