Our Heritage – A Historic Overview
The Dakota were inhabiting this region by the arrival of early explorers and French fur traders. The Ojibwe began regionally displacing the Dakota in this area during the latter-half of the 19th century. In addition to this area being the territory of these Native American nations, the present site of Aitkin also was claimed under four flags over the last 400 years. During that period, Spain, France, England and finally the Untied States of America all had laid their respective claims to this region.
The Fur Trade Era
In the 1600s, the French explored this area and traded for furs with the inhabitants of this region. By the late 19th century, the Northwest Company, a cartel of entrepreneurs from Montreal, maintained their interior headquarters near Grand Portage along the shores of Lake Superior.
The Northwest Company operated several posts within the interior of present day Minnesota. One such significant post was located at Lower Red Cedar lake (Cedar lake), just 4 miles east of present-day Aitkin.
As Lewis & Clark embarked on their journey to explore the West, Lt. Zebulon Pike and his expedition left from St. Louis on a journey to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi. His mission included orders to assess the extent of British trade operations in the upper reaches of the newly acquired possession known as the Louisiana Purchase.
During the winter of 1805-06, Pike and a detachment of men first encountered British trade operations at the Northwest Company post on Lower Red Cedar lake. Pike became the guest of the post factor and bivouacked at the post where he also met with Babesigaundibay (Curly Head).
Following the War of 1812, the British cartel known as the Northwest Company was forced by an act of Congress to abandon their posts on American soil. John Jacob Astor soon replaced the posts in this region with his own American Fur Company operations. Headquarters for the vast Fond du Lac region of the American Fur Comapny were moved from Fond du Lac to nearby Sandy lake. This location commanded the important Savanna Portage that was the most important link between the Mississippi waterway network and Lake Superior.
Chief factor and partner of the American Fur Company's vast Fond du Lac region, which covered much of northern Minnesota, was William Alexander Aitkin . William Aitkin headquartered his operations at Sandy lake. Astor sold his holdings and control to partner Ramsey Crooks in 1836.
Aitkin seemed to sense trouble brewing from Ramsey Crooks as Aitkin's correspondence to fellow partners expressed concerns over his situation. It seems likely that Crooks was worried about Aitkin's powerful influence. William Aitkin become one of the most influential men of the region and held marriage ties to the Ojibwe of the region. This positioned Aitkin, should he so desire, to take over the richest region held by the American Fur Company for himself. By 1838, Aitkin had a falling-out with Crooks and was dismissed for alleged reasons of "mismanagement. "
It didn't take William Aitkin long to make a return. As he regrouped, he established sources for trade goods in St. Louis and made plans to return to regain his former empire. By about 1840-41 Aitkin strategically located his post along the Mississippi, near the mouth of the Mud river. This placed him west of Sandy lake and strategically situated along travel routes to-and-from Mille Lacs. In 1841 Aitkin lost his license to trade at this location, possibly as a result of political pressure on Indian agents by Ramsey Crooks. By 1842, the American Fur Company was for all practical purposes- out of business. Aitkin, however, continued in the fur trade for another decade, moving further down the river as time went on.
By the 1860s, the wilderness and the fur trade began to change. The settlement of the lands and the declining demand for beaver put an end to the once vast fur trade industry. The American Fur Company was a thing of the past by the mid-1840s. The fur trade business had shifted from huge corporate interests to individuals with small outfits. The Native American hunters were eventually replaced by settlers as the providers of fur by the 1860s.
Around 1855, this area became a 'paper' settlement known as Ojibeway, which never really materialized. Ojibeway was platted along the Mississippi, just east of the mouth of Muddy River. There was a temporary land office here for the north-western district of the country opened up by Congress as a result of recent treaties. This district included the head waters of the Mississippi, and extended west as far as the Red River of the North. The land office included a register and receiver to conduct the business of land claims.
Fortune seekers in the mid-1800s turned their eye away from the fur trade, and towards timber as the future. By the 1870s, the pinery harvest was in full swing throughout the northwoods of Minnesota. With the prosperity and jobs the timber industry brought, settlement of the region developed rapidly.
Pinery Camps, Iron Rails and Steamboats
In 1870, three brothers by the name of Tibbetts, working for the Northern Pacific railroad, recognized the potential of locating a town near the Mississippi. From this point, men and materials could be brought in by rail and transported via the Mississippi to pinery camps upriver. This was the first access point to the Mississippi by rail from Duluth. The settlement developed at this point along the Mississippi in 1871. No sooner than the town of Aitkin was platted and buildings built, an industry centered around transporting men and materials via the Mississippi to pinery camps upriver was born. The wild lands to the north contained a wealth of timber, but it was not accessible by good roads.
The river and steamboat transportation provided the best access to the lands to the north of Aitkin. For nearly half a century, until the 1920s, steamboats would operate between Aitkin and what would later become the town of Grand Rapids.
As Aitkin developed around its steamboating industry, it also became a supply station to regional lumbering operations. Businesses that directly and indirectly catered to lumbering operations began to arrive. Later industries relating to timber harvest began to spring up, such as sawmills and a hoop mill (cooperage). The large supply of White Oak in the region made the prospects of lumbering surpass the short-lived Jack Pine era.
As the boom of the pinery camp era passed, the community provided goods and services to the settlers, including immigrants seeking the fertile lands that were cleared in the wake of the timber industry. This shift meant river transportation now began to serve agricultural needs in the wake of the timber boom. Timber production and agriculture still exist today, but gone are the passenger trains and steamboats that served them.
In Aitkin's early days, the streets were filled with men from the pinery camps during the summer months. Many had a pocket full of cash and nothing but time on their hands. At one time, no less than 16 saloons catered to the pinery camp 'boys.' The sheriff was usually kept busy breaking up brawls, closing down sporting houses and illegal stills that all sought to capitalize on the paycheck of the lumberjack. Gunplay and knifings were not uncommon.
As families and businesses began to arrive, there became a steadily rising cry for higher moral standards and conduct. By the 1890s, church socials, costume balls, and vaudeville performances had replaced the street brawls, public drunkenness and occasional gunplay common a decade earlier. Local culture by then often included literary lectures, recitations and magic lantern travelogues from around the world.
The construction of the Aitkin Opera House by the turn of the century brought the community vaudeville, theatrical plays and musical entertainment even included a performance by a very young Francis Gumm (later known as Judy Garland).
Much of our heritage is based around the Mississippi. Early explorers stopped here or passed this spot. The river was the main trade route of Native Americans and fur traders during the fur trade era.
In modern times, the river lost its value for commercial transportation and became a recreation resource for canoeists and anglers. The Mississippi would provide anxious moments in the community's history. In 1950, a great flood covered much of the north part of town and all but cut off east and west access to the community.
In an effort to alleviate the threat of future flooding, a vast engineering project was undertaken in the early 1950s to create a diversion channel that would attempt to redirect the high water north of Aitkin. This diversion channel is the only one of its kind along the entire length of the Mississippi. In addition, a dike was constructed in the 1970s as a further precaution.