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Where is Pembina?


In 1816, Congress passed a law that stated, “Licenses to trade with the Indians within the territorial limits of the United States shall not be granted to any but citizens of the United States unless by express direction of the President.”

The law didn’t apply to the traders in the north and eastern sections of what is now North Dakota, because at that time, it belonged to Great Britain. Two years later, however, England signed a treaty with the United States that determined that all land south of the 49th parallel would now be American property. The question was... what, exactly, now belonged to the States?

The government put up a quarter of a million dollars for what was called the Yellowstone Expedition, which was planned out by Secretary of War John Calhoun. His stated purpose was “to extend and protect our trade with the Indians.” They would also be finding the 49th parallel and trying out a steamboat route that could provide “safe and easy communication to China.”

Colonel Henry Atkinson was put in charge of 800 to 1,000 soldiers accompanying the expedition, and Major Stephen H. Long headed the scientific corps. It was the first time steamboats were used on the Missouri River, and it turned out to be a mistake; navigating steamers up the Big Muddy was far more difficult than using keelboats. Of the five steamboats they used, only one – the Western Engineer – was designed for shallow water, and they didn’t launch from St. Louis until June 21st, 1819, after the spring runoff was gone and the river was low.

Only three of the steamers successfully maneuvered upriver. Even the Western Engineer labored to reach a top speed of 3 miles an hour, and sandbars were a constant problem. Enormous amounts of wood were needed for fuel, and the river’s muddy water clogged the boilers. It was said, “A man can grow corn in his stomach if he drinks Missouri water.”

The expedition made it only as far as Council Bluffs, where they had to stop and prepare for winter. The government severely cut appropriations, and the expedition was ultimately considered a failure. Major Long went back East, calling the plains “The Great American Desert.”

Four years later, however, Major Long headed north again to find the 49th parallel. This time he came by way of the Minnesota River Valley with a small infantry escort. The expedition was treated to a dog feast by the Wahpeton Dakotas, but further north, a different band was not as welcoming. Long had to push his men with forced marches that covered almost 25 miles a day.

It was on this date in 1823 that Long and his men reached Pembina. The village was a thriving fur-trading post at that time, but the men found it nearly deserted. James Calhoun, who had planned the earlier expedition, charted the stars that night, determined the 49th parallel, and erected an oak post with G.B. engraved on the north side and U.S. on the south side.

Pembina, which everybody assumed might still be British, was instead in the United States.

The following day, the townspeople returned with 115 Red River carts, each loaded with about 800 pounds of buffalo meat and hides. When Long informed them they weren’t British any longer, they were somewhat unimpressed. The Hudson’s Bay Company had conducted their own survey earlier in the year and came to the same conclusion. Pembina citizens wanting to remain British had already left town, and mixed-blood Me’tis families had moved in to take their place.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm