Manitoba History: Review: Robert M. Tegeder, Rediscovery and Restoration of Fort St. Charles
by Graham A. MacDonald
“The purpose of this book is to describe some of the work involved in the restoration of Fort St. Charles, located on Magnussen Island in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota.” In this the author has been quite successful. An inspection of the contents of this report will quickly reveal that it is essentially an exercise in chronicle, and not as the author suggests, “a precise professional historical work.” In addition to the Knights of Columbus, (the sponsors of the reconstruction of Fort St. Charles), this study will be of interest to those concerned with the practicalities of historical “restoration” and with the “theory” of heritage preservation.
The Fort St. Charles project has been the enterprise of the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus of Minnesota and allied churchmen in Manitoba, and commenced properly in 1949. The initiative reflects a much older interest in the rediscovery of the site where La Verendrye’s son, the Jesuit Aulneau, and others, were killed by Sioux in 1736.
The story begins in 1890 following the discovery in Vendee, France of letters written by Aulneau. These were edited and published in 1893 by A. S. Jones, s.j., archivist of St. Mary’s College in Montreal. The discovery came in time to be of use to R. G. Thwaites, who was soon to publish his monumental Jesuit Relations. The Aulneau Collection was read by interested scholars at St. Boniface College in Winnipeg and a number of expeditions were mounted in search of the old sites. By 1908 the old fort location and probable location of Massacre Island had been established. The details of these expeditions were summarized by L. A. Prud’homme in the Bulletin of the Historical Society of St. Boniface in 1911.
Minor commemoration of the sites was undertaken by churchmen in 1908 and 1923, but the major effort commenced in 1949 when the Knights of Columbus were searching for an appropriate way in which to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of the Minnesota Order. In October of that year a Restoration Committee met and formulated the apparent goals of the project. The deliberations of that meeting and the subsequent reconstructions, suggest that the group envisioned a site which would constitute a shrine as much as an historic place. Those familiar with the enterprise of La Verendrye, the personality of Fr. Aulneau, and the historical circumstances of Native culture in this region, will have to decide on the appropriateness of this emphasis given to Fort St. Charles “as shrine”. It is sufficient to say that the Trustees did not find any inconsistency in a commemoration effort which served decidedly contemporary purposes as well as those of the past. The initial goals as stated at the 1949 meeting were that a full scale granite altar be the principle memorial; that an enclosure be built over the altar; that the original area of the fort be cleared and the stockade reconstructed; that the former graves be marked and that title be secured to the appropriate parcels of land in the name of the Church.
As with many projects of this kind (including official government or municipal heritage projects) it is difficult to tell from the documentation provided just why these objectives were considered to be appropriate. While the author has been diligent in accounting for the contributions of all those involved in the project, more attention to the actual documents and historic resources at the disposal of the committee during their deliberations, would have been useful.
In short, no clear and well-documented reasons for decisions taken is provided, although it is clear from the report that the Committee was thorough in its perusal of the historical record. Subsequently, the formulated objectives were pursued faithfully, and in describing the successes and failures of this better-than twenty-five year project, the trustees must be commended for their candour. Their ability to confess to error is refreshing compared to the vision of perfection which seems to underlie so many official government and corporate reports dealing with heritage projects. For instance, in the rush to construct the Chapel building in 1952 (from simulated logs of concrete!) it would appear that the trustees did much to obliterate the archaeological record by means of bulldozing and stump-blasting. While this is admitted with little sense of regret, it is at least acknowledged. As with many larger and “official” projects, planning by intuition seems to have governed many decisions.
Landscape considerations are an important part of any historic site and should be the subject of considerable research. The brushing and clearing of the site was seen to be legitimate for “this would have the effect of making the Fort stand out from its surroundings and appear a defensive structure rather than one seemingly threatened by the encroaching forest.” This may or may not be a valid suggestion, but it is not clear if the Trustees actually considered the historical validity of this policy. La Verendrye’s purposes were of course, overwhelmingly commercial and peaceful, rather than military.
This report could be improved by a thorough editing job to reduce the descriptive aspects of the day-to-day activities of trustees involved in the reconstruction. More diagrams and illustrations of the original site and the subsequent restoration activities would give the document more utility. Also, some interesting historical information appears rather unexpectedly from time to time, as with the discussion on pp. 139-41 of the activities and letters of Father Aulneau. This comes in the middle of a chapter entitled“1966Additional Fort Trustees Appointed by State Master.” Rearranging the contents of the book into topical sections would assist the reader.
The discussion on pp. 169-71 highlights a recurrent dilemma in heritage preservation circles. What is the connection between historic sites of acknowledged significance, and which are increasingly being viewed as part of the public heritage,) and private bodies or owners who may control, administer or be in the process of altering those sites? Public agencies, while far from error-free in their research and administration of sites, tend to display a more rigorous approach in trying to define just what it is “precisely” which recommends a site for publicly funded commemoration or interpretation. In this respect, private initiatives often come in for criticism. In the case in question, the choice of Fort St. Charles as a site of significance seems to be undeniably correct. Its commemoration by means of a “shrine theme” seems just as certainly incorrect in the context of general historical significance.
Fort St. Charles was important in the context of the fur trade and in advancing geographical knowledge. Fr. Aulneau had his part to play in this but it was perhaps a less significant part than the present treatment of the site would suggest.
Page revised: 4 April 2011Back to top of page