Early Fond du Lac

The front of the American Fur Company’s Fond du Lac trading post painted by James Otto Lewis in 1826, during the signing of the Treaty of Fond du Lac. Lewis was part of an expedition led by Colonel Thomas McKenney, head of the U.S. Indian Department. Image: Duluth Public Library)

From the time of Duluth, the explorer, to that when the first white settlers came to the head of Lake Superior in the middle of the nineteenth century, the history of that part of Minnesota now known as St. Louis County resolves itself mainly into a review of fur-trading activities and mission work, and these early activities center in Fond du Lac, which became an important Indian village and fur-trading station.

It is not believed that Duluth established a post at Fond du Lac, and for a century after his coming, probably, the Pigeon River was a more important fur-trading waterway, but as the generations passed the St. Louis River increased in importance and use as a trade route, and Fond du Lac became a busy station for at least one of the great fur-trading companies.

St. Louis River was an important waterway in 1670. The St. Louis River was one of the only two rivers, of those that lead into Lake Superior, that were then considered of sufficient importance to call for special notations on a map. The St. Louis River is referred to as the “R pour aller aux Nadouesn a 60 lieues vers le couchant,” which literally means the “River for to go to the Nadouesn (Sioux) at 60 leagues toward the west.” The Jesuit cartographers must have made other reference to the waterway, for Carey, in his “History of Duluth and Northern Minnesota” (1898) gives the following as the explanatory note as to this marking of the map: “By this river we can go to the nation of the Nadouessiens, sixty leagues westward. They comprise fifteen villages and are very warlike and a terror to the region.” Although Sioux Indians were seen at the mouth of the St. Louis River in 1665, by Father Allouez, Indian history conveys the impression that at that time the waters of the St. Louis were well within the region in which the Ojibways were supreme; and it is supposed that at that time, and for thirty-five years before that year, the Ojibways had a comparatively large village at Fond du Lac.

Fond du Lac: The Proof
Fond du Lac, in its very name and position, seems to be the natural proof that Daniel de Greysolon, Sieur DuLhut, in 1679-80 reached the vicinity of Duluth. Fond du Lac (meaning “bottom of lake” or “end of lake”), furthest point westward on the Great Lakes, would be the point the early explorers would aim to reach. The Hon. Wm. E. McEwen, in a paper regarding Fond du Lac, read in 1915 at a gathering of the Old Settlers of the Head of Lake Superior, said:

Tradition tells us that these early voyageurs entered the natural entry to the Bay of Superior, passed into the Bay of St. Louis, and continued up the St. Louis River until they reached the end of navigation and the foot of the rapids. Hence they called the place Fond du Lac, the extreme end of all the great lakes. In this romantic spot, nestled among the wooded hills, with beautiful islands in the river, a bounteous supply of fish in the river, and the woods teeming with game, they found an Indian village.

First Trading Post at Head of Lake Superior
Unless the Pigeon River can be considered to be at the head of Lake Superior, which is hardly possible, it seems that the first trading post was at Fond du Lac. It is possible that it was at Fond du Lac that Groseilliers and Radisson, in 1660, found “at least 20 cottages full” (of Indians), upon their arrival “at the lake side,” after a journey of many days, “with much paines… and many carriages,” from the region “of the nation of the beefe” (Buffalo, or Prairie, Sioux). And there seems no reason for doubting that it was at Fond du Lac that Duluth met all the tribes, in council, in September of 1679. But it is generally thought that there was no trading post at that point for many years after. However, McEwen asserts that the first trading post at Fond du Lac was established in 1692, saying, in the speech referred to:

There is little doubt that the site (Fond du Lac) was selected for the first permanent trading post in this locality, though some writers have attempted to prove that it was at the entrance to the Nemadji river, within the present city of Superior. The first reliable data is in the records of the Hudson at the head of Lake Superior in 1692. Duluth had gone into the Mission Bay Company, which are very positive in the location of a post and garrisippi valley by way of the Brule River, and thence across the St. Croix. Years afterwards, the route (to the Mississippi) was by Fond du Lac, by canoes up the St. Louis River to near the present site of Cloquet, and by portages to a branch of the Great River. It became a regularly traveled route for the fur traders. The Hudson Bay Company held supremacy until 1787, when, after a stubborn resistance, they were driven from the post by the recently organized Northwest Fur Company, whose headquarters were at Mackinaw.

