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The fur trade in Minnesota shaped the region for two centuries

The North American fur trade knocked on the door of Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota homelands, present-day Minnesota) in 1679 when Sieur du Lhut (Daniel Greysolon), an emissary of the French government, visited the Dakota village at Bde Wakan (Mille Lacs) and watched the Ojibwe renew their alliance with their Dakota trading partners.

photo of muskrat pelts hanging
Muskrat fur pelts on display at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading post in Onamia, Minnesota. Created no earlier than 1918.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The North American fur trade began around 1500 off the coast of Newfoundland and became one of the most powerful industries in US history. In Minnesota country, the Dakota and the Ojibwe traded in alliance with the French from the 1600s until the 1730s, when Ojibwe warriors began to drive the Dakota from their homes in the Mississippi Headwaters region. Afterward, the Dakota continued trading in the south while Montreal traders and their Ojibwe allies established a network of trading posts in the north. For the next 120 years, the fur trade dominated the region’s economy and contributed to the development of a unique multicultural society.

The North American fur trade knocked on the door of Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota homelands, present-day Minnesota) in 1679. Sieur du Lhut (Daniel Greysolon), an emissary of the French government, visited the Dakota village at Bde Wakan (Mille Lacs) and watched the Ojibwe renew their alliance with their Dakota trading partners. At a peace conference, all three parties—Ojibwe, French, and Dakota—collaborated to open rich and strategically valuable Dakota territory to the fur trade. The Dakota agreed to allow the Ojibwe, who were already powerful players in the business, to live on their lands east of the Mississippi River and to act as middlemen in trades with the French. The French, for their part, had already adopted Native customs of gift giving, ceremony, and reciprocity within kinship networks.

The arrangement persisted until 1737, when French interference and shifting alliances with the Cree and Assiniboin led Ojibwe warriors to attack the Dakota villages at Bde Tanka (Lake Pepin). The invasion led to the gradual displacement of Dakota bands from their northern Minnesota homelands and opened the Upper Mississippi—a region abundant with game, wild rice lakes, and beavers—to direct Ojibwe control.

With their Ojibwe allies in place, French and British traders developed routes into the former Dakota territories. One used the St. Louis River and six-mile Savannah Portage to access the Mississippi Basin. Another used the Bois Brule and Namekagon Rivers to access the St. Croix River basin. The Dakota, meanwhile, continued trading in the south.

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In 1784, the British North West Company, a competitor of the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company, disrupted the fur business when it constructed an inland headquarters at Gichi Onigamiing (Ojibwe for “The Great Carrying Place”—Grand Portage). It was the largest fur trade depot in the heart of the continent. Sixteen wooden buildings stood inside its palisade, including a business office, a warehouse for trade goods and furs, food storage buildings, and living quarters for the partners and clerks. From their location at the start of the 8.5-mile route, company employees accessed hundreds of miles of waterways stretching to the Canadian Northwest, later called the Voyageur’s Highway.

The North West Company’s traders adopted an aggressive business model. Rather than sit and wait for people with furs to come to them, as was the practice of the Hudson’s Bay Company, they established a network of trading posts throughout the continent and intercepted trappers in the field. This new way of doing things required a backwoods navy of canoe paddlers to deliver trade goods to the posts and transport pelts to market. These hardy, long-distance paddlers were known as voyageurs (French for “travelers”).

As competition intensified between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, trading posts sprang up across the central continent, until every major tributary in Minnesota had one (or more). Unlike earlier times, when Native trappers were given little value in exchange for their pelts, a tighter market and greater competition created inflation in the trade.

Voyageurs delivered high-quality manufactured goods Native people were unable to make themselves: woven cloth and wool blankets replaced animal skins, glass beads adorned ceremonial clothing. Metal tools—axes, kettles, traps, and firearms—became indispensable, as did distilled spirits. By 1800, even the remotest peoples had incorporated European objects into their lives. And it went both ways; the traders adopted Indigenous technology such as moccasins, toboggans, and snowshoes for tackling winter in a harsh climate.

Voyageurs paddled hundreds of miles in birchbark canoes, carrying ninety-pound packs as they went. Most of them—short, brawny men—portaged two or more at a time. There were two distinct groups of voyageurs: the “Montreal men” and the “north men.” The Montreal men, called mangeurs de lard (pork eaters) after their rations, ferried trade goods and furs between Montreal and Grand Portage, 1,500 miles one way. The north men plied the Canadian interior, many wintering over in distant territories before returning to Grand Portage the following season laden with furs. For this reason, they were also called hivernants (winterers).

Each July, the two groups met at the North West Company Depot on Lake Superior for Rendezvous, the annual mid-summer company meeting and celebration. Hundreds of voyageurs spent the better part of July camped outside the palisade. Food was abundant and liquor flowed freely for those willing to part with wages just received for the past year’s work.

Most voyageurs were French Canadians from impoverished backgrounds who saw a couple of tours on the waterways as a path to a better life. This was an ephemeral goal for many voyageurs, who spent more in credit at company stores than they earned. It was not unusual for a young man to get into the trade for a tour or two and find himself paddling and portaging, deep in debt, twenty years later. Some of the voyageurs, indentured servants to the company or to other voyageurs, received no pay. Traders often married Native women from prominent families, so that their relatives would come to them to trade. As a result of generations of intermarriage, large communities of diverse heritage developed.

The dynamics of Minnesota’s fur trade shifted again in 1803. The United States, eager to solidify its border with Canada and claim its exclusive right to lucrative land, imposed regulations on British companies. As a result, the North West Company moved its depot from Grand Portage to Fort William, near present-day Thunder Bay, Ontario. With the two big fur companies confined north of the border, the American Fur Company asserted dominance in the Midwest and Great Lakes.

By 1823, the American Fur Company controlled the fur trade across most of present-day Minnesota. The company’s headquarters stood at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers (Bdote), in the shadow of newly constructed Fort Snelling. A series of American Fur Company posts extended up both rivers.

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When silk overtook fur as the most popular material for hats and clothing in Europe in the 1830s, the profitability of the fur trade declined. As government agents, some former traders exploited their Native kinship ties to negotiate land cessions, enabling the US to seize Native land. The treaties they engineered in the 1850s confined the Ojibwe and Dakota to reservations. At the same time, Indian agents discouraged them from hunting and trapping on lands claimed by immigrants. Among whites, meanwhile, power in the fur trade translated into political power as Minnesota became a territory and then a state. Henry Sibley, who ran the Western Outfit of the American Fur Company starting in 1834, served as the first governor of Minnesota.

Although the Minnesota fur trade’s era of national influence ended in 1854, smaller-scale trading continued for decades. In the twenty-first century, the heritage of the voyageur remains embedded in the fabric of the state. Many Minnesotans alive today descend from the métis (Native and European) children of fur traders and Native women. North of the border, some of their relatives belong to the Metis Nation of Canada, a federally recognized First Nation.

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