North West Company Fur Post

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Introduction

The North West Company Fur Post is an authentically reconstructed post from the winter of 1804-05. Costumed guides help interpret the site and take visitors back to the days when furs were traded here under the British flag. The visitor center features exhibits, a great room with a large fireplace and gift shop.

Background

For over two centuries, the North American fur trade brought American Indians and European-Canadians together in the mutual enterprise of exchanging native trapped furs for European manufactured goods. By the 1790s, the Montreal-based North West Company had extended its fur trade network from the St. Lawrence River valley to beyond the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Scattered across a vast network of waterways were over 100 wintering posts, each located near Indian hunting and trapping camps that were the main source of furs.

In the fall of 1804, John Sayer, a partner of the North West Company and his crew departed from Fort St. Louis, near modern-day Superior, Wis. Sayer originally intended to build a post near Cross Lake, but the location for his wintering operations changed to a site two miles up the Snake River, after he conferred with local Ojibwe leaders. The exact period of the post's operation remains a mystery, but recent research indicates the post saw several seasons of operation. Sometime after the post was abandoned it was destroyed by fire.

Today, the North West Company Fur Post, a reconstruction of John Sayer's post, is owned and operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. The site consists of approximately 93 acres on the north and south sides of the Snake River, with the historic reconstruction on the south side.

The site was rediscovered in 1931 by a Pine City resident. As a boy of nine, he purchased a boat to pursue his hobby of arrowhead collecting along the Snake River. During his explorations, he found a musket flint on top of a sandy ridge in the middle of a cornfield. For the next three decades, he continued to visit the site and collect artifacts stirred up by plowing.

In 1963, the Society performed field testing to determine the exact nature of the site. In 1965-67, the site was excavated by Hamline University students, led by Dr. Leland Cooper. Hundreds of artifacts were recovered, among them earlier Indian artifacts, musket balls, gunflints, beads, kettle parts, knives, axheads and charred animal remains.

In 1968-69, the site was reconstructed and, in 1970, it opened to the public. Its major components include a reconstructed six-room rowhouse, measuring 77 feet long by 18 feet wide. Surrounding the rowhouse is a palisade, measuring 100 feet by 61 feet, with defensive bastions in the north and south corners. An Ojibwe encampment completes the historic element of the site. Other features of the site include a picnic area, boat landing and primitive camp sites (located on the north side of the river).

A new visitor center, gift shop and exhibits opened at the post in 2003. A 30-foot tall stone fireplace and a 24-foot birch canoe are centerpieces of the 10,400-square-foot building. The exhibits explore the global economy of the fur trade, the work lives of those involved in the fur trade, cross-cultural communication, women's roles within the fur trade and archeological tools used to uncover information about the fur trade.

The Fur Trade in Minnesota

The fur trade, the first international business exchange between people in the Upper Mississippi region and Europe, was also notable as a multi-cultural enterprise. The fur trade depended on the expertise of people with dramatically different cultures and languages working interdependently. It was through the "practical partnerships" forged among these groups that the fur trade flourished in Minnesota from around 1785 to 1815. Making up these partnerships were:

  • American Indians: In Minnesota, fur traders relied on American Indians - principally Ojibwe - to trap and kill the animals and prepare the pelts. (Later, as the fur trade moved west, mountain men became involved in trapping.) American Indians also made invaluable contributions to the European's survival, introducing them to wild rice, corn and other native foods, to winter survival techniques, and to efficient transportation: the birch bark canoe. In addition, their interest in exchanging furs for European goods, such as iron tools, wool blankets, cloth, guns and other items, was critical to the success of the fur trade.
  • British and Scottish traders: After the British defeat of the French in 1763, British and Scottish traders were dominant in the fur trade. The bourgeois, as the traders were called, managed the affairs of the trading posts, bartering with the American Indians for furs in exchange for kettles, knives, guns, hatchets, cloth, beads and other items.
  • French-Canadian voyageurs: The voyageurs - the strong, hard-working canoemen who transported furs and goods great distances - were primarily French Canadians. A good singing voice was considered a useful skill. Physical strength and stamina were essential. When forced to carry, or portage, their loads, voyageurs commonly carried two 90-pound packs at a time. Once the load was situated on his back, the voyageur is said to have "trotted" to the first "pose" or resting place on the portage.

To cover the distances before them between spring thaw and the onset of winter, the voyageurs often paddled 16 to 18 hours a day at a rapid clip. Some historians claim they paddled 40 to 60 strokes per minute, or nearly a stroke per second.

Voyageurs were of two types: winterers and Montreal brigade. The winterers, who considered themselves superior, spent winters at inland posts trading with the Indians. In spring, they loaded their canoes with bales of furs and, with a crew of five or six men, traveled to larger posts, such as Grand Portage on the north shore of Lake Superior, to conduct trade.

The Montreal brigade, traveling with a crew of eight to 10 men in canoes larger than those used by the winterers, transported goods to the posts and furs back to Montreal. The 1,200-mile Montreal to Grand Portage trip took six to eight weeks.

