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William — and such revel was only the foam ("bees'
wings" one journal calls it) of a life that was all
strong wine. Outside the gates were the lees and
the dregs of the life — riot and lust.

It was part of the Nor' Westers' policy to encourage
a spirit of bluster and brag and bullying among the

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servants. Bluff was all very well, but the partners
saw to it that the men could back up their bluflf with
brawn. Wrestling matches and boxing bouts were
encouraged between the Scotch clerks and the French
voyageurs. These took place inside the walls. Half
the partners were Catholics and all the voyageurs.
The Catholic Church did not purpose losing these
souls to Satan. Not for nothing had the good
bishop of Quebec listened to confessions from re-
turned voyageurs. When he picked out a chaplain
for Fort William, he saw to it that the man chosen
should be a man of herculean frame and herculean
strength. The good father was welcomed to the
Fort, given ample quarters and high precedence at
table, but the Catholic partners weren't quite sure
how he would regard those prize fights.

"Don't go out of your apartments to-morrow!
There's to be a rigale! There may be fighting,"
they warned him.

"I thank you," says the priest politely, no doubt
recalling the secrets of many a confessional.

From his window, he watched the rough crowds
gather next day in the courtyard. As he saw the two
champions strip to their waists, he doubtless guessed
this was to be no chance fight. Hair tied back, at
a signal, fists and feet, they were at it. The priest
grew cold and then hot. He began to strip off gar-

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merits that might hinder his own shoulder swing,
and clad in fighting gear burst from his room and
marched straight to the center of the crowd. No
one had time to ask his intentions. He was a big
man and the crowd stood aside. Shooting out both
his long arms, the priest grabbed each fighter by the
neck, knocked their heads together like two billiard
balls, and demanded: "Heh? That's the way you
buUies fight, is it? Eh? Bien! You don't know
anything about it! You're a lot of old hens! Here's
the way to do it! I'll show you how," and with
a final bang of cracking skulls, he spun them sprawl-
ing across the courtyard half stunned. " If you have
any better than these two, send them along! I'll
continue the lessons," he proffered;' and for lack of
learners withdrew to his own apartments.

It is now necessary to examine how the Nor'-
Westers blocked out their Northern Empire over
which they kept more jealous guard than Bluebeard
over his wives.

Take a map of North America. Up on Hudson
Bay is the English Company with forts around it
like a wheel. Of this circle, the bay is the hub. East-
ward are the forts in Labrador; southward, Abbittibbi
toward Quebec; westward, three lines of fur posts
extending inland like spokes of the wheel — ist,

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The Conquest of the GrecU Northwest

up Albany River toward the modem Manitoba —
(Miney water; toba, prairie, that is, country of the
prairie water), along the valley of Red River to
modem Minnesota (Mine, water; soiar, sky-colored,
that is, country of the sky-colored water), and up the
winding Assiniboine (country of the stone boilers
where the Assiniboines cooked food on hot stones)
to the central prairie; 2nd, up Hayes River from
York (Nelson) to the Saskatchewan as far as the
Rockies; 3rd, up Churchill River from Churchill
Fort to Portage de Traite and Isle a la Crosse and
far-famed Athabasca and MacKenzie River.

The wheel that has for its hub Hudson Bay, has
practically only five spokes — two, eastward; three,
westward. Between these unoccupied spokes are
areas the size of a Germany or a Russia or a France.
Into these the Nor'Westers thrust themselves like a
wedge.

Look at the map again. This time the point of
radiation is Fort William on Lake Superior. Be-
tween Lake Superior and Hudson Bay northward
for seven hundred miles is not a post. Into these
dark, impenetrable, river-swamped forests the Nor'-
Westers send their men. Dangerous work, this!
For some unaccountable reason the Indians of these
shadowy forests are more treacherous and gloomy
than the tribes of the plains. Umfreville passes

