Historian Tells of Early Beginnings of Grand Marais as an Indian Trading Post

Great Pathfinder Radisson Believed to Be First White Explorer to Visit Aborigine Village

An interesting article on Grand Marais known to thousands of North Shore visitors and to Indians as "Gitchi-be-to-beek" or the big pond, has been written by Dr. F. B. Hicks of Grand Marais for the St. Louis County Historical Society. Following is part of the address.


Indian legend tells a mythical story of a wonderful medicine man named Ogi-mah-quish-gon, who lived at a place on the shore of the great lake where the huge cliffs nursed two wonderful bays that were separated by a point of rock and an isthmus of gravel. One bay made a deep indentation into the land. Its water was shallow. In places grasses and flowering plants sprang up from the water, which was calm and peaceful even when the big sea waves were most fierce. The other had sloping, gravelly bank. Here were many wigwams, for fish and game were plentiful, and to these bays trails and canoe routes led from all directions.

Here Ogi-mah-quish-gon called together his people from far and near, saying, "Come to the place on the shore of the great sea where Gitchi-be-to-beek (the big pond) lies beside the pleasant bay." Here they came and for many days engaged in sports the red men loved or listened to words of wisdom from their chief who taught them how to heal the sick and how to unite their forces for protections against their enemies. From that time on, by the chiefs orders, the place was called "Gitchi-be-to-beek" or the big pond, and when the French came, they translated it into French and called the place Grand Marais, the big marsh or big pond.

First Visit of Whites.
When a white man first visited Grand Marais we have no record, but that it was a popular Indian village when Radisson made his trip along the north shore in 1657 or 1658 there is no doubt, and there is every probability that the great pathfinder of the northwest visited Grand Marais 10 or 12 years before Joliet or La Salle trod the prairies of what is now Illinois or Marquette carried the gospel to the aborigines of Michigan and Wisconsin. There is the same likelihood that Verendrey and his 50 men visited Grand Marais in 1737, 80 years later than Radisson.

But it was a long time after the first explorers before the fur trade brought more than an occasional voyageur to Grand Marais. Under the laws of France, independent traders had little chance and as the licensed companies made their headquarters farther east on the north shore of the lake, we hear little of white men in Grand Marais until after the post war questions of the revolution were settled. Then independent fur buyers established their posts at different points through the northwest, and Grand Marais was one. In the meantime little is known of the place during these early years, but it is certain that no development of importance took place until past the middle of the 19th century.

Explorer's Note.
Michael Curot on June 14, 1804 writes in his journal as follows: "Before sunrise we embarked with a contrary wind. We advanced until about 10 o'clock when the wind increased and we put to shore about one league from Grand Marais."

James Dotz, very prominent in Wisconsin history, was at Grand Marais on Tuesday, June 20, 1830. Trader Malhoit says in his diary under date of July 13, 1804: "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon I camped at the Grand Marais because the savages told me I should have good fishing there."

G. Francheres made an inspection of Lake Superior fisheries for the American Fur company in August, 1839, and refers to Grand Marais. Through all these years, Grand Marais was not much more than a name and of secondary importance even in the fur trade.

M. Godfrey, an independent fur trader, came to Grand Marais from Detroit in 1854. He was a man of some force of character and carried on a thriving business for some years, then returned to Detroit.

R. B. McLean a mining man, came up the north shore in 1854. He was sent by a company of mining promoters from Superior. This, incidently shows, that mining interest had their eyes on this region at an early date. He writes as follows: "Two or three days later (in 1854) Clark Battice Bush and my self left Superior in bark canoes for the north shore and Grand Marais. We were several days in getting there, and we had some bad weather, but upon reaching there we found five fishermen from Detroit, Mich., who were in possession and had some timber cut and carried out for their cabins. They had joined H McCullough of Sault Ste. Marie in chartering a small vessel to take them to Grand Portage, where Mr. McCullough had his trading post. There they got canoes and reached Grand Marais two days ahead of us. Two men were of middle age, the other three were young men. One of them was called H. Godfrey. I did not learn the names of the others."

Mail Route Established.
In July, 1856, a monthly mail route was established from Superior to Grand Portage. Thomas Clark had the contract for carrying the mail. At this time, July, 1856, the first postoffice was established at Grand Marais, and H. Godfroi was postmaster. The first mail was brought through by R. B. McLain in August, 1856, carried in winter by dog team; in summer by boat.

In 1854 the La Pointe treaty with the Indians opened up north shore territory for settlers with the exception of a part of what is now Cook County, lying 25 miles east of Grand Marais. This gave a new impetus to business on the north shore, and many pre-emptions were taken, some by actual settlers, some under the direction of speculators.

In November, 1858, H. Godfrey sent in his resignation as postmaster at Grand Marais, and with him two companions returned to Detroit. The place remained vacant until taken up by Henry Mayhew. Henry Mayhew and Sam Howenstine settled in Grand Marais about [?]. Mr. Mayhew, got possession from the government of the west bay and Sam Howenstine of the east bay. Mayhew became postmaster soon after his arrival. He established trading posts at Grand Marais and at Rove Lake in 1875. He became interested in mining as well as fur and with his associates, built the original Gunflint trail, which was a wagon road back to Gunflint lake. He was one of the active pioneers who opened up Grand Marais and vicinity to modern life.

