Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

Manitoba History: Carolyn Gilman, The Grand Portage Story

by Graham A. MacDonald
Calgary, Alberta

Number 26, Autumn 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Carolyn Gilman, The Grand Portage Story, St. Paul, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 168 pp., maps, illus., 1992. ISBN 0-87351-270-7

Highway No. 61 between Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario, provides many scenic and historic pleasures for the tourist. In the book under review, the visual grandeur of Lake Superior’s north shore gives way to the subtlety of locality, that of the historic Grand Portage which played such an important part in the eighteenth and nineteenth century fur trade. Throughout much of the eighteenth century the portage was a transportation “commons” in the fur trade and as with so many utilitarian places of recent European discovery it was first used by more ancient residents. This was the Kitchi Onigaming, in Algonkian parlance, and the Grand Portage in French. The pre-conquest traders from Quebec had also made some use of the Kaministiquia River route which empties into Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, but the way to the western interior was more direct via the Pigeon River, today’s local boundary between Canada and the United States. The key to using the Pigeon River route, however, lay through the Grand Portage, the commencement of which begins a few miles south of the river mouth and runs about 8.5 miles overland in order to by-pass the lower twenty-two miles of the river, a stretch punctuated by a series of falls and rapids. Given an appropriate ceremonial response to the contemporary Native guardians of the portage, access to the Grand Portage had not been, as a rule, politically problematical during either the French regime or in the post-conquest period. Only after the American Revolution did its geo-political significance become an issue as a consequence of Jay’s Treaty of 1794. By the terms of that treaty, fur traders with English credentials, were legally obliged to abandon use of the area south of the Pigeon River, a consequence of which was the establishment of Fort William.

Source: The Grand Portage Story, page 3.

In this well designed and richly illustrated book, Carolyn Gilman has detailed the changing circumstances at Grand Portage over the last three hundred years. Lightly wearing her scholarship (which is nevertheless rigorous), she provides us with a view of why this rugged and rather private place had been so important during the fur trade years. Well grounded in the historical sources, the author recounts the main events which shaped local fur trade history, yet always ensures that her readers understand the larger context. Many of the personalities encountered along the way are well known, but even close students of fur trade history will find unfamiliar testimony, such as that to be found in Thompson Maxwell’s Narrative of the early 1760s. It is perhaps the manner in which a vast amount of material has been marshalled that most recommends this book. Without belabouring points of view, or entering too far into those controversies in which fur trade historians so love to become embroiled, Gilman reveals that she is well aware of the substance of recent debates and she has judiciously incorporated the results into her narrative. Chapters three, four, and five are particularly interesting from this point of view where implicit is a recognition that Native peoples responded to the availability of European trade goods in a manner which economists have described as “inelastic.” That is to say, the mere offer of trade goods by a European trader did not automatically elicit an immediate response from an Indian supplier who may have had other schedules on his mind. Considerations of a ceremonial nature, social sharing, or the seasonal round of natural resource exploitation usually took precedence over any immediate suggestion that he give more time to prosecuting the fur trade. “Practicality” Gilman tells us, was likely to be the deciding factor. Around the edges of Lake Superior, the author correctly points to the greater importance of seasonal fisheries in the yearly economic and social cycle. (p.94)

In terms of theme, The Grand Portage Story goes well beyond that of the fur trade period. It is also an exercise in local and public history in which post-fur trade events in the community of Grand Portage are reviewed down to the present day. There is much interesting information provided on how the local economy evolved, on regional Native-European relations and land issues, on how an interest in the history of community was revived, on the personalities involved in that revival and finally on the manner in which this history was presented to the public. As with most important public commemorations, there has been a long and partially disguised prologue underlying current achievements at Grand Portage. The story begins as early as 1921 when the important regional historian and officer of the Minnesota Historical Society, Solon J. Buck, became aware of “an alarming letter from a resident of Grand Portage” concerning the destruction of the historic trail. (p.127) From that time on, various efforts were mounted, with varying degrees of success, aimed at reclaiming the old trail, conducting site archaeology at the old fur post and at Fort Charlotte, (the small post at the western end of the portage route), and at public commemoration. The advent of war seriously reduced the pace of conservation work but in 1951 The U.S. Department of the Interior designated Grand Portage a National Historic Site, and by 1958, in cooperation with the Grand Portage Band, Congress approved the transfer of lands for a National Monument. By 1960 then, the site had been brought under the wing of the National Park Service. Fifteen seasons of archaeology were then undertaken under the direction of Alan R. Woolworth of the Minnesota Historical Society, and the results of this body of work have been consistently drawn upon in the current book. Students of heritage planning will find the comments of the author useful with respect to how the phasing of research and development was carried out at the site in the years after 1960. (p. 130) As at so many public and private historic sites in Canada and the United States, research and archaeology budgets appear to have been approved at Grand Portage, all too often with reference to perceived crises associated with premature development plans.

Wigemar Wasung, a Lake Superior Ojibwa woman sketched by Eastman Johnson. From Grand Portage.
Source: St. Louis County Historical Society

Page revised: 11 April 2010

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.