19th Century Sault Sainte Marie

In 1923, Stanley Newton published, “The Story of Sault Ste. Marie and Chippewa County.” It’s a great read. From time to time, I’ll share some of what was written. I found it quite interesting, and I hope you will too. – Laurie Davis

In the year, 1800 the value of beaver skins belonging to the North West Company alone, and brought out through the Sault, was over a million dollars. The Company employed thirty-five guides, fifty clerks, seventy interpreters, and eleven hundred canoemen. This force collected and forwarded around the rapids here over one hundred thousand beaver skins, thirty thousand martins, seventeen thousand muskrats, six thousand foxes, two thousand bear and deer skins, six thousand lynx, nearly five thousand otters, two thousand mink, four thousand wolves, seven hundred elk, and five hundred buffalo robes.

To this enormous total must be added the Company’s smaller peltries, and those of the X Y Company and the independent traders. Truly, the fur trade in those days was everything. For several years the North West Company brought down more furs through the Sault than the Hudson’s Bay Company exported directly through the Straits. 

Wild fur-bearing animal life, now in the vicinity of the Sault, is fast going the way of the whitefish. The skins enumerated above would be worth at today’s valuations over three million dollars. It is doubtful if the two Sault’s will handle this year, much over one hundred thousand dollars worth of peltries. The killing of beaver is forbidden in Michigan, and unless some action is taken in Ontario, the beaver will soon be practically extinct there. Aside from the beaver skins collected in Algoma, muskrat, fox, mink, and skunk provide the bulk of the present limited receipts in this locality. Many fur bearers are nearing extirpation, and recourse must be had to captive rearing if the supply of fur is to continue.

One hundred twenty-five years ago, the North West Company was well-nigh supreme here. Its posts dotted the country around Lake Superior. Each post had its quota of Indians, and each Indian’s hunting grounds were marked out for him. At the beginning of the season, his credit was allotted to him in Company currency or tokens. This was placed in his box at the Company store, and the Indian was given the key to the box. When he left for the hunt the key remained with his wife or relatives, and the tokens covering their purchases from time to time were taken from the box and counted by the clerk or factor in their presence.

Beaver Skins Were Cheap

On the hunter’s return, a yearly settlement was made. If he wanted a gun, he piled the skins on the floor to the height of the upright weapon in exchange. The muskets in those days were made with very long barrels. If he poached on another hunter’s territory or did business with one of the free traders, he obtained no more credit and was listed at the other posts. Thereby he found his usefulness in that locality at an end. By the exercise

of industry and strict honesty, he eked out a living, while his merchandise won through winters of toil and privation, enriching its buyers in the markets of Europe. Beaver was especially wanted, for well-to-do folk in the old country would have hats of nothing else.

The prime requisites of the Indian hunter, in exchange for his furs, were guns, powder, bullets, and traps. He might be without a coat to his back or shoes to his feet, but these were indispensable. Blankets, bright-colored clothing, knives, and hatchets made close seconds. Cooking utensils and other articles of household hardware stood near the top of the Indian’s want list and comprised a large part of the company store-keepers stock. Many a canoe full of whisky was unloaded at the Sault and dispensed to the Indians at ruinous prices and with results. If you know how many beaver skins it takes, piled flat and pounded down, to level up to the muzzle of an extra long, five-dollar musket standing upright, you can get some idea of the profits in the fur business here when Sault Ste. Marie was young.

The North West Company flourished and waxed great in the Lake Superior country. Many and bloody were the battles of its men with those of the Gregory Mackenzie Company and X Ys, rival concerns which it finally absorbed. We find the X Y Company warehousing its goods on the American side of the rapids in 1803, the North West Company having preempted every location suitable for that purpose on the north bank. Two years later the adversaries became one under the North West name. The best talent in both concerns pushed the business forward with spirit and enterprise, everywhere encouraging the trade of Canada with the great Northwest and opening posts at various places in the territory. The Hudson Bay Company took over the Nor’westers on favorable terms to the latter in 1821, and the northern woods and streams ceased to be the battlegrounds of the rivals in Montreal and London.

Michigan Territory Is Formed

In the meantime, Virginia and Massachusetts had relinquished whatever claims they had to the Northwest Territory of which we were part. Indiana Territory had been organized including the eastern part of what is now the Michigan Upper Peninsula, and in 1805 Michigan Territory was formed. 

John Johnston

It is hard to think of Sault Ste. Marie at the beginning of the last century without recalling the name of John Johnston. Johnston’s romantic career, powers of intellect, and generous hospitality made him famous throughout a great stretch of the country, and he has been featured by many writers in their accounts of this locality. 

He was born in Coleraine, in Antrim County, Ireland, in 1763, and came to Canada in 1792. Being attracted by the possibilities of the fur trade, he soon joined a party bound for Lake Superior. Tarrying at the Sault for space, he journeyed up the lake to La Pointe, where he established a trading post and made the acquaintance of Waub-ojegg and his handsome daughter O-shah-gush-ko-do-no-qua, whom her children afterward knew as Neengai, the girl whom he was to marry the following year.

Waub-ojeeg was the most famed of the Chippewas in the north country and was the son of the celebrated Mongazid. In courage and craft, he was the true exemplar of a warlike race. Once, when Mongazid was hunting with his men near an encampment of the Sioux, the latter attacked and surprised the sleeping Chippewas at early dawn. Mongazid rushed out, shouting his name, and asked if Wabash, his mother’s son by a Sioux Chief was among the enemy. There the tall figure of his half-brother approached with hand outstretched in token of peace.

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