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In the Vanishing Footsteps of Voyageurs

Where lies the real Savanna Portage? Several attempts have been made to find it. But clues to this vital link in Minnesota's fur trade are fading.

By Gustave Axelson

With two feet planted on a mound of hardwood forest that surfaces like a giant turtle's back from the surrounding marsh, I stand atop history.

The scene here is unspectacular, especially in early winter. The sparse oaks are bare. The marsh grasses are brown. The East Savanna River is ice covered.

But this unassuming hump is historic: It was the gateway to the most torturous portage of Minnesota's 19th century fur trade. The Savanna Portage crossed the Continental Divide and connected waters flowing west into Minnesota's interior fur country with waters flowing east to Lake Superior. This hump was a voyageur's last upland respite for dry feet before he set off into a morass that swallowed men up to their waists.

"We arrived at a small knoll of dry ground which is called the commencement of the portage where we took breakfast," wrote Douglass Houghton, a physician and explorer who crossed the portage in 1832. "The voyageurs soon after commenced carrying the goods. . . . They frequently sank with loads nearly to the hip in mud and water."

Twenty years later the notably awful portage attracted Laurence Oliphant, a British writer who was traveling to research his book Minnesota and the Far West. He likewise landed on this mound.

"At last we saw a clump of tall birch trees, for which we steered, and found ourselves upon a small circular island, which afforded a comfortable resting place, and from which we could take an inspection of the Savannah [sic], which was nothing more than a boundless swamp," penned Oliphant in 1854.

More than 130 years lapsed before another written mention of this gateway to the Savanna Portage appeared in a report by University of Minnesota anthropology professor Guy Gibbon and his graduate student Eugene Willms. The report described their archaeological excavations along the trail in Savanna Portage State Park in the early 1980s. Their findings sometimes contradicted the portage as marked by the park's hiking trail signs.

Such has been the fate of the infamous and ephemeral Savanna Portage. In the 150 years since its heyday as a fur-trade highway, the portage has been forgotten and rediscovered several times.

Rediscovery is my mission on this morning. I hiked to the portage's eastern end during dawn with no signs or trails to lead me. I came via my own investigation of the Gibbon and Willms report. For me, this day hike is an opportunity for adventure: Today I will find and hike what I can of the real Savanna Portage.

Next to Impassable

It's midday when I hop off the east-end hump to hike five miles along the Savanna Portage to the West Savanna River. I walk due west, then due south, beside ditches dug along township section lines, until I pick up the park's marked hiking trail. Walking west along the hiking trail, the going is easy -- bright sunshine, comfortable temperatures in the 20s, a frozen marsh to support my footsteps. Winter is definitely the best time to be walking here.

Voyageurs and fur traders didn't enjoy such fine walking. For them, winter was the season for trapping furs. Warmer months were the time for shuttling pelts to Lake Superior and on to Montreal, and for moving supplies back to trading posts. That's when the Savanna Portage was muckiest.

"The east of the portage, for a distance of a mile and a half runs through a tamarack swamp, which was flooded with water, and next to impassable. It is generally considered the worst 'carrying place' in the Northwest," wrote J.G. Norwood, a geologist who surveyed the area in 1848. "And judging from the great number of canoes which lie decaying along this part of it, having been abandoned in consequence of the difficulty experienced in getting them over, its reputation is well deserved."

A half-century earlier, in 1798, North West Fur Company cartographer David Thompson described how voyageurs laid logs in a futile attempt to gain decent footing while hauling 90-pound bundles over their heads: "We passed by means of a few sticks laid lengthways, and when we slipped off we sunk to our waists . . . [voyageurs] flounce along with the packs of furs, or pieces of goods, and they say 'sacre bleu' as often as they please."

According to Gibbon, the Savanna Portage saw its heaviest traffic in the 1820s and 1830s, when William Aitkin operated a large trading post on Big Sandy Lake. Because the post served as the local headquarters of the American Fur Company, fur traders throughout the Great Lakes region had to cross the Savanna Portage to barter with Aitkin.

Several 19th century explorers and dignitaries also crossed the Savanna Portage. They included Zebulon Pike in 1805, Rev. Edmund Ely in 1833 and 1834, Joseph Nicollet in 1836, and German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin as a tourist in 1863 (40 years later he would invent the dirigible that bore his name).

In 1870 the Savanna Portage became obsolete when the Northern Pacific Railroad was built through the nearby town of McGregor. In the historical records, not much mention is made of the portage until 1926, when Iowa teacher Irving Hart went looking for the Savanna Portage while on a fishing trip. Inspired by the opportunity to rediscover the famous portage, Hart consulted fur-trade-era journals, interviewed local old-timers about what they called "the Hudson Bay Trail," and searched old government survey records for maps. Hart said he found old tamarack logs embedded in the portage's eastern marshy end; voyageurs had tried to use the logs as a catwalk. In 1927 Hart published his findings in an article for Minnesota History magazine.

Traces of the Trail

Subsequent investigations from the 1940s through 1960 by other historians -- including one led by Irving Hart's son, Evan -- revived a popular interest in the Savanna Portage and led to the establishment of the state park in 1961. A Savanna Portage hiking trail was marked based on the Harts' and other historians' research.

But, says the University of Minnesota's Gibbon, that supposed path for the portage relied on contemporary visualization of the topography. The land had changed a great deal since the days of the voyageurs. Heavy logging occurred around the turn of the 20th century, and subsequently much of the area was homesteaded for farming. Many portions in the portage seemed to look more like logging skid roads than a voyageur's trail.

