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Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39/Chapter I

< Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, effected by the Officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, during the years 1836—39



the Honourable

Hudson's Bay Company's Expedition.


Introduction.—Instructions.—The Colony of Red River.—Converted Indians.—Reconciliation of Hostile Tribes.

The zealous and effective co-operation of the Hudson's Bay Company, in the Arctic land expeditions commanded by Franklin and Back, is well known to the British public. Notwithstanding the reiterated efforts of these able officers, and the simultaneous enterprise by sea, a considerable extent of the northern coast of America remained unexplored at their close.

Actuated by an earnest desire to complete an examination so important to geographical science, and towards the achievement of which Great Britain had made so many brilliant attempts, the Directors of the Company determined, in the spring of 1836, to equip an expedition on a small scale, under the orders of their own officers. The facilities afforded by their extensive chain of posts, their control over the Indian tribes, the knowledge possessed by their officers of the resources, and their habitude to the hardships of the country, all concurred in pointing out this mode as the most likely to ensure success.

Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, who so ably assisted Sir John Franklin at his winter quarters in 1825-26, and myself, were appointed by Governor Simpson to the joint management of the expedition; and I was honoured with the Governor's commands to draw out a plan of operations, upon which our instructions were to be founded. Among various plans considered, that which appeared the most eligible coincided in its leading features, but on a reduced scale, with one previously proposed by Dr. Richardson. The following copy of the instructions, which were soon after delivered to us by Governor Simpson, will convey to the reader a lucid and comprehensive view of the whole subject.

"Norway House, 2nd July, 1836.


"By the 79th and 80th Resolutions of Council of this season, you will observe that we have determined on fitting out an Expedition forthwith, for the purpose of endeavouring to complete the discovery and survey of the Northern shores of this continent.

"2. This object has, for a great length of time, excited the most lively interest in the public mind, and has baffed the exertions of many enterprising men, among whom the names of Parry, Franklin, Ross, and Back have of late years appeared conspicuous; but I trust that the honour of its accomplishment is reserved for the Hudson's Bay Company through your exertions; and, in selecting you for so important a mission, we give the best proof of the high opinion we entertain of your abilities and qualifications for such an undertaking.

"3. The expedition, consisting of twelve men, is now placed under your direction; and you will be pleased to conduct it without delay to the Athabasca country, and to pass the ensuing winter at Fort Chipewyan, or Great Slave Lake, as you may consider expedient, although, in my opinion, Great Slave Lake would be the preferable wintering ground, in many respects, as regards the objects of the expedition.

"4. At the opening of the navigation in June, you will proceed by boat down Mackenzie River to Fort Norman; and there leave four men, with directions that they proceed from thence to the north-east end of Great Bear Lake, and there erect buildings, establish fisheries, and collect provisions, for the accommodation and maintenance of the party during the winter 1837-8.

"5. You will then go down to the sea with the remaining eight men, and endeavour to trace the coast to the westward to long 156° 21’, N. lat. 71° 23’ 39’’, whence Captain Beechey's barge returned. Should your progress along the coast be obstructed by ice or fog, as Sir John Franklin's was, you will either put the boat in a place of security, and proceed on foot with all your party, or leave four men with the boat for its protection while you go along shore, carrying a sufficient quantity of provisions with you for the journey. It is desirable to take observations as frequently, and to survey the coast as accurately as possible, without, however, losing time on your outward journey in waiting for the appearance of the sun, moon, or stars, which are frequently obscured by the dense fogs that prevail so much on that coast; but devoting as much time to these objects as the season and the state of your provisions will allow on your return.

"6. At the most westerly point you may reach, you will erect, in a conspicuous situation, a pillar or mound, and leave deposited in the earth at its base a bottle hermetically sealed, containing an outline of the leading circumstances connected with the voyage.

"7. In suggesting that the boat should be left, in the event of your progress being obstructed by ice or fog, I beg it to be understood, that that ought not to be done if there be the least probability, that, by perseverance, you may succeed in getting her along shore, as the preservation of the boat I consider to be highly essential both to the accomplishment of the voyage and to the protection of the party; but if there be no possibility of getting on with the boat, I beg to recommend that you provide yourselves with axes and cordage to make rafts for crossing rivers, and some parchment sheeting and oilcloths, to make a couple of small canoes for the conveyance of the party, should it be found impossible to cross the rivers on rafts, and in order to secure your retreat in the event of the loss of the boat.

"8. Should you not be able to accomplish the voyage or journey during the season of open water, and that you fall in with friendly Esquimaux or Indians, as many of the party as can be maintained may remain with them, so as to complete the survey in the course of the winter or spring; in this, however, you will exercise your own discretion, and be guided by circumstances.

"9. It is exceedingly desirable, however, that you should return by open water, so as to pass the winter at the establishment to be formed at the north-east end of Great Bear Lake, in order to make the necessary preparations for another voyage of discovery, to the eastward, at the opening of the navigation in the summer of 1838.

"10. The object of that voyage is to trace the coast, from Franklin's Point Turnagain, eastward, to the entrance of Back's Great Fish River. To that end, you will haul your boat across from the north-eastern extremity of Great Bear Lake to the Coppermine River before the winter breaks up, and at the opening of the navigation proceed to the sea, and make as accurate a survey of the coast as possible, touching at Point Turnagain, and proceeding to Back's Great Fish River, if the strait or passage exists, which that officer represents as separating the main land from Ross's Boothia Felix; but should it turn out, on examination, that no such strait exists, and that Captain Ross is correct in his statement that it is a peninsula, not an island, you will in that case leave your boat and cross the isthmus on foot, taking with you materials for building two small canoes, by which you may follow the coast to Point Richardson, Point Maconochie, or some other given spot that can be ascertained as having been reached by Captain Back. And you will be regulated in determining whether you will return by Great Fish River or by the coast, by the period of the season at which you may arrive there, the state of the navigation, and other circumstances.

"11. In order to guard against privation, in the event of your returning by Great Fish River, it will be advisable to make arrangements, at Great Slave Lake, that a supply of provisions, with ammunition and fishing-tackle, likewise babiche for snow-shoe lacing, be deposited at Lake Beechey, or some other point of that route.

"12. Should you be unable to complete the voyage to the eastward from the Coppermine River in one season, you may, as suggested in reference to the other voyage, take up your quarters with the Esquimaux for the winter, so as to accomplish it the following season.

"13. In making your arrangements for both voyages, I have to recommend that a considerable quantity of pemican and flour, not less than one hundred pieces, be provided for voyaging provisions, and that you be well supplied with materials for constructing small canoes, leather for shoes, and snow-shoe netting, likewise with ammunition, axes, crooked knives, fishing-hooks, net-thread, backing and setting lines, and with warm clothing for yourselves and the people.

"14. The necessary astronomical and surveying instruments[1] are provided, to enable you to take observations and to make surveys, in which you will be as accurate as possible; and you will be pleased to prepare a full and particular journal, or narrative of the voyage, likewise a chart of the coast; and to take formal possession of the country, on behalf of Great Britain, in your own names, acting for the Honourable Hudson's Bay Company, at every part of the coast you may touch; giving names to the different headlands, mountains, rivers, and other remarkable objects you may discover. It is also desirable that you make a collection of minerals, plants, or any specimens of natural history you may fall in with, that appear to be new, curious, or interesting.

"15. You are hereby authorised to avail yourselves, for the use of the expedition, of any assistance whatsoever you may require, at any of the Honourable Company's establishments you may touch at, or have communication with, either by letter or otherwise; and the gentlemen in charge of those establishments are hereby instructed to meet all demands you may make upon them.

"16. In the event of any accident occurring to prevent either of you from proceeding on this mission, the other will be pleased to follow up the object of it, and to avail himself of the assistance, as a second in command, of any clerk of the Company he may find within his reach; and such clerk will be pleased to act in that capacity accordingly. With fervent prayers for your safety and success,

"I remain. Gentlemen,
Your most obedient humble servant,
(Signed) George Simpson."'

"Messrs. P. W. Dease and Thomas Simpson."