Fond du Lac in Wisconsin
What is called Fort Cadotte is claimed to have been the Fond du Lac trading post of early times. And that fort undoubtedly was in Wisconsin. It will be referred to later in this chapter.

The Hudson Bay Company
The Hudson Bay Company, as has been stated in Chapter II, was organized in 1670, and was destined to become an immensely powerful organization, in commerce and in empire building. Its original capital was less than $60,000, yet “the company has carried from this country furs that have been sold for $120,000,000.” It had almost regal sway within its sphere of trading, and its operations “were over a territory one-third larger than the whole of Europe, being more than 4,000,000 square miles.” The company may have had an outpost at Fond du Lac in 1692, but it cannot have been a post of much importance, and for very long after that time the principal fur-trading post in the Lake Superior region was at Grand Portage, or on the Pigeon River. Indeed, for more than fifty years after the organization of the Hudson Bay Company, the company’s operations did not extend far inland from Hudson Bay, there being not much difficulty in inducing the Indians to bring their furs to Hudson Bay. Colonel Hiram Hayes, of Superior, wrote regarding the Hudson Bay Company:

The principal company posts were York Factory, on Hudson Bay, and Moose Factory, of James Bay. Two ships from England came each year, arriving August and going out of the Bays in September. The parliament, or council-house, was at Norway House, at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg, and here was the central distributing depot for the whole country.

However, the increasing encroachment by French-Canadian traders, who entered the Hudson Bay sphere of trading by way of Lake Superior and the Pigeon River, undoubtedly spurred the Hudson Bay Company to greater efforts in outlying fields, and to the establishment of posts far from the main bases. One of these outposts may have been at Fond du Lac in the early decades of the eighteenth century, the furs brought to the post being dispatched up the St. Louis River, and perhaps through the Vermilion Lake country, into the waterways that have a northerly course. In that way, Fond du Lac may have been a much more important fur-trading post in 1791 than the list of that year, quoted by Judge Carey, would indicate.

That list would infer that in 1791 the Pigeon River post was the only one of consequence, the “amount of furs at the different points on Lake Superior” at that time being:

  • Keweenaw …………………15 bundles
  • La Pointe ………………..20 bundles
  • Fond du Lac ………………20 bundles
  • Near Grand Portage…………1,400 bundles
  • Alampicon (Nipigon) ……….24 bundles
  • Pic …. ……………..3300 bundles
  • Michipicoton ….. ………..40 bundles

— each bundle, by the way, being valued at £40 sterling.

When the British became supreme, governmentally, in Canada in 1756, there was no reason why the Hudson Bay Company’s convoys of furs gathered in the Northwest and the Lake Superior region might not go down to the sea by way of Lake Superior and the St. Lawrence, instead of by the northern route to Hudson Bay; yet, it seems that they did not; and the immense commerce in furs shipped to Montreal in the latter decades of the eighteenth century was the result of independent and competitive enterprise of Montreal merchants, who seem to have followed the lead set by Duluth, and made Grand Portage and the Pigeon River their centre for Lake Superior trade.

Grand Portage
George Bryce, in his “The Hudson Bay Company,” wrote as follows in this connection:

Grand Portage was, at the time of which we are speaking, a place of vast importance. Here, there were employed as early as 1783, by the several merchants from Montreal, fully 500 men. One-half of these came from Montreal to Grand Portage in canoes of four tons burthen, each manned by from eight to ten canoe men. As these were regarded as having the least romantic portion of the route, meeting no Indians and living on cured rations, they were called “mangeurs de lard,” or pork eaters. The other half of the force journeyed inland from Grand Portage in canoes, each carrying about a ton and a half. Living on game and pemmican, these were a more independent and daring body. They were called “coureurs de bois.”

