Grand Portage, located along Lake Superior in northeast Minnesota, is a vital preservation of the historic fur trade, a throwback to the alliance between the North West Company and the Ojibwe of Anishinaabeg during a rugged era of North American history. Visitors to this historic national monument will be able to experience the depot reconstructed as its heyday, travel along vital trade paths from a time forgotten, and see how the Ojibwe lived during the height of their society, all within view of soaring mountains, sweeping forests, and the grey-blue fog of the Pigeon River.
The historical site has had human activity as long as 2,000 years ago, with the area used by Native American nations as a travelling passage to Ontario and Minnesota hunting grounds. A map of the area was drawn for the first fur traders by Auchagah, a Cree guide, in 1729 during the early years of the French fur trade. Grand Portage over time served as the entry point into the lucrative fur-bearing country of the north and remained one of the most significant stops along the route for over 100 years.
In 1854, the Grand Portage was established as a part of the Ojibwe reservation in a treaty signed with the U.S. There, a school and post office were created. 100 years later, in 1958, the area was established as a national monument, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Contained within the Grand Portage Native American Reservation, the monument consists of the recently reconstructed Historic Depot, the Heritage Center opened in 2007, and ongoing archaeological excavations that started in 1922 and regularly contribute to collections and historical understanding.
Permanent Exhibits and Habitats
The Grand Portage National Monument offers many attractions for visitors. The Historic Depot and Heritage Center represent a celebration of the fur trade and way of life for the Ojibwe. Many of the features and exhibits of Grand Portage are accessible, with golf carts and ramps available for much of the exploration. Accessible areas include the parking area, two floors of the Heritage Center, the path through Ojibwe Village, the canoe warehouse, and the kitchen. Accessible literature is available for visitors as well.
Heritage Center- Any visit to the Grand Portage National Monument will start for visitors at the Heritage Center. Here, visitors can collect general information, maps and brochures, as well as visit the gift shop and bookstore. Excavated out of what became the basement of the very building, the graywacke sandstone from the Rove Formation is used in the construction of Cook County’s tallest fireplace. Here also visitors can see media stories that depict life in Ojibwe culture, the early fur trade intercultural interactions, and the 18th century fur trade that spanned international boundaries. Upstairs in the Cultural Room visitors will find exhibits about local Grand Portage artisans and can see sweeping panoramas of the historic landscape.
Grand Portage Trail- The Grand Portage Trail makes up a majority of the corridor for the French Fur Trade, and through continuous excavation, more is continually added to the exhibits of the park. The trail consists of an older trail and a newer addition, and is traversable by foot, passing alongside steep hills and may be a moderate challenge.
Collections- Museum objects at Grand Portage National Monument number over 100,000 and include every day lifeway items and native artwork of the Ojibwe, Fur Trade artifacts, and thousands of historical papers including maps and photos. Only a part of the collection is visible at a given time, on exhibit in the Heritage Center and additionally within the buildings reconstructed in the depot area. The collection regularly rotates new pieces into the exhibits. Biological and geological specimens studying the ancient Precambrian formations and species leading up to and including the time of Grand Portage’s most bustling period are another large component of the collection. These include preserved specimens from the research and preservation on the areas flora, fauna, and land formations.
Beginning in 1922, to map Fort Charlotte’s remains, the excavation of Grand Portage has found thousands of fur trade and Ojibwe artifacts. Further understanding of fur trade culture and materials, such as the means by which the trade was conducted, how the early French traders did business with the native peoples, and the items they used in every day life, have been found using underwater sensing of things that settled to the bottom of the Pigeon River.
Ojibwe artwork and everyday items excavated and donated are a major component for the preservation of the culture of this ancient people. Many of the items are donated and are crafted from the old techniques in the 20th century to display what the culture would have been like hundreds of years ago. Many more still are excavated alongside the fur trade items and represent real items from when the Ojibwe were living in the area in their old homes and trading with fur traders. They are made of local materials such as leather, birchbark, and sweetgrass and are decorated with embroidery, beading, and porcupine quillwork of delicate quality.
Historic Gardens- First used by the North West Company between 1778-1803 but truly dating back farther than that, the Historic Gardens represent a preservation of heirloom seeds and the Three Sisters tradition. Three Sisters gardening is the combination of the “Three Sisters” – beans, corn, and squash – all planted in the same field together. They nourish and protect each other, preserving the plot and allowing for heirloom seed collection rather than relying on hybrid seed usage. The gardens are an important part of the reservation and monument, as the advent of hybrid seeds has resulted in a decrease in biodiversity across the world’s crops. By preserving the way of gardening for the Ojibwe, visitors can see how gardening was traditionally done. In addition, at the garden site visitors can read the story of how seeds were first traded among the natives, and then between natives and Europeans, to add parsnips and peas to the culture. The plots planted at the Historic Gardens are raised contemporary beds to preserve the unexcavated soil underneath while still celebrating the ancient tradition.
Ojibwe Village- A bustling display of interpretive performances, celebratory exhibits and reconstructed lifeways, the Ojibwe Village represents the heart and soul of the Grand Portage National Monument – the very people that cultivated the land and gave the rich culture its start. Visitors can see where many tribes of over 1000 Native peoples (including the Anishinaabeg Ojibwe, Assiniboine, and Cree) would visit for their summer rendezvous tradition. Here part of the Ojibwe and Fur Trade collections will be viewable, including notched arrowheads, knives, flakes of native copper and others. Here, tourists can learn the histories of objects as well as the lifestyles and interactions of the peoples here. Exhibits depicting the stopover of French fur traders in their interactions with the native dwellers are on display as well as the Three Sisters Garden. As well, prominently displayed in this area is the Canoe Warehouse, a careful reconstruction of a long log building on pilings, displaying different styles of canoes for the curious visitor.
Natural Wonder: The Grand Portage is home to unique formations from the middle and late Precambrian areas that form a blueprint for the terrain’s own construction. The watercourses that would become the primary river routes for the fur trade in the area were formed from dikes and high hills that settled into place between 1,200 million years to 1,000 million years ago. The evidence of this prehistoric formation is seen in the spectacular Rove Formation, which is visible as cascading flat grey rock fragments in layered shelves like dilapidated scales travelling high up the hill. Stones from the Rove Formation were used in the original construction of the depot and village, as well as the reconstruction.
During the early part of the year, visitors may be able to catch a glimpse of the Grand Portage Dog Sled Race that travels through the historic trail. Much like the rest of the park, dog sledding stems from an old northern tradition and represents the rugged old wilds of the fur trade. Visitors during the second weekend of August can partake in the Grand Rendezvous and Powwow. The grandest celebration of the year, the Grand Rendezvous and Powwow hosts music, dancing, hands-on workshops and craft demonstrations representing the summer rendezvous of the Ojibwe and their fur trade partners. Re-enactors can enter contests of historical skills or historic games.
Dining and Shopping
When visiting the Grand Portage National Monument, visitors can experience the historic kitchen, excavated in the 1970s and reconstructed from over 14,000 artifacts. The kitchen consists of the mess house and fireplace as well, reconstructed authentically. Artisan interpretive chefs and bakers perform their work here and may have bread, shortbread, scones, stews and soups, fish, roast turkey and more on offer. Prepared in the old style, the Depot’s Historic Kitchen will delight visitors and transport them to a simpler time.
Grand Portage, MN 55605, Phone: 218-475-0123