As genealogy becomes the national pastime, our historical society has the pleasure of meeting and assisting more and more descendants of those individuals who played a role in the early history of Morrison County. Last month, for instance, we were contacted by descendants of Peter Roy, a well-known mixed-blooded Ojibway who lived in Little Falls and was a territorial and state legislator for this district. Last summer we were contacted by descendants of brothers William and Allan Morrison, both for whom the county was named. While much has been written about Allan (who was a long-time resident of Old Crow Wing), little has been compiled regarding his older and more famous brother, William.
William Morrison was born March 7, 1785, near Montreal, Canada, the son of Allan Morrison, Sr., and Jane Wadin (whose father, a Swiss fur trader, was murdered in the northwest by Peter Pond in 1781-82). At the young age of 16, William entered the fur trade – with his father’s permission – by signing a contract on January 27, 1802, as a clerk for five years with the XY Company (competitors of the Northwest Company of Grand Portage fame). By the fall of 1802, William had reached Leech Lake, in the “Fond du Lac department” (an area roughly comprising the northern half of Minnesota) where he spent the winter at a post on the headwaters of the Crow Wing River.
The following winter of 1803-04 saw William ascending the Mississippi River to Lake Itasca while enroute to a post at Rice Lake – thus making him the first white person to ever visit Lake Itasca, then known as Elk Lake or Lac La Biche. This visit to the source of the mighty Mississippi River would later lead to his belated claim as the discoverer of Lake Itasca. After years of brutal competition, the XY Company merged into the Northwest Company in 1805. William continued to work for the latter firm, being listed that year as a clerk and summer man in the Fond du Lac department at Leech Lake. In 1811-12, William again visited Lake Itasca while enroute to a post on the Rice River. The Northwest Company credited him with wages of 1,200 livres yearly from 1812 to 1816 as a clerk in the Fond du Lac department.
Due to the events surrounding the War of 1812, John Jacob Astor was able to acquire one-half interest in the Fond du Lac department, which was solely in U. S. territory. The Northwest Company, a Canadian firm, operated this department under the name of the “Southwest Company”. When Congress banned all foreigners from trading on U. S. soil in April, 1816, Astor was able to form his American Fur Company, and bought out the Northwest Company operations of Fond du Lac in 1817. Meanwhile, William Morrison was caught up in the on-going war between Lord Selkirk’s Red River Colony (backed by the Hudson’s Bay Company) and the Northwest Company. Selkirk’s agents arrested Morrison on September 9, 1816, at Sandy Lake, one of the main posts of the Fond du Lac department. Morrison was taken as a prisoner to Fort William, and later to Sault Ste. Marie, where Morrison escaped his captors and appealed to the U. S. Army for the injustice of his arrest on a British warrant served on American soil. Around this time, William took out his U. S. citizenship papers, and he was naturalized on July 19, 1820.
With Astor now in control of the Fond du Lac trade, William Morrison was put in charge of that department for the American Fur Company (AFC) in 1817. He was listed as “trader” on the AFC book for 1819 with a wage of $1,000 per year. On November 24, 1821, he signed a contract with the AFC as superintendent of the department for four years with $1,400 for yearly wages. Records in the National Archives show that Morrison operated the Fond du Lac department with the AFC from 1822 to 1826 on halves, meaning half of the department’s operation was at his expense and risk. During this time, Morrison developed a reputation as “ruthless” against any independent American traders because he managed to starve any competition out of existence. He reestablished a string of posts along the Canadian border, thereby entering into direct competition against the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company stated that Morrison was “one of the best and most experienced” traders in the region.
William Morrison retired from the American Fur Company in 1826 and returned to Berthier, Canada, where he died in August, 1866, as a Canadian citizen. He was married no less than four times (fathering 16 children). His first wife, Shaughunomonee, and second wife, Meshepeshequay, were both Ojibway Indians. His third wife was Anne Roussain, daughter of Eustache Roussain (Morrison’s associate and clerk), and one of their sons accompanied Fremont on his great expedition west. His fourth wife was Elizabeth Ann Kittson, a sister of Norman W. Kittson for whom Kittson County was named. Among the Ojibway Indians, William Morrison was known as the “Little Englishman”.
On January 16, 1856, William wrote a letter to his brother Allan (who remained in the Minnesota fur trade) detailing his 1804 and 1811-12 visits to Lake Itasca before Schoolcraft made his so-called discover in 1832. Allan sent this letter to Governor Ramsey, who gave it wide publicity, thus influencing the Legislature when Morrison County was named and organized on February 25, 1856, in honor of these brothers.
William Morrison probably never lived within our county – most of his trading posts were north of Crow Wing – but his mark upon the history of the fur trade in Minnesota is a deep one.
by Bruce Mellor
Copyright 1994, Morrison County Historical Society