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through their territory when he tries to find a trail
westward not on American soil. Shaw, the partner,
and Long, the clerk, are sent in to drum up trade.
The field is entered one hundred miles east of Fort
William at Pays Plat, where canoes push north to
Lake Nipigon. First, a fort is built on Lake Nipi-
gon named Duncan, after Duncan Cameron. Long
stays here in charge. Shaw, as partner, pushes on
to a house half way down to Albany on Hudson Bay.
The Indians call Mr. Shaw "the Cat" from his
feeble voice. A third hand, Jacque Santeron, is sent
eastward to the Temiscamingue Lakes south of
Abbittibbi. The three Nor'Westers have, as it
were, thrust themselves like a wedge between the
spokes of the Hudson's Bay Company from Moose
River to Albany; but a thousand perils assail them,
a thousand treacheries. First, the Frenchman San-
teron loses courage, sends a farewell written on a
birch-bark letter down to Long at Nipigon, and
deserts bag and baggage, provisions and peltries,
to the Hudson's Bay at Abbittibbi. Determined to
prevent such loss. Long tears across country to
Temiscamingue only to find Santeron's cabins aban-
doned and these words in charcoal on bark: ^^ Fare-
well my dear comrade; I go with daring and expect
a good price for my furs with the English. With
the best heart, I wish you luck. My regards to my

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partners. Good-hyy But desertion and theft of
Company goods are not the worst of it. Down at
Nipigon, Long hears that the Indians of the North
are going to murder "the Cat" — Mr. Shaw — ^prob-
ably to carry the plundered furs down to the Hud-
son's Bay. Long rushes to the rescue to find Shaw
cooped up in the cabin surrounded by a tribe of
frenzied Indians whom he tried in vain to pacify
with Uquor.

"My God! But I'm glad to see you," shouts Shaw,
drawing Long inside the door. For a week the In-
dians had tried to set fire to his house by shooting
arrows of lighted punk wood at it, but every window
and crevice of the cabin bristles with loaded muskets
— ^twenty-eight of them — that keep the assailants
back. The Indians demand more liquor. Shaw
gives it to them on condition they go away, but at
daybreak back they come for more, naked and
daubed with war paint from head to foot.

"More," shouts Long. "Come on then," throw-
ing the doors wide open and rolling across the en-
trance a keg of gunpowder from which he knocks
the lid. " One step across the door and we all perish
together," cocking his pistol straight for the powder.
Pell-mell ofi^ dashed the terrified Indians paddling
canoes as fast as drunken arms could work the
blades. Another time, Long discovers that his

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Indian guide is only awaiting a favorable chance to
assassinate him. A bottle of drugged liquor puts
the assassin to sleep and another Indian with a
tomahawk prevents him ever awakening. When
Long retires, Duncan Cameron, son of a royalist in
the American Revolution, comes to command Nipi-
gon. Cameron pushes on up stream past Nipigon
two hundred miles to the English post Osnaburg,
where the Hudson's Bay man, Goodwin, welcomes
the Nor'Wester — ^a rival is safer indoors than out,
especially when he has no visible goods; but Cameron
manages to speak with the Indians during his visit
and when he departs they follow him back to the
place where he has cached his goods and the trade
takes place. Henceforth traders of the Nipigon do
not stay in the fort on the lake but range the woods
drununing up trade from Abbittibbi east, to Albany
west.

Meanwhile, what are the brigades of Fort William
doing?. Fifteen days at the most it takes for the
"goers and comers" of Montreal to exchange their
cargo of provisions for the Northerners' cargo of
furs. When the big canoes head back for the East
at the end of July, the Montreal partners go with
them. Smaller canoes, easier to portage and in
more numerous brigades, set out for the West with
the wintering partners. These are "the wolves of

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the North" — the MacKenzies and Henry and Har-
mon and Fraser and a dozen others — each to com-
mand a wilderness emph-e the size of a France or a
Germany.

By the new route of Kaministiquia, it is only a
day's paddling beyond the first long portage to the
height of land. Beyond this, the canoes launch
down stream, gliding with the current and "somer-
seting" or shooting the smaller rapids, portaging
when the fall of water is too turbulent. Wherever
there is a long portage there stands a half-way house
— ^wayside inn of logs and thatch roof where some
stray Frenchman sells fresh food to the voyageurs —
a great nuisance to the impatient partners, for the
men pause to parley. First of the labyrinthine
waterways that weave a chain between Lake Superior
and Lake Winnipeg is Rainy River, flowing north-
west to Lake of the Woods, or Lake of the Isles as the
French called it. On Rainy River are the ruins of
an old fort of the French traders. Here the North-
bound brigades often meet the Athabasca canoes
which can seldom come down all the way as far as
Fort William and go back to Athabasca before
winter. Again an exchange of goods takes place,
and the Athabasca men head back with the North-
bound brigades.

