Agnes Christina Laut.

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

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and Montreal are splendid establishments, the re-
sorts of the first in society, the benefit from this os-
tentatious display of wealth being the friendship of
legal authorities. . . . Even the prisons of Mon-
treal are become places of public entertainment from
the circumstance of yet holding some partners of
the North-West Company. . . . Every other
night, a ball or supper is given; and the Highland
bagpipes utter the sound of martial music as if to
deafen public censure. The most glaring instance
of the Nor'Westers' contempt for law is their attempt
to attract public notice by illuminating all the prison
windows every night. Strangers will naturally ask:
^for what crimes are these gentlemen committed?
For debt?' No . . . for murder . . .
arson . . . robbery. . . . Our old friend,
Mr. Astor, is here. ... He is frequently in the
society of the Nor'Westers . . . and feels very
sore toward them about Astoria.''

Robertson's letters then tell of his trial for the
seizure of Gibraltar and his acquittal. He frankly
hints that his lawyers had to bribe the Montreal
judge to secure "a fair" hearing. So passed the
year. In 1818 came Selkirk back from Red River

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to Montreal, who agreed with Robertson that the
only way to force the Nor'Westers to their knees was
to send a second expedition to capture Athabasca,
whence came the wealth of furs that enabled the rival
Company to bribe the courts. In April, 1819, Rob-
ertson set out with a flotilla of nineteen canoes from
Ste. Anne's, each canoe with five French voyageurs,
and went up the Ottawa across Lake Superior to
Thunder Bay. "This place gave me a bad turn the
other day," he writes. "The wind blew fresh but the
swell was by no means high. My Indians seemed
reluctant to attempt the traverse. I imprudently or-
dered them a glass of rum, when the whoop was im-
mediately given! In a moment, our canoe was in the
swell. We came where a heavy sea was running.
Here, we b^an to ship water. The guide ordered
the bowman removed back to the second thwart.
This lightened the head. An oilcloth was then
thrown over the head of a canoe to avoid the break-
ing of the sea. The silence that prevailed, when one
of those heavy swells was rolling upon us, was truly
appalling. Paddles were lifted and all watched -the
approach with perfect composure. Our steersman
kept balancing the slender bark by placing her in the
best position to the waves. . . . The moment
the roller passed, every paddle was in the water,
every nerve stretched to gain the land! Although

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two men were employed bailing out water, fifty yards
more woxild have swamped us. ... "

From Lake Superior, the brigade passed up to the
Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnipeg, where Rob-
ertson was joined by the, same John Clarke who
had suffered defeat in Athabasca on the first expe-
dition. Here the forces were increased to one hun-
dred and thirty men by the refugees of the first bri-
gade, who had escaped from the North. Robert-
son's letter from this point gives some particulars
of the first brigade's expulsion from Athabasca:
"The Nor'Westers did not confine themselves to the
seizure of persons and property. They adminis-
tered an oath to our servants, threatening with star-
vation and imprisonment if they did not comply, that
for the space of three years these Hudson's Bay
servants would not attempt to oppose the North-
West Company. One of the guides, a witty rogue,
who knew theology from the circumstance of his
cousin being a priest, fell on a way of absolving his
French countrymen from this oath ... to re-
pair to the woods and cross themselves and ask
pardon of their Maker for a false oath to a heretic;
but some poor Scotchmen could not cheat their con-
science so easily, and I have had to let them leave
me on that account. ..."

The Nor'Westers had kept as a deadly secret from
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the Indians all knowledge of the fact they had been
beaten by Lord Selkirk. Robertson's next letter
tells how the secret leaked out in Athabasca. Amidst
the uproarious carousals of the Nor'Westers at Chip-
pewyan, the Hudson's Bay captives were brought to
the mess room to be the butt of drunken jokes. On
one occasion, Norman McLeod bawled out a song
in celebration of the massacre of settlers at Red
River, of which each verse ended in this couplet:

"The H. B. C. came up a hill, and up a hill they came,
The H. B. C. came up the hill, but down they went
again!"

Roars of laughter were making the rafters ring
when it suddenly struck one of the Hudson's Bay
prisoners that the brutal jeer might be paid back in
kind.

" Y' hae niver asked me for a song,'' says the canny
Hudson's Bay McFarlane to his Nor'West tormentor.
"If agreeable, I hae a varse o' me ain compaesin'."

