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The journey from the Mississippi River to Lake Superior used to involve a lot of portaging

A brief history of the Northwest Trail.

historic map of savanna portage
Map of Savanna Portage Trail, 1956. Minnesota Conservation Department, Division of Forestry. A3/0V5, Drawer 7, Folder 8. State Parks Maps and Drawings, Minnesota Division of Parks and Recreation. Government Records Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

For untold generations, Indigenous people traversed North America’s interlocking waterways by canoe. When moving between drainage systems, it was necessary for them to bridge the high ground that kept the waters separated. This meant carrying, or “portaging,” canoes and belongings between watersheds. One of the most important portage routes in Minnesota, known today as the Northwest Trail, connected the Mississippi River to Lake Superior.

Eastbound travelers, beginning the 120-mile route at Sandy Lake, paddled several miles up the West Savanna River to its headwaters. They proceeded on foot, crossing six miles of swamps and hills on the Savanna Portage, until reaching the East Savanna River. A short downstream paddle led to its confluence with the St. Louis River, seventy-two miles above its mouth at Lake Superior.

The journey down the river was hazardous, marked by raging rapids and cascades, as the water plummets 650 feet in elevation. Downstream from present-day Cloquet, travelers were forced onto a series of lengthy and precipitous trails: Knife Portage (one mile), Women’s Portage (one-half mile), and Grand Portage (seven miles). From the bottom of the Grand Portage, it was a ten-mile paddle to the mouth of the St. Louis. Travelers could continue for hundreds of miles, down the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.

Westbound travelers followed the route in reverse, facing steep uphill trails and swift opposing currents. From Sandy Lake, travelers could proceed in many directions, including south to the Gulf of Mexico and north to Hudson Bay.

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Europeans first arrived at the mouth of the St. Louis River in 1666. Father Claude Allouez, commissioned by the French government to map Lake Superior, encountered a group of Dakota at Fond du Lac who spoke of their villages on Sandy Lake. Allouez’s map contains a note which would guide future travelers to the Mississippi basin: “[This River] goes to the Nadouessi (Dakota), sixty leagues to the west.”

Thirteen years after the Allouez expedition (1679), Sieur du Lhut, an emissary of the French government, traveled the Northwest Trail to meet with the Dakota at Sandy Lake. His journey over the trail was the first to be recorded by a European.

In the 1730s the expanding French fur trade disrupted traditionally peaceful relations between Indigenous people in the Great Lakes region. Canoes laden with Anishinaabe warriors from many Lake Superior villages gathered in 1737 at Fond du Lac near the mouth of the river known in Ojibwe as Gichi Gami Zibi (Great Lake River). Under the leadership of war chief Bayaaswaa (Biauswah), the warriors traveled up the river, intent on attacking the Dakota villages at Sandy Lake. Their goals: to control the Northwest Trail and to claim the Mississippi River Headwaters, a region known for its abundance of game, wild rice lakes, and beaver. As they marched up the Grand Portage, a single-file line of warriors stretched as far as the eye could see. Overpowered by the Anishinaabe’s powerful weapons, the Dakota retreated from Sandy Lake. This invasion precipitated the eventual displacement of Dakota bands from their northern Minnesota homelands.

The voyageurs on the Northwest Trail faced a grueling task. Each worker commonly carried a bale or two of furs, one of which weighed up to ninety pounds. He would drop his load at the next pause, and then run back to the previous pause to pick up another load. In ideal conditions, the St. Louis River portages could be crossed in three to five days. Upon reaching the six-mile Savanna Portage, the process would repeat, taking up to seven days to complete. Because of the hardships involved, the Northwest Trail became known by voyageurs across the continent as the most wretched of portage routes.

In 1847, with the dissolution of the American Fur Company, the Northwest Trail ceased as a commercial route. A combination of changing fashion trends in Europe and the scarcity of beaver in the region contributed to the company’s demise.

Twenty-three years later, in 1870, the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad, built along the north bank of the St. Louis River, replaced canoe travel along the Northwest Trail.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.