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Royal Naval Biography/Back, George


This officer was born at Stockport, co. Cheshire, Nov. 6th, 1796; and entered the royal navy in Sept. 1808, as midshipman on board the Arethusa frigate. Captain (afterwards Sir Robert) Mends, fitting out for Channel service. On the 26th Nov. following, he witnessed the capture of le General Ernouf, French privateer, of sixteen guns and fifty-eight men, near Cherbourg.

In Feb. 1809, the Arethusa was ordered to the north coast of Spain, where Mr. Back saw some active service, previous to his being taken prisoner while serving as a volunteer on a boat expedition, in the month of April following[1]. On that occasion he was marched from the vicinity of St. Sebastian to Bourdeaux and Verdun, at which depôt he continued nearly five years.

Mr. Back returned home, via Dieppe, May 6th, 1814; and afterwards served under Captains Archibald Dickson and Charles Bullen, in the Akbar 60, bearing the flag of Sir T. Byam Martin, at Flushing, in 1815, and subsequently employed on the Halifax station[2]. He passed his examination in seamanship at Bermuda, July 21st, 1816; and in mathematics, at the Royal Naval College, Feb. 5th, 1817. His next ship, in which he continued from Mar. 1817 until Jan. 1818, was the Bulwark 76, bearing the flag of Sir Charles Rowley, commander-in-chief in the Medway.

On the 14th Jan. 1818, Mr. Back joined the Trent hired brig, Lieutenant (now Sir John) Franklin fitting out for a voyage of discovery in the neighbourhood of Spitzbergen, under the orders of Captain David Buchan, whose proceedings have been related in Vol. III. Part I. p. 86 et seq. In the beginning of 1819, he was selected to accompany the former officer in an expedition over land, from Hudson’s Bay to the Copper-mine River. The narrative of this perilous and unprecedentedly daring enterprise is one of the most interesting that ever issued from the press; and the repeated acts of self-command, genuine courage, and intrepidity, recorded of Mr. Back, are in the highest degree honorable to him, and truly creditable to his perseverance and talents[3]. His journey on foot, in the depth of winter, from Fort Enterprise to Fort Chipewyan and back, is among the many instances of extraordinary exertion and determined perseverance which this expedition afforded. The following is a copy of his official report to Captain Franklin on rejoining him, “after an absence of nearly five months, during which time he had travelled 1104 miles, on snow-shoes, and had no other covering at night, in the woods, than a blanket and deer-skin, with the thermometer frequently at –40°, and once at –57°; and sometimes passing two or three days without tasting food.

“On quitting Fort Enterprise, with Mr. Wentzel and two Canadians, accompanied by two hunters and their wives, our route lay across the barren hills. We saw during the day a number of deer, and occasionally a solitary white wolf; and in the evening halted near a small knot of pines. Owing to the slow progress made by the wives of the hunters, we only travelled the first day a distance of seven miles and a half. During the night we had a glimpse of the fantastic beauties of the aurora borealis, and were somewhat annoyed by the wolves, whose nightly howling interrupted our repose. Early the next morning we continued our march, sometimes crossing small lakes (which were just frozen enough to bear us), and at other times going large circuits in order to avoid those which were open. The walking was extremely bad throughout the day; for independently of the general unevenness of the ground, and the numberless large stones which lay scattered in every direction, the unusual warmth of the weather had dissolved the snow, which not only kept us constantly wet, but deprived us of a firm footing; so that the men, with their heavy burdens, were in momentary apprehension of falling. In the afternoon a fine herd of deer was descried, and the Indians, who are always anxious for the chase, and can hardly be restrained from pursuing every animal which they see, set out immediately. It was late when they returned, having had good success, and bringing with them five tongues and the shoulder of a deer. We made about twelve miles this day. The night was fine, and the aurora borealis so vivid, that we imagined, more than once, that we heard a rustling noise like that of autumnal leaves stirred by the wind; but after two hours of attentive listening we were not entirely convinced of the fact. The coruscations were not so bright, nor the transition from one shape and colour to another, so rapid, as they sometimes are, otherwise I have no doubt, from the midnight silence which prevailed, that we should have ascertained this yet undecided point.

“The morning of the 20th was so extremely hazy that we could not see ten yards before us; it was therefore late when we started; and during our journey the hunters complained of the weather, and feared they should lose the track of our route. Towards the evening it became so thick that we could not proceed; consequently we halted in a small wood, situated in a valley, after having only completed a distance of six miles. The scenery consisted of high hills, which were almost destitute of trees; and lakes appeared in the valleys. The cracking of the ice was so loud during the night as to resemble thunder, and the wolves howled round us. We were now at the commencement of the woods; and at an early hour on the 21st, continued our journey over high hills for three miles, when the appearance of some deer caused us to halt, and nearly the remainder of the day was passed in hunting them. In the evening we stopped within sight of Prospect Hill, after having killed and concealed six deer.