So in 1981, Gibbon and his graduate student Willms set out to map the Savanna Portage based on a simple and solid premise: Wherever there were artifacts, there had been people. Surely fur traders and voyageurs dropped stuff along this arduous portage. Gibbon and Willms staked out survey areas a half-mile or more wide along the Savanna Portage hiking trail and swept the area with a metal detector. They expected to find a spider web of artifact trails, based on the assumption that no two voyageurs would necessarily take the same route across the Continental Divide. Flooding, forest fires, and such would necessitate changes in paths each party took. And after all, voyageurs didn't have the benefit of hiking trail signs.

But the researchers did find pauses -- resting spots in about half-mile increments where voyageurs could set down their loads. An upland pause was cleared out of bushy vegetation; the eastern pauses consisted of roughly made wharves, rising above the soggy marsh to provide dry spots for packs. Fur-trade-era journals consistently refer to Savanna Portage as being 13 pauses long. Once this network of rest stops was established, it seems the pauses formed the backbone of a single Savanna Portage trail.

"By the end of the survey, a single intermittent but clearly defined narrow track of orange flagging [where artifacts were found] stretched from one end of the portage to the other," wrote Gibbon in his report. "Concentrated scatters of flags along the route marked the possible location of five of the 13 poses [a voyageur term for pause]."

Gibbon and Willms staked their artifact trail with 53 small aluminum poles. Over the past quarter century, some of those poles have disappeared, perhaps removed by passers-by. I didn't find any poles on the gateway hump. But for the rest of the trail, I knew that wherever I could find a pole, I would be walking where voyageurs walked.

Sesquicentennial Stories in Our State Parks

image of logo for 150 years of statehood.

In honor of Minnesota's 150th anniversary in 2008, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer is telling stories from our state's history through travel and exploration in state parks. Parks are reservoirs of natural history, but they preserve vestiges of our human history too. These are the places where history comes alive for Minnesotans today. This story is the first of six in this series.

Schoolcraft's Maple Ridge

Just a few yards from a dilapidated shelter at a backpack camping site, I find an aluminum pole with tag #46 discreetly poking up from the forest floor. This is where Willms found muskrat spears and a fur-trade-era axe, in an upland maple tree stand where the Savanna Portage climbs out of its swampy eastern end. I am stopping here for lunch.

A campfire warms my hands; a camp stove warms a pot of wild rice soup. The maple stand makes for a congenially wooded spot with no wind. I sit at the picnic table, gaze up into the boughs of these trees, and think of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who passed through this area twice. The first time he served as a geologist in Lewis Cass's 1820 expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River. (Cass declared the body of water today known as Cass Lake to be the source, which was wrong.)

In 1832 Schoolcraft returned and crossed Savanna Portage in search of the Mississippi's source, this time leading his own expedition. By the time he reached this maple stand, his crew had become separated. Lt. James Allen fell behind at a stretch of rapids in the St. Louis River, near modern-day Jay Cooke State Park. He had to stop to "mend his canoe, which he broke three times in ascending [the rapids]," wrote Rev. William Boutwell, another member of Schoolcraft's party.

Rev. Boutwell went ahead with Schoolcraft to the eastern gateway of Savanna Portage on June 30. He wrote: "Made three poses, and reached a maple ridge where we encamped, and spent the Sabbath."

Lt. Allen wrote in his journal that he caught up with Schoolcraft a few days later, after an arduous carry through the portage's marshy eastern end: "[The mire] was at every step over the knees, and in many places up to the waist. We [dragged] our canoes and baggage . . . through two pauses . . . and carried the canoes and baggage one pause further [sic], the greatest part of which was a continuation of the swamp, to Mr. Schoolcraft's encampment, on a dry ridge. July 2 -- the ridge of high land, on which we were encamped . . . was rich and dry, sustaining a heavy forest of sugar-maple, birch, and linden [basswood]."

A week and a half later, July 13, 1832, Ojibwe guide Ozawindib led Schoolcraft to Lake Itasca, the true source of the Mississippi.

Now I eat soup in the same maple stand where Schoolcraft reassembled with his party. Perhaps Schoolcraft offered encouraging words to his crew after a harsh slog through the marsh. Encouragement was all the solace he could offer, as he didn't permit the imbibing of liquor during his expedition. Maybe a few crafty French-Canadian voyageurs smuggled rum among their packs nonetheless. No doubt, clay pipes were smoked, and a jolly voyageur song was sung. Rev. Boutwell may have added a Sunday hymn as well.

Today the Savanna Portage is a portal for imagining history.

Into the Woods

West of the maple ridge, the Savanna Portage hiking trail runs true. I find aluminum poles 45 through 38, off to the sides of the trail, as I loll across a mile and a half of gently rolling hardwoods hills.

My backpack's a little lighter, and I've still got a few hours before sundown to reach the West Savanna River. The ground I'm covering in a day hike took five days for voyageurs, "with 12 pieces per man, when there are few sick or lame men," wrote North West Fur Company employee George Henry Monk Jr. in 1807.

A little farther on, I lose the string of aluminum poles. The hiking trail veers southwest to ride the ridge of the Continental Divide. And the voyageurs' true path of strewn artifacts, as mapped by Gibbon and Willms, continues due west, disappearing into a dense stand of trees like a ghost.


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