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A Survey of St. Mary’s River from the Falls to Lake George

Henry W. Bayfield

An Ancient Gathering Place
The St. Marys River has been a focal point of human activity on the Great Lakes for thousands of years.

This stretch of river, between the modern cities of Sault St. Marie in Michigan and Ontario, once produced whitefish in remarkable abundance and supported Ojibwe communities as early as 2,500 BC. The river is the only water route between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes, and thus spawned French, English, and American fur-trading posts and military forts from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Today, it is the site of the world’s busiest canal—the famous Soo Locks, which each year allow some 10,000 freighters to bypass the river’s rapids and twenty-foot waterfalls.

When this map was drawn in 1828, the fur-trading era was drawing to a close. Fort Brady had been built just four years earlier. The fort was part of a U.S. effort to exert authority in territory gained from Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but which had remained under British influence. The presence of Fort Brady became a major factor in the early growth of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

The canal shown on the U.S. side of the river was used by canoes and small vessels to bypass the rapids and falls. A portage road was used on the Canadian side. As early as 1798, British fur traders had built a canal that carried freight canoes and bateaux.

This map was drawn by H.W. Bayfield, then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy of Great Britain. Bayfield went on to spend forty years charting most of the Great Lakes shores, sleeping outdoors in extreme heat and cold, working six and seven days per week. He rose to the rank of Admiral, and he is today remembered in the names of a peninsula, town and county in Wisconsin and a town, river, and research institute in Canada.