In Pembina, history is the attraction

Pembina, N.D., has accumulated a cast of characters and logged a number of firsts that belie its current existence as a town of 700 people.

Pembina postcard 3.jpg
A historic postcard touts Pembina's attractions. (Photo from State Historical Society of North Dakota Digital Horizons)
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PEMBINA, N.D. – History is the attraction in Pembina and there is a lot of it – more than 200 years of it.

A look at the map of North America shows why this is so.

Pembina is close to the center of the continent, and a direct line drawn from northeast to southwest would pass between two of the continent’s great watersheds, one feeding Hudson’s Bay and the other the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. Plus, it’s near the source of the continent’s greatest river, the Mississippi, flowing southward to the Gulf of Mexico.

Draw an international boundary across this expanse and history – dramatic, sweeping history – becomes inevitable in Pembina.

A role in ND

Pembina’s role in the development of North Dakota is pretty well understood. Elwyn Robinson devoted a lot of space to it in his “History of North Dakota.” Its role in the history of Manitoba and Canada’s Northwest is equally large and perhaps even more dramatic. The town played a part in world history, too.


In the process Pembina has accumulated a cast of characters and logged a number of firsts that belie its current existence as a town of 600 people.

Yet history runs deep in Pembina, and along the same currents that developed here a quarter of a millennium ago – trade, border policies, transportation, military defense.

And floods.

Location is always important in a town’s development. Pembina is at the confluence of the Pembina and Red rivers, so it was always accessible by water. That led to opportunity for traders. The first known to have been at Pembina was Charles Chaboillez, an agent of the Northwest Fur Company, who spent the winter of 1797 in Pembina – leaving in April 1798, when the rivers flooded.

Flooding has had a very large role in Pembina’s history.

Although Chaboillez is the first person known to have settled at Pembina, others of European heritage may have arrived earlier. Certainly, the spot was important to indigenous people who moved freely across the center of the continent. Chaboillez left a permanent record, in the form of a journal. His establishment was on the south bank of the Pembina River, in an angle formed by the stream’s approach to the larger Red River. It’s a park today.

Within a decade, the location had become a kind of entrepot, gathering goods from the center of the continent and shipping them south and east, to St. Paul, New York, Montreal and London.

The Hudson Bay Company was at Pembina by 1803, on the opposite bank of the Pembina River, where downtown Pembina is now. In 1812, the Earl of Selkirk launched a colony at a place he called Fort Daer, on the same site that Chaboillez had used. The name is now used as a park and boat landing.


Six years later, Catholic priests arrived to establish a church just north of the Selkirk colony. A stone cairn marks the spot, just south of the international boundary. In the 1990s, a concerted effort was made to locate and mark the graves there. Today, there’s a grassy area with crosses – though the orientation is different. The Church of the Assumption faced the river; the historic site faces the interstate highway.

Transportation is another of the themes of Pembina’s history. The Red River ox cart was developed there, and became the means of moving goods from the interior of the continent to St. Paul. Today’s interstate highway serves the same purpose; the Port of Pembina is among the busiest ports of entry along the U.S./Canadian border.

East of the church site – now called after one of its priests, Severe Dumoulin – is a deteriorating paved road that leads from Pembina north toward the long-abandoned site of Huron City. This is the northern end of U.S. Highway 81, once called “The Meridian Highway,” and later a part of the Pan-American Highway.

Pembina commerce

Steamboats played a role at Pembina, too, and so did the railroad, but unique circumstances have made Pembina a major player in the manufacture of passenger buses. Motor Coach Industries is a Canadian company, now a subsidiary of New Flyer. Bus frames are manufactured in Winnipeg and shipped to Pembina, where wheels, motors and seats are added – meeting the requirement that buses subsidized by the American government are “made in America.”

Regulations like this have had an outsized influence on Pembina’s history, both because some people took advantage of them and some tried to avoid them. Pembina has produced both types.

At one time, the town was a smuggler’s haven, as trappers sought to avoid the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly – a desire abetted by the company’s habit of doing business in English when many of its customers did business in French or indigenous languages.

Partly from this circumstance, a sense of cultural cohesion developed among the mixed-blood people of Pembina, the Metis. One of them became the mother of Louis Riel, known as the “Father of Manitoba” and an important figure in Canadian history.

George Anthony Belcourt came west from Quebec to serve the mission at Pembina. He was a Metis partisan who recorded the annual buffalo hunts that spread out across North Dakota from Pembina.


In American history, the most celebrated of these figures is Joe Rolette, called “Jolly Joe,” who arrived in Pembina in 1841. He imagined the ox carts, and became a delegate to the legislature that organized the state of Minnesota. He’s remembered for “pigeonholing” the bill that would have moved the state capitol away from St. Paul – a development that would have been a blow to his business interests in Pembina.

Norman Kittson was involved in developing the carts as well. He took advantage of a new provision in British law that allowed goods to be shipped under bond across U.S. territory – a move that destroyed the Hudson Bay Company’s earlier monopoly.

Kittson’s career as a transportation entrepreneur flourished. He was instrumental in the steamboat trade and helped James J. Hill develop the Great Northern Railway.

