Imagine for a moment that the year is 1797.
The USA is a young adult, a country still developing both politically and geographically, still deciding who she is and how much land she wishes to control. To the north it’s been more than 30 years now since Great Britain shook off the French and Canada is now a British colony. The fur trade is the dominant force in the Canadian interior, with the North West Company competing hard to be the dominate player in that industry.
It is summer now and the agents, staff, and trading partners of the North West Company have gathered at their depot in Grand Marais for the annual rendezvous. Building on the ancient gatherings of the area’s native population, the rendezvous is a combination company meeting, trade fair, and party. And there is both a lot of business to conduct and reason for celebration. The North West Company has been very successful since its establishment less than 20 years ago, and now its employees include something on the order of 2,000 agents, guides, clerks, interpreters, and others; many of who have gathered here on the shore of Lake Superior to conduct business, recuperate, and celebrate. They are joined here by their Native neighbors and partners, as well as others drawn to this large gathering for reasons both personal and commercial.
Let’s go see what they are up to.
The depot’s Great Hall is relatively quiet when we arrive.
While business will be conducted here throughout the gathering, most of the action is elsewhere at this particular moment. However, musicians have congregated along the hall’s long porch, perhaps practicing for the evening’s Regale when music and dancing (and strong drink) will enhance the merrymaking.
Certainly the upcoming Regale is on the minds of the kitchen staff, as the kitchen is a buzzing hive of activity.
It appears the men of the North West Company will eat well this year!
I know the kitchen isn’t the only place where there is activity, so we cross the post’s yard, slip through the cedar pickets that surround the depot itself, and follow along the stockade to the north men’s encampment.
This is the camp of the North men, the Voyageurs who travel the continent along its rivers to bring furs collected from native communities here for shipment to Montreal and the world beyond.
Of course, theirs is not the only camp here. For example, the Pork Eaters who have paddled their massive canoes along the edge of Lake Superior from Montreal are camped amid their canoes along the shore.
(It must have been a very good year indeed, as even the Montreal men have canvas tents!)
And there must not be enough housing within the depot for all of the partners and clerks, as I spy gentlemen in fine clothing and campsites stocked with silver and good wine amid the trees.
And there are visitors here too – I meet a Métis family from the west who is here to reconnect with family and friends and a wanderer from Virginia who shares the music of the British Isles with the Scots and Frenchmen from Quebec who comprise the vast majority of the fur trade labor force.
As I wander through the camps I meet peddlers and weavers, cooks hard at work, canoe builders and blacksmiths . . . a whole range of skills needed to keep this complex and wide-ranging enterprise running.
It’s been a good year. Would anyone here believe me if I told them this post will be gone in less than 10 years, the depot dismantled and relocated firmly within Canadian territory 50 miles north at Fort Williams? Would they believe that the fur trade will still be strong, but already in decline? That the days of the Grand Portage were ending and the world as they know it already changing?
As in olden days, the Rendezvous at Grand Portage is an annual event. Each year, on the second full weekend of August, the Grand Portage National Monument invites reenactors to come to the site and bring the post’s heady days back to life. The public is welcome attend (for free!) during the day when a variety of demonstrations, activities and classes are available.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s People of the Fur Trade provides a who’s who of the various players in the fur trade during this period. A similar piece by McGill University provides more details on the work and diet of the Voyageurs. (The McGill page is part of a very informative explanation of the fur trade and the North West Company, but the pages aren’t linked and there doesn’t appear to be a home page or index 🙁 )