Wherever the rivers widen to lakes as at Lake

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Francis and Lake of the Woods, the canoes swing
abreast, lash gun'els together by thwarting paddles,
hoist sails and drift lazily forward on the forest-
shadowed, placid waters, crews smoking, or singing
with weird cadences amid the loneliness of these
silent places. In this part of the voyage, while all
the brigades were still together, there were often as
many as five hundred canoes spread out on the lakes
like birds on wing. Faces now bronzed almost to
the shade of woodland creatures, splashes of color
here and there where the voyageurs' silk scarf has
not faded, blue sky above with a fleece of clouds,
blue sky below with a fleece of clouds and all that
marked where sky began and reflection ended the
margin of the painted shores etched amber in the
brown waters — the picture was one that will never
again be witnessed in wilderness life. Sometimes
as the canoes cut a silver trail across the lakes,
leather tepee tops would emerge from the morning
mists telling of some Cree hunters waiting with their
furs, and one of the partners would go ashore to
trade, the crew camping for a day. Every such halt
was the chance for repairing canoes. Camp fires
sprang up as if by magic. Canoes lay keel up
and tar was applied to all sprung seams, while the
other boatmen got lines out and laid up supplies of
fresh fish. That night the lake would twinkle with

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

a hundred fires and an army of voyageurs lie listen-
ing to the wind in the pines. The next day, a pace
would be set to make up for lost time.

Lake of the Woods empties into Winnipeg River
through a granite gap of cataract. The brigades
skirted the falls across the Portage of the Rat (modem
Rat Portage) and launched down the swift current of
Winnipeg River that descends northward to Lake
Winnipeg in such a series of leaps and waterfalls
it was long known among the voyageurs as White or
Foaming River. Where the river entered the south-
east end of Lake Winnipeg, were three trading posts
— the ruins of the old French fort, Maurepas, the
Nor^Westers' fort known as Bas de la Riviere, and
the Hudson's Bay Post, now called Fort Alexander
— some three miles from the lake.

This was the lake which Kelsey, and perhaps
Radisson and Hendry and Cocking, had visited from
Hudson Bay. It was forty days straight west from
Albany, three weeks from York on the Hayes.

At this point the different brigades separated, one
going north to the Athabasca, one west up the Sas-
katchewan to the Rockies, one southwest across the
lake to Dauphin and Swan Lake and what is now
northwestern Manitoba, two or three south up Red
River destined for Pembina at the Boundary, Grand
Forks, the Mandanes on the Missouri, and the posts

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along the Assiniboine River of the middle West.
Look again to the map. What kind of an empire
do these Nor'Westers encompass? All of the great
West, all except the unknown regions of the Pacific
Coast. In size how large? The area of the Russian
Empire. No wonder Simon McTavish, founder of
the Company, wore the airs of an emperor, and it is
to be remembered that Nor'Westers ruled with the
despotism of emperors, too.

Let us follow the different brigades to their desti-
nations.

Notes to Chapter XXL— The contents of Chapter XXI are
drawn from the Journals of the Northwest partners as pub-
lished by Senator Masson, from Long's Voyages, from pnvate
journals in my own collection of manuscripts, chiefly Colm Rob-
ertson's, and from the Abb^ Degas' inimitable store of North-
west legends in several vbtones.* The story of the recruiting
officers and of the holy father comes chiefly from Dugas. Um-
freville's book does not give details of his vovage for the N. W. C.
to Nipigon, but he left a journal from whicn Masson gives facts,
and there are references to his voyage in N. W. C. petitions to
Parliament. Cameron tells his own story of Nipigon in the
Masson Collection. The best descriptions of Fort William are
in Colin Robertson's letters (M. S.) and **Franchere's Voyage."
In following N. W. C. expansion, it was quite impossible to do
so chronologically. It could be done onlv by grouping the
actors roimd episodes. For instance, in Nipip^on, Long was
there off and on in 1768, '72, '82. Cameron did not come on
the scene till '96 and aid not take up residence till 1802 to 1804.
To scatter this account of Nipigon chronologically would be to
confuse it. Again, Umfreville found the Nipigon trail to the
Up Coimtry, in 1784. Rod. MacKenzie did not find the old
Kaministiquia road till the nineties. Or again, Grand Portage
was a rendezvous till 1797 and was not entirely moved to Fort
William till 1801 and 1802. Why separate these events by the
hundred other episodes of the Company's history purely for the
sake of sequence on dates? I have tried to keep the story
grouped round the main thread of one forward movement—
the domination of the Up Country by the N. W. C,

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CHAPTER XXII

I 790-1810

"the coming of the pedlars" continued-
henry's ADVENTURES AT PEMBINA — ^THE FIRST
WHITE WOMAN IN THE WEST — ^A STOLEN CHILD
AND A POISONER AND A SCOUT — ^HOW HARMON
FOUND A WIFE — ^THE STORY OF MARGUERITE
TROTTIER.