“A considerable quantity of snow fell during the night. The surrounding country was extremely rugged; the hills divided hy deep ravines, and the valleys covered with broken masses of rocks and stones: yet the deer fly (as it were) over these impediments with apparent ease, seldom making a false step, and springing from crag to crag with all the safety of the mountain goat. After passing Reindeer Lake (where the ice was so thin as to bend at every step for nine miles), we halted, perfectly satisfied with our escape from sinking into the water. While some of the party were forming the encampment, one of the hunters killed a deer, a part of which was concealed; to be ready for use on our return. This evening we halted in a wood near the canoe track, after having travelled a distance of nine miles – the wind was S.E., and the night cloudy, with wind and rain. On the 24th and 25th, we underwent some fatigue, from being obliged to go round the lakes which lay across our route, and were not sufficiently frozen to bear us. Several rivulets appeared to empty themselves into the lakes. No animals were killed, and few tracks seen. The scenery consisted of barren rocks and high hills, covered with lofty pine, birch, and larch trees.

October 26. – We continued our journey, sometimes on frozen lakes, and at other times on high craggy rocks. When we were on the lakes we were much impeded in our journey by different parts which were not frozen. There was a visible increase of wood, consisting of birch and larch, as we inclined to the southward. About ten a.m. we passed Icy Portage, where we saw various tracts of the moose, bear, and otter; and after a most harassing march through thick woods and over fallen trees, we halted a mile to the westward of Fishing Lake. Our provisions were now almost expended. The weather was cloudy, with snow.

“On the 27th, we crossed two lakes, and performed a circuitous route, frequently crossing high hills to avoid those lakes which were not frozen. During the day one of the women made a hole through the ice, and caught a fine pike, which she gave to us: the Indians would not partake of it, from the idea (as we afterwards learnt), that we should not have sufficient for ourselves:– ‘We are accustomed to such privations,’ said they, ‘but you are not.’ In the evening we halted near Rocky Lake. I accompanied one of the Indians to the summit of a hill, where he shewed me a dark horizontal cloud, extending to a considerable distance along the mountains in the perspective, which he said was occasioned by the Great Slave Lake, and was considered as a good guide to all the hunters in the vicinity. On our return we saw two untenanted bears’ dens. The night was cloudy, with heavy snow; yet the following morning we continued our tedious march. Many of the lakes remained still open; the rocks high and covered with snow, which continued to fall all day: consequently we effected but a trifling distance, and that too with much difficulty. In the evening we halted, having only performed about seven miles. One of the Indians gave us a fish which he had caught, though he had nothing for himself; and it was with much trouble that he could be prevailed upon to partake of it. The night was cloudy, with snow.

“On the 29th, we set out through deep snow and thick woods; and after crossing two small lakes, stopped to breakfast; sending the women on before, as they had already complained of lameness, and could not keep pace with the party. It was not long before we overtook them, on the banks of a small lake, which though infinitely less in magnitude than many we had passed, yet had not a particle of ice on its surface. It was shoal, had no visible current, and was surrounded by hills. We had nothing to eat, and were not very near an establishment where food could be procured. However, as we proceeded, the lakes were frozen, and we quickened our pace, stopping but twice for the hunters to smoke: nevertheless the distance we completed was but trifling; and at night we halted near the lake, the men being tired, and much bruised, from constantly falling amongst thick broken woods and loose stones concealed under the snow. The night was blowing, and hazy, with snow.

“On the 30th we set out with the expectation of gaining the Slave Lake in the evening; but our progress was again impeded by the same cause as before, so that the whole day was spent in forcing our way through thick woods and over swamps covered with snow. We had to walk over pointed and loose rocks, which sliding from under our feet, made our path dangerous, and often threw us down several feet on sharp, edged stones lying beneath the snow. Once we had to climb a towering and almost perpendicular rock, which not only detained us, but was the cause of great anxiety for the safety of the women, who being heavily laden with furs, and one of them with a child on her back, could not exert themselves with the activity which such a task required. Fortunately nothing serious occurred, though one of them once fell with considerable violence.

“During the day one of the hunters broke through the ice, but was soon extricated; when it became dark, we halted near the Bow String Portage, greatly disappointed at not having reached the lake. The weather was cloudy, accompanied with thick mist and snow. The Indians expected to have found here a bear in its den, and to have made a hearty meal of its flesh; indeed it had been the subject of conversation all day, and they had even gone so far as to divide it, frequently asking me what part I preferred; but when we came to the spot – oh! lamentable! it had already fallen a prey to the devouring appetites of some more fortunate hunters, who had only left sufficient evidence that such a thing had once existed. One of our men, however, caught a fish, which, with the assistance of some weed scraped from the rocks (tripe de roche), which forms a glutinous substance, made us a tolerable supper; it was not of the most choice kind, but yet good enough for hungry men. While we were eating it, I perceived one of the women busily employed scraping an old skin, the contents of which her husband presented us with. They consisted of pounded meat, fat, and a greater proportion of Indians’ and deer hair than either; and though such a mixture may not appear very alluring to an English stomach, it was thought a great luxury after three days’ privation in these cheerless regions of America. Indeed, had it not been for the precaution and generosity of the Indians, we must have gone without sustenance until we had reached the fort. On the 1st of November our men began to make a raft, to enable us to cross a river which was not even frozen at the edges. It was soon finished, and three of us embarked, being seated up to the ancles in water. We each took a pine branch for a paddle, and made an effort to gain the opposite shore, in which, after some time, and not without strong apprehensions of drifting into the Slave Lake, we succeeded. In two hours’ time, the whole party was over, with a comfortable addition to it in the shape of some fine fish, which the Indians had caught; of course we did not forget to take these friends with us; and after passing several lakes, to one of which we saw no termination, we halted within eight miles of the fort. The Great Slave Lake was not frozen. In crossing a narrow branch of the lake, I fell through the ice, but received no injury; at noon we arrived at Fort Providence, and were received by Mr. Weeks, a clerk of the North West Company, and in charge of the establishment. I found several packets of letters for the officers, which I was desirous of sending to them immediately; but as the Indians and their wives complained of illness and inability to return before they had rested, a flagon of mixed spirits was given them, and their sorrows were soon forgotten, and in a quarter of an hour they pronounced themselves excellent hunters, and capable of going any where; however, their boasting ceased with the last drop of the bottle, when a crying scene took place, which would have continued half the night, had not the magic of an additional quantity of spirits dried their tears, and once more turned their mourning into joy. It was a satisfaction to me to behold these poor creatures enjoying themselves, for they had behaved in the most exemplary and active manner towards the party, and with a generosity and sympathy seldom found even in the more civilized parts of the world; and the attention and affection which the Indians manifested towards their wives, evinced a benevolence of disposition and goodness of nature which could not fail to secure the approbation of the most indifferent observer.

