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Sayer, John (1750–1818)

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The Snake River Fur Post as it appeared during John Sayer's tenure as partner in the early nineteenth century. Drawn by David Geister, ca. 2000.

The Snake River Fur Post as it appeared during John Sayer's tenure as partner in the early nineteenth century. Drawn by David Geister, ca. 2000.

John Sayer was a fur trader, a merchant, and a partner in several fur trade companies for more than thirty years. In the late 1790s, he became a partner of the North West Company and proprietor of their Fond du Lac district, supervising trade with the Ojibwe south of Lake Superior and west across what is now northern Minnesota.

John Sayer is believed to have been born in England in 1750. He immigrated to the Canadian colonies in the first years after the conquest of New France by England. There, he completed his formal education and was apprenticed to a Montreal merchant.

Sayer first appeared in the fur trade in the late 1770s, working in the Fond du Lac area south and west of Lake Superior. His success in establishing trading relationships with Ojibwe people may have been a result of his choice of marriage. He married Obemau-unoqua, a daughter of the Ojibwe leader Ma-mongazida. Obemau-unoqua had important ties to the local community and taught Sayer customs that would have strengthened his relationships with her people.

Sayer became a wintering partner of the North West Company in 1798 and took over command of the Fond du Lac district. He traveled widely throughout the region, overseeing the operation of twelve wintering posts and up to eighty men. He also operated a regional supply depot and warehouse at Fort St. Louis, on the shores of Lake Superior near present day Superior, Wisconsin.

During the winter of 1803–1804, Sayer took charge of the post on the Yellow River, near present-day Danbury, Wisconsin, in order to actively pursue competition from the newly organized XY Company. The following season, during the winter of 1804–1805, he wintered along the Snake River near present-day Pine City, Minnesota, where he oversaw the local merger and absorption of the XY Company into the North West Company.

Most important, Sayer was responsible for the trading in his department. Although he followed general company policies, he negotiated directly with the Ojibwe. He gave gifts to encourage them to trade. He even altered the prices offered for furs.

Sayer tightly controlled all of his department’s operations. During the winter of 1804, he closely supervised the activities of two other traders: Joseph “La Prairie” Duchene, who was wintering along the Yellow River, and Joseph Reaume, who was wintering at Namai-Kowagon (Namekagon River). Both were frequent visitors to Sayer’s post on the Snake River. In the winter of 1805, Sayer noted bitterly in his journal that La Prairie had acted against his orders by “giving large credits” to Ojibwe people.

After it merged with the XY Company, the North West Company reduced the number of its trading posts. It also fired some of its voyageurs and cut the wages of others. The cost of trade goods increased, fur values decreased, and profits shrank.

In the middle of all this change, Sayer was reassigned. For a couple of seasons, he traded for the company at Lac de Chats on the Ottawa River. Then, in 1808, after over thirty years in the business, he retired from active partnership in the North West Company.

According to company policy, Sayer received title to a large farm within the district of Montreal in exchange for one of his shares in the company. He also was allowed to keep his second share as a source of income during his retirement.

After working for a few years as a gentleman farmer, Sayer sold both his second share and the farm. He then relocated to the village of St. Anne’s on the island of Montreal. While living there, he was elected to the Beaver Club, an exclusive social club for North West Company men living in Montreal, but the group’s records do not indicate that he attended any meetings.

Sayer’s retirement did not last long. He died in 1818, at age sixty-eight.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Birk, Douglas A., ed. John Sayer’s Snake River Journal, 1804–05: A Fur Trade Diary from East Central Minnesota. Minneapolis: Institute for Minnesota Archaeology, Inc., 1989.

Birk, Douglas A., and Bruce M. White. “Who Wrote the Diary of Thomas Connor? A Fur Trade Mystery.” Minnesota History 46, no. 5 (Spring 1979): 170–188.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/46/v46i05p170-188.pdf

Gates, Charles M., ed. Five Fur Traders of the Northwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1965.

Wallace, W. Stewart. ed. Documents Relating to the North West Company: With Introduction, Notes, and Appendices. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1934. Reprinted 1968.

Related Images

The Snake River Fur Post as it appeared during John Sayer's tenure as partner in the early nineteenth century. Drawn by David Geister, ca. 2000.
The Snake River Fur Post as it appeared during John Sayer's tenure as partner in the early nineteenth century. Drawn by David Geister, ca. 2000.
Map of locations important to the early 1800s fur trade in present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. Drawn by David Geister, ca. 2000.
Map of locations important to the early 1800s fur trade in present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. Drawn by David Geister, ca. 2000.

Turning Point

During the winter of 1804, Sayer winters along the Snake River near present-day Pine City, Minnesota, and oversees the local merger and absorption of the XY Company into the North West Company.

Chronology

1750

Sayer is born, probably in England.

mid-1760s

Sayer immigrates to Upper Canada.

late 1770s

Working as a fur trader out of Michilimackinac, Sayer spends several winters trading at Lac de la Sangsue (Leech Lake, Minnesota).

1780

Sayer returns to Lac de la Sangsue for the winter trading season to find most of the Ojibwe he had formerly traded with dead of smallpox.

mid-1780s

Sayer marries Obemau-unoqua, a daughter of the celebrated Ojibwe leader Ma-mongazida. Together, they have five children: four sons and a daughter.

1789

Sayer forms trading alliances with Jean-Baptiste Perrault, Alexis and Joseph Reaume, Gabriel Attina dit Laviolette, Hipolite Cazelet, and Jean Baptiste Cadotte. He spends two winters on the Fond du Lac River (St. Louis River) under this agreement.

1791

Sayer forms his own company and begins building a large complex of warehouses and stores at Sault Ste Marie. A year later, John Sayer & Company enters into partnership with the North West Company to manage the trade in the Fond du Lac.

1798

Having dissolved his own company the year before, Sayer becomes a partner of North West Company. Later that same year, several partners break away to form the XY Company in direct opposition to the North West Company.

1799

Appointed “proprietor” in charge of the Fond du Lac department of the North West Company, Sayer winters on the Yellow River (Danbury, Wisconsin).

1804

North West Company founder Simon McTavish dies in July. Negotiations soon begin to merge the XY Company with the North West Company. In September, Sayer travels from Fort St. Louis to winter along the Snake River (Pine City, Minnesota).

1805

On New Year’s Eve, a courier arrives to announce that the North West Company and XY Company have merged. By the end of April, Sayer concludes his trading for the season and leaves his Snake River post for the company’s annual meeting at Fort William.

1807

After trading for two seasons at Lac des Chats (near Quayon), on the Ottawa River, Sayer retires from active partnership in the North West Company.

1808

Sayer acquires an estate of some 1,000 acres in Onslow Township on Lac des Chats in exchange for one of his company shares.

1809

Sayer sells his estate to company partner Duncan Cameron and moves to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, near Montreal, in Lower Canada.

1818

Sayer dies, at age sixty-eight, on October 2, in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.