City of Pembina, ND

Oldest Settlement in the Dakota Territories

History and Links

Welcome to the City of Firsts!

The first settlement in the Dakota Territories; the first trade link between the Mississippi River at Minneapolis/St. Paul and Hudson Bay at Winnipeg, Manitoba. Home of Oxcart Trails and the Metis Culture, we are the entry to the Rendezvous Region. We are a community steeped in history and growing toward the future.

The first people in the Pembina (pronounced PEM-bih-naw) were Native peoples of the Chippewa bands.  They lived along the river as hunters and ate the high bush cranberries("anepeminan sipi") for which the river and community are named.  Pembina was the site where, for over two centuries, the native people and half-breed hunters would assemble before starting to the prairies for the buffalo hunts.

The land on which the town lay was claimed first by the French as a result of explorations of the French-Canadian Pierre de la Verendrye and his sons, who explored "Dakota Territory" as early as 1738.  Verendrye is credited with naming our Red River; he writes in his journal that the Indians, in 1729, told him of a "Riviere Rouge" (Red River). 

Pembina was known to be an inhabited place as early as 1780.  European fur traders, primarily French, intermarried with the natives and formed a community of peoples known as the Metis.  All this occurred in the days when John Adams was serving as second president of the United States, and Dakota Territory would not be under United States jurisdiction for several years to come. 

Pembina's first firm date in history, however, was in 1797, when a Northwest Company fur trader named Charles Baptiste Chaboillez established the first trading post.  Named Fort Panbian, it was located on the west side of the Red River, near the mouth of the Pembina River.  The Hudson Bay Company built a new post at Pembina in 1803, which was in use until 1823.  In 1812, the first permanent settlement was made here by Scottish and Irish settllers sent by Lord Selkirk under the leadership of Miles MacDonnel.  These settlers erected Fort Daer on the former site of Chaboillez's post.

One of the families among the Selkirk settlers was that of Alexander Murray.  In later years, his granddaughter, Isabella (daughter of Donald Murray) married Charles Cavileer. 

The Selkirk settlers had asked for clergymen; but it was not until 1818 that two priests, Fathers Norbert Provencher and Severe Dumoulin arrived.  They had been sent by Bishop Plessis of Quebec, whose diocesan boundaries were the Great Lakes, the North Pole and the Pacific Ocean.  Fr. Dumoulin was instrumental in building the settlement's first church and school. 

In 1818, under a provision of the Treaty of Ghent, the U.S. boundary was established at the 49th parallel.  The Hudson Bay Company continued to assume that Pembina stood on British soil, but in 1823 the first international boundary marker west of the Great Lakes was placed near Pembina by Major Stephen Long of the U.S. Army.  The Hudson Bay Comapany withdrew to the site of Fort Gary (now Winnipeg), taking their church and settlers with them.  But until 1870 the boundary had little meaning, and Pembina enjoyed its existence as a more or less international community so far as trade and travel were concerned. 

A clergyman did not again return to Pembina until June 1, 1848, when Father Anthony Belcourt came and served the district until 1859.  He rebuilt the church and school from the ruins of those built in 1818 and traveled with the Indians while they were on the hunt. 

From the first days of its existence until long after the coming of the white man, the area abounded in wild game of many kinds, and Pembina soon became the center of a vast trade territory whose main object of commerce was furs taken mainly from the Dakota side of the Red River and from western Canada.  The trade first developed throught the use of the Red River carts. The first such cart, the first wheeled vehicle in the entire Great Plains area was built in 1800 by fur trade post operator Henry Alexander here in Pembina. These carts, small two-wheeled affairs made entirely of wood and held together with wooden pins, were drawn by a single ox or pony hitched between a set of shafts.  They wound their weary way up and down the Red River Valley from Pembina to St. Paul over the Old Pembina Trail - a distance of 471 miles.  From the inauguration of the first regular cart service in 1843, with a half dozen carts, the volume of trade grew steadily year by year.  The cart traffic increased until it reached its peak in 1869 when 2,500 screeching carts were required to transport the furs south to St. Paul and return with trade goods, implements, and general merchandise.  It was1859 before the first steamboat came up the Red River of the North and in 1878 the first railroad was completed into St. Vincent, Minnesota.  These eventually replaced the oxcart trails altogether. 

Charles Cavileer (who married Isabella Murray) was born at Springfield, Ohio and learned the saddler's trade at Mount Carmel, Illinois, where he became a friend of a young lawyer there--Abraham Lincoln.  In 1845, he established the first harness shop in what is now the state of Minnesota at St. Paul.  He arrived in Pembina in 1851, having been appointed as the first Customs Collector at the International Port of Entry, and served in this capacity  until his resignation in 1855.  He served as Pembina's first postmaster from April 28, 1865, until 1884.  In this he was succeeded by his son who served until 1917, making a total of 52 years that the mail was handled by this family.  Pembina has since been designated as the headquarters port of the Pembina Customs Collection district, which extends from Baudette, MN to Montana.  Customs and brokerage services have been long established major enterprises in Pembina.

When Lincoln was president in 1863, volunteer troops under the command of Major E.A. Hatch were sent to Pembina.  They extablished temporary quarters on the north side of the Pembina River near its mouth.  This post was abandoned in 1864.  In 1871, the first established permanent U.S. Army fort was built just south of Pembina's present location, near the present airport on the banks of the Red River.  It housed approximately 1,100 men.  This fort was abondoned on August 15, 1895 and sold at auction in 1902. 

The first school building in North Dakota, under the public school system, was built in Pembina and used from 1875 to 1881.  The building is now owned by the city and leased to the local Masonic Lodge.  The original blackboards may still be seen in it.  Pembina is also the site of the first Masonic Lodge in the Northwest, organized in this community in 1863-64 by several members of Major Hatch's Battalion temporarily stationed here. 

  This page is primarily taken from the Pembina brochure compiled and written by Bernard Steffen, with additional information from Peg Moll.


Attached Document or FileMore on Verendrye Click here for more information on explorer Verendrye
Attached Document or FileMore on the Metis Click here to discover more about the native peoples of North Dakota, and Lewis and Clark
Attached Document or FileMetis Culture More on the Metis Culture by Canadian Historians.
Attached Document or FileHistory of the Red River Valley by RiverWatch. See this link to find the names of many of the early explorers/settlers of the entire Red River Valley.
Attached Document or FileMore on the Ox Cart Trails Click here for more on the Ox Cart Trails from Pembina to Minnesota.
Attached Document or FilePembina State Museum Pembina State Museum