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History of the North West Company Fur Post

For over two centuries, the North American fur trade brought Indians and Euro-Canadians together in the mutual enterprise of exchanging Native trapped furs for European manufactured goods. By the 1790s, the Montreal based North West Company had extended its fur trade network from the St. Lawrence River valley to beyond the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Scattered across a vast network of waterways were over 100 wintering posts, each located near Indian hunting and trapping camps that were the main source of furs.

In the fall of 1804, John Sayer, a wintering partner of the North West Company and his crew of èngage departed from Fort St. Louis, near modern day Superior, Wis. They traveled up the Brule, portaged over the height of land, canoed down the St. Croix River and up the Snake River, arriving at Cross Lake, near modern Pine City, Minn. Sayer originally intended to build a post near Cross Lake. The location for his wintering operations changed to a site two miles up river, however, after he conferred with local Ojibwe leaders.

The lateness of the season necessitated a hurried construction of a wintering post. Sayer's eight voyageurs completed the project over the next six weeks and, on November 20th, "the Doors of the Fort where fixd & Shut." During this period Sayer's attention was on the busy fall trade season. He traded for surplus wild rice and provided credits to the area's beaver hunters. These credits were to be paid off in the spring with furs, before the NorWesters departed for the annual rendezvous. Sayer's journal shows, "April 27th "pack'd up all our Baggage & at 2 PM embark'd."

The exact period of the post's operation remains a mystery, but recent research indicates the post saw several seasons of operation. In his travels to Lake Itasca, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft notes the following concerning the Snake River: "The North West Company formerly held a post on this river and remained for several years a central place of trade for the Indians of the lower St. Croix." (Mason 1993: 85)

After the post was abandoned it was destroyed by fire. Exactly when is unknown.

The Fur Post Site Today

Today, the North West Company Fur Post, a reconstruction of John Sayer's post, is owned and operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. The site consists of about 93 acres on the north and south sides of the Snake River. The historic reconstruction is on the south side.

The site was rediscovered in 1931 by a Pine City resident. As a boy of nine, he purchased a boat to pursue his hobby of arrowhead collecting along the Snake River. During his explorations, he found a musket flint on top of a sandy ridge in the middle of a cornfield. For the next three decades, he continued to visit the site and collect artifacts stirred up by plowing.

While working in Red Wing, Minn., during the winter of 1958-59, the young man happened upon the book "Five Fur traders in the North West." The book contained John Sayer's journal (wrongly attributed to Thomas Connor.) The locations mentioned in the journal pointed to the little sandbar ridge west of Pine City. With this information, the Pine City native realized the significance of his find and reported it to the Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1963, the Minnesota Historical Society performed field testing to determine the exact nature of the site. In 1965-67, the site was excavated by Hamline University students, led by Dr. Leland Cooper. Hundreds of artifacts were recovered, among them earlier Indian artifacts, musket balls, gunflints, beads, kettle parts, knives, axheads and charred faunal remains.

In 1968-69, the site was reconstructed. It opened to the public in 1970. Its major components include a reconstructed six-room rowhouse, measuring 77 feet long by 18 feet wide. Surrounding the rowhouse is a palisade, measuring 100 feet by 61 feet, with defensive bastions in the north and south corners.

An Ojibwe encampment completes the historic element of the site.

Other features of the site include a parking lot, picnic area, public restrooms, boat landing and primitive camp sites (located on the north side of the river).

The site was placed on the national Register of Historic Places on August 7, 1972.


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