Our complement of men was completed at the same high rate of wages as on Captain Back's overland expedition. We were unfortunate only in our fishermen: one injured his leg and was unable to go; another, a powerful man, named Anderson, who had served at Fort Reliance, being seized with a sudden panic, fled into the woods, where he was found, after our departure, disordered in his mind. His place was filled by a man subsequently engaged on the route northward.

A supply of trading goods having been got up from York Factory, and all the other arrangements being complete, Mr. Dease took his departure, on the 2lst of July, from Norway House for Athabasca, in company with Chief Factor Smith, the gentleman in charge of that department, who afforded every possible aid in transporting the goods and provisions destined for the expedition, during the long and laborious voyage to Fort Chipewyan, which they safely reached on the 28th of September. At the same time I returned to spend the autumn at Red River Settlement, chiefly with a view to refresh and extend my astronomical practice, which had for some years been interrupted by avocations of a very different nature.

It would be foreign to my purpose to enter into a lengthened description of this isolated colony: I shall merely bestow upon it a cursory glance, to give the reader some faint idea of its peculiar character. Situated under the 50th degree of north latitude, and 97th of west longitude, at an elevation of eight or nine hundred feet above the sea, and stretching for upwards of fifty miles along the wooded borders of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, which flow through a level country of vast extent, it possesses a salubrious climate and a fertile soil; but summer frosts, generated by undrained marshes, sometimes blast the hopes of the husbandman, and the extremes of abundance and want are experienced by an improvident people. Horses, horned cattle, hogs, and poultry, are exceedingly numerous. Sheep have been brought by the Company, at great expense, from England and the United States, and are reared with success. Wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, turnips, and most of the ordinary culinary vegetables, thrive well. Pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers come to maturity in the open air in favourable seasons. Maize, pease, and beans, have not been extensively cultivated ; hops grow luxuriantly; flax and hemp are poor and stunted; orchards are as yet unknown.

The banks of the rivers are cultivated to the width of from a quarter to half a mile. All the back level country remains in its original state—a vast natural pasture, covered for the greater part of the year with cattle, and also furnishing the inhabitants with a sufficiency of coarse hay for the support of their herds during the winter. The length of this severe season exceeds five months, the rivers usually freezing in November and opening in April, when there is a fine sturgeon-fishery; but Lake Winipeg, the grand receptacle of the river waters, does not break up till the close of May.[2] The most common sorts of wood are oak, elm, poplar, and maple; pines are likewise found towards Lake Winipeg. Firewood is rafted down the rivers, from above the limits of the colony, during the summer, or transported on sledges when the snow falls; but as this essential article is now, through waste and neglect, growing less plentiful, many of the inhabitants have provided themselves with cast-iron stoves, which occasion a much less consumption of fuel. The two principal churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, the gaol, the Company's chief buildings, the bishop's residence, and the houses of some retired officers of the fur trade, are built of stone, which is brought from a considerable distance. The generality of the settlers dwell in frame or loghouses, roofed with wooden slabs, bark, or shingles, and, for the most part, whitewashed or painted externally. Not a man, however mean or idle, but possesses a horse; and they vie in gay carioles, harness, saddles, and fine clothes. A great abundance of English goods is imported, both by the Company and by individuals, in the Company's annual ships to York Factory, and disposed of in the colony at moderate prices. Labour is dear, and produce of all kinds sells at a higher rate than could be expected in such a secluded place.

Governor Simpson has long endeavoured, by arguments and rewards, to excite an exportation to England of hides, tallow, flax, hemp, and wool for the benefit of the settlers, but with little success. The bulky nature of such exports, a long and dangerous navigation to Hudson's Bay, but, above all, the roving and indolent habits of the half-breed race, who form the mass of the population, and love the chase of the buffalo better than the drudgery of agriculture or regular industry, seem to preclude the probability of this colony rising to commercial importance.[3] The currency of the place consists in the Company's notes, with a smaller amount of silver and copper coin. Fifteen wind and three water mills grind the wheat and prepare the malt of the inhabitants, who use neither barley nor oats in bread. Of all these mills two only have been erected by a Roman Catholic, a gentleman in the Company's pay as warden of the plains; the rest are in the hands of the Protestants, who constitute but two-fifths of the population. It may be remarked that, while not a few of the children, by native women, of the Company's retired European servants, who are chiefly Orkneymen, inherit the plodding careful disposition of their fathers, the half-breed descendants of the French Canadians are, with rare exceptions, characterised by the paternal levity and extravagance, superadded to the uncontrollable passions of the Indian blood. Many of the industrious Scotch, who first planted the colony in 1811, under the auspices of the late Earl of Selkirk, have saved handsome sums of money, besides rearing large families in rustic plenty. A considerable portion of this valuable class, however, dreading the predominance and violence of the half-breeds, with whom they have avoided intermarrying, have converted their property into money, and removed to the United States.

