Trouble at Fort La Pointe

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Trouble At Fort La Pointe Cover300DPI

I thought about writing a story about the Great Lakes’ fur trade era for a long time.   Lake Superior is beautiful, and the region’s history is fascinating. From 1650 to 1850, the fur trade was the most important “business” in the area that now includes Wisconsin.  That’s longer than Wisconsin has been a state!

I do not have Native American ancestry, so I considered very carefully before deciding to write a story that involved Anishinabe people (or, as the French fur traders were more likely to call them, Ojibwe people).

During this period I was working for public television, helping create and script instructional video programs such as New Dawn of Tradition:  A Wisconsin Powwow.  I learned a lot about Native American history, culture, and tribal sovereignty by studying, visiting tribal educators on many of Wisconsin’s reservations, and attending an American Indian Studies Summer Institute sponsored by the Menominee Culture Institute and the Department of Public Instruction.

I decided to write a story that focused on the meeting of two very different cultural groups, the Anishinabe and the French.  My main character, Suzette, would be a blend of those two cultures.  The story takes on what is today known as Madeline Island, in Lake Superior, in northern Wisconsin.

White traders and Native American people had a lot to learn about each other.  People of mixed heritage, like Suzette, played an important role in helping Ojibwe people and white traders learn about each other.

People of mixed heritage, like Suzette, played an important role in helping Ojibwe people and white traders learn about each other.  (Image courtesy Fort William Historical Park.)

I discussed my story idea with some of the Anishinabe educators I’d met.  And when American Girl invited me to submit an idea for their brand-new line of History Mysteries, I knew just what time, place, and theme to suggest!

Then I got busy.  Next stop:  Madeline Island.  The area where Fort La Pointe stood has changed a great deal over the years, but spending time on the island helped me imagine what the landscape might have been like in the 1730s.

The Madeline Island Museum collection includes several pieces displaying a blend of cultures, such as beaded moccasins and decorative items made from tin. (Image courtesy Madeline Island Museum)

I’ve also been lucky enough to visit a number of other historic sites that help bring the fur trade era to life in my imagination:  Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario; Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minnesota; Colonial Michilimackinac, Mackinaw City, MI; Waswagoning, Lac du Flambeau, WI.  I hope the photographs below help you imagine Suzette’s world, too.

Linda at Waswagoning


At Waswagoning, a recreated village on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation, I learned about traditional Anishinabe life. This guide showed me how Suzette would have started a fire and cooked a meal.

Suzette might have slept in a lodge like this.

Suzette might have slept in a lodge like this.

An interpreter at Grand Portage showed me different items made from birchbark…

...including this cradleboard.

…including this cradleboard.

Furs were dried…

And stretched…

Voyageur Fur Bales

Before being packed into bales, ready for transport.

Voyageurs, like Suzette’s Papa, had to be very strong to lift the heavy bales.  They took the bales to cities faraway markets.

On portages, voyageurs had to carry the bales from one lake or river to the next. (Image courtesy Fort William Historical Park.)

Furs traveled from the Great Lakes to faraway markets, perhaps to be made into a hat like this one.

Furs from the Great Lakes region were made into warm, waterproof garments—such as a hat like this one.  Trade goods included kettles, knives, beads, and blankets.

Everyone looked forward to the day the voyageurs arrived, carrying goods--and a gentleman or two.

Everyone looked forward to the day the voyageurs arrived, carrying goods—and a gentleman or two. (Image courtesy Fort William Historical Park.)

Clerks and officers ran the trading posts and lived indoors.  This hall is at Grand Portage National Monument.

Grand Portage shelter

Meanwhile, the voyageurs lived with their families for the short summer, or in makeshift shelters like this.

Clerks Desk Grand Portage

A clerk, such as Suzette’s friend in Trouble at Fort La Pointe, might have used a desk like this one.

While wealthy post owners might have used something like this.

Wealthy post owners might have used something fancier, like this desk at Grand Portage National Monument.

If you have the chance to visit northern Wisconsin, or anywhere around the Great Lakes, I hope you’ll find time to visit one of these great historic sites.

If you use your imagination at places like Fort Michilimackinac, you’ll soon be hearing the echos of the voyageurs’ songs rippling over the waters.

PS: Since Trouble at Fort La Pointe was published, several people have asked why I chose to write about the fur trade era–don’t I like animals?  I do, very much!  (In fact, I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years.)  But the fur trade era was an important chapter in our history, and ignoring it would be a disservice to all the children, women, and men involved.  At the heart of this book is a story about a family facing challenges, and the fur trade is merely the backdrop.

Trouble at Fort La Pointe was my first mystery, so I was thrilled when it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Children’s Mystery by Mystery Writers of America.  I traveled to New York city for the festivities and the awards banquet.  My book didn’t win, but it was still very exciting to be there!

That’s my husband Scott Meeker on the left, and my AG editor Peg Ross on the right.

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13 Responses to “Trouble at Fort La Pointe”

  1. naopll10Naomi Says:

    I would love to enter this one.

  2. Janet Muirhead Hill Says:

    I couldn’t get the like button to work, but I do like this post very much. The book sounds intriguing and I’d like to enter.

  3. Pamela Says:

    Your blog is inspirational to other writers and to wanna-be writers. Research and love of the topic are two essentials to beginning to produce a wonderful book. Thank you for continuting to put together these pieces!

  4. Suzanne Says:

    We would love to win this contest! We love your books!

  5. Quinlyn Says:

    I would love to enter this giveaway! I love the American Girl books, but I’ve never read any of the History Mysteries. Thanks!!

  6. Sydney Paulsen Says:

    I really enjoyed this post! I do historical re-enactment at a fur trading fort for the Hudson Bay Co. It’s been a marvelous experience! There’s so much to learn.
    I would love to enter this! Thank you.

  7. caroleestbydagg Says:

    All your research shines through in your writing – what an inspiration!

  8. Dee Grimsrud Says:

    Would love to own every book you’ve ever written! No one tops you for doing the in-depth historical research necessary to write with accurate detail!! And you weave it into your stories so seamlessly.

  9. Kathleen White Says:

    I could hardly wait for today to enter! Exciting! I admire very much the detail involved in researching your subject matter, since a work will be appreciated for a long time, and you will want it to be as authentic as possible.

  10. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    Any of your books would be a welcome addition to our home library

  11. Liz Says:

    Would love to have this for my niece and her children.

    Congratulations on your momentous anniversary.

  12. monica hall Says:

    I would love to win. Keep on writing great historical novels.

  13. Debby Rabe Says:

    What a great author, I would love to win any book written by Kathleen Ernst. Looking forward to her visit to the Fox Cities Book Festival!

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