Agnes Christina Laut.

The conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 online

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Then boats came to the metropolis of the Saskatche-
wan — the gateway port of the great Up Country
— Cumberland House on Sturgeon Lake. Here,
Heame had built the post for Hudson's Bay, and
Frobisher the fort for the Nor'Westers. Here, boats
could go on up the Saskatchewan, or strike north-
west through a chain of lakes past Portage de Traite
and Isle a la Crosse to Athabasca and MacKenzie
River. Fishing never failed, and when the fur
traders went down to headquarters, their families
remained at Cumberland House laying up a store
of dried fish for the winter. Beyond Cumberland

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House came those forts famous in Northwest amials,
Lower Fort des Prairies, and the old French Nipawi,
and Fort a la Come, and Pitt, and Fort George, and
Vermilion, and Fort Saskatchewan and Upper Fort
des Prairies or Augustus — many of which have
crumbled to ruin, others merged into modem cities
like Augustus into Edmonton. On the south branch
of the Saskatchewan and between the two rivers
were more forts — oases in a wildemess of savagery —
Old Chesterfield House where Red Deer River comes
in and Upper Bow Fort within a stone's throw of the
modem summer resort at Banff, where grassed
mounds and old arrowheads to-day mark the place
of the palisades.

More dangers surrounded the traders of the South
Saskatchewan than in any part of the Up Country,
The Blackfeet were hostile to the white men. With
food in abundance from the buffalo hunts, they had
no need of white traders and resented the coming
of men who traded firearms to their enemies. There
was, beside, constant danger of raiders from the
Missouri — Snakes and Crows and Minnetaries.
Hudson's Bay and Nor'Westers built their forts close
together for defence in South Saskatchewan, but
that did not save them.

At Upper Bow Fort in Banff Valley, in 1796,
Missouri raiders surrounded the English post, scaled

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the palisades, stabbed all the whites to death except
one clerk, who hid under a dust pile in the cellar,
pillaged the stores, set fire, then rallied across to the
Nor'Westers, but the Nor'Westers had had warning.
Jaccot Finlay and the Cree Beau Parlez, met the
assailants with a crash of musketry. Then dashing
out, they rescued the Hudson's Bay man, launched
their canoes by night and were glad to escape with
their lives down the Bow to Old Chesterfield House
at Red Deer River.

Two years later, the wintering partners, Hughes
and Shaw, with McDonald of Garth, built Fort
Augustus or Edmonton. Longmore was chief factor
of the Hudson's Bay at Edmonton, with Bird as
leader of the brigades down to York Fort and Howse
as "patroon of the woods" west as far as the Rockies.
With the Nor'Westers was a high-spirited young
fire eater of a clerk — Colin Robertson, who, coming
to blows with McDonald of the Crooked Arm, was
promptly dismissed and as promptly stepped across
to the rival fort and joined the Hudson's Bay. Around
Edmonton camped some three hundred Indians.
In the crowded quarters of the courtyards, yearly
thronged by the eastern brigades so that each fort
housed more than one hundred men, it was impos-
sible to keep all the horses needed for travel. These
were hobbled and turned outside the palisades. It

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was easy for the Indians to cut the hobbles, mount
a Company horse, and ride free of punishment as
the winds. Longmore determined to put a stop to
this trick. Once a Cree horse thief was brought in.
He was tried by court martial and condemned to
death. Gathering together fifteen of his hunters,
Longmore plied them with liquor and ordered them
to fire simultaneously. The horse thief fell riddled
with bullets. It is not surprising that the Indians*
idea of the white man's justice became confused.
If white men shot an Indian for stealing a horse,
why should not Indians shoot white men for steal-
ing furs?

From the North Saskatchewan to the South Sas-
katchewan ran a trail pretty much along the same
region as the Edmonton railroad runs to-day. In
May the furs of both branches were rafted down the
Saskatchewan to the Forks and from the Forks
to Cumberland House whence Hudson's Bay and
Nor' Wester brigades separated. In 1804, McDon-
ald of Garth had gone south from Edmonton to raft
down the furs of the South Saskatchewan. Hud-
son's Bay and Nor'Westers set out together down
stream, scouts riding the banks on each side. Half
way to the Forks, the Nor'Westers got wind of a
band of Assiniboines approaching with furs to trade.
This must be kept secret from the Hudson's Bays.

