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Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 10/The Discovery and Exploration of the Fraser River

ADDRESS DELIVERED BY FREDERICK V. HOLMAN, AS PRESIDENT OF THE OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY, AT ITS ANNUAL MEETING HELD AT PORTLAND, OREGON, DECEMBER 19, 1908.


The Discovery and Exploration of the Fraser River.

The dedication of a monument to Simon Fraser at New Westminster, British Columbia, on the thirtieth of September, 1908, in honor of his exploration of the Fraser River, in 1808, recalls a most daring achievement. It is an historic event of great interest and of importance in the history of British Columbia and of the original Oregon Country. The Fraser and the Columbia are the only rivers which break through that great range of mountains which starts near the Gulf of California, and is known in that State as the Sierra Nevada, and continues through Oregon and Washington as the Cascade Mountains. This range of mountains finally disappears in British Columbia.

Four Important Historical Events.

In historical importance this exploration by Simon Fraser should be considered as one of four notable events in connection with these two great rivers. These events chronologically are as follows:

First. The discovery by Captain Robert Gray, May 11, 1792, of the Columbia River.

Second. The discovery by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, June 17, 1793, of the Tacoutche Tesse, which is now known as the Fraser River.

Third. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, in 1804-1806, to the mouth of the Columbia River.

Fourth. The exploration by Simon Fraser, in the summer of 1808, of the Fraser River to its mouth.

It is the discovery and exploration of the Fraser River of which I shall speak particularly in this address.

As the mouth of the Columbia River was theoretically discovered by Captain Bruno Heceta, of the Spanish Navy, August 15, 1775, who named it Rio de San Roque, so the mouth of the Fraser River was theoretically discovered by Lieutenant Don Francisco Eliza, of the Spanish Navy, in 1791, who named it Boca de Florida Blanca, in honor of the Prime Minister of Spain. Neither of these discoverers entered either of these rivers. But the mouth of each of these rivers was shown on Spanish maps afterwards published.

Failure of Vancouver to Find the Columbia and Fraser Rivers.

It is surprising that Captain George Vancouver did not find the Fraser river. He was an experienced explorer and had been a midshipman in Captain Cook's last voyage, in the years 1776 to 1780, inclusive. But it is no more surprising than Vancouver's failure to find the Columbia River. He was put on his inquiry, if he did not have actual notice, in regard to the existence of each of these rivers. Had he found them, or either of them, his fame would be far greater than it is, although it is still great.

It is not important now to speculate on what might have been the result had Vancouver, as he should have done, discovered and entered the Columbia River prior to Gray. But the inquiry arises nevertheless. The United States, in its official correspondence with Great Britain, strenuously insisted on its right to the portion of the Oregon Country drained by the Columbia River by reason of its discovery by Gray. Although that was only one of the claims urged, it was an important factor in the final adjustment, by the boundary treaty of June 15, 1846, of the rights of the United States to that part of the Oregon Country south of latitude forty-nine.

The mouth of the Fraser River is practically a delta, its several exits running through what is apparently a sand island, as viewed from the Gulf of Georgia. On the twelfth and thirteenth of June, 1792, Captain Vancouver's two vessels were anchored in the Gulf of Georgia a short distance south of this delta. June 12 he started to explore in a yawl. He discovered and named Point Roberts, at the south of the delta. Proceeding along the delta, he came, early on the morning of June 13, to Point Grey, which he named. This is the extreme northern point of the delta and the southern point of English Bay, immediately south of what Vancouver named Burrard's Canal, now known as Burrard's Inlet. This delta Vancouver named Sturgeon Bank. In his Voyage, Vancouver says this delta has the appearance of an island, but he continues: "this, however, is not the case, notwithstanding there are two openings between this point [Point Roberts] and Point Grey. These can only be navigable for canoes, as the shoal continues along the coast to the distance of seven or eight miles from the shore, on which were lodged, and especially before these openings, logs of wood, and stumps of trees innumerable."

Certainly this should have shown Vancouver that there was a large river near and that these openings were connected with it. The spring and summer freshet was on in the Eraser, as it was in the Columbia River, when Vancouver was at the mouth of the Columbia, April 27, 1792. At the mouths of each of these rivers the water was discolored, as is shown in in Vancouver's Voyage, and yet Vancouver did not find either of these rivers!

June 22, 1792, as Vancouver was returning to his ship, he came on two Spanish naval vessels. He showed the Spanish officers the sketch he had made of his last excursion. Vancouver says: "They seemed much surprised that we had not found a river said to exist in the region we had been exploring, and named by one of their officers Rio Blancho in compliment to the then Prime Minister of Spain; which river these gentlemen had sought for thus far to no purpose."