"Silence, gentlemen," roars McLeod to the
drunken roomful of partners and clerks and Indians.
"Silence! Mr. McFarlane, your song."

Remembering that the power of the Northwest
Company with the Indians depended on the fright-
ened savages being kept ignorant of Lord Selkirk's
victories, the Hudson's Bay man's thin voice piped
Up these words to the same tune:

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''But Selkirk brave went up a hill, and to Fort William
came,
When in he popped — and out from thence — could not
be driven — a-g-a-i-n!"

Before the last words had died in the appalling
silence that fell on the rowdies, or the Indians could
quite grasp what the song meant, McLeod had
jumped from his chair yelling:

"I'll give you a hundred guineas if you'll tell
the name of the man who brought news of that
here."

But McFarlane had no wish to see some faithful
coureur's back ripped open with the lash. "Tut-
tut," says he, "a hundred guineas for twa lines of me
ain compaesin' — Extravagant, Mr. McLeod, Sir!"

October saw Robertson at last on the field of action
— in Athabasca. "Well may the Nor' Westers boast
of success in the North," he writes. "Not an Indian
dare speak to the Hudson's Bay. At Isle a la Crosse,
a clerk and a few of our men were in a hut surrounded
by the sentinels of our opponents. Apart from no
intercourse with the Indians, they were thankful to
be able to procure mete subsistence for themselves.
All their fish nets and canoes had been destroyed by
the Nor'Westers in prowling excursions. The only
canoe on which their escape depended was hidden
in a bedroom. No Indian dared to approach. The

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windows were covered by damaged table cloths.
Wild fowl shot flying over the house had to be
plucked with the door shut • . . Not an Indian
could be found. • . . As we voyaged up to
Athabasca, we began firing and kept our men sing-
ing a voyageur's song to let the Indians know we
were passing." Finally, an Indian was seen hiding
behind brush of the river bank, and was bribed to
go and bring his tribe. The truth was told to the
Chippewyans about the Nor'Westers' defeat on Red
River and Lake Superior. Peace pipes were whiffed,
and a treaty made.

The consternation of the Nor'Westers when they
saw Robertson, and Clarke whom they had abused
in captivity three years before, now draw up on Ath-
abasca Lake before Fort Chippewyan with a force
of one hundred and thirty armed men, at once gave
place to plots for the ruin of the intruders. Black,
who had been the chief tormentor of Clarke, dashed
down to the waterside shouting: "Mr. Robertson!
Mr. Robertson! To avoid trouble, let me speak to
our Indians before you land! You are an honorable
man — give us justice!"

"Honorable," roared the indignant Clarke, shak-.
ing the canoe in his wrath. "Justice be blanked!
Did you give us justice when you hounded us out of
Athabasca," and he followed the serenade up with

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a volley that brought the whole Northwest Company
to the shore.

Before trouble could brew, Robertson marshaled
his men to the old Hudson's Bay quarters, and
within a few days more than forty Indian tents had
deserted from the Nor'Westers. Clarke was sent up
Peace River for the winter. Robertson retained a
force of one hxmdred men well equipped with arms
and provisions to hold the fort at Lake Athabasca.
*'We had completed the fitting out of the Indians,"
he writes, "established our fisheries and closed the
fall business when the loaded canoes of the North-
west hunters began to arrive. Black, the Nor'-
Wester, is now in his glory, leading his bullies. Every
evening they come over to our fort in a body, calling
on our men to come out and fight pitched battles.
One of their hair-pulling bullies got hds challenge ac-
cepted and an unmerciful thrashing to boot from a
little Frenchman of ours — Boucher. Mr. Simon Mc-
Gillivray, the chief partner of the Nor'Westers,who is
with Mr. McLeod, was rather forward on this occa-
sion. Having a strong force, he approached too near.
I ordered our men to arms and his party made a pre-
.cipitate retreat. Our men are in high spirits. The
Indians have regained confidence in us and boldly leave
the Nor'Westers every day for the Hudson's Bay."