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Calling Boucher, his guide, McDonald of Garth,
bade the voyageurs camp here for three days to hunt
buffalo while he would go off before daybreak to
meet the Assiniboines. The day following, the
buffalo himters noticed movements as of riders or a
herd on the far horizon. They urged Boucher to
lead the brigade farther down the river, but Boucher
knew that McDonald was ahead to get the furs of
the Assiniboines and it was better to delay the Hud-
son's Bay men here with Northwest hunters. All
night the tom-tom pounded and the voyageurs
danced and the fiddlers played. Toward daybreak
during the mist between moonlight and dawn, when
the tents were all silent and the voyageurs asleep
beneath inverted canoes, Missouri raiders, led by
Wolf Chief, stole on the camp. A volley was fired
at Boucher's tent. Every man inside perished. Out-
side, under cover of canoes, the voyageurs seized
their guns and with a peppering shot drove the
Indians back. Then they dragged the canoes to
water, still keeping under cover of the keel, rolled the
boats keel down on the water, tumbled the baggage
in helter-skelter and fled abandoning five dead men
and the tents. When the raiders carried the booty
back to the Missouri they explained to Charles
MacKenzie, the Nor'Wester there, that they were
sorry they had shot the white traders. It was a

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

mistake. When they fired, they thought it was a
Cree camp.

From Edmonton was an important trail to Atha-
basca, ninety miles overland to what is now known
as Athabasca Landing on Athabasca River and down
stream to Fort Chippewyan on Athabasca Lake*
This was the region Peter Pond had found, and when
he was expelled for the murder of two men, Alex-
ander MacKenzie came to take his place. Just as
the Saskatchewan River was the great artery east
and west, so the fur traders of Athabasca now came
to a great artery north and south — a river that was
to the North what the Mississippi was to the United
States. The Athabasca was the south end of this
river. The river where it flowed was called the
Grand or Big River. ,

Athabasca was seventy days' canoe travel from
the Nor'Westers' headquarters on Lake Superior.
It was Alexander MacKenzie's duty to send his
hunters out, wait for their furs, then conduct the
brigades down to Rainy Lake. Laroux and Cuth-
bert Grant, the plains ranger, were his under officers.
When he came back from Lake Superior in '88,
MacKenzie sent Grant and Laroux down to Slave
Lake. Then he settled down to a winter of loneli-
ness and began to dream dreams. Where did Big
River run beyond Slave Lake? It was a river

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broader than the St. Lawrence with ramparts like
the Hudson. Dreaming of explorations that would
bring him renown, he planned to accompany the
hunters next year, but who would take his place
to go down with the yearly brigades, and what would
the other Northwest partners say to these exploring
schemes? He wrote to his cousin Rory to come and
take his place. As to objections from the partners,
he told them nothing about it.

The first thing Rory MacKenzie does is to move
Pond's old post down stream to a rocky point on the
lake, which he calls Chippewyan from the Indians
there. This will enable the fort to obtain fish all
the year round. May, '89, Alexander MacKenzie
sees his cousin Rory off with the brigades for Lake
Superior. Then he outfits his Indian hunters for
the year. Norman McLeod and five men are to
build more houses in the fort. Laroux's canoe is
loaded for Slave Lake. Then MacKenzie picks out
a crew of one German and four Canadians with two
wives to sew moccasins and cook. "English Chief"
whom Frobisher met down at Portage de Traite
years ago, goes as guide, accompanied by two wives
and two Indian paddlers. Tuesday, June 2nd, is
spent gumming canoes and celebrating farewells.
June 3rd, 1789, at nine in the morning, the canoes
push out, Mr. McLeod on the shore firing a salute

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The Conquest of the Great Northwest

that sets the echoes ringmg over the Lake of the
Hills (Athabasca). Twenty-one miles from Chip-
pewyan, the boats enter Slave River on the north-
west, where a. lucky shot brings down a goose and a
couple of ducks. It is seven in the evening when
they pitch camp, but this is June of the long daylight.
The sun is still shining as they sit down to the lus-
cious meal of wild fowl. The seams of the canoes
are gummed and the men "turn in" early, bed being
below upturned canoes; for henceforth, MacKenzie
tells them, reveille is to sound at 3 A. M., canoes to be
in the water by four. Peace River, a mile broad at
its moiith, is passed next day, and MacKenzie won-
ders does this river flowing from the mountains lead
to the west coast where Captain Cook found the
Russians? Slave River flows swifter now. The
canoes shoot the rapids, for the water is floodtide,
and "English Chief" tells them the Indians of this
river are called Slaves because the Crees drove them
from the South. Sixty miles good they make this
day before camping at half-past seven, the Indian
wives sewing moccasins as hard as the men paddle, so
hard indeed that when they come to a succession of
dangerous rapids next day and land to unload, one
canoe is caught in the swirl and carried down with
the squaw, who swims ashore little the worse, This
is the place — Portage des Noyes — where Cuthbert