The Journey of Mackenzie to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1789 Alexander Mackenzie, afterwards knighted for his discoveries, discovered the Mackenzie River. He went down that river to where it flows into the Arctic Ocean. In 1791 he went to London and returned to Canada in the spring of 1792. Very soon after he started with an expedition to cross the continent to the Pacific Ocean. October 10, 1792, he and his party arrived at Fort Chippewayan, on the Lake of the Hills, now known as Lake Athabasca. Into this lake flow the waters of Peace River. With his party he ascended Peace River until November i, 1792, when they came to a place to which Mackenzie had sent ahead two men to begin the preparation of winter quarters. On Mackenzie's map it is called Fork Fort. Its latitude is 56 degrees 9 minutes; its longitude, 117 degrees 35 minutes and 15 seconds, as ascertained by observations made by Mackenzie. Here Mackenzie and his party passed the winter. May 9, 1793, they started again on their journey, ascending Peace river. May 31 they came to the junction of Finlay and Parsnip Rivers, which form Peace River. The expedition ascended Parsnip River to its head waters. After making a short portage, it came to a river, named by Mackenzie Bad River. This river was descended to the place where the latter river joins the great river, which Mackenzie called Tacoutche Tesse (Tesse meaning river) being a name given it by a tribe of Indians. This is Fraser River. This discovery of this great river occurred June 17, 1793.

Mackenzie descended the Tacoutche until he was deterred by the hostile attitude of the Indians, the physical difficulties of following the river, and by information given by the Indians of its dangerous character. Mackenzie then ascended the river, going north a distance equal to about one degree of latitude. Here he left the Tacoutche and went overland, westerly, until he came to an arm of the Pacific Ocean, now called Bentinck Inlet, at about latitude fifty-two degrees. On his return trip he arrived at Fort Chippewayan August 24, 1793, where his Journal ends.

It is sometimes said in a loose way by writers that Mackenzie thought the Tacoutche was a part of the Columbia River. This was not the case when he discovered the Tacoutche. He did not then know that the Columbia River had been discovered, nor did he learn of it until after his return from his discovery of the Tacoutche.

Mackenzie kept a journal. In it he speaks of the Tacoutche as "the great river," and he also wrote in his journal:

"The more I heard of the river [Tacoutche] the more I was convinced it could not empty itself into the ocean to the North of what is called the River of the West, so that with its windings, the distance must be very great. Such being the discouraging circumstances of my situation, which were now heightened by the discontent of my people, I could not but be alarmed at an idea of attempting to get to the discharge of such a rapid river, especially when I reflected on the tardy progress of my return up it, even if I should meet with no obstruction from the natives."

The Fabled Oregon or River of the West.

In referring to the River of the West, Mackenzie undoubtedly had in mind the fabled river described by Jonathan Carver in his Travels. In 1778 Jonathan Carver published, at London, the first edition of his book, describing his travels in the interior of North America. Carver was a great traveller, and also what I may call a great fabricator or fictionist. In the introduction or preface of his book, Carver says that the greatest part of his discoveries have never been published. He added:

"Particularly the account I give of the Naudowesies, and the situation of the Heads of the four great rivers that take their rise within a few leagues of each other, nearly about the center of this great continent, viz: The River Bourbon, which empties itself into Hudson's Bay; the Waters of Saint Lawrence; the Mississippi, and the River Oregon, or the River of the West, that falls into the Pacific Ocean at the straits of Anian." This is the first time the word Oregon was used or mentioned in print.

In the book Carver further wrote of these rivers, and showed on a map, bound in the book, the Straits of Juan de Fuca between latitudes forty-seven and forty-eight and a part of the fabled "Straits of Anian" running southerly from the Straits of Juan de Fuca into the River of the West sixty or seventy miles east of its mouth, somewhat as though Puget Sound extended southerly to the Columbia River. The mouth of the River of the West he placed at about latitude forty-four. This location of the mouth of this river was evidently used by Carver to carry out his fiction, for on his map he placed opposite the mouth of this river the words "Discovered by Aguilar." In January, 1603, Martin de Aguilar, a Spanish naval officer, made an imaginary discovery of a great river, which he asserted flowed into the Pacific Ocean a short distance north of latitude forty-three. The mouth of de Aguilar's river was afterwards shown on maps. It was easy for Carver to connect the head of his fabled river with the mouth of de Aguilar's imaginary one.

At the time Mackenzie discovered the Tacoutche, he knew that the fabled Straits of Anian, and those of De Fonte did not exist. But he supposed the Oregon or River of the West might exist.

Mackenzie's Knowledge of the Columbia River.

The Columbia River was discovered by Captain Robert Gray, May ii, 1792, about the time Mackenzie left Montreal on his journey to the Pacific Ocean. The discovery of the Columbia River was not known to Mackenzie, probably, until the return of Vancouver to England in 1795, although Mackenzie may have heard of it after his return, in the fall of 1793, to Montreal, from his expedition, for Captain Gray returned to Boston by the way of the Cape of Good Hope in 1793 or 1794. Mackenzie went to England in 1799 and there supervised the publication of his Journal. It was published in 1801.

Captain George Vancouver returned to London in September, 1795, and his Voyage was published in London in 1798. In this book, Vancouver gave a detailed statement of the discovery of the Columbia River, the latitude and longitude of its mouth, and of the exploration of the Columbia by Lieutenant Broughton from its mouth to Point Vancouver, in October, 1792, a distance of about one hundred miles.

Mackenzie's main Journal of his expedition was published, as written by him, subject to editorial supervision. But in the latter part of this volume is a summary, possibly written by his cousin, Roderick Mackenzie, who is said to have revised the manuscript of Alexander Mackenzie. In this summary the Tacoutche is spoken of as being the Columbia River, and a map is bound in the volume showing between dotted lines the Columbia River as being a continuation of the Tacoutche Tesse, as far south as latitude fifty-one, but no further. Vancouver's Voyage is the undoubted source of Mackenzie's knowledge of the Columbia River, as set forth in the summary to Mackenzie's Journal and in said map.

The course of the Columbia River, for more than the one hundred miles above its mouth, as explored by Lieutenant Broughton, was not known until the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1 804- 1 806, and then only from the junction of the Snake with the Columbia River. North of the Snake River the course of the Columbia River was not known until 1811. The first white man who discovered and explored the sources of the Columbia River was David Thompson, one of the partners of the Northwest Company. He was also the first white man to descend the Columbia to its confluence with the Snake River. In 181 1 Thompson, in a light canoe, manned by eight Iroquois and an interpreter, went down the Columbia River, arriving at Astoria July 15, 181 1. This was only a short time after the founding of Astoria. The Tonquin, the ship which brought the Astor expedition, entered the Columbia River March 24, 181 1. April 12 the expedition landed and camped at Astoria to make that place its permanent home.

Alexander Mackenzie was a great and intrepid explorer. He was the first white man to cross the American continent from civilization on the Atlantic slope to the Pacific Ocean, north of latitude forty-two, the northern boundary of California.

The First Settlement in British Columbia by Fraser.

The first permanent settlement on the Tacoutche or Fraser River was made under the leadership of Simon Fraser on behalf of the Northwest Company. This was the first permanent occupation of the continent by white men west of the Rocky Mountains, north of latitude forty-two degrees and south of latitude fifty-four degrees, forty minutes, and being what was subsequently known as the Oregon Country. It was in 1805 that Simon Fraser and his party arrived in that country. I shall not go into details concerning his occupation of this part of the country except to say that he named it New Caledonia and established several trading posts or forts, for this address relates to the discovery and exploration of the Fraser River and not to settlements in the country.

Simon Fraser.

Simon Fraser was a near relative of the noted Baron Simon Fraser Lovat, a Scotchman known as Lord Lovat. The latter was a Jacobite intriguer, who took part in the Scottish rebellion of 1745, which ended in the battle of Culloden. He was executed in 1747. His family is one of the oldest in the Scottish Highlands. Simon Fraser, the explorer of Fraser River, was born in 1776, on his father's farm near Bennington, Vermont. His father, also named Simon Fraser, emigrated from Scotland in 1773. In the American Revolutionary War his father was a British Loyalist or Tory, one of the so-called United Empire Loyalists. He became a captain in the British army. He was captured in the war and died in prison. Young Simon Fraser was taken by his widowed mother to St. Andrews, Ontario, which was his home during his youth, although he attended school at Montreal. In 1792, when he was sixteen years old, he joined the Northwest Company. His promotion was rapid. In 180.2 he became a bourgeois or partner of that company. That he arrived at this position when he was only twenty-six years old is a proof of his ability and of how he was considered by his company. This is also shown from his being sent to, and placed in command of, this new field of operation in New Caledonia.

Fraser's Exploration of the Fraser River.

