Grand Portage Re-enactment

Festival Essentials

Where: White Oak Rendezvous, Deer River, Minnesota, Midwest USA
What happens: 
Re-enactment of everyday life in a 17th century French Trading Post with traditional crafts like quill writing and beaver skinning, and silent trading

Where It’s At

Every year, holidaymakers, fun-seekers, and a throng of history nuts descend upon a former World War Two airport to re-enact the events of a French Trading Post called Grand Portage that flourished by the Mississippi River in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This three day event, which takes places once a year during the first week end of August, is organised by the irrepressible Charles Ogee and his wife Marie-Jean Ogee. The festival has been going for eighteen years and participants keep on returning year after year. You rendezvous is the White Oak Rendezvous, Deer River, Minnesota.

History of Grand Portage Settlers

An explorer called Jean Nicolet claimed Lake Michigan for France in 1634 but the first true French settlers were called ‘Les Couriers du Bois‘ – ‘runners in the woods’. They served Louis XIV and raided the Great Lakes for gold and minerals. Disappointed by their results, they were succeeded by the Voyageurs – hired paddlers who established a fur trade with native Ojibwe andSioux tribes, swapping cloth, beads, and guns in return for prized buffalo, deer, and beaver pelts.

The Voyageurs were experienced river men, at home living in the wilderness and accepting of the risks and fortitude required for this hardy life. They were physically very fit and paddled for up to eighteen hours a day. They would carry two to three 90-pound packs up hills and across marshy bogs to their stations, sleeping on the ground and relying on a diet of pemmican – pounded meat and berries rubbed with fat. The dried meat and fat would keep the food from rotting for months and provided them with a high energy source of nourishment. Owing to their stocky size and hearty appetite, the Voyageurs were commonly known as ‘Pork Eaters.’

What Happens at the Grand Portage Re-Enactment

For a few days every August, the reconstructed trading post is brought to life by dozens of re-enactors wearing period costumes and each playing a character they have researched. Most of the re-enactors have perfected some period skills: black powder rifle, tomahawk throwing, survival skills, cooking skills, or hand crafts. The scenes re-enacted are very subtle – not battles or speeches but everyday events on a trading post where native Americans and Europeans came together to trade their goods. An interesting event is the silent trading, silent because people didn’t speak each other’s language, so trading was carried out using gesture and mime.

Within the boundary of the trading post you’ll find many stalls selling food and drinks and demonstrations of various crafts, like quill writing or beaver skinning, which you are invited to participate in. You can even buy Voyageurs clothing. Anybody can come and pitch a tent – the organizers will help you find the right old-fashioned camping equipment.

In the evening you can drink beer at the Trading Post Tavern and try broom dancing to Celtic music.

By Marie-Laure Vigneron

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