Besides extensive purchases of grain and pro visions, for their transport and other service, the Company annually expends large sums at Red River, in various works of public utility, such as experimental farming, erecting churches and other buildings, endowing schools, affording medical aid gratis to the poor, encouraging domestic manufactures, maintaining an armed police, dispensing justice, and in contributing to the support of two Protestant clergymen, of a Roman Catholic bishop, and three priests from Canada. These self-denying men are exemplary in their lives, zealous and indefatigable in their benevolent labours, among the fruits of which may be reckoned the conversion and location of a great number of Indians, of the Cree and Saulteaux or Chipeway nations. To compensate this heavy outlay the Company has hitherto derived no return, for the occasional sale of lands does not even defray the cost of the survey, they being in most instances bestowed gratis, though regularly purchased from the Indians, and the fur trade of the surrounding country has been long ago ruined by the colony; but under the Company's fostering care a population of five thousand souls has been nurtured, and a comfortable retreat has been provided for such of its retired officers and servants as prefer spending the evening of life, with their native families, in this oasis of the desert, to returning to the countries of their nativity. I cannot pass over without particular notice the admirable boarding-schools established by the Rev. Mr. Jones, where about sixty youth of both sexes, the intelligent and interesting offspring of the Company's officers, are trained up in European accomplishments, and in the strictest principles of religion. Nor should I omit mentioning the Indian settlements, founded by the Rev. Mr. Cockran at the lower extremity of the colony. He has provided schoolmasters for the native children, and built places of worship where he regularly officiates. He has constructed a windmill for the Indians, assists them in erecting their wooden houses, and with his own hands sets them the example of industry. At the other extremity of the colony, M. Belcour, one of the Roman Catholic priests, with untiring zeal conducts, a location of Saulteaux Indians on a smaller scale. I wish I could add that the improvement of the aborigines is commensurate to those beneficent cares. But unhappily the experience of Canada, of the United States, of California, in short, of all parts of North America where the experiment of ameliorating the character of the Indian tribes by civilization has been tried, is renewed at Red River. Nothing can overcome their in satiable desire for intoxicating liquors; and though they are here excluded from the use of spirits, and the settlers are fined when detected in supplying them with ale, yet, from the great extent of the colony, they too often contrive to gratify that debasing inclination, to which they are ready to sacrifice everything they possess. They feel no gratitude to their benefactors, or spiritual teachers; and, while they lose the haughty independence of savage life, they ac- quire at once all the bad qualities of the white man, but are slow, indeed, in imitating his industry and his virtues.[4]

Indian lads, educated in the Church Missionary Society's school at Red River, have been sent to instruct their countrymen in various parts of the Company's territory. In the countries of the Columbia and New Caledonia, to the westward of the great Rocky mountain chain, the missionary labours promise considerable success. There the climate is softened by the influences of the Pacific; food is abundant; the numerous natives do not lead the same solitary wandering lives as the eastern tribes, but dwell together in villages. They are endowed with a greater capacity and quickness of apprehension; are more pliant and tractable in temper; are fond of imitating the customs of white men; and now receive, with eagerness, the truths of Christianity, from those upon whom but a few years ago they perpetrated the most barbarous murders: but the fever and ague, to which the country is very subject, has of late thinned their numbers. The Company's principal chaplain resides at their depot of Fort Vancouver, on the north side of the Columbia river, where agriculture, rearing of stock, and other commercial operations are prosecuted on a great scale. The same enlightened body has, of late years, liberally assisted American missionaries employed in instructing the dissolute maritime tribes, and in founding an American colony on the Willamette, a southern tributary of the Columbia; and has since conveyed across the mountains several Canadian priests, who, under the authority of the bishop at Red River, are gone to form another British settlement on the shores of Puget's Sound,—the nucleus of a future empire in the far west. The case is widely different in the frozen regions of the north; there the Indian hunters are scattered through interminable forests, into which civilization can never penetrate. Since the coalition of the rival companies, however, and the discharge of the noxious swarm of adventurers, who, encouraged by the licence of a hot opposition, overran and well-nigh ruined the country, the precepts of morality and order have been instilled into the minds of the aborigines by many officers of the Company. No stronger proof of the salutary effect of their injunctions can be adduced than that, while peace and decorum mark the general conduct of the northern tribes, bloodshed, rapine, and unbridled lust are the characteristics of the fierce hordes of Assiniboines, Pigeons, Blackfeet, Circees, Fall and Blood Indians who inhabit the plains between the Saskatchewan and Missouri, and are without the pale of the Company’s influence and authority.