In the fall of 1807 Simon Fraser received instructions from the Northwest Company to explore the Tacoutche to its mouth. It was then believed that this river was a part of the great Columbia River. This belief was strengthened by the fact that for a long distance, to the point Mackenzie ceased to descend the Tacoutche, its course was almost due south, and the mouth of the Columbia was only about one degree of longitude west of this part of the Tacoutche. There were political reasons for this exploration because the expedition of Lewis and Clark, in 1804- 1806, was a military expedition of the United States Government. There were business reasons to ascertain if furs could be shipped by sea and supplies brought up the river. It was well to spy out the land.

Fraser knew that the mouth of the Columbia was about eight degrees of latitude, a distance of several hundred miles, from where he was to start. He knew only of the route so far as Mackenzie had explored the Tacoutche, from what he had learned by his own experience, and from what the Indians had told him. It is doubtful if he had any exact knowledge, or any knowledge, of what Lewis' and Clark had discovered on the Columbia north of Point Vancouver, for their expedition had not returned to St. Louis, Missouri, until September 23, 1806, and the instructions to Fraser to explore the river must have left Montreal in the spring of 1807.

There could have been no doubt in Fraser's mind that his exploration would be a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Mackenzie had turned back because he had found the river so dangerous to navigate. The Indians along the river below he knew were of a treacherous and warlike character. Fraser had no guide. He made very careful preparations for his journey. The expedition consisted of twenty-one men besides himself, in four canoes. The exact day that the expedition started is in doubt, but it is not material. It probably left Fort George on the Tacoutche, which I shall hereinafter call the Fraser, on May 28, 1808. At the outset one of his canoes was almost wrecked at Fort George Canyon. The next two days were very dangerous navigation. May 30 the expedition arrived at the lowest point on the river reached by Mackenzie, where the latter turned back. But Fraser did not hesitate. In his Journal he says that for two miles there was a strong rapid with high and steep banks which contracted the channel in many places to forty or fifty yards, and that "this immense body of water, passing through this narrow space in a turbulent manner, forming numerous gulfs and cascades, and making a tremendous noise, had an awful and forbidding appearance."

As the passage by land appeared even worse, Fraser resolved to try to have one canoe run the rapid, with a light load and manned by his best five men. The attempt was unsuccessful, the canoe was dashed against a rock, but its crew fortunately saved themselves by climbing up the rock. The rescue of these five men was a perilous act, endangering the lives of all who took part in it. Fraser says in his Journal:

"The bank was extremely high and steep, and we had to plunge our daggers at intervals into the ground to check our speed, as otherwise we were exposed to slide into the river. We cut steps in the declivity, fastened a line tO' the front of the canoe, with which some of the men ascended in order to haul it up, while the others supported it upon their arms. In this manner our situation was most precarious; our lives hung, as it were, upon a thread, as the failure of the line or a false step of one of the men might have hurled the whole of us into eternity."

The Indians advised him to abandon the river and travel overland. Fraser says in his Journal:

"Going to sea by an indirect way was not the object of my undertaking. I therefore would not deviate."

He proceeded on the land a short distance with horses, obtained from the Indians. He then voyaged by the river several days under great perils, at times portaging his goods and canoes over mountains and across canyons and ravines. Sometimes they went over rapids and through river canyons, which it is said never before nor since were attempted.

June 9 the expedition came to a place where "the channel contracted to a width of about forty yards enclosed by two precipices of immense height, which bending over toward each other, make it narrower above than below. The water which rolls down this extraordinary passage in tumultuous waves and with great velocity, had a frightful appearance." It was impossible to carry the canoes overland. The whole party without hesitation and with most desperate daring embarked in their canoes. In his Journal, Fraser says: "Thus skim^ swimming along as fast as lightning, the crews, cool and determined, followed each other in awful silence, and, when we arrived at the end we stood gazing at each other in silent congratulation at our narrow escape from total destruction."

Here the Indians made a map and informed Fraser that it was impossible to proceed further by water, but he continued for the day. Fraser wrote:

"This afternoon the rapids were very bad, two in particular were worse, if possible, than any we had hitherto met with, being a continual series of cascades intercepted with rocks and bounded by precipices and mountains that at times seemed to have no end. I scarcely ever saw anything so dreary and dangerous in any country, and at present, while writing this, whatever way I turn my eyes, mountains upon mountains whose summits are covered with eternal snows, close the gloomy scene."

