Rendezvous Days Reenactment at Minnesota's Grand Portage National Monument
Traveling Back In Time in the North Country
Each year on the first full weekend of August, National Park Service staff and hundreds of volunteers re-create a fun and very authentic Voyageur Rendezvous at the historic North West Company fur trade depot at Minnesota's Grand Portage National Monument.
The reenactment includes demonstrations and workshops by in-character craftsmen and women in the arts of blacksmithing, shoe-making, tinsmithing, basket-making and more, story-telling for the young and young-at-heart, waltz classes, tours of the historic encampment and so forth. These events, along with contests, scavenger hunts and games, help visitors learn about the life of 18th century traders, company clerks, and the native Ojibwe.
During our recent trip to the Boundary Waters and the surrounding area, Steve and I had no idea that the Rendezvous was going on but were excited to find a sea of canvas tents next to the Grand Portage palisade when we arrived at the Monument.
After experiencing the Rendezvous, which I'll share with you here, we plan to revisit the event when we paddle and portage our way along a 200-mile segment of the historic Voyageurs Route, ending at Grand Portage. What a fitting finale to the journey that would be, to arrive at the end of that 8.5-mile portage just as the fur traders did for the Rendezvous.
All photos were taken by me, Deb Kingsbury.
The Great Hall (right) at Grand Portage and the kitchen (left) out back
Behind the kitchen, there's an outdoor clay oven and vegetable gardens.
The Home of Rendezvous Days: Grand Portage National Monument
On the North Shore of Lake Superior
Grand Portage is the site of what was once the largest fur trade depot on the continent, operated from 1784 to 1803 by the North West Company. Sixteen buildings were located inside the palisade walls, including the Great Hall, which, though inactive most of the year, sprung to life when the fur traders arrived in late June for Rendezvous.
During the 29 years that Grand Portage operated, all trade goods headed to outposts in Canada were funneled through these inland headquarters. The cedar-picket palisade was designed, not for defense against attack, but as secure storage for the large inventories that were brought in. Visitors to the Monument can climb to the lookout tower for a view of the area, both inside and outside of the palisade, which is right on the shore of Lake Superior.
The Monument, located seven miles south of the U.S.-Canada border and 36 miles north of Grand Marais, Minnesota, features a heritage center, open year-round, with exhibits, information, audio-visual programs and a bookshop. The reconstructed depot looks much as it did in the 1700s, with historic buildings open daily, late May through October.
Visit the National Park Service's Grand Portage website.
An Ojibwe tee-pee and "three sisters" garden
A view from the lookout tower
Sailors at the dock at Grand Portage on Lake Superior
The Annual Rendezvous
A Grand Celebration at Grand Portage
In July, 1797, canoe brigades loaded with cloth, kettles, guns and food, transported over water and land by rugged voyageurs, arrived at Grand Portage after a three-month, 1000-mile journey from Montreal.
And Northmen with loads of 90-pound bundles of furs also arrived after their own three-month canoe journey from British Columbia. Both groups converged at Grand Portage, the home of British-owned North West Company, which was having one of its most profitable years.
The yearly Rendezvous that followed was not only a grand celebration but was also essential to business and reunited families and friends. Voyageurs, agents, company partners and native Ojibwe met to transfer company goods and have a grand old time before they set off again for another year.
During the annual Rendezvous re-enactment, regular admission fees to the National Monument are waived.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, workshops are offered to the public and participants. Some of the workshops are free, while others do have a small charge. Workshops this year included:
- Cornhusk dolls/Voyageurs for Young'uns
- Basket Making
- Scottish Music and Haggis Making
- Tinsmithing for kids
- Making a Winnowing Basket
- Making Your Own Dorsette Buttons
- Basic Blacksmithing Techniques
- The Art of Nautical Navigation
- Making a Canvas Wall Bag
- 18th Century Surveying Techniques
- Material Culture of the Fur Trade
- Standing Rigging "101"
- Maritime Vessels of the Era
Find out more about Rendezvous Days past and future on the National Park Service website.
A paddle-maker in the old canoe warehouse
Read about the Canoe Warehouse
The Grand Portage Trail
Between Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters
Imagine walking 8.5 miles with two 90-pound packs on your back. That's what the Voyageurs did in a few hours' time when they traveled and transported their goods between the Grand Portage palisade on Lake Superior and Fort Charlotte, the North West Company's smaller storage depot on the Pigeon River.
The Grand Portage trail is still used today, open year-round to hikers, backpackers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers, as well as the few who still portage canoes along its rocky, rolling terrain.
The Grand Portage trail's eastern end is located right at the gate of the palisade.
You can read more about the Grand Portage trail and the history of those who used itat NPS.gov.
A historic voyageur's encampment in the 21st century
A game of Lacrosse the 18th century way at Rendezvous Days
Taking a snooze during Rendezvous Days reenactment
A fresh catch smokes over the fire.
Voyageurs usually stored their gear and slept beneath oilcloth lashed to their upturned canoes.
A French-accented Voyageur shows his birch-bark canoe to my husband. Voyageurs often covered 60-80 miles a day by canoe.
The Voyageurs' Birchbark Canoes
The Voyageurs hauled tons of cargo in their birch bark canoes, invented by the area's Native Americans. The canoes used by Northmen, or "the winterers," in the Boundary Waters area were about 25 feet long and carried four to six men. Lake canoes were ten feet longer and carried as many as twelve "Montreal men" and up to 8,000 pounds of trade goods.
The lightweight but large canoes were made from sheets of birch bark, lashed with split spruce roots and lined with cedar planks and stabilizing ribbing. Spruce pitch was used to waterproof the seams, but no hardware was used.
The birch bark canoes were, however, easily punctured and required continual repair and care.
Natural dyes and weaving demonstrated in the encampment
Heating up the clay oven to bake bread and pies
A Rendezvous Days Powwow
Adjacent to Grand Portage National Monument
Each year, as company partners and guests feasted and danced in the Great Hall at Grand Portage, the voyageurs and Native Americans had their own celebration, with the Ojibwe in ceremonial costumes and canoe men in their plumed caps, bright jackets and fringed sashes.
Nowadays, at the same time that the Rendezvous is going on, there's also a traditional Native American gathering at Grand Portage. The Grand Portage band of Minnesota Chippewa hold their annual pow-wow adjacent to the Monument. Visitors are welcome to attend -- to watch and even participate in the ceremonial dances.
At the pow-wow, there are lots of vendors displaying for sale a wide range of Native arts, crafts and food. This is a free event that includes a 1 and 3-mile walk/run, live music, and horseshoe and softball tournaments.
Rendezvous Days and Powwow at Grand Portage
The next reenactment and Powwow will take place in August 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury