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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 III

< 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


Occurrences at Fort Chipewyan, spring, 1837.—Traits of the Natives.

The whole month of February was unusually mild, and at noon the sun not unfrequently asserted his increasing power by a gentle thaw. Messengers were continually arriving with favourable accounts from the Indian camps; a pleasing contrast to the preceding winter, which is rendered memorable to the poor natives by the ravages of an influenza—scarcely less dreadful than the cholera—that carried off nearly two hundred of the distant Chipewyans. I say distant because all who were within reach of the establishments were sent for and carried thither, where every care was taken of them; warm clothing and lodgings were provided; medicines administered; the traders and servants fed them, parting with their own slender stock of luxuries[1] for their nourisbment; till even the cold heart of the red man warmed into gratitude, and his lips uttered the unwonted accents of thanks.

The first point determined, after my arrival, in reference to the expedition, was, that instead of one large boat for the coast, we should immediately get two built, of smaller dimensions. The purpose of this change was, to provide for the greater security of the party; to render our craft so light as to admit of their being carried over the icy reefs obstructing the passage along the western coast, and that they might afterwards be transported with facility, across the Coppermine portage, to another scene of operations. This step was the more necessary, as it was extremely doubtful whether the northern parts of Great Bear Lake produced timber fit for the construction of boats of any description, and as we should there be unprovided with a boat-house, forge, and many other requisites for that purpose, which we possessed at Fort Chipewyan. It will be abundantly evident, in the course of the narrative, that, with a single boat, the expedition must have terminated disastrously. To complete the crews, we required only two additional men, whom Chief Factor Smith promptly provided from among several volunteers, the service being now popular with the northern voyageurs. We likewise engaged, as hunters for Great Bear Lake, a Chipewyan family, comprehending an old man, his two sons and two sons-in-law, accompanied by their wives and children.

It is with sincere pleasure I take this occasion of observing, that the harsh treatment of their women, for which the Chipewyans were, not long since, remarkable, even among the North American tribes, is now greatly alleviated, especially among those who have frequent communication with the establishments. At Great Bear Lake I had many opportunities of witnessing the conduct of this particular family, and always saw the females treated with kindness.

The present Chipewyan character, indeed, contrasts most favourably with that of the party which accompanied Hearne on his discovery of the Coppermine River, and who massacred the unhappy Esquimaux, surprised asleep in their tents at the Bloody Fall. A large proportion of the Company's servants, and, with very few exceptions, the officers, are united to native women. A kindly feeling of relationship thus exists between them and the Indians, which tends much to the safety of the small and thinly scattered posts, placed, as they are, among overwhelming numbers, were those numbers hostile. The rising class of officers have begun to marry the young ladies educated at Red River, which will tend to give a higher tone to the manners and morals of the country, without, it is to be hoped, diminishing those mutual feelings of good-will that now subsist between the Indians and the traders resident amongst them.

The month of March proved as severe as February was mild. The thermometer fell to —36° and ranged from —20° to —30° for many days. The aurora frequently exhibited its fantastic lights, but only once or twice vividly displayed the prismatic colours. An aged Cree hunter arrived with his family. Feeling his strength—which had borne him through forest and flood for many a year—no longer equal to the chase, the old man said that he was come to end his days at the Fort. With care and attention, however, he soon began to revive; the whole family were furnished with everything necessary, had the same rations assigned them as the regular servants, and continued to live in comfort at the establishment. Many other Indians came in from the different camps with furs and for supplies.

From some of the Chipewyans I learned that they had, in the course of the preceding summer, met with a party of Esquimaux at the confluence of the noble Thēlew or Thēlon River with the Doobaunt of Heame, below the lake of the latter name, and not far from the influx of these united streams into Chesterfield Inlet. This meeting was of the most amicable character, and they spent a great part of the summer together. The Esquimaux even proposed to send two of their young men to Athabasca, inciting the same number of Indians to pass the winter with them. The arrangement was agreed to by both parties, but was frustrated by some petty jealousy among the women. They also informed me that, in 1832, some of the Athabasoa Chipewyans accompanied the Churchill branch of their tribe on their annual meeting with other Esquimaux at Yath Kyed, or White Snow Lake of Hearne, which receives the united waters of the Cathawchaga and the rapid Kasan, or White Partridge River. This remarkable change, from mortal hatred to frank and confident intercourse, is solely owing to the humane interposition of the Company's ofiicers, who neglect no opportunity of inculcating on the minds of these savage tribes the propriety of their forgiving ancient wrongs, and uniting together in the bonds of peace and friendship. By the same influence, the warlike Beaver Indians of Peace River have been, of late years, reconciled to their old enemies—the Thœcanies of the Rocky Mountains, and the Carriers of New Caledonia.

