Who Was Norman W. Kittson And What Is The Significance Of Pembina

Who Was Norman W. Kittson And What Is The Significance Of Pembina

Norman W. Kittson was a businessman and political figure in the mid-19th century. He is best known for his role in the development of the town of Pembina, which was located in present-day North Dakota. Kittson was born in Quebec, Canada in 1814. He later moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked as a fur trader and merchant. In 1851, he established a trading post at Pembina, which quickly became an important stopping point for settlers traveling westward. Kittson played a key role in the growth of the town, serving as its postmaster and first mayor. He also helped to develop its infrastructure, including a sawmill and a grist mill. In 1858, Kittson was elected to the Minnesota Territorial Legislature. He served in the legislature until 1861, when Minnesota became a state. Kittson continued to live in Pembina until his death in 1888. Today, Pembina is home to a museum dedicated to Kittson and his contributions to the area.

Kittson was eager for larger ventures, and in 1843, Sibley, following the custom of his company, admitted him as a special partner in the fur trade and allotted him the valleys of the upper Minnesota River and the Red River of the North — a broad strip of territory running north and south astride the present western line of the state of Minnesota and extending to the British possessions. Kittson and Sibley's arrangement went into effect on July 1, 1843 The partners agreed to run a trade venture with the Sioux under the name "Kittson's Outfit." Kittson was in complete command of the operation. Sibley provided the items required for trade purposes in exchange for a 10% advance on cost. Next the winter's trade, Kittson was to collect the furs from the different stations and deliver the packs to Mendota in early summer, bringing the supplies for the following year's activities with him. Profits and losses were to be shared equally among the partners. Kittson was tasked with supervising additional posts at Lac qui Parle and the Cheyenne River, as well as a new station to be erected at or near the Talle de Chene on the James River, from his headquarters at Big Stone Lake.

However, another area of activities was already visible. The fur trade's boundary was steadily retreating prior to settlement, and the finest locations for the trade were now in the North. Between Kittson's posts and the boundary of the British possessions lay a vast field for profitable exploitation, from which the Hudson's Bay Company, a foreign corporation, drew large supplies of American furs each year. Kittson now proposed to stop this interloping by establishing a permanent post at Pembina, a small metis settlement on the Red River just south of the international boundary.

The placement was well thought out. The huge company's encroachments could be countered, and commerce could undoubtedly be pulled from the British side of the boundary. Furthermore, a group of individual merchants at the Red River colony were attempting to disrupt the Hudson's Bay Company's iron monopoly, which placed every obstacle in their path. These individuals, who were already aware with the benefits of the American market, would appreciate a way to receive supplies from St. Paul rather than from England through the lengthy, arduous, and roundabout route via Hudson Bay and the Nelson River.

Kittson visited the Red River colony in the autumn of 1843 and was intrigued with the prospects. A year later, he was about to start a company there when he ran into an unforeseen stumbling block. Some metis from the Red River settlement had gone to the Missouri to hunt buffalo, as was their custom, and had come upon a group of Sisseton from Kittson's area at Big Stone Lake and killed many of them. If Kittson now gave the metis of Red River the respect of building a trade station at this point on American land closest to their town, he would very certainly face the wrath of the enraged first nation tribes. He invited the first nations in his territory to a feast.He presented them with the plan for his northern commercial business. They first refused to let him go north with his provisions. But, after much deliberation and, no doubt, many gifts, he was able to get their hesitant approval. For many years following that, while he was transporting supplies north, he anticipated danger from Sioux marauders, but despite threats and his companions' fears for his safety, he was never hurt.

Kittson completed his Pembina post project in the autumn of 1844. He'd made plans to send commodities to James Sinclair, a Red River merchant and fur-trader of considerable clout who had previously gotten his supplies from the Hudson's Bay Company, and he clearly expected Sinclair to travel to Pembina and run his new station for him. However, due to his late arrival in Pembina, this agreement could not be carried out. However, no one in the Red River colony was a greater friend to Kittson than Sinclair, and the two had extensive and mutually profitable commercial relations in the years that followed.

Kittson's arrival in Pembina in 1844 rescued the fading hamlet from oblivion, and it quickly became a somewhat significant hub of the fur trade, but neither big or populated. Kittson established his trading station on the site of Henry's fortifications constructed for the Northwest Company in 1801. As his company grew, he added to his holdings, resulting in an imposing assemblage of structures.


According to an 1851 description:

'The houses are built around an open space, and the square courtyard (so to speak) is filled with a miscellaneous crowd of half-breeds, Indians of all sizes, with their lodges of bark and skins, together with horses, cattle, carts, dogs, and so on, in great variety and numbers.The dwellings are made of logs that have been filled with mud and straw, and the roofs have been thatched with straw and some have been covered with bark. Around the yard's angles are numerous warehouses, an icehouse, a blacksmith shop, and the trading-house, or store, which is totally coated with big squares of bark and seems to be a whole barkhouse. In front, facing the river, are barns and stables, haystacks, and so on, with several horses and cattle grazing, and the landscape has a general impression of thrift, comfort, and activity."

It was evident that the strong Hudson's Bay Company would vehemently oppose Kittson's competing endeavor. After nearly two centuries of exclusive trading rights in Rupert's Land and encompassing the entire northern part of the continent in its far-flung operations, the company was  gaged at the moment in the last battle with the Red River settlers to keep their entire monopoly on the fur trade in that critical area. Kittson's garrison at Pembina quickly became the focus of all attention and the site of much illegal trading on the part of the Red River settlers. A tiny Hudson's Bay station located two miles to the north, just across the international border. Its clerk made it his top priority to checkmate Kittson. The latter informed his opponent of his decision to limit his activities to American land and only accept British commerce that came to his doors. However, more forces were at work to destabilize Kittson than he understood. In truth, his commercial enterprise had violated a long-standing secret agreement between the Hudson's Bay Company and the American Fur Company. The Hudson's Bay Company's exclusive monopoly at the Red River colony was eventually toppled by free merchants in 1849, and Kittson undoubtedly provided advice and clandestine assistance to this campaign.

Mr.Kittson would find himself in a deal of a lifetime in the spring of 1880, an offer came to the government from a group of investors led by Duncan MacIntyre a Montreal capitalist who controlled the Canada Central. Norman Kittson would be 1 of 5 investors of The Canadian Pacific Railway Company a vision of a young John A Macdonald.

Share Tweet Pin it
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.