Another account of the “French rovers,” who went out from Montreal, “and bought skins from traders who had private posts all through this lake country, on in the Saskatchewan” in the latter half of the eighteenth century reads:

Their first path was by way of the Kaninistique River, where Port Arthur now stands. Soon after, the Grand Portage trail was preferred, which was for a hundred years the main traveled road of the Northwest. In the harbor of Grand Portage, at the height of the trade, would often lie a hundred or more long canoes, manned by eight voyageurs each. At the post were as many as a thousand clerks, factors, boatmen and porters, when trade was brisk. Traces of the trail may still be found, a grass-grown road nine miles long, to overcome the falls of Pigeon River, before launching on the journey down Rainy River to Lake of the Woods, and the outlines of some of the long buildings may be picked out by the little ridges they have left. The remnants of the quays at the harbor, where now a lone fisherman is the sole sovereign of the old trail, may still be seen.

The Northwest Company
In 1783, the year so portentous in the history of the United States, the independent merchants of Montreal, the “sundry thrifty French capitalists and enterprising Scotch merchants of Upper Canada,” combined their fur-trading efforts, the consolidation taking the corporate name of the Northwest Fur Company.

To further their trade, and establish the new corporation in as proud prestige as the Hudson Bay Company was held by the Indians, the directors held a conference in the Pigeon River region.

Hayes wrote:

The grand conference of the new company was held at Fort William. Here, in an old wooden building, was the great council hall, as also the banqueting chamber, decorated with Indian arms and accoutrements, and the trophies of the fur trade. Here came the great Montreal nabobs in their rich furs, with their cooks and bakers, bringing delicacies of every kind, and abundance of choice wines for the banqueters. Here came their fur-trading compeers from the woods also. The tables of the great banqueting rooms groaned under the weight of game of all kinds; of venison from the woods and fish from the lakes; of hunters’ delicacies, buffalo tongues and beaver tails. There was no stint of generous wine, for it was a hard-drinking period, a time of bacchanalian songs and brimming bumpers.

While the chiefs thus reveled in the hall, the merriment without was echoed by a mongrel legion of retainers—Canadian voyageurs, half-breed Indians, hunters and vagabond hangers-on, who feasted sumptuously without, on the crumbs that fell from their masters’ tables, and made the welkin ring with old French ditties, mingled with Indian yelps and yellings.

Thus, it seems, the new trading company was established, in good grace, with the Indian tribes of the Northwest; and so it seems that the main commercial activities in the Lake Superior region were far from Fond du Lac, at that time.

McEwen states that: “The Hudson Bay Company held supremacy (at Fond du Lac) until 1787, when, after a stubborn resistance, it was driven from the post by the recently organized Northwest Fur Company.” McEwen further states: “This new company built a large storehouse, which was destroyed about eight years later, and rebuilt by their successors.”

Jean Baptiste Cadotte
Jean Baptiste Cadotte came in 1792, states Pardee, and he is generally considered to have been “the first trader regularly employed in the department of Fond du Lac, under the Northwest Company.” Pardee writes:

He was son of the Cadotte who was partner of Alexander Henry, of Montreal, and his first venture was at La Pointe, where he managed in one winter to spend the forty thousand francs his father left him, such was his free-handed manner. Cadotte, staked afresh by Henry, with a party of about sixty men, set out for the headquarters of the Mississippi, where Dakotas and Chippewas disputed the country. Cadotte and his party came to Fond du Lac, crossed by the old Sandy Lake route, wintered beyond Leech Lake, and came out in the spring, by way of Grand Portage. Cadotte’s wife and baby spent the winter at Fond du Lac, because the inland country was too dangerous for them.

