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Tribal Historical Overview - Contact

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Treaties 2 | Early Reservation Life | Early 1900s |
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Contact

The shores of Lake Superior were vastly populated by the Ojibway when the Jesuits and French traders recorded contact in 1640. An Ojibway chief by the name of Copway stated first contact with Champlain traders occurred as early as 1610. Ongoing contact with the French missionaries and French traders during the 17th and 18th centuries had an enormous impact on the lifestyle of the Ojibway. Early settlement brought them in proximity to the Assiniboine and Cree, and in conflict with the Dakota over territory, as they moved into the location that is present-day northern Minnesota.

Very early the Ojibway were involved in trade, first among other Ojibway bands, and later with the fur traders. The tools that the French traded consisted of such things as steel knives and copper kettles. The efficient tools of the French were easily adapted by the Ojibway. The previously used stone and bone utensils became necessary items.

The acceptance of the French fur trader had a social and psychological impact on the culture of the Ojibway. The Ojibway had always hunted and trapped for survival. They also traded among other tribes before Europeans. Originally, the Ojibway were middlemen for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and other tribes who bartered with the fur traders. As resources became scarce, the Ojibway were forced to adopt trading furs for goods to survive. The fur trade deepened the relationships between the Ojibway and Cree, and French traders, resulting in marriages between them. These associations were based on a sharing of economic, social, and physical resources. The first generations of offspring of these marriages were raised as their mothers’ people. In time, some of the children of the Frenchmen and their Ojibway and Cree wives became known as “Métis” or “Metchif.” Contact between the French, the Europeans, and their Woodland relatives brought about many alliances during the fur trade era. These people retained many of their tribal customs.

Chippewa Influence and Involvement in the Fur Trade

As the fur trade flourished in the first half of the 17th century, the Ojibway played a central role in its development. In 1670, the English Hudson Bay Company set up posts and obtained furs directly from the Indians who had an established trade system in the Great Lakes region. The English were in competition with the French fur trade companies, who had trapped and traded with the Indians from as early as 1610. This competition was over the Indian trade in the Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes and their tributaries. A “head on” confrontation between these two countries was fueled by a swiftly diminishing supply of furs, resulting in a conflict known as the French and Indian War.

Pierre Bottineau
Pierre Bottineau. Pierre
Bottineau was an early
trader among the Turtle
Mountain Chippewa. (Photo
courtesy of the State Historical
Society of North Dakota, 1850-1860)

In 1763, the English gained control of the fur trade both in Canada and the Great Lakes area. As the Hudson Bay Company assumed many of the older French trading posts, new settlements came into existence. Grand Portage (the great carrying place), a well known trading center, came into existence.

All trading goods going east or west had to be portaged (carried) over rugged steep trails from Lake Superior to reach the chain of lakes along the northern border of Minnesota. In the summer, traders and Indians all gathered at Grand Portage to barter their goods. In order to withstand the rigors of portaging goods over land and along the waterways, a group of skilled oarsmen evolved, known as the “voyageurs.” The voyageurs were French Canadian, Cree, and Ojibway canoe men who became a critical link in the success of the North American fur trade. The voyageurs portaged through the wilderness of rivers, lakes, and seaways in the Northwest Territory. Their appearance was colorful. They wore bright red caps, hooded cloaks, braided sashes, and beaded pouches. Their leggings and moccasins were made of deer hides. They were known as cheerful men capable of great endurance and physical strength.

Pembina Post Established

The Red River became an arterial of travel for the trappers at the end of the 18th century. Trapping was done along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers and all their tributaries. The establishment of trading posts transformed the Red River into a commercial trade economy, to which many Chippewas were accustomed.

The Chippewa occupied the territory of northern Minnesota, from Red Lake, Leech Lake, Sandy Lake, Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake to Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg Traverse. The regions around these lakes became their more permanent settlements. During the hunting/trapping season, the men canoed the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and a vast number of tributaries. The numerous trading posts along the Red River assisted in the growth of fur trade and westward movement.

Red River Tributaries
Red River Territory. The map
shows the Red River area
during the Pembina fur trade
era, around 1800. (Map by
Cassie Theurer, adapted from
Ethnohistory, 1959, page 300)

During the Pembina fur trade era, the Red River Territory was overly abundant with furred animals. In 1797, the Northwest Fur Company, from Montreal, established a major trading post where the Red and Pembina Rivers join. This was the first post at Pembina. Peter Grant was the first proprietor, and Charles Jean Baptist Chaboillez of the North West Company was the second. Chaboillez operated his post from 1797 through 1798 where he had dealings with about 80 Chippewas from the Red, Rainy, Leech, and Sandy Lakes area. Chaboillez’s post was one of three established along the Red River. The second post was located at the mouth of the Red River and was operated by the Hudson Bay Company. The North West Company set a post at the junction of the Forest (Salt) and Red Rivers. (Hickerson 1956, p. 303)

A second post at Pembina was opened three years later by a man named Alexander Henry. He operated the post at this site from 1801–1805, and recorded his dealings. He also set up many sub-posts along the Red River, depending on the supply of furs in each area. The post was the focal point of trade in the middle Red River region. Pembina became the chief North West Company trading post along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The number of Chippewas who traded in the area increased each year, but the supply of fur was rapidly diminishing.

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