Now that their winter hunters had come in, and

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they were stronger, the Nor'Westers were not to be so
easily routed from Athabasca. Robertson's next let-
ters are dated from the Nor'Westers' fort. He had
been captured within ten days of his arrival. "You
. . . will perceive from the date of this letter, the
great reverse. . . • If I were the only sufferer it
might be borne, but when I reflect on the conse-
quences to the Hudson's Bay Company and to Lord
Selkirk, it almost drives me mad. ... On the
morning of the i ith of October, about an hour before
day, my servant entered my bedroom and informed
me a canoe had just arrived with the body of a fisher-
man accidentally shot the night before. . . .
Sleep was out of the question. I rose and ordered
an early breakfast, but just as we were sitting down
one of the men entered with word that a Northwest
bully had come and was daring little Boucher to
fight. As was my custom, I put a pistol in my
pocket and going toward the fellow saw Mr. Simon
McGillivi-ay, the Northwest partner. . . . Just
then eight or ten Nor^Westers made a rush from con-
cealment behind. ... It was aU a trick. . . .
I was surrounded. ... In the struggle my
pistol got entangled and went off. ... At the
sound, they rushed on me and dragged me to the
beach. ... I freed myself and laid about with
my empty pistol. . . . When thrown in the

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canoe, I tried to upset and escape by swimming, but
Black put a pistol to my head till we arrived at the
Nor'Westers' fort. . . . Landing, I dashed for
their Indian Hall and at once . • . called on
the Indians, representing that the cowardly attack
was an effort to reduce them to slavery; but Black
rushed up to stop me. Seizing a fork on the hall
table I kept the vagabond at bay. I loaded him with
every abuse and evil name I could think of, then to
the Indians: 'Do not abandon the Hudson's Bay on
thb account! There are brave men at our fort to
protect you! That fellow was not brave enough to
seize me; he stole me, and he would now rob you
of your hunt if it were not for the young men I have
left in my fort. Tell Clarke not to be discouraged.
We will be revenged for this, but not like wolves
prowling in the bushes. We will capture them as
we captured them at Fort William, with the sun shin-
ing on our faces.' At this moment, the Indian chief
came up and squeezing my hand, whispered, 'Never
mind, white man! All right! We are your friends.'
. . • This closed the turbulent scene. • • .
Figure my feelings . . . tumbled by an act of
illegal violence from the summit of hope . . .
confidence of friends withdrawn ... all my
prospects for life blasted . . . mere personal
danger is secondary now — I am in despair."

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Simon McGillivray, Black, Mcintosh, McLeod,
in a word, the most influential partners in the North-
west Company were at Fort Chippewyan when Rob-
ertson was captured; but the post was in charge of
that John George McTavish, who had helped to trick
Astor out of his fur post on the Columbia. It was
probably the ruinous lawsuits against the Nor^-
Westers that now restrained their savage followers
from carrying out their threat "to scalp Robertson
and feed him to the dogs," but the Hudson's Bay
leader was clapped into a small room with log walls,
under guard day and night. He was compelled to
state his simplest wants in a formal daily letter. Pen
and paper, the clothes on his back, a jack-knife in
his pocket — that was Robertson's entire parapher-
nalia during his captivity; but for all that, he out-
witted the enemy. One of his written requests was
that a Nor^Wester go across to the Hudson's Bay
fort under flag of truce for a supply of liquor. The
Nor'Westers were delighted at the chance to spy on
the Hudson's Bay fort, and doubly delighted at the
prospect of their captive fuddling himself hors de
combat with drink. It was an easy trick to give a
rival his quietus with whiskey.

Taking long strips of writing paper, the Hudson's
Bay man invented a cipher code in numbers from
one to six hundred, some well known trading phrase

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placed opposite each number. This he rolled like
a spool, so tight it was waterproof, sealed each end
with wax, knocked the bung out of the whiskey barrel,
bored a tiny hole beside the bung with his jackknife,
hooked a piece of twine through one end to the sealed
message, the other to the inner end of the plug, thrust
the paper inside the liquor and plugged up the hole.
Then dusting all over with mud from the floor of the
cabin, he complained the whiskey was musty —
diluted with rum. He requested that it be sent back
with orders for his men to cleanse the barrel. Before
sending it back, the Nor'Westers actually sealed the
barrel "contents unknown." But what was Rob-
ertson's disgust when the men of the fort instead of
cleansing this barrel, sent back a fresh one!

