Lake Vermilion Cultural Center hosts conversations on the fur trade

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Glenbow Museum

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2016 — Late in the 17th century the cultural intersection between the ancestors of Lake Vermilion’s Bois Forte Ojibwe Indians, and French Voyageurs and Courier du Bois traders created an economy which provided benefits for both peoples, yet drastically changed life in the boreal forest around Lake Vermilion. Early people used water routes and well worn portages facilitating transportation and establishing trade relationships across Minnesota, North to Hudson’s Bay and East across the Great Lakes border country all the way to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Routes also traveled to the West as well as down the Mississippi River and crossed this continent in trade routes for approximately 8,000 years before Europeans arrived. The north woods experienced big changes when the French arrived bringing European manufactured trade items, monetizing the economy and creating deep business relationships with the Indians of the Lake Vermilion area and across North America.

Bill Latady, curator of the Bois Forte Museum, and Lake Vermilion author Bill Durbin graciously entertained and educated an interested audience in two Saturday afternoon lectures in the club car of the Tower Train Museum. Each gentleman presented his research on different aspects of the fur trade. Latady talked about the trade from the point-of-view of the Bois Forte Band Indians living on Lake Vermilion, and across the lake country, during the time period circa 1725 through the 1850s. Durbin presented an overview of the incredible logistics of the fur trade from the St. Lawrence River to Duluth, Grand Portage, Lake Vermilion, Basswood and Rainy Lake. The lectures were sponsored by the Vermilion Cultural Center during its Midsummer 2016 Festival. The programs were free and served as a prelude to an evening fundraising dinner.

Latady, who has a lifetime of experience working in archaeology, historic preservation and museum work explained that in considering the fur trade on Lake Vermilion one needs to take a regional view. Although Lake Vermilion was an important water artery serving the trade, the nature of trapping live game and collecting resources in the traditional Ojibwe seasonal-round kept people moving across the landscape over great distances, constantly looking for furs and food resources, Latady explained. Lake Vermilion was a water trail leading elsewhere, as well as a place to live gathering necessary resources. Two types of trade items were greatly sought after by Ojibwe trappers.  Metal goods such as kettles, knives, hatchets, other tools and guns as well as wool blankets and other European woven goods were exchanged for the Indian furs anxiously sought by the Europeans to supply the hat and garment industries, located back on the continent in France and in England. The Ojibwe were full participants in this international import, export industry here in North America. They were the trappers supplying the furs themselves, and provided much of the food necessary to support the fur trade’s Euro-North American workers. Building and supplying the Europeans with canoes and tobaggans created additional economic opportunities where the Ojibwe could obtain the goods they desired, making survival easier.

Both men highlighted the changes which the fur trade underwent during its peak years of the 1700s and into the 1850s. Changes which saw the French influence wane as its workers often become assimilated into Ojibwe culture, or create new mixed-blood cultures following the end of the French and Indian War, and the 1763 signing of the Treaty of Paris, which split France’s new world interests between Great Britain and Spain. The successes and rivalries of the Hudson’s Bay Company, an English concern, and the Northwest Company, a Scottish based corporation followed French dominance of the fur trade. In the years following the War of 1812, American traders began to dominate the United State’s side of the border lakes.

Durbin’s presentation detailed the working aspects of the fur trade from a European born worker’s perspective. The work was hard, and voyageurs were expected to travel great distances at efficient speed. They often traveled in large 35 to 40 foot Montreal Canoes carrying approximately 8,000 pounds of goods and manned by 15 or more people, Durbin told the audience. These large canoes were reserved for traveling the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, across the Great Lakes to the Mackinac, Michigan area, then traveling to Grand Portage at the tip of today’s Minnesota. Smaller canoes known as Canoes of the North were used to travel into the smaller inland waterways like Lake Vermilion, and deep into the northwest beyond Winnipeg, Canada, he informed the audience. It was a rough and hard life, but the participants appreciated its adventure, according to Durbin, and sometimes turned the challenges into contests of strength and endurance.

Durbin outlined a history, highlighted by slides of beautiful photography and paintings of trade era scenes, he often uses to present this fascinating historical story to student audiences. Durbin cited these historic paintings as one of a number of resources he used in developing his historical fiction. Other resources include several scholarly books and reprinted journals contemporary with the fur trade. Himself, the author of many books, Durbin’s natural story telling and teaching skills made for an informative and educational history lesson.

Both gentlemen presented interesting programs on a subject matter with deep Lake Vermilion connections. Assuredly, those fortunate to be in attendance for the programs were treated to a solid overview of the fur trade influences on the Lake Vermilion and Canadian and American boundary waters story.

Representing the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center, the program was hosted by board member Elaine McGillivray. Additional information on the cultural center can be found on the internet at St. Mary’s Hall, which is undergoing transformation into the cultural center can be found on Main Street, Tower.

More information on the Bois Forte Band Atisokanigamig “Legend House” museum, which Mr. Latady curates:

William Durbin, the Lake Vermilion author’s website can be found here: