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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


Chapter III - Fort Chipewyan

LAKE ATHABASKA, on account of its geographical position, was the key to the far north. Vast regions inhabited by the best of fur-bearing animals were, and are to the present day, tributary to it. As already stated, the violent Peter Pond had led the way to the district, although he had not taken possession of the lake itself. It was in 1778 that Pond built his post on Elk River, or, as the French called it, Riviere a la Riche, thirty miles south of Lake Athabaska. To this point Alexander Mackenzie had come, here his broad plans were laid for the extension of the fair trade, and here the brilliant designs were conceived that were to make him famous as an explorer.

Masson, in his book on the North-Wrest Company, depicts in a striking manner the feelings of many of the more educated and enterprising fur traders, as they contemplated the monotony and humdrum of much of a fair trader's life. He represents Alexander Mackenzie as not entirely above the tedium which he sought to relieve by bursts of bustling activity. "How do you spend your time?" asked a young clerk of the North-Wrest Company of a comrade of his own age, who, like himself, had received a good education. "I rise with the sun; I go to see the traps; if a number of Indians arrive I buy their furs, then I eat tollibee (white fish) three times a day. Do you see? I find the time very long, and I fear that my constitution will be seriously injured by that kind of a life, but what can be done? I make a dog train; I bend some wood for snowshoes; and with perseverance I hope to learn the use of the crooked knife."

Such a life could not satisfy Alexander Mackenzie ; his intelligent and open nature revolted from the idea of passing the best years of his life in such intellectual stagnation: now some dirty savages to receive; some goods to exchange for furs; some voyageurs to despatch to the interior; these for companions, men without education and sometimes of had character! Ennui, the worst of maladies, consumed him; he felt himself degraded and useless. His ambition demanded a wider horizon, and for his energy wider fields, and the work of seeking new regions; in short, the desire to travel and explore was burning within him, and he resolved to do his share towards the discovery of the famous north-west passage, if it existed, and to reach the Arctic Ocean.

Various reasons, however, led to his considering the plan very fully, before he decided upon it. There was, as already stated, a considerable amount of jealousy among the traders. Mackenzie had belonged to the smaller company, he was unpopular with Le marquis, as the great McTavish, the head of the traders in Montreal, was called, and he knew that it would be almost impossible for him to get a commission to explore the far distant north, and to incur the expense and danger of such a voyage—even should he offer himself at the annual meeting of the partners at Grand Portage.

Another difficulty lay iii his way. The district to which lie was appointed had by the conduct of Pond become unsettled, and there was no one of his subordinates to whom lie could entrust the direction of affairs. The first obstacle would be largely removed if the second were solved. Accordingly the thought came to his mind to secure as his lieutenant in the district his cousin, Roderick McKenzie, who was not well satisfied with his position in the trade, and was seriously thinking of leaving the fur country altogether, and returning to Montreal.

The vision of expansion placed before Roderick McKenzie by his cousin proved an attractive one, so that he decided to remain in the country, and soon found his way to the Athabaska district. A strong friendship was thus developed between the two cousins, though, as we shall see, to be interrupted for a time in subsequent years by the changes in the fur companies. The work entrusted to Roderick McKenzie, and the way in which he did it, resulted in giving him a high place among the traders.

Arrived at Elk or Athabaska River, Alexander Mackenzie and his confiding kinsman laid their plans for accomplishing what they had in view. The post was thirty miles from Lake Athabaska, or Lake of the Hills, as it was also called. Alexander Mackenzie addressed himself to putting the trade of his district in thorough order, and kept his hold of Elk River post, the old centre, but Roderick was sent to take up new ground and build a new headquarters.

To Alexander Mackenzie's keen eye it was plain that Lake Athabaska would be a more central point from which to send out his messages to the traders, and to which they could come conveniently with their furs. It would afford a line of immediate communication with the vast lake and river system of what we now know as Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes and the Mackenzie River, and it would also lead the way to passages through the Rocky Mountains, where lay great regions still to be explored.

Roderick McKenzie has left us in his interesting "Reminiscences" the story of how he took up his position on Lake Athabaska, and pushed forward the work entrusted to him. "After making every possible inquiry and taking every necessary precaution," says the enterprising novice, "I pitched upon a conspicuous projection which advanced about a league into the lake, the base of which appeared in the shape of a person sitting with arms extended, the palms forming, as it were, a point. On this we settled and built a fort, which we called Chipewyan. It is altogether a beautiful, healthy situation, in the centre of many excellent and never-failing fisheries, provided they are duly attended to at the proper season."

The matter of food is ever an important one in these far northern regions, where nature is not profuse in her gifts, so that the proximity of good fishing-grounds was an important consideration for the hungry traders.

The first Fort Chipewyan was built on a promontory on the south side of Lake Athabaska, a few miles east of the entrance of the Elk River into the lake. It was regarded as a great triumph of skill when this farthest great outpost of the fur trade was completed. Its commanding position and its commodious and comfortable appointments were a surprise to the Indians and old voyageurs who frequented the region. Roderick McKenzie had an eye for the aesthetic, so he fitted out his new fort with every luxury possible in those remote and barren regions. His painting of the interior of the new post, and his attention to its comforts were something unheard of in such a region. The new fort was at once accepted, by Indians and traders alike, as the natural centre of trade, and was at times spoken of as the "Emporium of the North."

Roderick McKenzie always had a taste for literature, as was seen years later when he opened correspondence with traders all over the north and west, asking for descriptions of scenery, of adventure, folklore and history. On his building Fort Chipewyan we learn that he also had in view the founding of a library at the fort, which would not be only for the immediate residents of Fort Chipewyan, but for traders and clerks of the whole region tributary to Lake Athabaska, so that it would be what he called, in an imaginative and somewhat jocular vein, "the little Athens of the Arctic regions." This library became, perhaps, the most famous in the Whole extent of Rupert's Land, and more than fifty years afterwards we read of Lieutenant Henry Lefroy, on his expedition for magnetic observation, spending the winter in Fort Chipewyan, and revelling in the treasures of its well-selected library; therefore the library was not entirely, as Masson contends, scattered and destroyed in the first generation after its founding. The establishment of a library in the fir north, and other similar incidents, are evidences of the intelligence and even culture found in the posts of the, fur traders from the time of Mackenzie to the present. Elsewhere time writer has amplified the matter, and with slight modification said: 'That the officers of the fur companies were not traders only is made abundantly evident. In one of his letters Governor Simpson (1833) states that their great countryman, Sir Walter Scott has just passed away; he thanks one of his traders for sending him copies of Black-wood's Magazine; and orders are often given for fresh and timely books. A little earlier we find the minute interest which the fur traders took in public events in a letter from Chief Factor John Stuart, after whom Stuart's Lake in New Caledonia was named. Stuart speaks to another fur trader of the continuation of Southey's " History of the War of the Peninsula" not being published, and we know from other sources that this history fell still-born, but Stuart goes on to say that he had sent for Colonel Napier's "History of the Peninsular War." "Napier's politics," says Stuart, "are different, and we shall see whether it is the radical or a laurel [Southey was poet laureate] that deserves the palm." These examples illustrate what all close observers notice, that the officers of the fur companies not only read to purpose, but maintained a keen outlook for the good, even for the most finished contemporary literature.

Here, then, the winter of 1788-9 was spent in the new fort by Roderick McKenzie. Even a view of the map can hardly make vivid to us the great distance to the far north that Fort Chipewyan is. From Montreal to Grand Portage took the mangeurs de lard many days. After the coureurs de Bois left Grand Portage with song and flags and mirth, time fled quickly until the outlet to Rainy Lake was reached, which was a stopping-place for the western expeditions. On August 1st the canoes, manned with sturdy French-Canadians or Indians, left Rainy Lake for the far north. As the season was fast passing the canoemen worked with might and main in order to reach their destination. It was the end of September before the voyageurs and their well-laden canoes reached Athabaska.

About this time of the year the traders from the far north of Lake Athabaska, and the Indians of remote Arctic regions reached Fort Chipewyan, and the whole lake was alive with canoes, urged forward by Indian men and women coming to the trader, whom they regarded as the mightiest of men.

This trading season over, the early winter came in October, when officers and men had little to do but sort their furs, and secure food for subsistence, filling in the intervals of their time with the interests of the library of which we have spoken. Roderick McKenzie, writing of the winter at his new fort, says: "These men and myself, I recollect, visited six nets three times a day from under the ice during that fall fishery, but no mittens can be used during that serious operation. The fingers and wrists while occupied in managing the nets and disentangling the fish from the meshes, must be kept constantly immerged to prevent their freezing. I had a number of voyageurs in charge; they were divided into crews independent of each other and in different houses, each having to provide itself at the fisheries."

Whether it was trading with the greasy Indians from the north, in their poverty and misery, or fastening up and down the waterways in summer, or living almost entirely on the fish which were caught with such difficulty and hardship, it is plain that life at Fort Chipewyan represented, under the most favourable circumstances, the embodiment of all that was inhospitable, uninteresting, and laborious. And yet we are told that Athabaska and the Mackenzie River were the greatest desire of the hardy traders.


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