Again he put his wits to work. Sending for a
volume of Shakespeare's plays, he wrote in fine pencil
opposite Falstaff's name: "Examine — the — first —
keg." The messenger, who went for the weekly
supply, carried the Shakespeare back to the Hudson's
Bay fort. A week passed. No sign came from his
men. Exasperated to the point of risk, Robertson
tried a last expedient. The next week, the messenger
carried an open letter to Robertson's men. It was
inspected by his captors but allowed to pass. It
read: "To amuse myself, I am trying to throw into
verse some of Falstaff's good sayings. There is one

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expression where he blows out, *I am not a wit but
the cause of wit in others/ This soxrnds harsh.
Please send exact words as in the play." No doubt
the Northwest partners thought poor Robertson far
gone with liquor when he took to versifying. Back
came word with the week^s supplies, stating that the
volume of Shakespeare had been carried off to the
fishery by one of the traders; but "would Mr. Rob-
ertson please let his men know if he wished the fol-
lowing traders to have the following supplies" — a
string of figures conveying the joyful news that the
cypher had been found; the Hudson's Bay fort was
on guard against surprise; the men were in good
spirits; the Indians loyal; all things prosperous.

For eight months a prisoner in a small room, Rob-
ertson directed the men of his own fort by means of
the whiskey kegs, sending word of all secrets he could
learn in the enemy's camp, checkmating every move
of the Nor'Westers among the Indians. In vain, he
urged his followers to sally out and rescue him. The
Hudson's Bay traders were not willing to risk an-
other such massacre as on Red River. Inmiunity
bred carelessness. In the month of May a Nor'-
Wester, spying through crevices of the logs, caught
Robertson sealing up the bung in the whiskey keg.
Swords and pistol in hand, the angry partners burst
into the room with torrents of abuse that Robertson

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was quite able to return. He was too dangerous a
man to keep prisoner. The Nor'Westers decided to
ship him out of the country on pain of assassination if
he dared to return. No doubt Robertson smiled.
His own coureurs had long since been sent speeding
over prairie and swamp for Red River to warn the
Hudspn's Bay governor, Williams, to catch the North-
west fur brigade when the canoes would be running
the rapids of the Saskatchewan in June.

Of the forty Nor'Westers conducting the June
brigade to Montreal, half a dozen were directors;
"I was embarked with Simon McGillivray," Rob-
ertson writes. "At Isle a la Crosse • . . seeing
the strong rapids before us, I threw off my cloak
as was my custom when running rapids. . . .
What was my horror when I perceived our canoe
swept out of its track into a shute over the rocks.
... Our steersman shouted, *My God, we are
all lost.* . . . The canoe upset. ... I at-
tempted to swim ashore but the strong eddies drew
me under the falls where I found Mr. Simon Mc-
Gillivray and two op three others clinging to the
gun'els of the canoe. . . . The canoe swept on
down the current and Mr. Shaw, one of the partners,
caught us below.** What was almost an escape
through an accident evidently suggested to Robert-
son's mind that it was not absolutely necessary he

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should be deported out of the country against his
will. At Cumberland House, where the brigade
camped for a night, there was a Hudson's Bay as
well as a Northwest post. Robertson asked leave to
say good-by to his old friends, but no sooner was
he inside the gates of the Hudson's Bay post than
bolts were shot and every man of the ten inside the
palisades, armed ready to fire if the Nor'Westers
approached. "I have escaped," he writes, "but not
agreeable to my feelings. . . . However my
friends may applaud the act, my conscience tells me
I have not done right in breaking my parole. . . •
However, it is all over now. ... At half past
ten in the morning, the Northwest canoes pushed
off from the beach without me."

Where the Saskatchewan empties into Lake Win-
nipeg are rough ledges of rock known as Grand
Rapids. Here, it was usual to lighten loads, passen-
gers landing to walk across the portage, the voyageurs
running the canoes down full swirl to a camp below
the rapids. Robertson knew that Williams, the
Hudson's Bay governor from .Red River, would be
waiting for the Northwest brigade at this point.
Barely had his captors' canoes paddled away from
Cumberland House, when Robertson launched out
on their trail far enough behind to escape notice,
bound for the exciting rendezvous of Grand Rapids.

