Grand Portage in the Revolutionary War. · PDF file 2014-09-10 · Ontario...

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  • THE GREAT HALL is the only budding completed thus far in the reconstruction of Grand Portage. A replica of a

    34-foot Montreal canoe and one of a fur press are in the foreground.


    Revolutionary War Nancy L. Woolworth

    NOW THAT the bicentennial of the American Revolution is officially under way, Minnesota History presents this special issue as its contribution to the observance. Since Minnesota was largely a wil- derness domain of Indian tribes and fur traders in 1775 and the years following, it had very modest direct connections with the war. Such as it had, however, are covered in this issue — a small military expedition to Grand Portage in 1778, northern boundary dif- ficulties that stemmed from geographical ignorance of peace negotiators at the end of the war, and burial of one lone Revo- lutionary War veteran in Minnesota, Also treated in this issue are Minnesota Historical Society holdings from the period of the American Revolution and ramifications of the bicentennial obser- vance in Minnesota and the nation, — Ed,

    ' During the French regime, the trade was tightly controlled by means of royal licenses, limited in number. For a useful survey, see Rhoda R. Gilman, "The Fur Trade in the Upper Mississippi Valley, f630-f850," in Wiscon.sin Magazine of His- tory, 58:,3-8 (Autumn, 1974). On the British, see Marjorie G. Jackson, "The Beginning of British Trade at Michilimackinac, " in Minnesota History, 11:239 (September, 19,30) and Wayne E, Stevens, The Northwest Fur Trade 1763-1800, 14-41 (Urbana, Illinois, 1928),

    Mrs. Woolworth holds a nuister's degree in history from the Univer.sity of Michigan. She is author of The White Bear Lake Story, "The Grand Portage Mission: 1731-1965," pub- lished in the Winter, 1965, issue of Minnesota History, and of other articles for historical and archaeological publications.

    DURING THE American Revolution the only mdi-tary activity in what is now Minnesota occurred at Grand Portage on the North Shore of Lake Superior. For a few months in 1778 this remote fur trade post in the nor theas tern corner of the state served as tbe western terminus for the British military on the northern Great Lakes. How did this come about? Why were Lieutenant Thomas Bennett. Sergeant A. Langdown, and five soldiers of the King's Eighth Regiment of Foot sent to Grand Portage in the summer of 1778?

    The answer must be sought in British fur trade activi- ty, which began at Grand Portage shortly after the sur- render of Montreal ended the French and Indian War in 1760. With the British victory, EngHsh traders in Al- bany, New York, and Montreal, Quebec, hoping to take over the French trade of the Northwest, were delighted when British Generals Jeffrey Amherst and James Mur- ray declared in the fall of 1760 that tbe trade would henceforth be open to both French and British sub- jects . '

    One of the avant-garde of British traders attracted to the Lake Superior area was Alexander Henry, the elder, a merchant working with the commissariat of General Amhersfs army. On August 3, 1761, Henry received a personal pass from General Thomas Gage, governor of Montreal, that permitted him to engage in the fur trade. Following the Ottawa River route, Henry made his way westward in the fall of 1761 to Fort Michilimackinac, the post at the Straits of Mackinac which the British that vear took over from tbe French and which was to serve.

    Summer 1975 199

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    • Fort Michilimackinac


    THE ONLY MILITARY activity during the Revolutionary War in what is now Minnesota was prompted by the impor- tance of the fur trade and of Grand Portage as a rendezvous. Men and supplies were shipped from Fort Michilimackinac and Detroit for this brief engagement in the summer of 1778.

    for more than thirty years as the British military and ad- ministrative headquarters in the northern Great Lakes. There he combined EngHsb capital with French- Canadian knowledge of the trade routes, sending French- Canadian clerks and interpreters "into Lake Superior, among the Chipeways, and to the Grand Portage, for the north-west. " Henry's voyageurs gathered furs from the Indians on Lake Superior and began the advancement of British mercantilism into the pays den haut, the vast wilderness of the Northwest.^

    By 1767 eighteen canoes went from Michilimackinac to Lake Superior carrying trade goods worth 7,481 pounds, 17 shillings, and fourteen canoes went beyond Superior to the Northwest with cargoes worth 5,117 pounds, 10 shillings. In October, 1767, three companies of traders who listed destinations beyond Lake Superior sent back to Michdimackinac 4,293 beaver pelts alone. Jonathan Carver, who visited Grand Portage in July, 1767, says nothing about any buildings there, but he does record his meeting with a large party of Indians who "were come to this place in order to meet the trad- ers from Michillimackinac, who make this their road to the north-west. "̂

