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Voyages from Montreal, on the river St. Laurence, through the continent of North America, to the frozen… Mackenzie, Alexander, 1764-1820 1801

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In  the  Years   1789   and 1793.
JL HE fur trade, from the earlieft fettlement of Canada, was confidered
of the firft importance to that colony. The country was then fo
populous, that, in the vicinity of the eftablifliments, the animals
whofe fldns were precious, in a commercial view, foon became very
fcarce, if not altogether extinct. They were, it is true, hunted at
former periods, but merely for food and clothing. The Indians, therefore, to procure the neceflary fupply, were encouraged td'penetrate into
the country, and were generally accompanied by fome of the Canadians, who found means to induce the remoteft tribes of natives to
bring the fkins which were moft in demand, to their fettlements, in the
Way of trade.
It is not neceflary for me to examine the caufe, but experience proves
that it requires much lefs time for a civilized people to deviate into
the manners and cuftoms of favage life, than for favages to rife into
a ftate of civilization. - Such was the event with thofe who thus accompanied the natives on their hunting and trading excurfions; for they
became fo attached to the Indian mode of life, that they loft all relifh
for their former habits and native homes. Hence they derived the title
of Coureurs des Bois, became a kind of pedlars, and were extremely
ufeful to the merchants engaged in the fur trade; who gave them
the neceflary credit to proceed on their commercial undertakings.
Three or four of thefe people would join their ftock, put their property into a birch-bark canoe, which they worked themfelves, and
either accompanied the natives in their excurfions, or went at once to
the country where they knew they were to hunt. At length, thefe
voyages extended to twelve or fifteen months, when they returned with
rich cargoes of furs, and followed by great numbers of the natives.
During the fhort time requifite to fettle their accounts with the mer-*
chants, and procure frefh credit, they* generally contrived to fquander
away all their gains, when they returned to renew their favourite mode
of life: their views being anfwered, and their labour fufficiently rewarded,
by indulging themfelves in extravagance and diflipation during the fhort
fpace of one month in twelve or fifteen.
This'indifference about amafling property, and the pleafure of living
free from all reflraint, foon brought on a licentioufnefs of manners which
could not long efcape the vigilant obfervation of the miflionaries, who
had much reafon to complain of their being a difgrace to the Chrif-
tian religion; by not only fwerving from its duties themfelves, but by
thus OF THE FUR TRADE, &c.
tiHjs bringing rbinto difreputeigith tljs^e of jthe natives who had become
converts to it; and, confequentby^ obftractingiljhe.great obje£l pp which
thofe pious men had devoted their lives. They, therefore, exerted their
influence to procure the fuppreflion of thefe people, and accordingly, no
one was allowed to go upxthe country tojfojarfic with tfe(e Indians, w^^hout
a licence from the government.
At: feifiklhefe permiffions were, of courfe, granted only to thofe whofe
character was fuch as could give no alarm to the zeal of the miflionaries:
but they were afterwards bef$qwed as rewards for fervices, onojfficers.and
their widows; and they, who were not willing or able to rnake ufe of them,
(which may be fuppofed to be always the cafe with thofe of the latter
defcraption) were allowed to fell them to the merchants, who neceflarily
employed the Couretij-s des bo^s, in quality of their, agents; and thefe
people, as may be imagined, gave fufficient -caufe for the renewal of
former complajpts; fo that the remedy proved, in fa6t, worfe than the
At length, military polls were eftablifhed at the confluence of the different large lakes of Canada, which, in a great meafure, checked the
evil confequences that followed from the improper condufl; of thefe
:fore$ers, and, at the fame time, protected the trade. Befides, a number
of able and refpe&able men retired from the army, profecuted the trade
in perfon, under their refpective licences, with great order and regularity, and extended it to fuch a distance, as, in thofe days, was confi-
dered to be an afton^flaing effort of commercial enterprize. Thefe per-
fons and  the miffionaries having cpmbined their views at the  fame
a 2
time, f"5
time, fecured the refpeft of the natives, and the obedience of the people
neceflarily employed in the laborious parts of this undertaking. Thefe
gentlemen denominated themfelves commanders, and not traders, though
they were intitled to both thofe characters: and, as for the miflionaries,
if fufferings and hardfliips in the profecution of the great work which
they had undertaken, deferved applaufe and admiration, they had an
undoubted claim to be admired and applauded: they fpared no labour
and avoided no danger in the execution of their important office; and
it is to be ferioufty lamented, that their pious endeavours did not meet
with the fuccefs which they deferved: for there is hardly a trace to be
found beyond the cultivated parts, of their meritorious functions.
The caule of this failure muft be attributed to a want of due consideration in the mode employed by the miflibtiaries to propagate the
religion of which they were the zealous minifters. They habituated
themfelves to the favage life, and naturl^ifed themfelves .to the favage
manners, and, by thus becoming dependant, as it were, on. the natives, they
acquired their contempt rather than their veneration. If they had been
as well acquainted with human nature, as they were with the articles of
their faith, they would have known, that the uncultivated mind of an
Indian muft be difpofed by much preparatory method and inftra&ion to
receive the revealed truths of Chriftianity, to aft under its fan£lions, and
be impelled to good by the hope of its reward^, or turned foom evil by
the fear of its punifhments. They fhould have began their work by
teaching fome of thofe ufeful arts which are the inlets of knowledge and
lead the mind by degrees to objects of higher comprehenfion. Agriculture fo formed   to fix and combine fociety, and fo. preparatory to,
obj£6ls. OF THE FUR TRADE, &c. v
obje&s of fuperior confideration, fhould have been the firft filing introduced among a favage people^ it attaches the wandering tribe to that
fpot where it adds fo much to their comforts; while it gives them a fenfe
of property, and of lading pofleflion, inftead of the uncertain hopes
of the chafe, and the fugitive produce of uncultivated wilds. Such
were the means by which the forefts of Paraguay were converted into a
fcene of abundant cultivation, and its favage inhabitants introduced to
all the advantages of a civilized life.
The Canadian miflionaries fhould have been contented to improve the
morals of theiil'own countrymen, fo;fchat b^Jmeliorating.their character
and conduct, they would have given a ftrikjng example of the effecl; of
Religion hi promoting the comforts 0$j lifer*to the furrounding favages;
and might by degrees have extended its benign influence to the remote!!
regions of that country, which was the objeft, and intended to be the
fcene, of :tbek; evangelic labour^! But by bearing the light of the
Gofpel at once to the diftance of two thoufand five hundred miles from
the civilized part of the colonies, it was^foon obfcured by the cloud of
ignorance that darkened the human mind $j,thofe diftant regions.
The whole of their long route I have often travelled, and the recollection of %-eh a people as the miflionaries, having, been there, was confined to a few fuperaqMpp#ted Canadians, whahad not left that country
fince the ceflion to the EngHlh, in 1763, and who. particularly mentioned
the death 0$ fome, and the diftrefling fitu^tion of them all. But if thefe
religious men did no^-attain the objects of their perfevering piety, they
were,, during their miflion, of great feivice tg the commanders who
engaged. 1
engaged in thofe diftant expeditions, and fpread the fur trade as far
Weft as the banks of the Safkatchkrine river, in 53. North latifclde, and
longitude 102 Weft. $11$
At an early-period of their intereourfe with the favages, a cuftom was
introduced of a very exceBent tendency, but is now unfortunately dtfc
coati&M, of not filing an/^irituoufc.liquor &' the natives. Tins
admirable regulation was for fome time obf&ved, with all the refpeft
due to the religion by which it was fanctioned, and whofe fevereft cen-
fures folfbwedthe^iolation of it. A painful penance could alone fGftore
the offender to the fif^ended rites *of the facrament. The cafuiflary of
trade, however, diffeovefeU a way to gratify the Indians with their favourite cord&l, without ^fetttfrifig the ecclefia-fttettl penalties, by'giving,
inftead of felKtag it to tft^m.
But notwithstanding all the reftrictions with whieh commerce was
opprefled under the French government, the fur trade was extended to
the immenfe diftanceMvhich has been already ftated; and furmounted
many moft difcouraging difficulties, which will be hereafter noticed ;
while, at the fame time, no exertions were made from Hudfon's Bay to
obtain even a [hare of the trade of a country wfri§h, according to the
charter of that company, belonged to it, and, from its proximity, is fo
much more acceflible to the mercantile adventurer.