April opened with the unpromising temperature of 5° below zero, but the weather soon became mild and pleasant. On the 13th there fell a copious shower of rain; on the 17th the first swans were seen, on the south side of the lake; and on the 21st several flocks of wild fowl flew past the establishment. In the woods the cranberry and juniper disclosed their crimson and purple fruit, so long hidden beneath the snow; the buds of the willow began to appear; from bush and tree a tribe of little birds twittered and carolled in the glad sunshine; the axes of the woodsmen resounded from the adjacent hills; while the numerous Indian tents, pitched on the rocks around the Fort, poured forth a swarm of youthful savages, who gambolled in the full activity of untutored nature. Spring—joyous, animated spring—was returned, and the death-like silence of winter was past!

During this month I had the most convincing proofs of that recklessness which prompts the Indian to prefer a momentary gratification to a substantial benefit. Earnest applications were made by the assembled Chipewyans for the reintroduction into their country of ardent spirits, which had been for many years discontinued by the Company's humane policy. Their attachment to the poisonous beverage, however, remained so strong, that, every season, parties of the tribe traversed the continent to Churchill, on Hudson's Bay, with no other purpose than to obtain it. At length its use was prohibited there also, and the Chipewyans renewed their solicitations. Instead of gaining their point, they were now justly reproved by their benefactor, Mr. Smith, and obliged to confess their own folly. The following is an extract of the Company's standing orders on these subjects:—"That the Indians be treated with kindness and indulgence, and mild and conciliatory means resorted to, in order to encourage industry, repress vice, and inculcate morality; that the use of spirituous liquors be gradually discontinued in the few districts in which it is yet indispensable; and that the Indians be liberally supplied with requisite necessaries, particularly with articles of ammunition, whether they have the means of paying for it or not." It is equally the Company's inclination, and their interest, to render the natiyes comfortable. It is when they are well-clothed, and amply provided with anmiunition, that they are best able to exert themselves in collecting furs and provisions. But, so far is it from the Company's wish to acquire an undue influence over them, by loading them with debts, that repeated attempts have been made to reduce the trade to a simple barter. In order to effect an object so beneficial to the natives themselves, the arrears of the Chipewyans have been twice cancelled since the junction of the two Companies in 1821; but the generous experiment has signally failed. The improvidence of the Indian character is an unsurmountable obstacle to its success, and in the Chipewyans is aggravated by a custom which the whites have not yet been able wholly to eradicate. On the death of a relative, they destroy guns, blankets, kettles, everything, in short, they possess, concluding the havoc by tearing their lodges to pieces. When these transports of grief have subsided, they must have recourse to the nearest establishment for a fresh supply of necessaries, and thus their debts are renewed. The debts of the deceased are, in every case, lost to the Company. The Indian debt system is, in reality, equivalent to the practice, in many civilised countries, of making advances to hired servants previous to the commencement of their actual duties. This is particularly remarkable among the French Canadians, who can scarcely be induced to undertake any work or service without first receiving part payment in advance. Their improvidence approaches to that of the Indian, and produces similar effects.

It is not perhaps generally known that, in some parts of the Indian territory, the hunting-grounds descend by inheritance among the natives, and that this right of property is rigidly enforced. Where no such salutary law prevails, their main source of wealth, the beaver, would soon be exhausted by the eager search of the hunters, were it not for the judicious regulations of the Company, whose officers have, for many years past, exhorted the natives to spare the young of that valuable animal. In this praiseworthy design they have met with increasing success, according as the eyes of the Indians have been opened to their own true interests. But the attempt will be understood to be one of extreme difficulty, in consequence of that passion for depriving the animal creation of life, so deeply implanted in the breast of the North American Indian, that it costs him a pang to pass bird, beast, or fish without an effort to destroy it, whether he stands in need of it or not. Near York Factory, in 1831, this propensity, contrary to all the remonstrances of the gentlemen of that place, led to the indiscriminate destruction of a countless herd of reindeer, while crossing the broad stream of Haye's River, in the height of summer. The natives took some of the meat for present use, but thousands of carcases were abandoned to the current, and infected the river banks, or floated out into Hudson's Bay, there to feed the sea-fowl and the Polar bear. As if it were a judgment for this barbarous slaughter, in which women and even children participated, the deer have never since visited that part of the country in similar numbers. It is to their own head-strong imprudence, which the example and influence of the traders cannot at all times control, that the occasional deaths by starvation among the natives, and still more rare abandonment of the aged and helpless, must be ascribed.