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Grant lost five voyageurs going to Slave Lake three
years before. June 9th, mid fog and rain and float-
ing ice and clouds of mosquitoes, they glide into the
beaver swamps of Slave Lake. Wild fowl are in
such flocks, the voyageurs knock geese and ducks
enough on the head for dinner. Laroux drops off
here at his fort. The men go hunting. The women
pick berries and Alexander MacKenzie climbs a high
hill to try and see a way out of this foggy swamp of a
lake stretching north in two horns two hundred miles
from east to west. There was ice ahead and there
was fog ahead, and it was quite plain "English Chief"
did not know the way. MacKenzie followed the
direction of the drifting ice. Dog Rib Indians here
vow there is no passage through the ice, and the cold
rains slush down in torrents. It is not dark longer
than four hours, but the nights are so cold the lake
is edged with ice a quarter of an inch thick. Mac-
Kenzie secures a Red Knife Indian as guide and
pushes on through the flag-grown swamps, now
edging the ice fields, now in such rough water men
must bail to keep the canoes afloat, now trying to
escape from the lake east, only to be driven back by
the ice, west; old "English Chief" threatening to
cut the Red Knife's throat if he fails them. Three
weeks have they been fog-bound and ice-bound and
lost on Slave Lake, but they find their way out by

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the west channel at last, a strong current, a stiff wind
and blankets up for sail. July ist, they pass the
mouth of a very large river, the Liard; July 5th,
a very large camp of Dog Rib Indians, who warn
them "old age will come before" MacKenzie
"reaches the sea" and that the wildest monsters
guard Big River, MacKenzie obtains a Dog Rib
for a guide, but the Dog Rib his no relish for his
part, and to keep him from running away as they
sleep at night, MacKenzie takes care to lie on the
edge of the filthy fellow's vermin-infested coat. A
greenish hue of the sea comes on the water as they
pass Great Bear Lake to the right, but the guide his
become so terrified he must now be bodily held in
the canoe. The banks of the "river rise to lofty ram-
parts of white rock. Signs of the North grow more
frequent. Trees have dwindled in size to little
sticks. The birds and hares shot are all whitish-
gray with fur pads or down on their feet. On July
8th, the guide escapes, but a Hare Indian comes
along, who, by signs, says it is only ten days to the
sea. Presently, the river becomes muddy and breaks
into many channels. Provisions are almost gone,
and MacKenzie promises his men if he does not find
the sea within a week, he will turn back. On the
nth of July, the sun did not set, and around de-
serted camp fires were found pieces of whalebone,

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MacKenzie's hopes mounted. Only the Eskimos
use whalebone for tent poles. Footprints, too, were
seen in the sand, and a rare beauty of a black fox —
with a pelt that was a hunter's fortune — scurried
along the sands into hiding. The Hare Indian
guide began talking of "a large lake" and "an enor-
mous fish" which the Eskimo hunted with spears.
"Lake?" Had not MacKenzie promised his men
it was to be the sea? The voyageurs were dis-
couraged. They did not think of the big "fish"
being a whale, or the riffle in the muddy channels
the ocean tide, not though the water slopped into
the tents under the baggage and "the large lake"
appeared covered with ice. Then at three o'clock in
the morning of July 14th, the ice began floundering
in a boisterous way on calm waters. There was no
mistaking. The floundering ice was a whale and
this was the North Sea, first reached overland by
Heame of the Hudson's Bay, and now found by
Alexander MacKenzie.

