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And He Came


Diane Giffen

Isolated by long distances from big places, the people of Pembina lived a very quiet life. To exist at all was a triumph, people had to struggle, to keep alive. Main street for these residents of early Pembina was the Hudson Bay Company's post just north of the line. Here everyone went to trade.

It isn't very likely that the citizens of Pembina had three meals a day. There were lucky if they sat down at the table twice, and so limited was the food supply that no woman could take hours preparing a meal. Some occasions there was bread but most of the time the family sat down to buffalo meat, fish and few potatoes.

What was even more important than Christmas, to these people was the coming of the boats from England, who had supplies for them. The trappers packed their furs and sent them back to England where the men and women could remake them and wear the furs not knowing what its like with no heat in the home, no carriages and no shop around the corner.

Aside from the news from England, there was hardly any contact from the outside world. Maybe from a few travelers still the nearest center of civilization, or to Fort Snelling the largest military out post in the United States. But Fort Snelling was more than four hundred miles from Pembina and the only way to get there was by foot or canoe, so not many people went there.

In 1843, General H.H. Sibley, of the northern department of the American Fur Company, appointed Norman W. Kittson to the post at Pembina as general manager of operations in Northern Minnesota. Joseph Rolette then became Kittson's chief representative. Kittson was a man of thirty-four, with quite a bit of experience in the fur trade.

In the spring of 1844, Kittson purchased six ox carts, loaded them with furs, and set out for Mendota. In the next two years, he lost about $1,000; the third year, he decided that only with large trains of carts would he hope to make a profit. The first six carts that he sent down to Mendota in 1844 carried a total of $2,000 worth of furs. Six years later his ox carts carried a total of $15,000 of furs to St. Paul, which had become the territorial capital in 1849, and returned with $10,000 worth of supplies.

Kittson's life in Pembina was anything but tranquil. From the very beginning, he ran into all kinds of trouble. Since his post was south of the international boundary line, it was legally beyond the control of the Hudson Bay Company. Trappers began trading with Kittson because he gave these men more goods in exchange for their furs than the Hudson Bay Company did.

Presently the trappers on the Canadian side began smuggling furs to Kittson instead of bringing them to the Hudson Bay. Nothing in the law said that furs couldn't be imported into the United States, so it was legal for Norman Kittson to accept these furs. When the Canadians went back home they smuggled the items Kittson had given them for their furs. This, the Hudson Bay Company decided, couldn't go on.

It had never been the policy of the Hudson Company to lose business just sitting around and let Kittson get away with this. Now they began to use every method they used before to wipe out other traders. First, they established posts east and west of Pembina as well as north and south. This helped a little, but Kittson's business kept right on going. Second, price cutting was tried, the new posts had a loss in order to get Kittson to stop. This was effective for a time but it failed in the long way to accomplish its purpose. As a final defense, the Hudson Bay Company started trading liquor with the Indians for their furs.

Kittson could have done the same but decided not to. Instead he sent a note to Washington. Washington sent a note to London. Thousands of miles away the diplomats probably thought that affairs at Pembina were of importance; nothing was done to stop the situation. By the time this happened, Kittson realized that fur trading was dying out. In 1854, he sold his interest in the trading post to Joe Rolette and Alex Fisher, then moved to St. Paul, as a trader in supplies for the Indians.

Kittson retained only small interest in the post in Pembina, people that lived in that part were going to see him often during the following years. He was mayor of St. Paul in 1858 and built his home where the huge Catholic Cathedral stands today. Some years later he was director of steamboat traffic on the Red River for the Hudson Bay Company. Men on the steamboats called him "Commodore," and the immigrants that came into this country by boat called him "Commodore Kittson." Suddenly on May 11, 1888, he died while making a train trip from the East to his home in St. Paul.

A good neighbor and friend of Kittson at Pembina was the Roman Catholic missionary, Monseigneur George A. Belcourt, a French Canadian, who had gained the unfriendliness of the Hudson Bay Company and had been banished from the Assiniboine Territory. While working among the Indians and half-breeds in what is now Southern Manitoba, Belcourt made a petition against the fur company's ways. Agents were opposing his work that he was transferred to Iowa, then under the Bishop he was sent to Pembina. While in Pembina he built a church near Leroy. This is what Charles E. Lee said in his book "Long Ago" published in 1899 by the Mountaineer Press, "Father Belcourt brought to this country the first church bell erected on the plains . . . it was removed to Leroy along with the church building, but was returned to Walhalla and is one of the two bells in the Catholic Church here now."(1)

Life in Pembina was hard for all the people who came and for Norman Kittson who was an early fur trader in our part of the country. This was a start to a well profiting business in a small town such as Pembina, who people even today don't know much about or never even heard of the place. Some difference is we have more contact and trade with the outside world.

(1) Charles E. Lee, History of Pembina County, Pg. 11