June tenth he became convinced the party could not continue down the river by water. So he placed his canoes on scaffolds and cached a part of his supplies. The whole party then proceeded on foot, carrying heavy packs, occasionally traveling by water in canoes hired from the Indians. June 26 Fraser wrote in his Journal:

"As for the road by land we could scarcely make our way with even only our guns. I have been for a long period among the Rocky Mountains, but have never seen anything like this country. It is so wild that I cannot find words to describe our situation at times. We had to pass where no human being should venture; yet in those places there is a regular footpath impressed, or rather indented upon the rocks by frequent traveling. Besides this, steps which are formed like a ladder or the shrouds of a ship, by poles hanging to one another and crossed at certain distances with twigs, the whole suspended from the top to the foot of immense precipices and fastened at both extremities to stones and trees, furnish a safe and convenient passage to the natives; but we, who had not had the advantages of their education and experience, were often in imminent danger when obliged to follow their example."

The expedition continued on its journey, sometimes on land, sometimes on water in the canoes of the Indians. July second they arrived at a place where the tide rose about twO' and a half feet. That day they were compelled to take a canoe forcibly in order to continue their journey. July third they arrived at one of the mouths of the Fraser, probably what is called the "North Arm," Although some writers have endeavored to belittle Fraser's achievement and have asserted that he did not reach the mouth of the river, it is now completely established that he did.

In his Journal Fraser says of the location of the mouth of the Fraser River:

"The latitude is 49 degrees, nearly, while that of the entrance of the Columbia is 46 degrees 20 minutes. This river, therefore, is not the Columbia." He then adds: "If I had been convinced of this when I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned."

Dr. George Bryce truly says in his book, "The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company," referring to the latter entry in Fraser's Journal: "How difficult it is to distinguish small from great actions! Flere was a man making fame for all time, and the idea of the greatness of his work had not dawned upon him."

And Simon Fraser's exploring expedition was a great work, not only in its accomplishment but in its effects. It is proper that this river should always bear his name. In exploring a known river he discovered it. While the Fraser River is navigable only a short distance above its mouth, it makes the only water grade possible through almost impassable mountains. The great wagon road and the Canadian Pacific Railway utilize this grade.

Just before and after Fraser arrived at the mouth of the river, the party narrowly escaped being massacred by the swimming</noinclude>Indians. This was prevented largely through the fortitude of Fraser.

Without delay, on July third, the expedition started on its return trip, arriving at Fort George August sixth, without any remarkable experiences on the way. It seems somewhat strange that it took the party a longer time to go to the ocean than to return. Had Fraser known of the conditions he could have made his trip much easier by waiting until later in the season, after the summer freshet was over. But this fact does not in any way detract from, nor change the renown to which this intrepid band of sturdy Nor'westers, and especially its leader, is entitled.

There is no other large river on the Pacific Slope so terrible or so dangerous to follow as the Fraser, unless it be that part of the Snake River between Huntington, Oregon, and Lewiston, Idaho, along which Wilson Price Hunt and his party wandered so helplessly and almost hopelessly in the fall and winter of 1811.

Those interested in this perilous expedition of Fraser should read his Journal, which is printed as a part of a work, in two volumes, written in French by L. R. Masson, entitled "Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest." The Journal of Fraser is printed in English. The first edition was published at Quebec in 1889. Although not an old work, it is now very difficult to obtain.

In preparing this address I have been given interesting and important information, personally, by Judge F. W. Howay, of New Westminster, British Columbia, particularly facts relating to the Spanish discovery of Fraser River. Notwithstanding his judicial duties, he has found time to become a diligent student and a scholarly writer of British Columbia history. I have, so far as possible, examined original sources of information in an endeavor to be accurate in statements of fact.

It may be of interest to add that Simon Fraser continued in the service of the Northwest Company until the coalition of that company with the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1821. April 19, 1862, at the age of eighty-six, he died at St. Andrews, Ontario, where he had lived as a boy.

In recognition of his explorations of the Fraser River, Fraser was offered knighthood, but his limited means prevented his acceptance. It is said, however, that one reason for his refusal was that he believed that he was entitled to be Baron Lovat, as the nearest relative of the noted Lord Lovat, of whom I have spoken.

Simon Fraser was one of the intrepid explorers and hardy pioneers of the Pacific Northwest, men who found the way and showed others where and how to follow. The armies of occupation and of civilization followed slowly on. In a few years he was succeeded by the great leaders and successful furtraders of the Hudson's Bay Company. At the old, the original Vancouver, on the Columbia River, came and ruled. Dr. John McLoughlin, the Father of Oregon, James Douglas, afterwards knighted, and Peter Skene Ogden, all held in grateful memory in Oregon and Washington.

In this one hundred years since Simon Fraser's exploration of the Fraser River, the whole Pacific Northwest has grown Wonderfully in population and in civilization. The days of centennials, beginning with that of Gray's discovery of the Columbia River, show that while the long ago of this part of the continent is comparatively new, its traditions are those of a hardy, a brave, and an intrepid people.