    By 1775 ten British licenses were given out for as many companies to send thirty-eight canoes of merchan- dise to Grand Portage. Henry, arriving at tbe portage on June 28, 1775, commented that he "found the traders in

    a state of extreme reciprocal hostility, each pursuing his interests in such a manner as might most injure his neighbour. The consequences, " Henr>' added, "were very hurtful to the morals of the Indians. "*

    In 1775 Henry, Peter Pond, and the Frobisher brothers, Joseph and Thomas, pushed westward until they reached the Saskatchewan River. Three years later Pond extended his activities still farther by opening the trade in the profitable Athabasca region of what is now Alberta. As the lines of trade were stretched from Montreal to this far northwestern area, the need for a

    ^James Bain, ed.. Travels h Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776 by Alexander Henry, 12, 16^8, 48 (Boston, 1901); Jackson, in Minnesota History, 11:236, 241; Brian L, Dunnigan, King's Men At Mackinac: The British Garrisons, 1780-1796, 13, 32 (Reports in Mackinac History and Archaeology, no, 3 — Mack- inac, 1973).

    •'Charles E. Lart, ed., "Fur-Trade Returns, 1767, in Canadian Historical Review. 3:352-58 (December, 1922); "Abstract of Indian Trade Licenses, 1768-76," in Governor General of Canada Papers, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa, typexvritten copy in the Minnesota Historical Society; Jonathan Caix'er, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768, 107-13 (reprint edition, Min- neapolis, 1956).

    "Bain, ed.. Travels ir Adventures, 2,35; "Abstract of In- dian Trade Licenses, 1768-76, " in Governor General of Canada Papers,

    200 Minnesota History

  • base midway along the route was apparent. Grand Por- tage, at the gateway of the best water route from the Great Lakes to the West, became that supply base as well as the annual rendezvous point for the Montreal partners and the winterers.^

    From the time — perhaps about 1768 — when John Askin, a Mackinac trader, built the first cabin in a cleared opening overlooking Grand Portage Bay, to the outbreak of the American Revolution, four pabsaded log cabins or 'Torts" had been constructed by competing groups of British traders upon a glacial beach level sur-

    ^ Harold A. Innis, "Peter Pond and the influence of Capt. James Cook on exploration in the interior of North America, " in Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, series 3, 22:135-.37 (May, 1938); Charies M. Gates, ed,. Five Fur Traders of the Northwest. 12 (St. Paul, 196,5).

    ^On die cabin built by Askin (sometimes spelled Erskine), see Grace Lee Nute, ed., "A British Legal Case at Old Grand Portage," in Minnesota History, 21:134 (June, 1940). Askin was sending his sailing sloops to Grand Portage at least by 1778; see note 15, below. Four buildings are indicated on Patrick McNiff's map of the North Shore of Lake Superior, 1794, in Ontario Provincial Archives, Toronto, discussed on p. 207, be- low. The fact that they were stockaded is mentioned in "Trade in the Lake Superior Country in 1778, " an unsigned memo- randum to Sir Guy Carleton, January 20, 1778, inMichigan His- torical Collections, 19:337 (1891). The companies trading there in this period included Montreal merchants Isaac Todd and Richard McNeall (1769); Lawrence Ermatinger (1769, 1772, 177.5); Charles Patterson, James McGill, and Benjamin Frobisher (1774); and Maurice Blondeau (1769, 1770, 1772, 1775). See "Abstract of Indian Trade Licenses, 1768-76," Gov- ernor General of Canada Papers.

    For later descriptions of Grand Portage, see Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lau- rence . 1789 and 1793, xliii-xlvii (London, 1801); Gates, ed.. Five Fur Traders, 92-95; and Solon J. Buck, "The Story of Grand Portage, " in Minnesota History Bulletin, 5:14-27 (Feb- ruary, 1923).

    ''Bain, ed.. Travels ix Adventures, 236. The rendezvous is described by Buck, in Minnesota History Bulletin, 5:31 and Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur, 64 (reprint edition, St, Paul, 1966). On varieties of furs shipped to England from the col- onies, see Murray G. Lawsoii, A Study of English Mercan- tilism, 1770-1775, 87-102 (University of Toronto History and Economics Series, vol. 9 — Toronto, 1943); on trade goods, see Mackenzie,