Cook County Organized.
The bill for the organization of Cook County was passed by the legislature on March 9, 1874, but it was not until Sept. 7, 1882, that the men who were appointed by the governor as first board of county commissioners met. They were S. F. Howenstine, H. Mayhew and C. M. Wilson. Mayhew was elected chairman; Miller, county auditor; J. E. Mayhew, treasurer; T. W. Mayhew, resister of deeds; J. E. Mayhew and Thomas Ross, justices of the peace, and T.W. Mayhew and A. J. Scott, constables. These men were all residents of Grand Marais, and Grand Marais was made the county seat. The first tax levy was in 1883, for $405.27.

A. J. Scott who is still alive and residing at Grand Marais came here in 1872. He says that at that time there were only two dwelling houses in the place and one of them was the big building owned and used by Mr. Mayhew and his brother, Thomas, who had lately joined him, as the trading post, hotel and post office. He says there were many Indians in the region, most all of them wearing blankets and not much else.

From these beginnings the town began to grow, stimulated from time to time by the fishing and timber industries, and to some degree by mining, and the fact that it was made the county seat.

The means of transportation and travel were at that time limited to dog team trails and to water i.e. by lake, and to canoe routes through the woods. These routes were in prehistoric times an important item in the life of the Indians, and no less important to explorers and fur traders. Radisson found when he planned his trip to Hudson Bay that there were four canoe routes from which he could select. One of these starts from Grand Marais and at that time was a much used by the Cree Indians, a nomadic tribe closely allied with the Chippewas. Mr. Scott says that the old trail over which they were wont to travel, marking their first portage over the rugged hills, back of the village, and still exists and in his early days was much used.

(Note: News Tribune Item.
In the Duluth News Tribune of Aug. 10, 1879, the following item appeared: "Forty miles of the new road has been opened on the Duluth Pigeon river wagon road, leaving but 20 miles to be cut in order to open the road for a one-horse team, for winter travel between Duluth and Grand Marais." This road was completed eight years later.)

In 1916 the new automobile road was completed from Port Arthur and its completion was celebrated by a historic picnic at Grand Marais, attended by 500 people from outside of Cook County. It was prophesied then that it would be decades before there would be so many strangers in the town at any one time again. But the roads worked wonders and it was but a few years till such numbers were a common occurrence.

Means of travel by lake were of an irregular nature till about the year 1883. The fishing industry was rapidly growing, and shipping was more common. In 1882 through the efforts of Grand Marais people led by Mr. Mayhew, a breakwater was put out in the mouth of the west harbor and the harbor was made a harbor for refuge by the government, and a lighthouse was built . Previous to that the schooner Stranger was wrecked just outside the harbor and her crew of four men were all lost. This was in 1877. The Booth Fishing Company began running boats on schedule in 1883. This gave Grand Marais its first reliable means of getting to the outside world, and until highway No. 1 was completed in 1916, it remained the standard method of travel. Boats made a trip each way two or three times a week.

Missionary Visits.
From very early days a Catholic missionary visited Grand Marais. At first he would come only once a year. Later he came twice or three times but no church was built until 1897. The services for many years prior to that were held at the home of James Morrison, an Indian who died at the age of 82 in the year 1925. This Catholic church is probably the first church built at Grand Marais, though I am told by A. M. Scott that the foundation of the building supposed to have been a church was standing partly covered with gravel when he came in 1872. It was about 20 by 40 feet and was found by workmen who were excavating.

The Norwegian Lutheran church was organized in 1892 and their church built in 1898. A congregational church was organized in 1907. The Rev. G. H Pinkerton, a recent graduate in divinity, was the first pastor. Since then a Baptist and a Swedish Lutheran church have been added to the religious and moral agencies of the town.

A newspaper, The Cook County Herald, was started by H. DeLacy Wood in 1882. In 1907, John Blackwell began publishing The Grand Marais News. Four years later the Herald and News were combined under the name of Grand Marais Herald, and its publication continued by Mr. Blackwell. It has changed hands once or twice since then and is now an excellent paper under the administration of two young sons of Cook county assessors, Scott and Toftey.

Lumbering Started.
The lumber industry was first promulgated in the immediate region of Grand Marais by the Butler brother in 1899. A little later Hans Engelson and C. J. Johnson cut timber, brought it to the shore and sold it to the Schroeder Lumber Company, who towed it across the lake in rafts. These two men have been wrought into Cook county history and progress to a large degree.

Mr. Engelson has been a leader in the fishing industry and closely identifies with political affairs of the county.

Mr. Johnson built a sawmill in 1903 at Grand Marais. It was capable of sawing 35,000 feet per day with a crew of 10- men. This soon went out of date and was abandoned in 1907. The neighboring hills were soon stripped of their majestic pines and the timber industry farther back has little effect on the affairs of Grand Marais.

(Note: some of Dr. Hicks dates might be disputed)

For more articles on Cook County History, visit the archives.