The Man from Maskinonge

On June 27, 1839, a man named Pierre Trotochaud entered the United States from Canada (according to a “Declaration of Intent” filed ten years later to become an American citizen). Pierre was born in Maskinonge, Quebec around 1815. Maskinonge, located between Montreal and Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River, was one of the communities where the fur trading companies recruited voyageurs, at least in the early days of the fur trade. Whether or not this practice still was occurring in Pierre’s day, furs were still being moved along the St. Lawrence and opportunities to work in the fur trade were still available to young men looking for adventure.

Unfortunately, the location where Pierre entered the U.S. is not known and could have been any number of places. However, having read up on the history of the Great Lakes region at that time, and having identified the places where Pierre later showed up in and around Minnesota, I think there are three main ways Pierre could have entered the country.

One was at Ft. Michilimackinac, which was an important port of entry for the fur trade at that time. Michilimackinac was located on an island in Lake Huron, at the mouth of the St. Marys River, which flowed out of Lake Superior. Trade goods moved through Michilimackinac, up the St. Marys to Sault Ste. Marie and on to Lake Superior. Trade goods and people were moved across Lake Superior largely by small boats called bateaux, which were wooden, approximately 40 ft long and rowed by a crew of 5 or more. Occasionally these boats were fitted with sails. Birch back canoes were also still in use, mainly for shorter trips along the coasts.

In those days, the American Fur Company dominated the fur trade in the Great Lakes region and had its headquarters at La Pointe on Madeleine Island off the southern shore of Lake Superior. The company had docks, warehouses and stores located in La Pointe. According to the journals of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, approximately 800 people called Madeleine Island home in 1832. Schoolcraft estimated that only about 150 members of the population were Ojibwe. With the exception of a handful of “white” employees of the fur company, the remaining population were “half breeds”. These were the sons and daughters (and grandsons and granddaughters) of unions between mostly French Canadian men and Ojibwe women. Such marriages were encouraged by fur company officials and if not encouraged, at least tolerated by Ojibwe leaders to facilitate trade.

If Pierre did not come through Michilimackinac, it is possible he arrived in Minnesota by steamboat. In those days, the head of navigation on the Mississippi was St. Peter’s Landing, below Fort Snelling. He could have boarded a steamboat in Prairie du Chien, a fur trading center on the Wisconsin side of the river, or perhaps he boarded at St. Louis, also a major trading center. Many other French Canadians who entered the US at that time landed at St. Peters.

This brings us to the third theory of Pierre’s arrival. He may have relocated from the Red River Colony, traveling what would soon become one of the Oxcart Trails. French and Scottish Canadians were recruited to settle the colony, located near present-day Winnipeg, by Lord Selkirk and others, beginning in the early 1800s. Floods, grasshopper plagues, isolation and other problems made life in the Colony very difficult and led to many of the settlers returning to eastern Canada or emigrating into the US.

Whether Pierre arrived by land or by water at St Peters, he would have found a few makeshift dwellings around the fort and not much else. The inhabitants were mainly French Canadian and mixed blood hunters, trappers and traders. Around that time the US Army began its efforts to move all civilians off the post property. The Army was concerned about a possible Indian attack, did not completely trust the mixed bloods and did not want their dwellings to provide cover for attackers. In 1840, the Army finally removed the remaining squatters by force and burned their buildings. One of those forced out was “Pigs Eye” Parrant, who was just getting his tavern business started. The place downstream from the fort where he relocated was the beginnings of a village originally named Pigs Eye, which later became St. Paul.

Regardless of how Pierre came to what is now Minnesota, it seems clear that he was involved in the fur trade. Given he was about 24 years old, it is possible he began working when he was much younger, perhaps in a warehouse back in Canada. That may have led to a similar job at La Pointe. Alternatively, he may have met and gone to work for one of the major players in the fur trade, who were often conducting business in and around Fort Snelling. These would have included Henry Sibley, William Morrow Rice (who also arrived at St. Peters in 1839), and others.

His work in the fur trade led to meeting a mixed-blood woman from Sandy Lake named Angeline who would be his wife.