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"Pembina, North Dakota's Oldest Settlement"


Sherry Pede


Pembina is a strange, unusual name, a quiet peaceful town,steeped in history, and situated at the confluence of the Red River andthe Pembina Rivers in the far northwestern corner of the state.

There is something about the history of Pembina that excitesthe interest of strangers that came to Pembina. The mere mention of NorthDakota to an "out of stater" inevitably brings different thoughts,reaction of wide open spaces, wild Indians, buffaloes, and perhaps, partiallycivilized citizenry.

This historic site was, in the beginning called "Pambian."In the original journal kept by Chaboillez at Pembina in 1797 - 1798, theword is first spelled "Panbian." A third spelling calls it "Pambinat."

From the Indian, therefore, we have our name, and fromour buffalo, only a few bones as members to indicate that the massive beastsonce used our lands as a stamping ground.

Pembina had its beginnings in 1797, back in the days whenJohn Adams was serving as second President of the United States. The landon which the town lies was claimed by the French, as a result of explorationsof French-Canadian Pierre de la Verendrye and his sons, who explored theDakota Territory as early as 1738. Verendrye and his sons, are creditedwith naming the Red River.

The first trading Post at Pembina was established in 1797by Charles Chaboillez. The Hudson Bay Company built a new post at Pembinain 1803, and their archives states it was in use until 1823.

In 1812, permanent settlement was made by Scottish andIrish settlers sent by Lord Selkirk under the leadership of Miles MacDonnel.They erected Fort Daer at the mouth of the Pembina river, on the south sideand on the west bank of the Pembina river.

Charles Cavileer was the first white man to be locatedin the Red River Valley. Cavileer was born at Springfield, Ohio, on March6, 1818, and learned the saddlers trade. Here he became a friend of a younglawyer, Abraham Lincoln. He served as Pembina's postmaster from 1865 tol884. He was succeeded by his son who served until 1917, making a totalof 52 years that the mail was handled by his family.

From the first days of its existence until long ago afterthe coming of the white man, the area was abounded in wild game of manykinds, and Pembina coon became the center of a vast fur trade territory.Its commerce consisted chiefly of beaver, otter, mink, fisher, martin, andmuskrat furs, fox skins, and buffalo hides, taken mainly from the Dakotaside of the Red River and from western Canada. Trade in these furs developedthrough the use of a fleet of Red River cart; on land and the use of steamboatsand flatboats on the Red River.

Joseph Rolette, the fur trader then stationed at Pembina,and his uncle named Fisher, introduced the carts in to overland trafficbetween Pembina and St. Paul, Minnesota in l843. Rolette came to Pembinain l840 or 1841 in the service of the American Fur Company, and became thefirst man to file on land in the Dakota Territory. He married in l845 andlived in Pembina until his death in 1871. Rolette was only one-eighth Indian,but that fact barred him from becoming North Dakota's first white settler.That honor went to Charles Cavileer, mentioned earlier. While Rolette andhis uncle deserve credit for launching the ox cart was a practical meansof transportation, it was Norman I. Kittson, the American Fur Company agentstationed at Pembina, who really made use of the carts on an effective scale.In the spring of 1844, he procured six of the rude carts, loaded his furs,and set out for Fort Snelling and St. Paul. Kittson's first train of sixcarts carried $2,000 worth of furs.

This traffic developed into a vast transportation system,and soon regular trips were made between Pembina and St. Paul, where a largefur warehouse had been erected by Pierre Chouteau Jr. & Co., furbuyers, of St.Louis. The carts moved across the prairies in large trains,and also ten carts constituted a brigade. Three men were in charge of eachbrigade, and five, six, or more brigades made up a train. A loaded cartgenerally weighed about 300 pounds, and the plodding oxen seldom coveredmore than 20 miles per day. The trip from Pembina to St. Paul, a distanceof 47l miles, took from 23 to 50 days depending upon the weather, conditionsof the trail, and other factors.

In the early 50's, the cart traffic became so heavy thata route which was dry for a longer period of time each summer was sought.It was then that the cart trains employed what is known as the Old PembinaTrail, which represented the established cart route of the final trade period.The fur trade period was the most important industry in the state up tothe close of the Civil War, and continued to be an important revenue-decliningproducing business on a steadily declining scale until the first railroadwas built into St. Vincent in 1878.

The Hudson's Bay Company had been shipping out furs andreceiving supplies by way of York Factory on Hudson Bay. Because of icein the near Arctic waters in late spring and early fall, movement of thevessels in the bay was dangerous and difficult.

In 1857, the Hudson's Bay Company completed arrangementswith the United States government whereby goods of the company could becarried in bond through the United States , thus practically doing awaywith the York Factory post, where vessels arrived and departed but oncea year. In the summer of 1852, three shipments of goods were made from St.Paul through Pembina to Winnipeg, the first freight having been shippedby steamboat up the Mississipol River to St.Paul and then carried overlandby Red River carts.

In 1865, troops under the command of Major Hatch were sentto Pembina. They were established in temporary quarters or a cantonmentlocated on the north side of the Pembina River, near its mouth. This pointwas abandoned in 1864 after the capture of the Indians, Medicine Bottle,and Little Six, leaders in the Minnesota Sioux Rebellion. The Masonic lodgehas placed a marker where once stood the quarters of Major Hatch's Battalion.

The first school building in North Dakota, under the publicschool system in classes were actually held, was built in Pembina in 1875and used until 1881. This building was repaired by the Masons and is nowused as the Masonic Temple. The original blackboards may still be seen init. The Sixth Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public School for theyear ending August 31, 1875, reveals that classes were held with 50 of the117 children between the ages of 5 and 21 in attendance, and that the sumof $l05 was paid out for the teachers wages and $l35 for incidentals.

Enos Stutsman, William Moorehead, W.J. Kneeshaw, and JudsonLaMoure were others prominent in the early history of Pembina. LaMoure rankedas one of the greatest political leaders of his time; W.J. Kneeshaw whosefamily is still here, became the oldest acting District Judge in the UnitedStates. To those, and many other pioneer men and women of Pembina settlement,North Dakota owes a debt of gratitude, for it was here with their help thatour state was born.

From these early beginnings Pembina has lived on and on.It's not large, having a population of 700 inhabitants. Many of the citizensare government people, as this is a port of entry of the Canadian border,The headquarters office of Custom's Collection District No. 54, comprisingthe States of North Dakota and South Dakota, Kittson County, Minnesota islocated here. However, there are still a number of families who can tracetheir beginning back to those early pioneers. This is the spirit of Pembina,the Northwest's oldest town, with ties reaching back into the past, andan abiding faith that looks with hope into the future.


Parker, Lloyd. STORY OF PEMBINA'S HISTORY; Historical Data.c. 1957

Steffen, Bernard. STORY OF PEMBINA'S HISTORY; HistoricalData. c. 1957

HISTORY; Historical Data.c. 1957

Steffen, Bernard. STORY OF PEMBINA'S HISTORY; HistoricalData. c. 1957