Of thefe trading commanders, I underftood, that two attempted to
penetrate to the Pacific Ocean, but the utmoft extent of their journey I
could never learn; which may be attributed, indeed, to a failure of the
Faf^ometcisei afte? ^hftebo^'fleft ©£ Canada/, iJrifr tfrade wasfudrperaled,
which been itftfy ^^'^iffcageous to th.e .Hudfon's fJ^ay Com-
panyjjas all the iflfefeftansts to tjbjiij Weft ward of Lakqj fjuperiojr^were
■obliged to go to them for fuch-Ufr' their habitual ufe had rendered
neceflaiiyj Some of theffflanadfcafl^, who had lifted long wi^ffcthem, and
were become attached to a fajvagevJife, accompanied them tether annually,
4aJfomercantye advenfuffgfs. aga#i- appeared %«j>m their erw?| jEountry, after
fea&iinterval ej-ffeveral years, o\^iug,,as I fi&ppofe, to an ignorance of the
county in the conqnef ors, and their want of compiercial confidence;^
the conquered. There were, indeed, other difcouragements, fuch as
the immenfe length of the journey neceflary to reach the limits beyond
which this commerce muft begin; the rifk of property -tl the expences
attending fiaieh a long tranfposfc; and an ignorance of the language of
thofe who,:from their experience, m&fft be neceflarily employed as the
intermedaate agents between them and the natives. But, notwithstanding thefe difficulties, the trade, by degrees, began to fpread over t&e. different parts to which it had been carried by the French, though at a
great rifk of the lives, as well as the property, of their new pofleffors,
for the natives had been taught by their fotsner allies to entertain hoftile
cUFpofitions towards the Englifh, from their having been in allianc%3agflt
their natural enemies the Iroquois; and there were not wanting a fufficient
number of difcontented, difappointed people to keep alive fuch a notion;
fo that for a long time they were confidered and treated as objects of
hoftility. To prove this difpofition of the Indians, we have only to
refer to the conducl of Pontiac, at Detroit, and the furprife and taking
of Michiliaaakija^ about this period.
Hence Vlll
Hence it arofe, that it was fo late as the year 1766, before which, the
trade I mean to confider, commenced from Michilimakinac. The firft
who attempted itwerefatisfied to go the length of the River Cameniftiquia,
about thirty miles to the Eaflward of the Grande Portage, where the
French had a principal eftablifhment, and was the line of their communication with the interior country. It was once deftroyed by fire. Here
they went and returned fuccefsful in the following fpring to Michilimakinac. Their fuccefs induced them to renew their journey, and incited
others to follow their example. Some of them remained at Camenifti-
quia, while others proceeded to and beyond the Grande Portage, which,
fince that time has become the principal entrepot of that trade, and is
fituated in a bay, in latitude 48. North, and longitude 90. Weft. After
pafling the ufual feafon there, they went back to Michilimakinac as
before, and encouraged by the trade, returned in increafed numbers. One
of thefe, Thomas Curry, with a fpirit of enterprize fuperior to that of
his contemporaries, determined to penetrate to the funheft limits of .the
French difcoveries in that country; or at leaft till the froft fhould flop
him. For «his purpofe he procured guides and interpreters, who were
acquainted with the country, and with four canoes arrived at Fort
Bourbon, which was one of their pofts, at the Weft end of the Cedar
Lake, on the waters of the Safkatchiwine. His rifk and toil were well re-
compenfed, for he came back the following fpring with his canoes filled
with fine furs, with which he proceeded to Canada, and was fatisfied never
again to return to the Indian country.
From this period people began to fpreadover every part of the country, particularly where the French had eftablifhed fettlements.
Mr. James OF THE FUR TRADE, Sec.
Mr. James Finlay was the firft who followed Mr. Curry's example,!
and with the fame number of canoes, arrived, in the courfe of the next
feafon, at Nipawee, the laft of the French 'fettlements on the bank of
the Safkatchiwine River, in latitude nearly 43a. North, and longitude
103 Weft: he found the good fortune, as he followed, in every refpecr,,
the example, of his predeceflbr.
As may be fuppofed, there were now people enough ready to replace
them, and the trade was purfued with fuch avidity, and irregularity, that
in a few years it became the reverfe of what it ought to have been. An
animated competition prevailed, and the contending parties carried the
trade beyond the French limits, though with no benefit to themfelves or
neighbours, the Hudfon's-Bay Company; who in the year 1774, and
not till then, thought proper to move from home to the Eaft bank of
Sturgeon Lake, in latitude 53. 56. North, and longitude 102. 15. Weft,
and became more jealous of their fellow fubje&s; and, perhaps, with
more caufe, than they had been of thofe of France. From this period
to the prefent time, they have been following the Canadians to their
different eftablifhments, while, on the contrary, there is not a folitary
inftance that the Canadians have followed them; and there are many
trading pofts which they have not yet attained. This, however, will no
longer be a myftery when the nature and policy of the Hudfon's-Bay
Company is compared with that which has been purfued by their rivals
in this trade.—But to return to my fubject.