“The accounts I received of our goods were of so unsatisfactory a nature, that I determined to proceed, as soon as the lake was frozen, to Moose-Deer Island, or if necessary to the Athabasca Lake; both to inform myself of the grounds of the unceremonious and negligent manner in which the expedition had been treated, and to obtain a sufficient supply of ammunition and other stores to enable it to leave its present situation, and proceed for the attainment of its ultimate object.

November 9. – I despatched to Fort Enterprise one of the men with the letters and a hundred musket balls, which Mr. Weeks lent me on the condition that they should be returned the first opportunity. An Indian and his wife accompanied the messenger. Lieutenant Franklin was made acquainted with the exact state of things, and I waited with much impatience the freezing of the lake.

November 16. – A band of Slave Indians came to the fort wth a few furs and some bears’ grease. Though we had not seen any of them, it appeared that they had received information of our being in the country, and knew the precise situation of our house, which they would have visited long ago, but from the fear they had of being pillaged by the Copper Indians. I questioned the chief about the Great Bear and Martin Lakes, their distance from Fort Enterprise, &c.; but his answers were so vague and unsatisfactory, that they were not worth attention; his description of Bouleau’s route (which he said was the shortest and best, and abounded in animals) was very defective, though the relative points were sufficiently characteristic, had we not possessed a better route. He had never been at the sea, and knew nothing about the mouth of the Coppermine River. In the evening he made his young men dance, and sometimes accompanied them himself. They had four feathers in each hand. When one commenced moving in a circular form, lifting both feet at the same time, similar to jumping sideways; after a short time a second and a third joined, and afterwards the whole band was dancing, some in a state of nudity, others half-dressed, singing an unmusical wild air with (I suppose) appropriate words; the particular sounds of which were. Ha! ha! ha! uttered vociferously, and with great distortion of countenance, and particular attitude of body, the feathers being always kept in a tremulous motion. The ensuing day I made the chief acquainted with the object of our mission, and recommended him to keep at peace with his neighbouring tribes, and to conduct himself with attention and friendship towards the whites. I then gave him a medal, telling him it was the picture of the King, whom they emphatically term ‘their great father.’

November 18. – We observed two mock moons at equal distances from the central one; and the whole were encircled by a halo; the colour of the inner edge of the large circle was a light red, inclining to a faint purple.

November 20. – Two parhelia were observed, with a halo; the colours of the inner edge of the circle were a bright carmine and red lake, intermingled with a rich yellow, forming a purplish orange; the outer edge was pale gamboge.

December 5. – A man was sent some distance on the lake, to see if it was sufficiently frozen for us to cross. I need scarcely mention my satisfaction, when he returned with the pleasing information that it was.

December 7 – I quitted Fort Providence, being accompanied by Mr. Wentzel, Beauparlant, and two other Canadians, provided with dogs and sledges. We proceeded along the borders of the lake, occasionally crossing deep bays, and at dusk encamped at the Gros Cap, having proceeded a distance of twenty-five miles.