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"In paddling along," he writes, "we were suddenly
interrupted with a shout 'Canoe ahead!' . . .
A shot was fired. . . . We arranged our pistols.
The canoe was plainly approaching us. What shall
be done? If these are enemies, the water is the
safest place for defense. It was a moment of
anxiety. As the canoe came nearer, a stranger stood
up, waved his hat and shouted, * Glorious newsl
Five North- West partners captured at Grand Rapids
— Shaw, Mcintosh, Campbell, McTavish and Fro-
bisher taken! I am sent to meet Mr. Robertson!*
We at once shaped our course to the canoe when our
voyagexirs struck up a song the men of both canoes
yelling a cheer at each chorus." At eleven on the
morning of July 30th, Robertson crossed the portage
of Grand Rapids. He found himself in the midst
of a stirring scene. Strung across the river at the
foot of the rapids were barges mounted with swivels.
On the bank lay the entire year's output of Athabasca
furs, the poor French voyageurs huddling together,
the loudest bully cowed; and apart from the camp
in the windowless lodge of an old French hunter,
were the captured Northwest partners surrounded
by the guard of a hundred De Meuron soldiers
under Governor Williams. This was a turning of
the tables with a vengeance. As Williams blurted
out in a gasconade striding forward to welcome

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The CompjLCst of the Great Northwest
Robertson, "two could play at the capturing busi-



ness.'*



And a sorry thing "the capturing business" proved.
Robertson does not give any details. He is evidently
both ashamed of the episode and sorry; but the ac-
count is found in the journals of the Nor' Westers.
Anxious to rescue Robertson, the Hudson's Bay
governor had his barges strung across the river and
his soldiers in ambush along the trail of the portage,
when the unsuspecting Athabasca brigade, laden
with furs to the water line, glided down the Saskatch-
ewan. The canoes arrived in three detachments on
the 1 8th, and 20th, and 30th of June. Rapids be-
hind and pointed swivels before, the voyageurs were
easy victims, surrendering to the soldiers at once. It
was another matter with the partners. Both Hud-
son's Bay and Nor* Westers knew these lawless raids
would be condemned by the courts; but each side
also knew if it could capture and hold the other out
of the Athabasca for a single year, the excluded rival
would be ruined.

Frobisher and Campbell, accompanied by two serv-
ants, were the first partners to set out across the
portage. Halt way over, a movement in the grass
caught their attention, and before they could speak
they were surrounded by fifteen Hudson's Bay:
soldiers with pointed bayonets. Frobisher was ^

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man of enormous strength and violent temper. No .
Nor'Wester had exercised more wanton cruelty over
Hudson's Bay captives than he. As he saw him-
self suddenly looking into the barrel of a Hudson's
Bay gun, he had involuntarily knocked aside the
muzzle and doubled his fist for a blow, when sharp
bayonet prods in the small of his back sent him along
the path at a run. The other partners as they came
were captured in the same summary way. Cooped
up in the hunter's lodge at the foot of the rapids,
they demanded of Governor Williams his warrant for
such proceedings.

"Warrant?" roared the Hudson's Bay governor.
"What warrant had you when you held Robertson
captive all last winter in Athabasca? What warrant
had you for flogging Clarke out of the country two
years ago? Talk to me of your Royal Proclama-
tions of peace! I don't care a curse for your royal
proclamations. I rely on the charter of the Hud-
son's Bay Company. Your- governor of Canada is a

d rascal ! He is bribed by your Northwest gold !

Warrants — indeed! Warrants are d nonsense

in this country! Out of this country you go. I'll
drive out every Nor'Wester or die in the attempt."
In the midst of the tornado, some excitement arose
from Mcintosh, a Northwest partner, who was ill
and had run the rapids with his canoemen, jumping

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overboard and trying to swim ashore. Two Hud-
son's Bay canoemen pursued, caught him by the
scruff of the neck and towed him ashore. Satisfied
that he had captured all the partners in this brigade,
Williams at once released the clerks and voyageurs
with their cargoes of furs to proceed to Montreal.
As the canoemen walked out of the hunter's cabin
past the sentry, Frobisher beside himself with rage
at the governor's rating — attempted to follow. He
was clubbed to the ground. He hurled the full force
of his herculean strength at his assailant. This time,
the gun-stock struck him on the head. It is said from
that moment he became so violently insane that he
had to be kept under guard of two personal servants,
Turcotte and Lepine. During the week that Wil-
liams waited at Grand Rapids for the coming of Rob-
ertson, the Northwest captives were kept on an island
in midstream, forbidden even to leave their tent. One
night, the partner Mcintosh, succeeded in rolling
himself out under the tent flap to the rear. Crawling
to that side of the island farthest from the sentries,
he bound two or three floating logs together in a raft



Online LibraryAgnes Christina LautThe conquest of the great Northwest: being the story of the ..., Volumes 1-2 → online text (page 39 of 50)