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Fort St. Louis (Fond du Lac)

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Two fur traders

Two fur traders, c.1880.

From 1615 until 1821, Lake Superior was known as "the Great Crossroads" of the western fur trade. The north shore of the lake harbored the major water routes to the western interior of North America. The British inherited the Lake Superior region from the French after the French and Indian War. In the later decades of the eighteenth century, the British North West Company controlled the Lake Superior fur trade. The North West Company was founded in 1779 by Scottish businessmen in Montreal.

The North West Company was less centralized than its rival, the Hudson's Bay Company. The North West Company consisted primarily of independent traders and merchants who owned shares in the company. Many of these men were French traders such as Francois Victor Malhiot.

When the North West Company established its new headquarters at Grand Portage, near the Pigeon River, the region was already bustling with fur traders. Grand Portage, the gateway to the western fur trade, was also the primary distribution site for goods from Montreal.

The North West Company looked to expand its control of the inland water routes by building Fort St. Louis at Fond du Lac in 1793. Fond du Lac, or the "head of the lake", was located at present-day Duluth at the mouth of the St. Louis River. From here the company controlled access to the St. Louis River and Savannah Portage.

Jean-Baptiste Perrault built Fort St. Louis on a site that later became Superior, Wisconsin. The duties of managing the post's supply depot and warehouse fell to North West Company partner John Sayer. Perrault had earlier discovered a wintering post at Fond du Lac inhabited by a North West Company trader named Dufault. This was the first known European community at Fond du Lac. North West Company agent Alexander Henry had also erected a trading house at Fond du Lac in 1765.

Fort St Louis consisted of two houses, as well as a warehouse and shed. The fort was a significant distribution depot for company merchandise and supplies for over two decades. It became the headquarters for the North West Company's Fond du Lac department.

The Fond du Lac department's trading production reached its peak in 1805. The region had a total of 109 North West Company employees. In 1809, the company was challenged by John Jacob Astor and the new American Fur Company. The companies merged in 1811 to form the South West Company, which controlled the fur trade on the southern shore of Lake Superior and Fond du Lac.

The North West Company's profits were hit hard by the War of 1812. The volume of trade fell by 75 percent. As a result, the South West Company was dissolved and the North West Company once again assumed direct control of the Fond du Lac Department. The company's interests in the Lake Superior region were hindered further by a congressional act in 1816 that barred the British from trading with Indians on American soil. The company had technically held an illegal presence in the region since the Jay Treaty of 1794, which ordered the British to evacuate all posts on American territory. Grand Portage had been abandoned by the British in 1800. British operations were relocated to Fort William west of the modern city of Thunder Bay.

The North West Company relinquished control of Fond du Lac to the American Fur Company in 1816. Fort St. Louis was deemed insufficient to meet the needs of the American Fur Company, which constructed a new fort at Fond du Lac. Fort St. Louis was occupied for the last time in 1817 by a band of the Earl of Selkirk's men in a final attempt by foreign traders to operate in the region.

The American Fur Company maintained a presence at Fond du Lac until the company filed bankruptcy in 1842. Trading continued at the site until 1848, when the fur trade moved further west. In the twenty-first century, Fond du Lac is situated within the twin ports of Duluth and Superior.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Carlstedt, Ellworth T. "When Fond du Lac was British." Minnesota History 20, No. 1 (1939), 7–18

Risjord, Norman K. Shining Big Sea Water: The Story of Lake Superior. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2008.

Stevens, Wayne E. "The Organization of the British Fur Trade, 1760–1800." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 3, no. 2 (September, 1916): 172–202.

Waters, Thomas F. The Superior North Shore: A Natural History of Lake Superior's Northern Lands and Waters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Related Images

Two fur traders
Two fur traders
American Fur Company trading post at Fond Du Lac, Duluth
American Fur Company trading post at Fond Du Lac, Duluth

Turning Point

In 1793, the British North West Company expands its fur trading operations on Lake Superior by building Fort St. Louis at the mouth of the St. Louis River—the future site of Superior, Wisconsin.



The French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) ends, giving the British full control over the northern fur trade


The North West Company is founded in Montreal.


The North West Company begins trading around Lake Superior.


Fort St. Louis is constructed at Fond du Lac by Jean-Baptiste Perrault.


The Jay Treaty is passed, banning the British occupation of American territory.


Fur trading at Fond du Lac reaches its peak.


The North West Company’s Fond du Lac Department merges with the American Fur Company to create the South West Company.


The North West Company’s trade production falls 75 percent when the War of 1812 begins.


Control of Fond du Lac is relinquished to the American Fur Company.


Fort St. Louis is occupied for the last time by the Earl of Selkirk.


The North West Company is absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.


The American Fur Company files bankruptcy and abandons Fond du Lac.