December 8, – We set out on the lake with an excessively cold N.W. wind, and were frequently interrupted by large pieces of ice which had been thrown up by the violence of the waves during the progress of congelation, and at dusk we encamped on the Rein-Deer Islands. the night was fine, with a faint aurora borealis. Next day the wind was so keen, that the men proposed conveying me in a sledge, that I might be the less exposed, to which, after some hesitation, I consented. Accordingly, a rein-deer skin and a blanket were laid along the sledge, and in these I was wrapped tight up to the chin, and lashed to the vehicle, with just sufficient play for my head, to perceive when I was about to be upset on some rough projecting piece of ice. Thus equipped, we set off before the wind (a favorable circumstance on a lake), and went on very well until noon; when the ice being driven up in ridges, in such a manner as to obstruct us very much, I was released; and I confess not unwillingly, though I had to walk the remainder of the day. There are large openings in many parts where the ice had separated, and in attempting to cross one of them the dogs fell into the water, and were saved with difficulty. The poor animals suffered dreadfully from the cold, and narrowly escaped being frozen to death. We had quickened our pace towards the close of the day, but could not get sight of the land; and it was not till the sun had set, that we perceived it about four miles to our left, which obliged us to turn back and head the wind. It was then so cold that two of the party were frozen almost immediately about the face and ears. I escaped, from having the good fortune to possess a pair of gloves made of rabbit-skin, with which I kept constantly chafing the places which began to be affected. At 6 p.m., we arrived at the fishing huts near Stoney Island, and remained there the night. the Canadians were not a little surprized at seeing us, whom they had already given up for lost, nor less so at the manner by which we had come; for they all affirmed that the lake near them was quite free from ice the day before.

December 10. – At an early hour we quitted the huts, lashed on sledges as before, with some little addition to our party; and at 3-30 p.m., arrived at North-West Fort on Moose-Deer Island, where I was received by Mr. Smith, with whom I had been acquainted at the Athabasca. He said he partly expected me. The same evening I visited Messrs. M‘Vicar and M‘Aulay at Hudson’s Bay Fort, when I found the reports concerning our goods were but too true, there being in reality but five packages for us. I also was informed, that two Esquimaux, Augustus the chief, and Junius his servant, who had been sent from Fort Churchill by (Governor Williams, to serve in the capacity of interpreters to the expedition, were at the fort. The men were short of stature, but muscular, apparently good natured, and perfectly acquainted with the purpose for which they were intended. They had built themselves a snow-house on an adjacent island, where they used frequently to sleep. The following day I examined the pieces, and to my great disappointment found them to consist of three kegs of spirits already adulterated by the voyageurs who had brought them; a keg of flour, and thirty-five pounds of sugar, instead of sixty. the ammunition and tobacco, the two most essential requisites, were left behind.

“I lost no time in making a demand from both parties; and though their united list did not furnish the half of what was required; yet it is possible that every thing was given by them which could be spared consistent with their separate interests, particularly by Mr. M‘Vicar, who, in many articles, gave me the whole he had in his possession. These things wore sent away immediately for Fort Enterprize, when an interpreter arrived with letters from Lieutenant Franklin, which referred to a series of injurious reports said to have been propagated against us by some one at Fort Providence. Finding a sufficiency of goods could not be provided at Moose Deer Island, I determined to proceed to the Athabasca Lake, and ascertain the inclinations of the gentlemen there. With this view I communicated my intentions to both parties; but could only get dogs enough from the North-West Company to carry the necessary provisions for the journey. Indeed, Mr. Smith informed me plainly, he was of opinion that nothing could be spared at Fort Chipeywan; that goods had never been transported so long a journey in the winter season, and that the same dogs could not possibly go and return. Besides, it was very doubtful if I could be provided with dogs there; and finally, that the distance was great, and would take sixteen days to perform it. He added, that the provisions would be mouldy and bad, and that from having to walk constantly on snow-shoes, I should suffer a great deal of misery and fatigue. Notwithstanding these assertions, on the 23d of December I left the fort, with Beauparlant and a bois-brulé, each having a sledge drawn by dogs, laden with pemmican. We crossed an arm of the lake, and entered the Little Buffalo River, which is connected with the Salt River, and about fifty yards wide at its junction with the lake; the water is brackish. This route is usually taken in the winter, as it cuts off a large angle in going to the Great Slave River. In the afternoon we passed two empty fishing huts, and in the evening encamped amongst some high pines on the banks of the river, having had several snow showers during the day, which considerably impeded the dogs, so that we had not proceeded more than fifteen miles.

December 24 and 26. – We continued along the river, frequently making small portages to avoid going round the points, and passing some small canoes, which the Indians had left for the winter. The snow was so deep that the dogs were obliged to stop every ten minutes to rest themselves; and the cold so excessive, that both the men were badly frozen on both sides of the face and chin. At length, having come to a long meadow, which the dogs could not cross that night, we halted in an adjoining wood, and were presently joined by a Canadian who was on his return to the fort, and who treated us with some fresh meat in exchange for pemmican. During the latter part of the day, we had seen numerous tracts of the moose, buffalo, and marten.

December 26. – The weather was so cold that we were compelled to run to prevent ourselves from freezing; our route lay across some large meadows, which appeared to abound in animals, though the Indians around Slave Lake are in a state of great want. About noon, we passed a sulphur stream, which ran into the river; it appeared to come from a plain about fifty yards distant. There were no rocks near it, and the soil through which it took its course was composed of a reddish clay. I was much galled by the strings of the snow-shoes during the day, and once got a severe fall, occasioned by the dogs running over one of my feet, and dragging me some distance, my snow-shoe having become entangled with the sledge. In the evening we lost our way, from the great similarity of appearance in the country, and it was dark before we found it again, when we halted in a thick wood, after having come about sixteen miles from the last encampment. Much snow fell during the night. At an early hour on the 27th December, we continued our journey along the surface of a long but narrow lake, and then through a wood, which brought us to the grand detour on the Slave River. The weather was extremely cloudy, with occasional falls of snow, which tended greatly to impede our progress, from its gathering in lumps between the dogs’ toes; and though they did not go very fast, yet my left knee pained me so much that I found it difficult to keep up with them. At 3 p.m., we halted within nine miles of the Salt River, and made a hearty meal of mouldy pemmican.