All of this occurred after the U.S. military determined definitively that Pembina was south of the 49th parallel and therefore in U.S. territory. Maj. Stephen H. Long’s expedition of 1823 marked the boundary, the most important achievement of the expedition politically. His mission was much broader however; a kind of who’s who of American scientists accompanied the expedition recording new species of birds, insects and clams as well as details of geography, such as the course of the rivers and the high land that would be free of flooding.

Pembina played a part in the so-called Sioux War of 1863, as well – the one that led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. An army unit that’s become known as Hatch’s Battalion, after its commander, bivouacked at Pembina in 1863, managing to burn down the mission church and to lose 27 soldiers without a single combat death. One of them is buried in the Pembina city park, under a stone marked “Unknown Soldier.”

Hatch’s Battalion also took into custody two Indian leaders, Medicine Bottle and Little Six, also known as Shakopee. Tradition holds that they were betrayed; history records that they were hanged for their part in the Sioux War.

From 1870 to 1895, the Army maintained a fort at Pembina. When it was decommissioned, buildings were dispersed across northeastern North Dakota.

Perhaps the most curious episode in Pembina’s military history occurred in 1941. Aircraft manufactured in California were flown to Pembina, then towed across the international border by teams of horses. This skirted provision of the Neutrality Act, which prohibited American arms sales to belligerents. When the U.S. entered World War II, that trade ended.

Pembina was chosen because it had an airport capable of handling large aircraft. Northwest Airlines had built it as a port of entry for its international flights, which included hops from Minneapolis to Winnipeg with stops at Fargo, Grand Forks and Pembina.

Broadcasters took advantage of Pembina’s location, too, establishing a television station to broadcast into Canada – competing with that country’s publicly owned system.

These episodes hint at the opportunity that Pembina offered entrepreneurs.

North Dakota firsts

A number of firsts for North Dakota occurred in the town: the first public school, the first practicing physician, the first land claim, the first homestead.

Pembina acquired a diverse population; the Metis people were most numerous through much of the town’s history. The Selkirk colonists were Scots. Icelanders arrived in 1885. They built St. John’s Lutheran Church, near where Chaboillez had his trading post. It’s the second oldest Icelandic structure in North America.

But the Icelanders, like others before them, moved away from the river. In 1937, their church became the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. John. The Fort Pembina Historical Society is working to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Remodeled to include the onion dome characteristic of orthodox churches, St. John’s is filled with religious icons. Services are still held here once each year.

Even the county government deserted Pembina for higher ground. Pembina had been the seat of government for a huge area, stretching as far west as the White Earth River, about 40 miles east of today’s Montana border. The county shrank over the years. In 1910, voters moved the county seat to Cavalier, which is named for Pembina’s first postmaster.

Today much of Pembina’s history is accessible at the Pembina State Historical Museum, which has exhibit space and a gift shop. There’s an observation tower seven floors above the exhibit space. On a clear day you can see not quite forever, but the rim of the Red River Valley, the small towns of southern Manitoba and the border station, the river, the highway – all of the arteries of Pembina’s history.

Characters from the town’s history are remembered in other ways: Four North Dakota counties and several cities are named for people who are part of Pembina’s past. Minnesota has a county named for Kittson. A street in Grand Forks is named for him, as well. Father Belcourt is recalled in the city of Belcourt, headquarters of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, many of them descendants of the Metis people of Pembina. Riel’s legacy is marked in with statues and place names in Winnipeg.

Hetty Walker

One of the characters that Pembina has accumulated agreed to be our guide on a recent trip to Pembina. Hetty Walker was mayor for 10 years and now serves on the county commission. She showed us the historic sites and shared her lore about Pembina.

She lives in one of Pembina’s oldest surviving buildings, a house once owned by Joe Rolette. Walker doesn’t know if he built the house or if he ever lived in it.

“He may have won it in a poker game,” she said.

The house later became the home of the first medical doctor to practice in North Dakota. He was the grandfather of Walker’s husband, Charles. Today. The home contains an innovation that wouldn’t have occurred to Joe Rolette. A glass plate, lit from behind, advertises “Night office,” indicating that the sick were welcomed there after the doctor’s regular office hours.

Walker was Pembina’s mayor during the 1997 flood. Later she was elected to the Pembina County Commission, where her husband had served. Last year, Gov. Doug Burgum named her to an international task force seeking ways to reduce flooding on the Pembina River.

Walker is coy about her age – but she remembers fleeing her childhood home in the Netherlands as World War II began.

A visit to Pembina makes a pleasant day trip from Grand Forks. It’s straight up Interstate 29. The drive takes a bit more than an hour.

Watch for shiny new buses in the southbound lanes. That’s how MCI delivers its products to cities across the United States. Three quarters of America’s municipal transit buses are manufactured there. Buses coming off the assembly line on the day we visited were heading for Austin, Texas.

The state museum is the place to start a visit to Pembina. Staff there can direct travelers to other historic sites.

Other noteworthy places are Fort Daer Park, which has a number of historic markers. St. John’s Church is nearby. So is the city golf course, named for Judson LaMoure, another of Pembina’s characters. The club house is open to the public and offers lunch.

Fort Daer is still a lively place more than two centuries after Charles Chaboillez opened his trading post there. Citizens of Pembina celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks launched from the river dikes.

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