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English fur trader helps settle Crow Wing County

James McGill arrived in the Crow Wing State Park area in 1771 as an English fur trader and helped settle the area that led to the birth of Brainerd, which celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary this year.

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A historical marker at Crow Wing State Park is overshadowed Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, by the surrounding trees and their changing colors. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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Crow Wing County residents may not know about James McGill, but the English fur trader helped settle the area 250 years ago.

McGill is the first documented English fur trader to winter in central Minnesota where Crow Wing State Park is now located.

“I believe the 1771 visit that he came to Crow Wing as a fur trader is overlooked because it's the very beginning of the English coming to the area as fur traders and explorers. Prior to that, we had French explorers and a few French fur traders but no English,” Ray Nelson said.

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Nelson is the former president of the Friends of Old Crow Wing. The Ironton resident is a member and one of the founders of the Crow Wing County Muzzleloaders Club, which was formed in 1977.

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“This area around Crow Wing at the time was kind of a battle zone between the Dakota people and the Ojibwe people,” Nelson said. “And it was not considered, you know, totally safe, I guess, for anybody, you know, of European descent to be probably traveling on their own.”

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McGill enlisted the aid of Ojibwe hunter Noka (or Nokay) for help as a guide. The Native American was a resident of the Green Bay Area in 1766 where McGill started his fur trade career.

“Following his paddle and footsteps were European desires, ideals and diplomacies that very eventfully developed into what is current Brainerd history,” according to an April research paper by Nelson entitled “Flintlocks in History.”


“This area around Crow Wing at the time was kind of a battle zone between the Dakota people and the Ojibwe people.”

— Ray Nelson


Ojibwe oral history recounts Noka’s one-day harvest of 16 elk, four buffalos, five deer, three bears, one porcupine and one lynx that he gave to McGill when the fur trader was in the county.

“I suspect that part of Noka’s mission ... was to secure more firearms, in particular, for his fellow band members and the Ojibwe,” Nelson said Thursday, Oct. 28.

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The Nokasippi River, Nokay Lake Township and Nokay Lake commemorate Noka’s significance to the early history and development of Minnesota and the Crow Wing County area, according to Nelson’s research paper that examined the relationship between McGill and Noka.

“McGill was still doing fur trading and making alliances with other fur traders because it was a competitive time period where these are all independent traders … so they're vying for the same valuable resources … and try to make friends with native peoples,” Nelson said.

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The fur trade was the largest early contributing factor to the exploration and continuous westward movement of European peoples, according to Nelson in his research paper, and McGill was leading the way.

“He would have been trying to get a foothold into this rich resource area of which this proves to be if you can harvest that many animals just around your trading post location, a wintering post around Crow Wing,” Nelson said. “That demonstrates the wealth of the area.”

Several countries benefited from the North American fur trade such as England, France, Scotland, Germany, Denmark, Russia, Italy and eventually the United States, Nelson claimed, and McGill worked with London suppliers to obtain goods to train with American Indians.

“Wool blankets and kettles and firearms and powder and ammunition, and all the new things that were being desired by the Indian people to help make their lives more efficient and comfortable, living in which was a wilderness area here in Minnesota at the time,” Nelson said.

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According to the state park’s website, the fur trade-era brought the Voyageurs of the Northwest and American Fur companies. Not long after, traders established posts along the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers, and a branch of the Red River Trail brought ox carts through the area.

“It's just an incredible story in my opinion,” Nelson said. “If McGill hadn’t been the first, somebody else would have been of course. But, you know, if you look at European, English-speaking people coming to the Crow Wing area, that's the very beginning right there.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

Brainerd 150 Logo.png
Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux created a logo, incorporating several pieces of history, to celebrate the city's upcoming 150th anniversary in September.

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Brainerd 150 Logo.png
Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux created a logo, incorporating several pieces of history, to celebrate the city's upcoming 150th anniversary in September.

Brainerd 150 Logo.png
Brainerd Mayor Dave Badeaux created a logo, incorporating several pieces of history, to celebrate the city's upcoming 150th anniversary in September.

Related Topics: HISTORYBRAINERD HISTORYCROW WING STATE PARK
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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