December 28 and 29. – We had much difficulty in proceeding, owing to the poor dogs being quite worn out, and their feet perfectly raw. We endeavoured to tie shoes on them, to afford them some little relief; but they continually came off when amongst deep snow, so that it occupied one person entirely to look after them. In this state they were hardly of any use amongst the steep ascents of the portages, when we were obliged to drag the sledges ourselves. We found a few of the rapids entirely frozen. Those that were not, had holes and large spaces about them, from whence issued a thick vapour, and in passing this we found it particularly cold: but what appeared most curious, was the number of small fountains which rose through the ice, and often rendered it doubtful which way we should take. I was much disappointed at finding several falls (which I had intended to sketch) frozen almost even with the upper and lower parts of the stream. The ice was connected by a thin arch, and the rushing of the water underneath might be heard at a considerable distance from the place. On the bank of these rapids there was a constant overflowing of the water, but in such small quantities as to freeze before it had reached the surface of the central ice; so that we passed between two ridges of icicles, the transparency of which was beautifully contrasted by the flakes of snow and the dark green branches of the overhanging pine. Beauparlant complained bitterly of the cold whilst among the rapids; but no sooner had he reached the upper part of the river, than he found the change of the temperature so great that he vented his indignation against the heat – “Mais c’est terrible,” said he, to be frozen and sun burnt in the same day. The poor fellow, who had been a long time in the country, regarded it as the most severe punishment that could have been inflicted on him, and would willingly have given a part of his wages rather than this disgrace had happened; for there is a pride amongst “old voyageurs” which makes them consider the state of being frost bitten as effeminate, and only excusable in a “pork eater,” or one newly come into the country. I was greatly fatigued, and suffered acute pains in the knees and legs, both of which were much swollen when we halted a little above the Dog River.

December 30 and 31. – Our journey these days was by far the most annoyng we had yet experienced; but independently of the vast masses of ice that were piled on one another, as well as the numerous open places about the rapids (and they did not a little impede us), there was a strong gale from the north-west, and so dreadfully keen, that our time was occupied in rubbing the frozen parts of the face, and in attempting to warm the hands, in order to be prepared for the next operation. Scarcely was one place cured by constant friction, than another was frozen: and though there was nothing pleasant about it, yet it was laughable enough to observe the dexterity which was used in changing the position of the hand from the face to the mitten, and vice versa. One of the men was severely affected, the whole side of his face being almost raw. Towards sunset I suffered so much in my knee and ancle, from a recent sprain, that it was with difficulty I could proceed, with snow shoes, to the encampment on the Stoney Islands. But in this point I was not singular; for Beauparlant was almost as bad, and without the same cause.

“1821. January 1. – We set out with a quick step, the wind still blowing fresh from the north-west, which seemed in some measure to invigorate the dogs; for towards sunset they left me a considerable distance behind. Indeed my legs and ancles were now so swelled, that it was excessive pain to drag the snow shoes after me. At night we halted on the banks of Stoney River, when I gave the men a glass of grog, to commemorate the new year; and the next day, January 2d, we arrived at Fort Chipeywan, after a journey of ten days and four hours – the shortest time in which the distance had been done at the same season of the year. I found Messrs. G. Keith and S. M‘Gillway in charge of the fort, who were not a little surprised to see me. As the commencement of the new year is the rejoicing season of the Canadians, when they are generally intoxicated a few days, I postponed making any demand till this time of festivity should cease; but on the same day I went over to the Hudson’s Bay Fort, and delivered Lieutenant Franklin’s letter to Mr. Simpson. If they were astonished at one side to see me, the amazement was still greater on the other; for reports were so far in advance, that we were said to have already fallen by the spears of the Exquimaux.

January 3. – I made a demand from both parties for supplies, such as ammunition, gun-flints, axes, files, clothing, tobacco, and spirits. I stated to them our extreme necessity, and that without their assistance the expedition must be arrested in its progress. The answer from the north west gentlemen was satisfactory enough; but on the Hudson’s Bay side I was told, ‘that any further assistance this season entirely depended on the arrival of supplies, expected in a few weeks hence from a distant establishment.’ I remained at Fort Chipewyan five weeks, during which time some laden sledges did arrive; but I could not obtain any addition to the few articles I had procured at first. A packet of letters for us, from England, having arrived, I made preparations for my return; but not before I had requested both companies to send, next year, from the depôts, a quantity of goods for our use, specified in lists furnished to them. The weather, during my abode at Chipewyan, was generally mild, with occasional heavy storms, the greater part of which were generally anticipated by the activity of the aurora borealis; and this I observed had been the case between Fort Providence and the Athabasca, in December and January, though not invariably so in other parts of the country. One of the partners of the north-west company related to me the following singular story:– ‘He was travelling in a canoe on the English River, and had landed near the Kettle Fall, when the coruscations of the aurora borealis were so vivid and low, that the Canadians fell on their faces, and began praying and crying, fearing they should be killed: he himself threw away his gun and knife, that they might not attract the flashes; for they were within two feet from the earth, flitting along with incredible swiftness, and moving parallel to its surface. They continued for upwards of five minutes, as near as he could judge, and made a loud rustling noise, like the waving of a flag in a strong breeze. After they had ceased, the sky became clear, with little wind.’

February 9. – Having got every thing arranged, and had a hearty breakfast (with a coup d’eau de vie, a custom amongst the traders), I took my departure, or rather attempted to do so; for on going to the gate there was a long range of women, who came to bid me farewell. They were all dressed (after the manner of the country) in blue or green cloth, with their hair fresh greased, separated before, and falling down behind, not in careless tresses, but in a good sound tail, fastened with black tape or riband. This was considered a great compliment; and the ceremony consisted in embracing the whole party, I had with me four sledges laden with goods for the expedition, and a fifth one, belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. We returned exactly by the same route, suffering no other inconvenience but that arising from the chafing of the snow shoes, and bad weather. Some Indians, whom we met on the banks of the Little Buffalo River, were rather surprised at seeing us; for they had heard that we were on an island which was surrounded by Esquimaux. The dogs were almost worn out, and their feet raw, when, on February the 20th, we arrived at Moose-deer Island, with our goods all in good order. Towards the end of the month, two of our men arrived with letters from Lieutenant Franklin, containing some fresh demands; the major part of which I was fortunate enough to procure without the least trouble. Having arranged the accounts and receipts between the companies and the expedition, and sent every thing before me to Fort Providence, I prepared for my departure; and it is but justice to the gentlemen of both parties at Moose-deer Island, to remark, that they afforded the means of forwarding our stores in the most cheerful and pleasant manner.

March 5. – I took leave of the gentlemen at the forts; and in the afternoon, got to the fisheries near Stoney Island, where I found Mr. M‘Vicar, who was kind enough to have a house ready for my reception; and I was not a little gratified at perceiving a pleasant looking girl employed in roasting a fine joint, and afterwards arranging the table, with all the dexterity of an accomplished servant.

March 6. – We set out at day-light, and breakfasted at the Rein-deer Islands. As the day advanced, the heat became so oppressive, that each pulled off his coat, and ran till sun-set, when we halted, with two men who were on their return to Moose-deer Island. There was a beautiful aurora borealis in the night; it rose about N.b.W., and divided into three bars, diverging at equal distances as far as the zenith, and then converging until they met in the opposite horizon: there were some flashes at right angles to the bars.

March 7 – We arrived at Fort Providence, and found our stores safe and in good order. There being no certainty when the Indian who was to accompany me to our house would arrive, and my impatience to join my companions increasing as I approached it, after making the necessary arrangements with Mr. Weeks respecting our stores, on the 10th of March I quitted the fort with two of our men, who had each a couple of dogs, and a sledge laden with provisions. On the 13th, we met the Indian, near Icy Portage, who was sent to guide me back. On the 14th, we killed a deer, and gave the dogs a good feed; and on the 17th, at an early hour, we arrived at Fort Enterprise, having travelled about eighteen miles a day. I had the pleasure of meeting my friends all in good health.”

Mr. Back was advanced to the rank of lieutenant on the 1st Jan. 1821; and subsequently appointed to the Superb 78, Captain Sir Thomas Staines, in which ship he visited Gibraltar and Barbadoes. Towards the close of 1823, his Majesty’s Government having determined upon another attempt to effect a northern passage by sea between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and Captain (now Sir W. E.) Parry, the commander of the two preceding expeditions[4], having been again entrusted with its execution, success, as far as ability, enterprise, and experience could ensure it, appeared likely to be the result. Yet, as the object was one for which Great Britain had thought proper to contend for upwards of three centuries, it seemed to Captain Franklin that it might be desirable to pursue it by more ways than one; he, therefore, submitted a plan for an expedition overland to the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and thence, by sea, to the north-western extremity of America, with the combined object, also, of surveying the coast between the Mackenzie and Copper-mine Rivers.

Captain Franklin was well aware of the sympathy excited in the British public by the sufferings of those engaged in the former overland expedition, and of the humane repugnance of Government to expose others to a like fate; but he was enabled to show satisfactorily that, in the proposed course, similar dangers were not to be apprehended, while the objects to be attained were important at once to the naval character, scientific reputation, and commercial interests of Great Britain. In consequence of his proposal, he received directions from Earl Bathurst to make the necessary preparations for the equipment of an expedition, to the command of which he had the honor to be nominated.

Captain Franklin’s much valued friend. Dr. John Richardson, offered his services as naturalist and surgeon, and also volunteered to undertake the survey of the coast to the eastward, while his commander should be occupied in endeavouring to reach Icy Cape. Lieutenant Bushnan, who had served under Captains Ross and Parry, was likewise appointed to accompany Captain Franklin, as assistant-surveyor; but, long before the party was to leave England, he had to lament the premature death of that excellent young officer, who was eminently qualified for the service, by his skill in astronomical observations, surveying, and drawing.[5]Many naval officers, distinguished for their talent and ability, were desirous of filling the vacancy, but Captain Franklin’s friend and former companion, Lieutenant Back, having returned from the West Indies, the appointment was offered to him^ and accepted with his wonted zeal.

