Grand Portage's North West Company
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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