With the convergence of the two groups of voyageurs at the post, usually in early July, it was time for "rendezvous," a time for celebration and business. Within a few weeks, though, the voyageurs and traders were packed again and headed home, eager to get there before winter.

Fur as Fashion

Few Minnesotans may realize it, but the driving force behind the earliest European exploration and settlement of their region was not the quest to establish a northwest route to the Orient or conquer and settle new lands. It was, instead, demand for a hat.

The "beaver," as the hat was called, topped the heads of fashionable Europeans for some 200 years. The hat ranged in style from the tri-cornered fashion of the late 1700s to the stovepipe top hat of the 1800s. Believed to have originated in Russia in the 1500s, the beaver is said to have become popular when Swedish soldiers, engaged in the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648, sported a wide-brimmed, reportedly romantic style.

The beaver hat was fashioned of felt - the favorite raw material for which was the soft "underfur" or "wool" of the animal. While rabbit and muskrat furs were also used, the beaver's "wool," with its tiny interlocking barbs, was preferred for its ability to stand up well to weather and wear.

With Europe's beaver populations largely depleted through overhunting, hatters looked to the New World and its bounteous supply of fur-bearing animals. To meet the demand, French, British and Scottish traders, bearing iron tools, kettles, wool blankets and other supplies to exchange for furs harvested by American Indians, established trading posts westward from Hudson Bay. Two companies, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, came to dominate the fur trade from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s.

As competition for furs intensified, posts sprang up farther west. One of the largest in the late 1700s was at Grand Portage on Minnesota's Lake Superior north shore. The North West Company Fur Post near Pine City, now a historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, was one of several smaller trading posts from which furs were shipped north to bigger posts, such as Grand Portage and Fort William located farther north on land that would become Canada.

The traders, however, were not hunters. They relied on American Indians to trap the animals and prepare the pelts. In exchange for the furs, traders provided American Indians with goods, from axes to beads, from Europe and around the world. Communities that developed around the fur trade were multi-cultural and interdependent. Each party had a specific role to play and all benefited from the collective effort.

Fashion's fickleness ended the fur trade. By the 1840s, the silk hat had replaced the "beaver" as the fashion statement of the day.

Fun Facts
  • The North West Company was the first transcontinental business between Europe and the Upper Mississippi region.
  • Voyageurs were required to carry two 90 pound packs at one time across the portage, plus an additional 4 to 8 packs, in addition to the canoe.
  • 12 beaver hides paid the wages for a common voyageur for the year.
  • A birch-bark canoe has no metal parts.
  • The canoe voyage from the Snake River to Fort William took 4 to 6 weeks and included a journey up the St. Croix during the spring flood.
  • North West Company partner Alexander McKenzie and his crew of voyageur were the first Europeans to cross the continent north of Mexico almost ten years before Lewis and Clark.
  • The post was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 7, 1972.
  • Site manager Patrick Schifferdecker portrays fur trader John Sayer at the site.
  • Nearly 16,000 people visited the North West Company Fur Post between July 2002 and June 2003.
  • Over 100 images are displayed in the site's visitor center, including works by artists Lisa Fifield, Carl Gawboy, David Geister, Cornelius Krieghoff and Truman Lowe.
Timeline

1783-84 A number of Montreal merchants, who want to counter the monopoly over the fur trade enjoyed by the Hudson's Bay Company, make an agreement that creates the North West Company, under the leadership of Simon McTavish. There is some dissension, and the firm of Gregory and McLeod puts up strong opposition. It is not until 1787 that a stable combination is reached.

1790s The North West Company extends its fur trade network from the St. Lawrence River valley to the Rocky Mountains.

1804 John Sayer, a partner of the North West Company, and his crew depart from Fort St. Louis, near modern day Superior, Wis., ending up near today's Pine City, Minn., where they build a fur post. It is destroyed by fire at an unknown date.

1931 The site is discovered by a Pine City resident. During his explorations, he finds a musket flint on top of a sandy ridge in the middle of a cornfield. For the next three decades, he continues to visit the site and collect artifacts stirred up by plowing.

1958-59 The man happens upon the book "Five Fur Traders in the North West," which contains John Sayer's journal (wrongly attributed to Thomas Connor). The locations mentioned in the journal point to the little sandbar ridge west of Pine City. With this information, the Pine City native realizes the significance of his find and reports it to the Minnesota Historical Society.

1963 The Society performs field testing to determine the exact nature of the site.

1965-67 The site is excavated by Hamline University students, led by Dr. Leland Cooper. Hundreds of artifacts are recovered, among them earlier Indian artifacts, musket balls, gunflints, beads, kettle parts, knives, axheads and charred animal remains.

1968-69 The site is reconstructed.

1970 The North West Company Fur Post opens to the public.

1972 The site is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2003 A new visitor center, gift shop and exhibits open at the site.

Images

North West Company Fur Post Images

North West Company Fur Post Images

North West Company Fur Post wintering post

North West Company Fur Post wintering post

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North West Company Fur Post visitor center

North West Company Fur Post visitor center

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North West Company Fur Post exhibits

North West Company Fur Post exhibits

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