Previous to his departure from England, a public dinner was given to Lieutenant Back, on which occasion, says the editor of the Stockport paper,

“Captain (now Sir Salusbury Pryce) Humphreys, R.N. was in the chair, and on the right sat the heroic young man, so justly the pride of his fellow-townsmen. When we considered the unprecedented sufferings he had endured, and the unheard-of privations which once reduced his frame to the extremity of weakness, and brought him to the verge of dissolution, it was impossible not to feel a high degree of pleasure at beholding him again in apparent possession of health and vigour. J. Lloyd, Esq., Prothonotary of Chester, performed the office of croupier on this most gratifying occasion.”

During his absence from Great Britain, Lieutenant Back was promoted to the rank of commander, for his services on the first overland expedition, by commission, dated Dec. 30th, 1825. The proceedings and result of the second expedition have been briefly sketched in Vol. III Part I. pp. 50–67.

Our readers will remember that Captain Franklin, after his return from the Arctic Sea, remained at Great Bear Lake until Feb. 20th, 1827, when he set out on foot for Fort Chipewyan, accompanied by five men, for the purpose of hastening home, via Montreal and New York; the other officers and men, the boats, and all the collections of natural history, rough journals, notes, and astronomical, magnetical, and atmospherical observations, were left in the charge of Commander Back, who was directed to remain at Fort Franklin until the breaking up of the ice, and then to proceed to York Factory, where he was to embark with the British part of the expedition in the first Hudson’s Bay ship bound to England. In addition to this mark of confidence. Captain Franklin, at the end of his written instructions, thus addressed him:–

“I am happy in having this opportunity of thanking you for your uniform kindness to me personally, and of renewing my testimony to the ability, zeal, and assiduity you have evinced throughout the progress of the expedition, and of expressing my fervent hope that your services may be rewarded by promotion.”

Commander Back arrived at Portsmouth on the 10th Oct. 1827, only a fortnight after Captain Franklin and Dr. Richardson had landed at Liverpool. On the 13th and 15th of the same month, his friend, the captain, wrote to him as follows:–

“I hope you will have seen the Lord High Admiral and Sir George Cockburn before we meet – to both I have urged your claims to promotion, as well as those of Lieutenant Kendall, in the strongest manner, and they expressed themselves much pleased with your zeal, attention, and ability.”

“I have written this day officially to Mr. Barrow, to convey my opinion of your conduct, as well as that of Kendall, and strongly to recommend you both to the favorable notice of the Lord High Admiral, and to the members of his Royal Highness’s Council.”

On the 7th July, 1827, his late Majesty in Council directed that the period of time (one year) required to elapse before a commander can be promoted to the rank of captain shall be actually served by such officer on board a ship or vessel in commission. Although Commander Back had then been upwards of two years and four months on what may well be considered active service, this Order in Council was enforced against him; and notwithstanding repeated applications for employment in the active line of his profession, he never obtained an appointment. We may here remark, that several of Captain Parry’s officers were promoted on their return from an unsuccessful expedition, whilst Captain Franklin, with more success than has crowned any former endeavour since the time of Cook, and with the good and favorable opinion of all parties, had not the influence to obtain the smallest advancement for any of his party.

On the 8th April, 1828, Commander Back addressed the Lord High Admiral as follows:–

“Sir,– In reflecting on the recent voyages of discovery to the Arctic regions, which have been prosecuted with so much zeal and ability by the able officers who have commanded them, one cannot but regret that the portion of the American coast comprehended between Repulse Bay and Point Turnagain, should still remain unexplored while there exists any probability of finally completing so desirable an object.

“To effect this, I would propose that a small vessel, properly fitted out with boats, and supplied with provisions for two years, should proceed to Repulse Bay; and having anchored there, that a party should be dispatched across the Melville Peninsula, which is said to be only three days’ journey, and if after examination it was found that the country was not too uneven for the transporting of goods on wheel carriages, in the manner we passed Portage la Locke (a distance of seven miles) on our return from the overland expedition, it would not be difficult to convey two boats, and whatever else might be thought requisite, to the opposite side, and lay them up in some secure place for the winter. Then in the following season, the party intended to coast as far as Point Turnagain, being provided with sledges, might proceed with the remainder of what was necessary for the voyage, and crossing to the boats, start on the first opening of the water. For such a service, the boats should be about twenty-four feet long, with a good beam and a flat floor, so as to draw little water; and the provisions for the crews ought to be entirely composed of pemmican, ira, and sweetened chocolate, a sufficient quantity of which might be deposited at jutting or other prominent points, for consumption on the return to the vessel, which it is supposed would be in time enough to ensure her getting out of the Straits the same season. The expences which at first sight would seem unavoidably connected with an undertaking of this nature, might however be greatly diminished from the experience already acquired in the knowledge of what was indispensably useful for its completion. * * * * I remain your Royal Highness’s most dutiful and obedient servant,

(Signed)George Back.”

