History & Culture


History and Culture

Gitchi Onigaming is the Ojibwe term for the “Great Carrying Place” an apt name for 8.5-mile portage trail that allowed American Indians, explorers and voyageurs to bypass high falls, cascades, and gorges to the historic rendezvous point to exchange North American furs for Eastern trade goods by the North West Company, the largest fur company in the world.

  • Grand Portage National Monument is in the homeland of the Grand Portage Ojibwe. Their intimate knowledge of and connection to the land, water, plants, and wildlife of the area allowed them to endure in the sometimes harsh environment, before and after European exploration and nation-building. As other cultures explored this area, the tools and technologies of the Ojibwe were adapted by newcomers to exploit the natural resources as global commodities.
  • The Grand Portage has been a critical transportation route for thousands of years. It was part of an ancient transcontinental trade route connecting the Great Lakes to the interior of the continent.
  • The portage enabled European expansion into the northwest in the 18th and 19th centuries and it was a focal point in developing the international boundary between Canada and the United States in the 19th century.
  • The Grand Portage, bypassing unnavigable portions of the Pigeon River, connects Fort Charlotte with Lake Superior, where thousands of tons of furs and materials were transported to Europe and beyond. The footpath and these depot sites served as the headquarters and central hub for the North West Company as it competed in the global fur trade.

The Grand Portage was a vital part of both American Indian and fur trade transportation routes because of the area’s geology, topography, natural resources, and strategic location between the upper Great Lakes and the interior of western Canada. The portage was the most direct route from the Great Lakes into the Canadian interior. Between 1731 and 1804, thousands of men shuttled tons of supplies and furs over the portage and in and out of warehouses at either end of the woodland trail. The dynamic enterprise that thrived along the Grand Portage forged diverse relationships between American Indian and non-Indian peoples as early as the 18th century. The adoption of native technology and the cultural exchange that took place led to pioneering exploration of the continent.

The historic portage is the reason for Grand Portage National Monument, which is bordered on the north and south by the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, on the east by Lake Superior, and on the west by the Pigeon River and Canada. It lies within both the Grand Portage Indian Reservation and the unincorporated community of Grand Portage.

The community is the homeplace and center of tribal government for the Grand Portage Band (the Band) of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) Tribe. The Grand Portage Ojibwe have persevered for centuries, through the European incursion into North America and the division into two countries, the United States and (then British) Canada. Approximately half of the land for the national monument was donated by the Grand Portage Band.

The Grand Portage trail remains an international road. Under the terms of the Webster- Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the use of the trail remains free and open to citizens of both the United States and Canada. This corridor is of paramount significance to Grand Portage National Monument. Without the Grand Portage, Canadian and American political history and national boundaries might have been quite different.

The national monument is 710 acres and consists of two “districts,” which are connected by the Grand Portage trail. The eastern, or lakeshore, district consists of the major visitor service area with a reconstructed stockade, a great hall, a kitchen, and a canoe warehouse. It is here that the bulk of interpretation of the Ojibwe heritage and the fur trade occurs. The western, or Fort Charlotte district, is named for the historic Fort Charlotte, which today is a camping area with primitive campsites, a point of debarkation for modern canoe travelers leaving the boundary waters to the west, and a destination for hikers following in the footsteps of the voyageurs from the lakeshore. A vernacular monument made of river stones marks one end of the Grand Portage trail, or Fort Charlotte in general.

From Fort Charlotte, canoers embark on the Grand Portage trail, which is the culmination of an incredible voyage and “portage experience” that can be had by canoeing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and the Quetico and La Verendrye provincial parks (known in total as the Superior-Quetico complex). At the end of this trip, canoers portage their supplies the final 8.5 miles to reach Lake Superior.

Grand Portage National Monument is near Isle Royale National Park, which is visible from the heritage center. The national monument supports Isle Royale management by providing an embarkation point for boat transportation, supporting operations logistics to the island, providing select administrative functions including participation in the Tribal Self-Governance Act agreement with the Grand Portage Band, and providing museum and archeological assistance. This has resulted in a close, cooperative relationship between the two parks.

Minnesota: Grand Portage National Monument
The Grand Portage Story
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    Last updated: January 5, 2022

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