STRIKING across Lake Winnipeg from Winni-
peg River, the southbound canoes ascend
the central channel of the three entrances to
Red River, passing Nettley Creek on the west, or
River au Mort, as the French called it, in memory
of the terrible massacre of Cree families by Sioux
raiders in 1780, while the women and children were
waiting here for the men to return from York Fac-
tory. South of Lake Winnipeg, the woodland banks
of the mud-colored river give place to glimpses and
patches of the plains rolling westward in seas of
billowing grass. It was August when the brigades
left Fort William. It is September now, with the
crisp nutty tang of parched grasses in the air, a
shimmer as of Indian summer across the horizon

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that turns the setting sun to a blood-red shield.
Bluest of blue are the prairie skies. Scarcely a
feathering of wind clouds, and where the marsh
lands lie — "sloughs" and "muskegs/* they are
called in the West — so still is the atmosphere of the
primeval silences that the waters are glass with the
shadows of the rushes etched as by stencU. Here
and there, thin spirals of smoke rise from the far
prairie — camp fires of wandering Assiniboine and
Cree and Saulteur. The brigades fire guns to call
them to trade, or else land on the banks and light
their own signal fires. Past what is now St. Peter's
Indian Reserve, and the two Selkirk towns, and the
St. Andrew Rapids where, if water is high, canoes
need only be tracked, if low the voyageurs may step
from stone to stone; past the bare meadow where
to-day stands the last and only walled stone fort of
the fur trade. Lower Fort Garry — the brigades come
to what is now Winnipeg, the Forks of the Red and
Assiniboine.

Of the French fur traders' old post here, all that
remains are the charred ruins and cellars. Near
the flats where the two rivers overflow in spring are
the high scaffoldings of a Cree graveyard used
during the smallpox plague of the eighties. Back
from the swamp of the forks are half a dozen tents
— ^Hudson's Bay traders — that same Robert Good-

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The Cofupiest of the Great Northwest

win whom Cameron tricked at Osnaburg, onne up
the Albany River and across coimtry to Manitoba —
forty days from the bay — ^with another trader,
Brown.

The Nor'West brigades pause to divide again. A
dozen canoes go up the Assiniboine for Portage la
Prairie and Dauphin, and Swan Lake, and Lake
Manitoba and Qu'Appelle, and Souris. Three or
four groups of men are detailed to camp at the
Forks (Winnipeg) and trade and keep an eye on
the doings of the Hudson's Bay — above all keep
them from obtaining the hunt. When not trading,
the men at the Forks are expected to lay up store of
pemmican meat for the other departments, by buffalo
hunting. Not till the winter of 1807-8 does Mac-
Donald of Garth, a wiry Highlander of military
family and military air, with a red head and a broken
arm — build a fort here for the Nor'Westers, which
he ironically calls Gibraltar because it will command
the passage of both rivers, though there was not a
rock the size of his hand in sight. Gibraltar is very
near the site of the Cree graveyard and boasts strong
palisades with storage cellars for liquors and huge
warehouses for trade. Not to be outdone, the Hud-
son's Bay look about for a site that shall also com-
mand the river, and they choose two miles farther
down Red River, where their cannon can sweep all

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incoming and outgoing canoes. When this fort is
built a few years later, it is called Fort Douglas.

Two brigades ascend the Red as far south as
Pembina south of the Boundary, one to range all
regions radiating from Grand Forks and Pembina,
the other to cross coimtry to the Mandanes on the
Missouri.

Charles Chaboillez sends Antoine Larocque with
two clerks and two voyageurs from the Assiniboine
and the Red to the Missouri in 1804, where they
meet the American explorers, Lewis and Clarke,
with forty men on their way to the Pacific; and, to
the Nor^Westers' amazement, are also Hudson's
Bay traders. The American oflGicers draw the Ca-
nadians' attention to the fact — this is American
territory. British flags must not be given to the
Indians and no ^^derouines" are to take place — a
trade term meaning that the drummers who come
to beat up trade are not to draw the Indians away
to British territory. Charbonneau, the Northwest
voyageur, ignores his debt to the Company and
deserts to become guide for Lewis and Clarke.