It gives me sincere pleasure to say that a reconciliation has at length been effected between those lately inveterate and bloody enemies, the Saulteaux and Sioux nations. Under the safeguard of the Company's people, aided by the settlers, two bands of the latter tribe visited Red River during my residence there, in 1834 and 1836. Presents were given and speeches were made both to them and to the assembled Saulteaux, who upon the first occasion were very violent, and were only restrained from bloodshed by disarming and other vigorous measures; but, upon the last occasion, they smoked the calumet of peace and slept in the same apartments with the Sioux at the Company's headquarters, Fort Garry. The Sioux seemed highly gratified with the kindness and protection they experienced, and have on several occasions performed friendly offices to the Company's couriers and others passing through their country to the American garrison on the river St. Peter's. They are a warlike, equestrian race, with light sinewy frames and eagle eyes, who pursue the buffalo in the boundless plains of the Missouri and the upper Mississippi.

Some of the incidents connected with the first visit of the Sioux may be worth narrating, as illustrative of savage passions. A party of six-and-thirty men, headed by a daring chief, called The Burning Earth, in consequence of some disgust which originated across the lines, resolved to brave the danger arising from the implacable hatred of the Saulteaux, through whose country they must pass, and to pay a visit to the British settlement. Being obliged to leave their horses on the way, they marched during the night, and reached undiscovered the woody banks of the Red River, a short distance above the remotest houses. There they lay concealed for several days, and, being almost naked, suffered much from cold and hunger. At length one of them, venturing out to the brink of the stream, observed on the opposite side a half-breed, named Baptiste Parisien, whom he recognised. This man had travelled through the Sioux territories, and served, it is said, in the United States' cavalry against the Socs and Foxes. Parisien instantly invited the stranger to his house; and the latter, plunging into the river, swam across to him. He told his story, and Parisien generously proceeded with a canoe to ferry over the whole party. He lodged them, collected his friends to protect them from their enemies, and sent a messenger to the Company's central establishment, at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, to report their arrival and desire of an interview. Chief Factor Christie, the governor of the colony, acceded to their request, and Parisien conducted them, under a strong escort, to Fort Garry. There a conference was opened with great form and gravity. The Sioux declared that the object of their hazardous journey was to transfer their trade to the British, and, to that end, to make a lasting peace with the Saulteaux. Mr. Christie replied, that, they being American subjects, the Company could not gratify them in the first particular, but was most anxious to promote a cordial reconciliation between them and their ancient enemies. I was particularly pleased with the speech of a grim old warrior, called The Black Eagle. After describing their state of perpetual hostility with the Saulteaux : "In our plains" said he, "every stock, every stone, is taken for an enemy ; these fears can no longer be endured: let the Sioux and the Saulteaux smoke the calumet of peace ; let them hunt the buffalo together, and let them henceforth be one nation." Another orator, of a more lively mien, concluded his harangue by begging "a drink of (rum) fire-water;" "for," said he, "I love it better than ever I did my mother's milk." As second officer, I assisted Mr. Christie during the interview, and officiated at the same time as French interpreter, that being the language of the only capable Sioux speaker at the place. At the close of the "palaver," The Burning Earth presented Mr. Christie and myself with ornamented pipes, and I handed him the gun I carried in return.