The quantity of provisions furnished by the Indians to the establishments throughout the northern districts is inconsiderable. In the winter season it is generally limited to the rib-pieces of the moose, red, and rein-deer, half-dried in the smoke of their tents, and the bones removed for lightness of carriage; to which a few tongues are perhaps added. In the course of the summer, when the animals are easily hunted, and there is water transport everywhere, the more industrious families usually bring to their Fort a bale of "dried meat," consisting of the fleshy parts of the deer cut into large slices and dried in the sun, with a bladder or two containing fat; or a bag of "pounded meat," which, when mixed with boiled fat, forms the renowned pemican. When these scanty supplies prove insufficient, with the produce of their own fisheries, and, where the climate is suitable, of the ground cultivated, to support the few people who reside at each of the widely separate posts, two or more young active Indians without family, or with but small families, are engaged as "Fort hunters," and regarded as regular servants. The duty of these hunters is confined to the killing of large animals for the establishment; and such part of the meat as is not required by themselves and their families, is transported thither, with dogs and sledges, by the servants belonging to the place. To become Fort hunter is the ambition of a northern Indian, for the situation is at once an acknowledgment of his skill, and places the finest and gayest clothing at his command. It is, however, necessary to change them from time to time, as an Indian no sooner forms the notion that his services are indispensable, than from that moment he slackens his exertions. Every prudent manager of a post endeavours to procure more provisions than the actual wants of his charge. He is thus enabled, when scarcity or ill-success overtakes his Indians, to afford them a timely, and always a gratuitous relief. I do not speak here of the comparatively mild climate of the Saskatchewan, where the mounted plain hordes often glut the establishments with the spoils of myriads of buffialoes, and threaten their existence by their dangerous visits. Nor are these remarks applicable to the still more southerly districts bordering on Canada, where the natives, as well as the people in the Company's service, are in a great measure fed upon imported provisions, purchased by the Company from the Americans. The principle universally acted on throughout the vast and now admirably governed fur-countries is, that the true interests of the native Indian, and of the white man who resides in voluntary exile on his lands, are indissolubly united.

All attempts to raise farm produce among the rocks at Fort Chipewyan have proved abortive, even potatoes being brought down from Peace River; but there are never-failing fisheries in Athabasca Lake. The few horses and oxen required for hauling firewood to the place are maintained, during the long winter of seven months, upon coarse grass cut in the swamps, and, when that fails, upon fish.

May, like April, was a fine month; but, till near its close, there was little sultry weather. Swallows appeared about the houses on the 19th; and, during the whole month, the geese,[2] on their northward migration, afforded the native camp food, and the Fort sportsmen amusement. The environs of the lake, for miles, resounded with the fusilade, as if bands of skirmishers, hotly engaged, were scattered over the country.

On the 11th we had a smart thunderstorm; and another, more distant, a few days afterwards: these were the only ones of the spring. Owing to the general coolness of the season, and the low state of the waters, the ice lingered on the lake until the 22nd;[3] a party of Indians having crossed it, opposite the Fort, only the day before. It continued alternately driving and stopping for several days.

On the 23rd the Peace River boats reached "English Island" and their cargoes were carried by land to the establishment, a distance of two miles.

On the 25th, Chief Factor M'Leod arrived with the canoes from Fort Resolution. This gentleman, already known to the public as Sir George Back's intrepid assistant at Great Slave Lake, volunteered, in the handsomest manner, to conduct a party of Chipewyans to meet us at the mouth of the Great Fish River in August 1838. Circumstances, however, prevented our availing ourselves of his gallant proposal; and, without the aid of an experienced officer, it would have been vain to attempt, through Indians, making any deposit of provisions, &c., at Lake Beechey, as suggested in our instructions.

From the mean of a great number of observations, I deduced the position of Fort Chipewyan, which accords well with the results in Sir John Franklin's first and second journeys. Lat. 68° 42′ 38″ N.; long. 111° 18′ 32″ W. The variation, by several sets of azimuths, was 26° 6′ 23″ E., showing an increase of 36′ 46″ since 1825, or about three minutes per annum.

Our sea-boats were now finished. They were light clinker-built craft, of twenty-four feet keel and six feet beam, furnished with wash-boards, and carrying each two lug-sails. They were expressly adapted for a shallow navigation, by their small draught of water; were payed with a mixture of clear pine-resin, which gave them a light and elegant appearance, and with the coloured earths of the country we manufactured paints for their further decoration. So perfectly alike and admirable were they, that they were honoured with the classical appellations of the twins Castor and Pollux; while the more capacious bateau for Great Bear Lake gloried in the redoubtable name of Goliah. Each of the sea-boats was provided with a small, oiled, canvass canoe, and portable wooden frame, which proved highly serviceable in the sequel.

On the 80th we had a trial of our boats on the lake in a stiff breeze, and were well satisfied with their respective performances.

  1. A few pounds of tea, sugar, &c., allowed to officers and guides, and purchased by the common-men, are called "luxuries" in Hudson's Bay. The old Canadian "voyageurs," who lament the degeneracy of their successors, are nothing loth to imitate their example in adding these comforts to their fare; and an encampment of the present day exhibits a regular assortment of tea-kettles, pots, and pans.
  2. There were four kinds of geese, the Snow, Canada, Laughing, and Hutchin's; of which the first were by far the most numerous.
  3. The eastern part of the lake, which, unlike the western, is traversed by no large river, never opens till the month of June.