This article was originally published on MNopedia and is republished here with permission.
For a single trading season between the fall of 1804 and the spring of 1805, the Snake River Fur Post was an epicenter of the Upper Mississippi fur trade. The stockaded structure, supervised by veteran trader John Sayer, was a place where employees of the North West Fur Company came together with Ojibwe and Metis hunters and trappers. The Minnesota Historical Society rebuilt the post’s buildings and opened them as a historic site in 1970.
The land on which the Snake River Fur Post was built in 1804 was, and still is, Ojibwe homeland. At that time, the Ojibwe had held a powerful position in the fur trade for over 175 years. Their homeland and influence reached from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains in the west, and to the homelands of the Cree and Assiniboine in the north. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States laid colonial claim to much of present-day Minnesota. It lacked, however, a real presence in the region, and the Indigenous peoples of the area continued to trade with British companies.
Incorporated in 1779 and headquartered in Montreal, the North West Company traded with Ojibwe people living in present-day Canada and the Upper Midwestern United States. Eager to expand its business and compete with the XY Company, the North West Company sent experienced trader John Sayer to the lands of the Snake River band of Ojibwe in 1804.
A North West company employee named Joseph Réaume had been trading on the Snake River since 1802, and Sayer had visited the region before. But in 1804, Sayer was ordered to establish a more permanent band-level post to satisfy the Ojibwe living near Ginebig-ziibi (Snake River).
Sayer had been working for British fur trade companies since the 1770s in the Fond du Lac District, southwest of Lake Superior. He was a bourgeois, a French term marking his status as a wintering partner and stockholder with the North West Company. Bourgeois were the highest-ranking employees to work directly with Native Americans, and Sayer spent considerable time in Ojibwe communities at Grand Portage and Fond du Lac. The Ojibwe incorporated Sayer into their kinship and cultural practices. They taught him their language and the Indigenous custom of reciprocity, which governed the fur trade.
An Ojibwe woman named Obemau-unoqua, daughter of a leader named Mamongazida, married Sayer and started a family. She came from an influential Ojibwe family who lived at Chequamegon (present-day Wisconsin), and her father was a renowned hunter and war leader. Obemau-unoqua also had kinship ties to the Bdewakantunwan Dakota. As the wife of a bourgeois, she held a privileged status, and servants attended to her needs.
When Sayer and his party arrived in the area, the local Ojibwe welcomed them. They exchanged gifts, and the Ojibwe recommended that Sayer’s party build a post on the banks of Ginebig-ziibi. The party constructed the Snake River Fur Post from October 9 to November 20, 1804. It included a six-room row house with living quarters, a warehouse, and a trade shop. The rowhouse was enclosed by a stockade with a main gate and a river entrance.
Through the winter of 1804–1805, the Ojibwe trapped beaver and hunted other fur-bearing animals. Sayer’s employees spent much of their time hunting, chopping firewood, and visiting the winter lodges of the Ojibwe. Ojibwe people from communities on the Yellow, St. Croix, and Snake rivers, as well as Lake Pokegama, interacted with Sayer’s company. They represented their people’s interests and worked as hunters, trappers, and guides. Some known names of the local Ojibwe were Miqauanance, Kisketawak, Wishaima, and Shagobay.
When spring arrived, the Ojibwe brought their furs to Sayer, traded for goods, and settled debts. On April 26, 1805, the North West Company party left the Snake River Fur Post and returned to Fort St. Louis at Fond du Lac. It is unknown if the Snake River Fur Post was used after Sayer’s party departed in 1805. Eventually, the buildings fell into ruin and burned.
In 1963, the Minnesota Historical Society conducted field testing at the site on the advice of a local who believed the area to be the former location of the Snake River Fur Post. The tests were positive, and archaeology continued over the next three summers. The Minnesota Historical Society purchased the land, and in 1966 the Minnesota Legislature funded the reconstruction of the post. The historic site opened to the public in 1970.
About the author: Peter J. DeCarlo is the author of Fort Snelling at Bdote and “Loyalty Within Racism: The Segregated Sixteenth Battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard During World War I”. He works at the Minnesota Historical Society as a research historian.