The story of MacKenzie's voyages is told else-
where. He was welcomed back to Chippewyan by
Norman McLeod on October the 12th at 3 p. M.,
and spent the winter there with his cousin, Rory.
Hunying to Lake Superior with his report next sum-
mer, Alexander MacKenzie suffered profound dis-
appointment. He was received coldly. The truth

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is, the old guard of the original Nor'Westers — Simon
McTavish and the Frobishers — ^were jealous of the
men, who had come in as partners from the Little
Company. They had no mind to see honors cap-
tured by a young fellow like MacKenzie, who had
only two shares in the Company, or $8000 worth of
stock, compared to their own six shares or $24,000,
and found bitter fault with the returns of furs from
Athabasca,, and this hostility lasted till McTavish's
death in 1804. MacKenzie came back to pass a
depressing winter ('go-'gi) at Chippewyan when
he dispatched hunters down the newly discovered
river, which he ironically called "River Disappoint-
ment." But events were occurring that spurred his
thoughts. Down at the meeting of the partners he
had heard how Astor was gathering the American
furs west of the Great Lakes; how the Russians
were gathering an equally rich harvest on the Pacific
Coa$t. Dqwn among the Hare Indians of Mac-
Kenzie River, he had heard of white traders on the
W&t coast. ' If a boat pushed up Peace River from
Athabaska Lake, could it portage across to that
ivest .coast? The question stuck and rankled in
MacKenzie's mind. "Be sure to question the In-
dians about Peace River," he ordered all his winter
hunters. Then came the Hudson's Bay men to
Athatbasca: Turner, the astronomer, and Howse,

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who had been to the mountains. If the ^or' Westers
were to be on the Pacific Coast first, they must bestir
themselves. MacKenzie quietly asked leave of
absence in the winter of '91-92, and went home to
study in England sufficient to enable him to take
more accurate astronomic observations. The sum-
mer of '92 found him back on the field appointed to
Peace River district.

The Hudson's Bay men had failed to pass through
the country beyond the mountains. Turner and
Howse had gone down to Edmonton. Thompson,
the surveyor, left the English Company and coming
overland to Lake Superior, joined the Nor'Westers.
It was still possible for MacKenzie to be first across
the mountains.

The fur traders had already advanced up Peace
River and half a dozen forts were strung up stream
toward the Rockies. By October of '92, MacKenzie
advanced beyond them all to the Forks on the east
side and there erected a fort. By May, he had dis-
patched the eastern brigade. Then picking out a
crew of six Frenchmen and two Indians, with Alex-
ander McKay as second in command, McKenzie
launched out at seven o'clock on the evening of
May 9, 1793, from the Forks of Peace River in a
birch canoe of three thousand pounds capacity.

If the voyage to the Arctic had been difficult, it

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was child's play compared to this. As the canoe
entered the mountains, the current became boister-
ously swift. It was necessary to track the boat up
stream. The banks of the river grew so precipitous
that the men could barely keep foothold to haul
the canoe along with a one hundred and eighty-foot
rope. MacKenzie led the way cutting steps in the
cliff, his men following, stepping from his shoulder
to the shaft of his axe and from the axe to the place
he had cut, the torrent roaring and re-echoing below
through the narrow gorge. Sulphur springs were
passed, the out-cropping of coal seams, vistas on the
frosted mountains opening to beautiful uplands,
where elk and moose roamed. An old Indian had
told MacKenzie that when he passed over the moun-
tains. Peace River would divide — one stream, now
known as the Finlay, coming from the north; the
other fork, now known as the Parsnip, from the
south. MacKenzie, the old guide said, should as-
cend the south; but it was no easy matter passing
the mountains. The gorge finally narrowed to sheer
walls with a raging maelstrom in place of a river.
The canoe had to be portaged over the crest of a
peak for nine miles — MacKenzie leading the way
chopping a trail, the men following laying the fallen
trees like the railing of a stair as an outer guard up
the steep ascent. Only three miles a day were made.

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Clothes and moccasins were cut to shreds by brush-
wood, and the men were so exhausted they lay down
in blanket coats to sleep at four in the afternoon,
close to the edge of the upper snow fields. Mac-
Kenzie wrote letters, enclosed them in empty kegs,
threw the kegs into the raging torrent and so sent
back word of his progress to the fort. Constantly,
on the Uplands, the men were startled by rocketing
echoes like the discharge of a gun, when they would
pass the night in alarm, each man sitting with his
back to a tree and musket across his knees, but the
rocketing echoes — so weird and soul-stirring in the
loneKness of a silence that is audible — ^were from
huge rocks splitting oflf some precipice. Sometimes
a boom of thunder would set the mountains rolling.
From a far snow field hanging in ponderous cornice
over bottomless depths would puflF up a thin, white
line like a snow cataract, the distant avalanche of
which the boom was the echo. Once across the
divide, the men passed from the bare snow uplands
to the cloud line, where seas of tossing mist blotted
out earth, and from cloud line to the Alpine valleys
with larch-grown meadows and painters' flowers
knee deep, all the colors of the rainbow. Beside a
rill trickling from the ice fields pause would be made
for a meal. Then came tree line, the spruce and
hemlock forests — gigantic trees, branches interlaced,