This competition, which has been already mentioned, gave a fatal
blow to the trade from Canada, and, with other incidental caufes, in my
b opinion, x A GENERAL HISTORY
opinion, contributed to its ruin. This trade was carried on in a very
diftant country, out of the reach of legal reftraint, and where there was a
free fcope given to any ways or means in attaining advantage. 'I he
confequence was not only the lofs of commercial benefit to the perfons
engaged in it, but of the good opinion of the natives, and the refpect of
their men, who were inclined to follow their example ; fo that with drinking, caroufmg, and quarrelling with the Indians along their route, and
among themfelves, they feldom reached their winter quarters; and if they
did, it was generally by dragging their property upon fledges, as the
navigation was clofed up by the froft. When at length they were
arrived, the object of each was to injure his rival traders in the opinion
of the natives as much as was in their power, by mifreprefentation and
prefents, for which the agents employed were peculiarly calculated.
They confidered the command of their employer as binding on themv
and however wrong or irregular the tranfa&ion, the refponfibility refted
with the principal who directed them. This is Indian daw. Thus did
they wafte their credit and their property with the natives, till the firft
was pafl redemption, and the laft was nearly exhaufted ; fo that towards
the fpring in each year; the rival panties found it abfblutely neceflary
to join, and make one common flock of what remained, for the pur-
pofe of trading with the natives, who could entertain no refpefl: for
perfons who had conducted themfelves with fo much irregularity and
deceit. The winter, therefore was one continued fcene of difagreements
and quarrels. If any one had the precaution or good fenfe to keep clear
of thefe proceedings, he derived a proportionable advantage from his
good conduct., and frequently proved a peace-maker between the parties.
To fuch an height had they carried this licentious conduct, that they
were OF THE FUR TRADE, &c.
were in a continual ftate of alarm, and were even frequently flopped- to
pay tribute on their route into the country; though they had adopted
the plan of travelling together in parties of thirty or forty canoes, and
keeping their men armed; which fometimes, indeed, proved neceflary
for their defence.
Thus was the trade carried on for feveral years, and confequently be^
coming worfe and worfe, fo that the partners, who met them at the
Grande Portage, naturally complained of their ill fuccefs. But fpecious
reafons were always ready to prove that it arofe from circumftances
which they could not at that time control; and encouragements were
held forth to hope that a change would foon take plage, which would
make ample amends for paft difappointments.
It was about this time, that Mr. Jofeph Frobifher, one of the gentlemen,
engaged in the trade, determined to penetrate into the country yet
unexplored, to the North and Weftward, and, in the fpring of the year
1775, met the Indians from that quarter on their way to Fort Churchill,
at Portage de Traite, fo named from that clrcumftance on the banks of
the Miffinipi, or Churchill River, latitude 55. 25. North, longitude 103!-.
Weft. It was, indeed, with fome difficulty that he could induce them
to trade with him, but he at length procured as many furs as his
canoes could carry. In this perilous expedition he fuftained every
kind of hardflaip incident to a journey through a wild and favage
country, where his fubfiftence depended on what the woods and the
waters produced. Thefe difficulties, neverthelefs, did not difcourage
him from returning in the following year, when he was equally fuccefsful.
He Xll
He then fent his brother to explore the country ftill further Weft, who
penetrated as far as the lake of Ifle a la Croix, in latitude 55. 26. North,
and longitude 108 Weft.
He, however, never after wintered among the Indians, though he
retained a large intereft in the trade, and a principal fhare in the direction of it till the year 1798, when he retired to enjoy the fruits of his
labours; and, by his hofpitality, became known to every refpe£iable
ftranger who vifited Canada.
