From humble beginnings as the son of a French voyageur and a Chippewa mother, Antoine Gingras went on to become the wealthiest man of his time and one of the most influential in what is now North Dakota.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in 1821, Antoine Gingras left the Lake Superior region as a young man to work a short stint for the Hudson Bay Company. He then opened a fur trading post in 1843 in St. Joseph, of present-day northeast North Dakota. For 30 years Gingras specialized in trade with the Métis whose economy was based primarily on the production of pemmican and buffalo hides. Pemmican was a cake made of dried meat, berries and fat, which, with its high calorie count, was a staple to cold weather northern Canada explorers. Gingras sold pemmican to the Hudson Bay Company. He also shipped buffalo hides, which were popular in the eastern U.S. as carriage robes and floor coverings. The goods were shipped by his Red River cart line operated between St. Joseph and St. Paul, and a line between Winnipeg and St. Paul via Fort Abercrombie. In addition to his trading post at St. Joseph, Gingras also built a chain of trading outposts as far west as the Souris River.
Yet the northern plains were undergoing a rapid transformation. By 1873 the Metis had left St. Joseph and were replaced by Icelandic immigrants who renamed it Walhalla. But Gingras adapted to the changing times. He remained in the region, turning his trading post into a general store, replacing the vanished buffalo with pork and selling assorted sundries.
Successful? Indeed. The 1861 census listed his personal assets as $60,000, making him the richest man in the area. Yet Antoine Gingras was also noted for his generosity. Before his death on this date in 1877, he gave liberally to rebuild St. Boniface Basilica in Manitoba as well as the Catholic churches at St. Joseph and Pembina. Gingras also worked closely with Father Belcourt in co-founding the town of St Joseph. Perhaps his generous contributions to the Church ensured wealth in the next as well.
Dakota Datebook by Richard Campbell
Collection of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol XII. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, December 1908
The Life of Antoine Gingras (1821-1877). State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Heidenreich, L.,Virginia. The Fur Trade in North Dakota. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota. 1990