"I can hardly get a skin when the Hudson's Bay
trader is here," complains Larocque, "for the Eng-
lishmen speak the Mandan language." Neverthe-
less Larocque dispatches to the bourgeois Mr.
Chaboillez on the Assiniboine, six packs worth £40

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each. Charles MacKenzie, the clerk, remains three
years trading among the Mandans for the Nor'-
Westers, and with true trader's instinct chuckles
within himself to hear Old Serpent, the Indian Chief,
boast that if he had these forty Americans "out on
the plains, his young warriors would do for them as
for so many wolves."

Two main trails ran from the Red River to the
Missouri: one from Pembina, west; the other from
the Assiniboine, by way of Souris, south. The latter
was generally followed, and from the time that David
Thompson, the Northwest surveyor, first led the
way to the Mandans, countless perils assailed the
traveler to the Missouri. Not more than $3000
worth of furs were won a year, but the traders here
were the buffalo hunters that supplied the Northern
departments with pemmicari; and on these hunts
was the constant danger of the Sioux raiders. Eleven
days by pony travel was the distance from the Assini-
boine to the Missouri, and on the trail was terrible
scarcity of drinking water. "We had steered to a
lake," records MacKenzie of the 1804 expedition,
"but found it dry. We dug a pit. It gave a kind
of stinking liquid of which we all drank, which
seemed to increase our thirst. We passed the night
with great uneasiness. Next day, not a dfop of
water was to be found on the route and our distress

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became unsupportable. Lafrance (the voyageur)
swore so much he could swear no more and gave
the country ten thousand times to the Devil. His
eyes became so dim or blurred we feared he was
nearing a crisis. All our horses became so unruly
we could not manage them. It struck me they
might have scented water and I ascended the top of
the hill where to my great joy I discovered a small
pool. I ran and drank plentifully. My horse had
plunged in before I could stop him. I beckoned
Lafrance. He seemed more dead than alive, his
face a dark hue, a thick scurf around his mouth.
He instantly plunged in the water . . . and
drank to such excess I fear the consequences."

In winter, though there was no danger of perishing
from thirst where snow could be used as water, perils
were increased a hundredfold by storm. The
ponies could not travel fast through deep drifts.
Instead of eleven days, it took a month to reach the
Assiniboine, one man leading, one bringing up the
rear of the long line of pack horses. If a snow
storm caught the travelers, it was an easy matter for
marauding Indians to stampede the horses and
plunder packs. In March, they traveled at night
to avoid snow glare. Sleeping wrapped in buffalo
robes, the men sometimes wakened to find them-
selves buried beneath a snow bank with the horses

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crunched up half frozen in the blizzard. Four days
without food was a common experience on the Man-
dane trail.

Of all the Nor'Westers stationed at Pembina,
Henry was one of the most famous. Cheek by jowl
with the Nor'Westers was a post of Hudson's Bay
men under Thomas Miller, an Orkneyman; and
hosts of freemen — half-breed trappers and buffalo
runners — made this their headquarters, refusing
allegiance to either company and selling their hunt
to the highest bidder. The highest bidder was the
trader who would give away the most rum, and as
traders do not give away rum for nothing, there were
free fights during the drunken brawls to plunder the
intoxicated hunters of furs. Henry commanded
some fifty -five Nor'Westers and yearly sent out from
Pembina one hundred and ten packs of furs by the
famous old Red River ox carts made all of wood,
hubs and wheels, that creaked and rumbled and
screeched their way in long procession of single file
to waiting canoes at Winnipeg.

Henry had come to the wilderness with a hard,
cynical sneer for the vices of the fur trader's life.
Within a few years, the fine edge of his scorn had
timied on himself and on all life besides, because
while he scorned savage vices he could never leave
them alone. Like the snare round the feet of a man

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who has floundered into the quicksands, they sucked
him down till his life was lost on the Columbia in a
drunken spree. One can trace Henry's degeneration
in his journals from cynic to sinner and sinner to sot,
till he has so completely lost the sense of shame,



Online LibraryAgnes Christina LautThe conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 → online text (page 28 of 50)