This plan for exploring the country between Repulse Bay and Point Turnagain was recommended by Sir George Cockburn, but it appears that the Lord High Admiral had already determined not to send any more expeditions to the northern regions. Early in 1829, we find Commander Back offering his services to accompany Captain Hoppner on a voyage of discovery to the south pole.

Towards the close of 1832, strenuous exertions were made to equip an expedition, with the object of ascertaining the situation of Captain (now Sir John) Ross, who had left this country in the summer of 1829, to effect the long-sought north-west passage. A meeting was held at the office of the Royal Geographical Society (the Right Hon. Sir George Cockburn in the chair), by the friends of Captain Ross, at which it was agreed that he and his companions might be still alive, and possibly be extricated from their perilous situation by efforts to be made for their relief. This conclusion was founded on the extent of his preparations, which were calculated to meet the wants of his party for three years – on the quantity of stores which it is presumed he would find untouched in the wreck of the Fury, in Prince Regent’s Inlet[6], – and on the fact, that the crews of two Hudson’s Bay vessels, cast away on Marble Island, in 1769, subsisted nearly three years on what they could find, as related by Hearne, and quoted by Barrow, in his “Chronological History of Arctic Voyages.” His Majesty’s Government consented, on certain conditions, to furnish 2000l. towards forwarding the expedition; the sum of 5000l. was raised by subscription for the same purpose; the Hudson’s Bay Company gave directions to provide boats, &c. for the party free of expence, and gave Commander Back, who had volunteered to conduct the enterprise, a commission investing him with full command throughout their extensive territories, and unlimited authority over all their servants, the governor alone excepted.

Commander Back sailed from Liverpool, on his errand of humanity, Feb, 16th, 1833; accompanied by Mr. King, of the Royal College of Surgeons, in the capacity of surgeon and naturalist to the expedition, and also by three of his former companions.

The reception of this little party at New York was of the most gratifying description – a compliment to themselves, to science, and to philanthropy. The Government of the United States honoured itself by refusing to receive the duties on the transit of the articles brought by the expedition through its territories; the directors of the Hudson River Steamboat Association tendered a vessel for their conveyance to Albany; and many were the letters addressed to Commander Back from different parts of the Union, expressive of the interest which the writers took in the fate of the expedition. On the 29th March Commander Back and Mr. King partook of a dejeuné à la fourchette given by the British Consul at New York, on which occasion there were present a numerous assemblage of gentlemen of that mercantile metropolis. On the 9th of April, they arrived at Montreal, and were there joined by four volunteers from the brigade of artillery quartered in that town. They took their departure from thence on the 25th April, and during the summer of 1833, reached to about 109 miles from Bathurst’s Inlet. On the 25th April, 1834, a packet from the “Managing Committee of the Arctic Land Expedition,” intimating the safe return of Captain Ross and his party, and directing him to confine himself for the future to an exploration of the territory for scientific purposes, reached Commander Back, who was then preparing to depart from his winter quarters. Fort Reliance, at the east end of Great Slave Lake. Previous to the receipt of this intelligence, he had written to the Geographical Society as follows:–

“We have had a most distressing winter in this more than Siberian solitude, where desolation reigns in unbroken repose. Even the animals have fled from us, as it were by instinct, and many, very many, of the unhappy natives have fallen victims to famine in situations the most revolting to human nature. The fish also, on which I in some measure relied, left us; in places which we were told never before failed we have not caught a fish; and during the whole season scarcely a living creature has been seen, except on one occasion a raven, which, in wheeling over the house, startled me with his croak, so uniform was the silence around us. I ran out, but when it saw me it screamed, and again made off to the western mountains, in the dark shade of which it was speedily lost. My party has been thus much dispersed in quest of food, and every message has brought me tidings of their encountering severe privations. Mr. M‘Leod (an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company attached to the party) and his young family are at this moment somewhere on the lake fishing; and you may imagine what it costs me to see them also exposed to the rigours of this severest of all winters, for the mean of three thermometers has been far below the lowest we ever registered in our former expeditions. After this narrative you may believe that, in spite of all my care and economy, some part of the provision laid up for our voyage has been necessarily consumed. the most experienced man in the country could not have foreseen this; nor was there any possibility of avoiding it. My anxiety is immeasurable on account of it; but I still hope that the Indians may be enabled to procure us dry food, or in short something that may afford sustenance, so that the fondest wishes of my heart may not be frustrated. Of that, however, in one sense, there is no danger, for come the worst, I can always reduce my men, and go in one boat. Do not, therefore, let this affect you, for I feel confident of overcoming it. Another misfortune is, that pinched as we are for provisions, we must drag our boats and luggage almost 100 miles over rock and ice before we can reach open water. This we have ascertained through the winter; but never mind, this also shall be done, and it will be a new feature in discovery. In our former expeditions, we had none of these tremendous obstructions to contend with, though we had to take our bark canoes some distance in sledges. But I have perfect confidence in my men, and they, good fellows, think that I cannot err.”

The last letter written by Commander Back, which has yet reached England, is dated “Fort Reliance, April 29th, 1834.” He and his party were then all well. It is very satisfactory to know, from despatches received by the committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, that supplies sufficient to support the expedition during the present winter were timely forwarded to him.