Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


A portage is the carrying of goods or boats across land between navigable waters and around obstructions in streams. Portages were paths originated by game; Native Americans and subsequently European Americans modified them when directness, gradient, or footing dictated. Portages along the extensive inland waterways of the Prairies and Northern Plains played a major role in the fur trade, especially after the Hudson's Bay Company moved into the western interior of Canada in 1774 in response to competition and American fur-trading companies began in earnest to exploit furs in the trans-Missouri West after 1806.

All cargo had to be unloaded from a canoe or boat to be carried over the portage. To expedite this process, furs or trade goods were parceled into ninety-pound packs. A man could carry two packs for about half a mile, drop them, then return for two more. With loading and unloading, a mile-long portage could take one hour. Most portages around rapids were a few hundred yards in length, while height-of-land portages (for example, the nine-mile Grand portage between the Hudson Bay and St. Lawrence drainages) could entail several miles. The cumulative effect of all portages on a route included substantial human and economic costs: drowning; injuries and deaths from lifting, straining, and exhaustion; snake bites; Indian attacks; and increased risk of infectious diseases at congestion points were reported by the traders and voyageurs. Increased economic costs included labor and capital equipment costs, opportunity costs (when men took up space for trade goods and supplies) or when low water levels limited supplies and types of vessels used, and damage to goods from increased handling. Portages constituted transportation bottlenecks in a finely tuned economic system that operated only within the short season of open water.

See also INDUSTRY: Fur Trade.

Jody F. Decker Wilfrid Laurier University

Decker, Jody F., and Donald B. Freeman. "The Role of Portages in Shaping the Economic Geography of the Western Canadian Fur Trade, 1774–1820." In Canada: Geographical Interpretations. Essays in Honour of John Warkentin, edited by James R. Gibson. York University–Atkinson College Geographical Monograph 22 (1993): 31–67.

Morse, Eric W. Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

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