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festooned by a mist-like moss that hung from tree to
tree in loops, with the windfall of untold centuries
piled criss-cross below higher than a house. The
men grumbled. They had not bargained on this
kind of voyaging.

Once down on the west side of the Great Divide,
there were the Forks. MacKenzie's instincts told
him the north branch looked the better way, but the
old guide had said only the south branch would lead
to the Great River beyond the mountains, and they
turned up Parsnip River through a marsh of beaver
meadows, which MacKenzie noted for future trade.

It was now the 3rd of June. MacKenzie ascended
a mountain to look along the forward path. When
he came down with McKay and the Indian Cancre,
no canoe was to be found. MacKenzie sent broken
branches drifting down stream as a signal and fired
gunshot after gunshot, but no answer! Had the
men deserted with boat and provisions? Genuinely
alarmed, MaqKenzie ordered McKay and Cancre
back down the Parsnip, while he went on up stream.
Whichever found the canoe was to fire a gun. For
a day without food and in drenching rains, the three
tore through the underbrush shouting, seeking,
despairing till strength was exhausted and moccasins
worn to tatters. Barefoot and soaked, MacKenzie
was just lying down for the night when a crashing

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echo told him McKay had found the deserters.
They had waited till he had disappeared up the
mountain, then headed the canoe north and drifted
down stream. The Indians were openly panic-
stricken and wanted to build a raft to float home.
The French voyageurs pretended they had been
delayed mending the canoe. MacKenzie took no
outward notice of the treachery, but henceforth
never let the crew out of his own or McKay's sight.
A week later, Indians were met who told Mac-
Kenzie of the Carrier tribes, inlanders, who bartered
with the Indians on the sea. One old man drew a
birch bark map of how the Parsnip led to a portage
overland to another river flowing to the sea. Prom-
ising to return in two moons (months), MacKenzie
embarked with an Indian for guide. On the evening
of June 1 2th, they entered a little lake, the source
of Peace River. A beaten path led over a low ridge
to another little lake — the source of the river that
flowed to the Pacific. This was Bad River, a branch
of the Fraser, though MacKenzie thought it was a
branch of the Great River — the Columbia. The
little lake soon narrowed to a swift torrent, which
swept the canoe along like a chip. MacKenzie
wanted to walk along the shore, for some one should
go ahead to look out for rapids, but the crew insisted
if they were to perish, he must perish with them, and

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all hands embarked. The consequence was that the
canoe was presently caught in a swirl. A rock
banged through the bottom tearing away the keel.
Round swung the tottering craft to the rush! An-
other smash, and out went the bow, the canoe flat-
tening like a board, the Indians weeping aloud on
top of the baggage, the voyageurs paralyzed with
fear, hanging to the gun'els. On swept the wrecked
canoe! The foreman frantically grabbed the branch
of an overhanging tree. It jerked him bodily ashore
and the canoe flat as a flap-jack came to a stop in
shallow sands.

There was not much said for some minutes. Bad
River won a reputation that it has ever since sus-
tained. All the bullets were lost. Powder and bag-
gage had to be fished up and spread out to dry in the
sun. One dazed voyageur walked across the spread-
out powder with a pipe between his teeth when a
yell of warning that he might blow them all to
eternity — ^brought him to his senses and relieved the
terrific tension.

The men were treated to a rSgale, and then sent to
hunt bark for a fresh canoe. There now succeeded
such an impenetrable morass blocked by windfall
that the voyageurs made only two miles a day.
Though MacKenzie and McKay watched their
guide by turns at night, he succeeded in escaping,

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and the white men must risk meeting the inland
Carriers without an interpreter. On the 15th of
June, Bad River turned westward into the Fraser.
Of his parley with the Carriers, there is no space to
tell. I have told the story in another volume, but



Online LibraryAgnes Christina LautThe conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 → online text (page 30 of 50)