The fuccefs of this gentleman induced others to follow his example,
and in the fpring of the year 1778, fome of the traders on the Safkat-
chiwine River, finding they had a quantity of goods to fpare, agreed to
put them into a joint ftock, and gave the charge and management of
them to Mr. Peter Pond, who, in four canoes, was directed to enter the
Englifh River, fo called by Mr. Frobifher, to follow his track, and proceed
ftill further; if poflible, to Athabafca, a country hitherto Unknown but
from Indian report. In this.enterprife heat length fucceeded, and
pitched his tent on the banks of the Elk River, by him erroneoufly called
the Athabafca River, about thirty miles from the Lake of the Hills, into
which it empties itfelf.
Here he pafled the winter of 1778-9; faw a vaft concourfe of the
Knifteneaux and Chepewyan tribes, who ufed to carry their furs annually
to Churchill; the latter by the barren grounds, where they fuffered innumerable hardfhips, and were fometimes even ftarved to death. The
former followed the co.rfe of the lakes and rivers, through a country
that OF THE FUR TRADE, &c.
. that abounded in animals, and where there was plenty of fifh: but
though they did not fuffer from want of food, the intolerable fatigue of
fuch a journey could not be eafily repaid to an Indian : they were, therefore, highly gratified by feeing people come to their country to relieve
them from fuch long, toilfome, and dangerous journies; and were immediately reconciled to give an advanced price for the articles neceflary
to their comfort \ and convenience. Mr. Pond's reception and fuccefs
was accordingly beyond his expectation; and he procured twice as
many furs as his canoes would carry. They alio fupplied him with as
much provifion as he required during his refidence among them, and
fufficient for his homeward voyage. Such of the furs as he could not
embark, he fecured in one of his winter huts, and they were found the
following; feafon, in the fame ftate in which he left them.
Thefe, however, were but partial advantages, and could not prevent
the people of Canada from feeing the improper conduct, of fome of their
aflbciates, which rendered it dangerous to remain any longer among the
natives. Moft of them who palled the winter at the Safkatchiwine, got
to the Eagle hills, where, in the fpring of the year 1780, a few days previous to their intended departure, a large band of Indians being engaged
in drinking about their houfes, one of the traders, to eafe himfelf of the
troublefome importunities of a native, gave him a dofe of laudanum in
a glafs of grog, which effectually prevented him from giving further
trouble to any one, by fetiing him afleep for ever. This accident produced a fray, in which one of the traders, and feveral of the men, were
killed, while the reft had no other means to lave themfelves but by a
precipitate flight, abandoning a considerable quantity of goods, and
near tm,
near half the furs which they had colled during the winter and the
About the fame time, two of the eftablifhments on the Afliniboin
river, were attacked with lefs juftice, when feveral white men, and a
greater number of Indians were killed. In fhort, it appeared, that the
natives had forifted a refolution to extirpate the traders; and, without
entering into any further reafonings on the fubjecl, it appears to be mt-
controvertible, that the irregularity purfued in carrying on the trade has
brought it into its prefent forlorn fituation; and nothing but the greateft
calamity that could have befallen the natives, faved the traders from
deftru6tion: this was the fmall pox, which fpread its deftruclive and
defolating power, as the fire confumes the dry grafs of the field. The
fatal infection fpread around with a baneful rapidity which no flight
could efcape, and with a fatal effect that nothing could refill. It destroyed with its peftilential breath whole families and tribes; and the,
horrid fcene prefented to thofe who had the melancholy and afflicting
opportunity of beholding it, a combination of the dead, the dying, and
fuch as to avoid the horrid fate of their friends around them, prepared to difappoint the plague of its prey, by terminating their own
The habits and lives of thefe devoted people, which provided not today for the wants of to-morrow, muft have heightened the pains of fuch
an affliaion, by leaving them not only without remedy, but even without
alleviation.    Nought was left them but to fubmit in agony and defpair.
To aggravate the piclure, if aggravation were poflible, may be added,
the putrid carcafes which^the wolves, with a furious voracity, dragged
forth from the huts, or which were mangled within them by the dogs,
whofe hunger was fatisfied with the disfigured remains of their mafters.
Nor was it uncommon for the father of a family, whom the infection
had not reached, to call them around him, to reprefent the cruel fuffer-
ings and horrid fate of their relations, from the influence of fome evil
fpirit who was preparing to extirpate their race ; and to incite them to
baffle death, with all its horrors, by their own poniards. At the fame
time, if their hearts failed them in this neceflary a£l, he was himfelf
ready to perform the deed of mercy with his own hand, as the laft a£t
of his affe&am