Grand Portage's North West Company

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Winning Nomination

The Company may have been based in Montreal, but the key was having that location in Minnesota. The company's most successful years, when it was five times larger than Hudson's Bay Co., were all in Grand Portage. From that route Sir A. Mackenzie reaches the Pacific before Lewis and Clark, and then reaches the Arctic Ocean. Natives used Grand Portage as a highway out of Canada to deal with competing English traders and French traders before that, opening a whole international economic opportunity. Up to 78% of all the furs in the international fur trade came through Grand Portage. Geography, exploration, and economics came together in one place and that explosion opened half a continent.
~Karl Koster, Armstrong, IA


Runner-up Nominations

Before Pigs Eye served his first beer in what would become St. Paul, Grand Portage had a thriving community. Before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Grand Portage was significant to the commerce of several nations. The fur trade brought the first Europeans to the region, and Grand Portage was central to the business. The significance did not stop when the United States was formed. Throughout the treaty process that attempted to establish the border with Canada, Grand Portage played a central role, it is even mentioned by name in Article II of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty between the United States and Britain that established the border we have today.

Grand Portage is significant to Minnesota still today. Thr Grand Portage National Monument is one of only two in the State of Minnesota. It is also home to one of Minnesota's newest state parks. Grand Portage State Park is the only state park in the nation that is co-managed by the state and an Indian tribe. The Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe own the land the park is located on and the state leases the property from them.

For the reasons mentioned, I believe Grand Portage is one of the 150 most important aspects of our Minnesota history.
~Ron Woolery, Little Falls, MN


Contents

History

A commercial venture leads to cultural change

From 1600 to 1850, a widespread system of exchange fueled the economy of the region. Known today simply as the fur trade, it was at heart a simple proposition: American Indians exchanged furs, especially beaver pelts, for all sorts of manufactured goods provided by European traders.

Grand Portage, at the very northeastern point of what is now Minnesota, was a key location during the fur trade era. Karl Koster, of Armstrong, Iowa, explains why the North West Company established headquarters at Grand Portage: "The company may have been based in Montreal, but the key was having that location in Minnesota. The company's most successful years, when it was five times larger than the Hudson's Bay Company, were all at Grand Portage. From there [Scottish fur trader and explorer] Sir Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific before Lewis and Clark, and also reached the Arctic Ocean. Geography, exploration, and economics came together in one place and that explosion opened half a continent."

Location, location, location. According to fur trade historian Alan R. Woolworth, "No fewer than three geographical features ensured the Grand Portage locality of its place in fur trade history." The bay was deep and sheltered, perfect for building a trading post. It was a relatively short and easy portage to the Pigeon River. And the river was an excellent natural waterway to the network of lakes to the west. The area's advantageous natural features supported an empire.

Like many of Minnesota's most storied places, Grand Portage was a gathering spot long before Europeans arrived on the scene. Ojibwe Indians had traveled to this nexus for centuries, and the nine-mile trek used by traders to avoid a waterfall and rapids on the Pigeon River was first navigated by Ojibwe, who called the place Kitchi Onigaming, or "great carrying place." Today, Grand Portage State Park--the only state park land not owned by the State of Minnesota--is located within the Grand Portage Indian Reservation.

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