Returning to Grand Portage, they gave such a grand account of the country, notwithstanding they were twice besieged by Dakotas, and twice discovered ambuscades against them, that the Northwest Company made this country the Fond du Lac department, built a fort at Fond du Lac, as headquarters, with strong pickets, of which traces were seen to a late day, and in 1796 built a stockaded post at Sandy Lake and another at Leech Lake. In 1798, Cadotte shifted to Red river. From 1792, till the fur trade petered out, the Fond du Lac department was maintained with resident traders, and the Indians ceased their trading visits to Mackinaw and Montreal.

The French post was on the Wisconsin side of the river, in what is Roy’s addition to Superior. It was established by Cadotte. The fort was surrounded by a cedar palisade, and as late as 1855 the burnt ends of the posts were traced by the early settlers. When the Yankees came, they established their Fond du Lac on the Minnesota side, at the spot which still bears the name.

Fort Cadotte
The various accounts, as to the Northwest Fur Company’s post, at Fond du Lac, seem to agree in most of the essential facts. Dates, however, do not agree. Hayes, for instance, feels sure that Fort Cadotte was not built until 1797. He wrote:

The Fond du Lac department, Lake Superior, of the Northwest Company comprised all the country about the Head of the Lake, the source of the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Chippewa rivers. The depot of the district, says the chronicler, was about two miles within the entry of the St. Louis River.

In another place he says the depot, or collecting point for furs, was built at Fond du Lac, near the entry of the St. Louis River, and this post, or fort, which I will call Fort Cadotte, was surrounded by strong fir or cedar pickets.

The term: “Fond du Lac” meant the “End of the Lake,” and it is the Lake’s end, or Fond du Lac in Wisconsin, that the chronicle relates to. Some of the pickets remained in 1854, when I traveled this way; and I remember them well, burned as they were down to near the face of the ground. If you dig there today, you will doubtless find their charred remnants. The fort was located near where the gas plant now stands, near the end of Winter Street, on Superior Bay. It was built in 1797, as we know from a tragedy which was enacted there in that year of 1797 (the murder of a Frenchman by an Indian at Lac Coutereille, and the trial, sentence and execution of the Indian at Fort Cadotte).

The old warehouses up at Fond du Lac, Minnesota, now or lately standing, are therefore of comparatively modern construction. They are not more than sixty years old and belong to the American Fur Company.

Near what is now the crossing of Winter and Bay streets was old Fort Cadotte, belonging to the eighteenth century, and of much earlier date than the American trading post at Fond du Lac, Minnesota, twenty-five miles further up the St. Louis River, which appertained to the nineteenth century.

Fort Cadotte was fortified in primitive fashion, as may be said of all the trading posts of that time. Description commonly given is about as follows: There was a stout palisade of posts, twenty feet high, sharpened at both ends and driven into the ground. There were thick double-ribbed gates in front and rear, a grim two-storied log tower formed a bastion at one corner, bristling with port holes and cannon. Stores magazines and workshops were ranged inside the enclosure, with an open court in the middle, where the Indians brought their game and peltries. Inside also were the dwellings of heavy timber, mortised—Canadian fashion—and painted white. This much, and probably more, might be said of old Fort Cadotte.

Carey writes at length regarding the murder trail and the execution of the Indian at Fort Cadotte, and he closes his review of the unusual happening thus:

Not many years after this occurrence this trading post was abandoned by the Northwest Fur Company, and its trading post and headquarters at the head of the lake was located at Fond du Lac in Minnesota, about twenty miles above, at the foot of the Fond du Lac portage.

Bitter Rivalry
As the eighteenth century drew to its close, the competition of the rival fur-trading companies was keen, especially in the Grand Portage region. And the two large corporations, the Hudson Bay Company, and the Northwest Fur Company, did not have the field to themselves. There were three or four rival traders along the Pigeon River in 1787, states Carey, and the rivalry between them was keen. Indeed, “it became so bitter that at last it resulted in the murdering of one of the number, a man named Waddon, who was shot within his trading post at Grand Portage.” This was one of the main reasons that brought about a consolidation of traders.

Yet, at the dawn of the nineteenth century there were three companies operating, the third company being known as the Mackinaw Company, states Hayes. It was headed by men who formerly were of the Northwest Company. And eventually this company was absorbed.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.