Fur Trade in the Pembina Region
In the Red River Valley and throughout North America, the fur trade era was a time of transition and change – the meeting and mingling of Native American and European cultures. Each group had something wanted by the other, and each group profited from the exchange. Native cultures traded furs and pelts, and Europeans traded manufactured goods, alcohol, and tobacco.
Early fur traders relied on canoes for transportation of goods. Most of the fur trade posts were extensions of British (Hudson’s Bay Company) and Canadian (North West Company) operations. These companies retreated north after the 49th parallel was established as the border between the United States and Canada.
By the 1840s, Red River ox carts were the principal means of shipping transportation. Eventually Red River carts were used in conjunction with steamboats and railroads.
By the turn of the century, the fur trade era had ended. Fur bearing animals had been hunted nearly to extinction, and settlers were moving into the region.
Early (Beaver) Trade (ca. 1790 to 1830)
European fur traders reached Pembina in the late 18th century. First written records of local fur trade activities come from the journals of Charles Chaboillez who established North West Company post called Fort Pambian at the mouth of the Pembina River during the 1797-98 season. His journal noted that Hudson’s Bay Company and XY Company constructed posts nearby in the same year. He also noted a North West post on the east side of the Red (St. Vincent, Minnesota) which had been established by Peter Grant in 1794.
In 1801 Alexander Henry the Younger built a more permanent North West post on the north side of the Pembina River. He directed Red River trapping and trading operations there until 1808. His journals provide interesting commentaries about fur trade activities and European-Indian relations.
Canoes were used to transport trade goods from York Factory or Montreal to the posts. The canoes left the eastern ports in the spring, and the winter’s supply of furs was carried back in the return trip.
Trade goods and furs were packed into 90-pound bundles called “pieces.” When the canoe and cargo had to be carried from one lake or river system to another, each voyageur carried a minimum of two pieces (sometimes three or four pieces) on his back. The portage was accomplished at a brisk trot. When passengers occasionally came on a canoe trip, they too were often carried on the voyageurs’ backs so as not to slow down the expedition!
Late (Bison) Fur Trade (ca. 1830 to 1880)
In the 1840s, entrepreneur Norman Kittson established an American Fur Trade Company post at Pembina, and began serious competition against the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly. The focus of the trade became bison, rather than beaver. The area between Pembina and Fort Garry (Winnipeg) was inhabited by a large, mobile population of Métis people, descendants of fur traders and Native Americans. Twice each year the Métis met at St. Joseph (west of Pembina) and traveled as far west as necessary to find large bison herds. The results of the hunt were bison robes and pemmican, a highly nutritious food made of dried bison meat and melted fat. These products were traded at Pembina for manufactured goods.
Pembina became a gateway between Canadian fur trade operations based out of Winnipeg and St. Paul, Minnesota, which was the terminus of railroad and steamboat connections in the United States.
The bison trade lasted until the 1880s, when the herds became hunted to the point of near-extinction.
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Pembina, ND 58271