[5] All went on pleasantly till the evening, when a large party of Saulteaux, from the river Assiniboine, galloped suddenly into the court. They were completely armed, and breathed fury and revenge; having lost forty of their relatives by an attack of the Sioux a year or two before. We instantly stationed a strong guard around the building, and despatched messengers, summoning the police and able-bodied settlers to the defence of the strangers who had thrown themselves on our hospitality. A sufficient number arrived in the course of the night to prevent any violent attempt being made. The Saulteaux, continually augmenting, were so irritated at being repulsed from the windows through which they sought to fire upon the unfortunate Sioux within, that they turned upon some of Parisien's followers, and blood had well-nigh been spilled. The great difficulty now was, how to get the strangers safely home again. We supplied them with provisions, tobacco, and some clothing, and also ammunition for their defence, in case of their being attacked beyond the bounds of the colony. They concealed their alarm, put on a resolute countenance, sung their death-song, and the chief, unsheathing his sabre, smote the bare shoulders of each of his followers with the flat side of the blade. After this ceremony, they declared their readiness to depart, and were led out between two lines of the police and the settlers to the boats, which were in readiness to convey them across the river. The Saulteaux, who were on the watch, now endeavoured to press forward; but we drove them back, and disarmed a great many of them. Parisien and his half-breeds undertook to conduct the Sioux safely out into the open plains, where they might set their bush-fighting foes at defiance. The party had no sooner crossed the river than a number of the Saulteaux threw themselves into their canoes on the Assiniboine, a little distance above, with a view to intercept their retreat. Observing this manoeuvre, I ran towards them, followed by Mr. M'Kinlay and a few others, and, levelling our guns at the men in the canoes, ordered them to turn back. They angrily complied, when the principal man, seeing that we were but a handful, began to vent threats against us; but, a party opportunely riding up to our assistance, we carried the old fellow with us to the establishment, and his followers dispersed. Parisien sent us word next day, that, though some ambuscades were laid, he had seen the Sioux safely clear of the woods; after which they had little difficulty in returning to their own country, about Lac Travers. I regret to add that this gallant fellow was, three years afterwards, shot through the heart in the melee of a bufialo hunt.

On the second occasion, the Sioux came in double numbers, better armed, and led by Ulāněta, the greatest chief of their whole nation. He was distinguished by a sort of coronet of eagle feathers and a necklace of grisly bears' claws, with the unromantic addition of a pair of green spectacles! He is a tall elderly man, with a mild, almost a benignant, expression of countenance; yet he is said to be one of the fiercest warriors in all the plains. He was obeyed with respect, and some of his people seemed expressly appointed to maintain order amongst the rest. The whole party wore painted buffalo robes. They were, as before, hospitably received, and dismissed with gifts, but under strict injunctions not to repeat their troublesome and perilous visits.

  1. By Jones, Charing Cross
  2. Two-decked vessels ply on this lake during the summer between the colony and the entrepôt of Norway House, situated at its northern extremity, where the river navigation to Hudson's Bay commences.
  3. Since this was written, I have learned with infinite pleasure, that the settlers have at length found out the only practicable outlet for their cattle and grain; the fine level plains leading to the Mississippi and the St. Peter's, where there is the promise of a sufficient market among the Americans. Domestic manufactures too, which ought ever to precede exportation, have at last made some progress, in the shape of coarse cloths, stuffs, shawls, linen, sacking, tanned leather, &c.; all which tend to diminish the annual orders from England, and to render the people independent.
  4. Yet among the native tribes there exist marked distinctions. The swampy Crees, who have long been employed in the Company's service at York Factory and other places, adopt steady habits with far greater facility than the proud Saulteaux, who contemptuously term the settlers gardeners and diggers of the ground.
  5. His people then entertained us in the open air with their national dances, which are more animated than most Indian exhibitions of this sort. The Corypheus, a humorous little fellow, was really amusing. His place was on the outside of the ring, and, as he moved round the dancers, he saluted each with a smart lash of a thong on the bare back, and immediately after sounded a shrill whistle with a look of malicious drollery.