The town of Grand Portage, platted on a bay off Hat Point, marks the starting point of a path to the Pigeon River that bypasses a twenty-mile stretch of the waterway containing High Falls and impassable rapids. Before the voyageurs arrived and gave the site its French name, the Ojibwe used the portage for generations and called it Gitcheonigaming or “great carrying place.” France’s Pierre La Verendrye arrived at Grand Portage in 1731 along with his sons and fifty French soldiers. When the British Northwest Company set up a trading post in the late 1700s, the town became one of the most important fur trading centers in North America. Today Grand Portage sits on land owned by the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe. Grand Marais’ first settler, John Godfrey, named the nearby Mount Josephine—actually an outcrop of rock thought to be some of the oldest in the world, roughly 1.3 billion years old—for his daughter who, along with some friends, climbed the peak in 1853.
Close to Grand Portage stands the Spirit Little Cedar Tree or Minido Geezhigans in Ojibwe. Also known disrespectfully as the “Witch Tree” or “Witch’s Tree,” the cedar appears to have sprouted from seemingly barren rock on the Hat Point prominence some four hundred years ago. (Erosion actually wore away the soil in which the tree first took seed, and its roots have grown beyond what has been worn away, giving the appearance of a tree growing from rock.) For generations the Ojibwe left offerings of tobacco at the tree for safe passage on the big lake. When they encountered Grand Portage, French voyageurs respected the tradition and left offerings of their own. Reports conflict as to how it came to be called the “Witch Tree.” Some say it was given that name by the voyageurs and other early European explorers; others give credit to Dewey Albinson, one of many artists drawn to draw the tree. (St. Paul artist Kent Aldrich carved the woodblock of the Spirit Little Cedar Tree seen above.)
Unfortunately, vandals have caused the local band of Grand Portage Ojibwe, who now own the land near Grand Portage where the tree is found, to close off public access to the Spirit Little Cedar Tree.
Today those wishing to see the Spirit Little Cedar Tree must arrange a tour with a member of the band. For a distant view, you can take the MV Wenonah from Grand Portage to Isle Royale; it passes by Hat Point to give passengers a view of the tree.