The Life of Antoine Gingras(1821-1877)
The life of fur trader Antoine Blanc Gingras encapsulates the fur trade era of the Red River in the Pembina region of North Dakota. Son of a French Canadian voyageur father and Metis mother, Gingras began as a hunter, then became an independent fur trader. His contemporaries described him as a shrewd businessman. In 1844 he established his first fur trading post at Pembina, and by the time he died in 1877, he was a wealthy entrepreneur, with a chain of trading posts in North Dakota and Manitoba. His business connections extended from Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to St. Paul, Minnesota.
In 1844, the Gingras family was one of four fur trading families in St. Joseph. The fur trade dwelling-store was begun that year, and a separate dwelling was constructed soon afterwards.
St. Joseph was the ideal location for Gingras’s business. He served as a middle man for Metis buffalo hunters who produced buffalo robes and pemmican which they traded for manufactured goods, tobacco, liquor and grocery staples. Gingras acquired these items at St. Paul or Mendota, Minnesota. The robes were shipped east, and the pemmican was traded to Hudson’s Bay and other fur trade companies for consumption by their employees.
Though he was a free trader, Gingras also worked under contract for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Twice he lost his trading license due to smuggling. After the 1849 Sayer trail which established free trade relations between Canada and the United States, Gingras traded directly at Fort Garry. By 1860, he and his son François Gingras had established a trading post near Fort Garry.
By 1851, Gingras was very influential in St. Joseph and Pembina. He was elected to represent the region in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature, along with his business associates Joseph Rolette Junior and Norman W. Kittson. They traveled to St. Paul by snowshoe and dogsled for the winter sessions of 1852 and 1853.
In 1851 Gingras joined the Red River and Pembina Outfit. It was a coalition of free traders organized by Norman Kittson.
Gingras owned trading stores and dwellings at Pembina and St. Joseph and near the Souris River. His personal assets were worth $60,000, according to the Dakota Territory census of 1861. Gingras’s trading relations grew through the years. In 1862 he traded weasel pelts from Fort Garry for Mandan ponies at Fort Berthold (on the Missouri River in western Dakota Territory).
Gingras made $15,000 in 1863. Along with Pascal Breland, he led a Red River cart train from Winnipeg to St. Paul.
In 1864 Reverend J.A. Gilfillan traveled with Gingras’s Red River cart brigade from Winnipeg to Fort Abercrombie. He observed the following:
“I made arrangements with Antoine Gingras, a prominent half-breed trader....He was a large, fat, jolly man. I remember he was continually singing one song on the way, the tune of which I remember perfectly well to this day.....as well as some of the words....though they were in French, of which I did not understand a word....Hearing it so incessantly, as I generally traveled with Mr. Gingras, that song, to use a modern expression, “got on my nerves.”
In 1872 and 1873 the Northern Boundary Survey parties purchased pork and other supplies from the Gingras store in St. Joseph. With the disappearance of the buffalo herds, pemmican was no longer available, so Gingras raised pigs as a supply of meat for his trading operations.
In 1873 Gingras helped charter the city of Winnipeg, and served on the Winnipeg Board of Trade.
Gingras died on September 28, 1877. His will named Bishop Tache as guardian for his children who had not yet reached the age of 21. Throughout his life, Gingras was noted for his generous contributions to St. Boniface and the Catholic churches at St. Joseph and Pembina.