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The Scot in British North America
Chapter II British Fur-hunting and Settlement


On the second of May, 1670, King Charles II. granted a charter to his "trusty and well-beloved cousin," the renowned Prince Rupert, son of the King’s aunt, Elizabeth and Frederick of Bohemia, the Duke of Albermarle, Arlington, Ashley and others, under the name of "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading in Hudson Bay." This famous and long-lived corporation was ostensibly established, in the words of the Charter, "for the discovery of a new passage into the South Sea, for the finding some trade for furs, minerals and other considerable commodities," and also for the Christianization of the Indians. Concerning the last of these objects, perhaps the less said the better; it was, however, a habit in those days to cover the selfishness of trading schemes with a thin veneering of religion, and perhaps no one was either deceived or sought to be deceived thereby. A large portion of the continent was certainly explored by the agents of this and other companies, "but this new passage to the South Sea" was not discovered by them. On the other hand, the fur-trade proved lucrative beyond the most sanguine expectations of these "adventurers." The charter had granted them a monopoly of trade, with plenary powers, executive and judicial, in and over all seas, straits, lands, &c., lying within the entrance of Hudson’s Straits, and the rivers entering them, "not already occupied by any other English subject or other Christian Power or State. In return they were to yield and pay therefor two elks and two black beavers, whenever his Majesty or his heirs should set foot in the territory.

It is more than probable that neither the King nor the Company had any idea of the extent of territory thus handed over to the latter. The two branches of the Saskatchewan cover all the fertile belt from the Rocky Mountains, and their waters reach Hudson Bay by Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River. Towards the United States the Assiniboine, with its tributaries, the Qu’Appelle and the Souris unite at Winnipeg or Fort Garry with the Red River which rises far south of the boundary line, and all these waters flow also into Lake Winnipeg. The early operations of this great monopoly were confined to the vicinity of Hudson Bay and the pear-shaped inlet known as James Bay which forms its apex. The profits of the fur-trade were enormous. "During the first twenty years of its existence, the profits of the Company were so great that, notwithstanding considerable losses sustained by the capture of their establishments by the French, amounting in value to £118,014, they were enabled to make a payment to the proprietors, in 1684, of fifty per cent., and a further payment in, 1689 of twenty-five per cent. In 1690, the stock was trebled without any call being made, besides affording a payment to the proprietors of twenty-five per cent on the increased or newly created stock. From 1692 to 1697 the Company incurred loss and damage to the amount of £97,500 from the French. In 1720 their circumstances were so far improved that they again trebled their capital stock, with only a call of ten per cent. from the proprietors, on which they paid dividends averaging nine per cent, for many years, showing profits on the originally subscribed capital stock actually paid up, of between sixty and seventy per cent, per annum, from the, year 1690 to 1800." [Eighty Years Progress in British North America. By various authors: - "Commerce and Trade," by H.Y. Hind, F.R.G.S., p. 279.]

Meanwhile the authorities of New France could hardly be expected to look with patience upon this invasion of their domain from the back door. Towards the "close of the seventeenth century they were threatened by Britain and her colonies, on every side. The New England fishermen menaced Acadia and the Gulf; the Dutch and English of New York disputed French supremacy on the great lakes and the Ohio River; and the Hudson Bay Company was gradually, but surely infringing upon French territory from the north and north-west. It was not unnatural that the pioneers and missionaries of New France who had made the North-West their own by exploration should resent the intrusion of the British by sea. Both by the Ottawa and the great lakes they had established routes for trade and travel into "the great lone land." Moreover, the French laid claim to all the territory to the Arctic Ocean as their own, and contended that it had been granted, as a portion of New France to the company of merchants in 1603, to the Company of One Hundred Associates or Partners, under Richelieu, in 1627, and finally to the West India Company; in 1664. Their rulers argued that as the King of France had claimed this vast domain in these several charters, there was no room for the Hudson Bay Company in 1670, seeing that Charles II. had estopped them from occupying "any territory already occupied by any other Christian Prince or State." In addition to all this, Charles I. had by the treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye, distinctly confirmed the French claim to the Hudson Bay Territory in 1632; and many years after, two Canadians, De Groselliers and Radisson, made their way thither to establish trade. Failing to enlist the French court in their enterprise, these adventurers assisted the young English company, which, towards the close of the century, possessed four forts, one near the mouth of the Nelson, and three others, Forts Albany, Hayes and Rupert, at the southern end of the Bay.

Denonville, the Governor of New France, whose piety and patriotism were in wondrous accord, resolved, in 1686, to try conclusions with these intruders. The two countries were at peace, it is true, but that was not a consideration of much weight in the wilds of North America; and besides, the French rule was sorely tried by the masked warfare of Dongan and his Iroquois allies. Early in the spring he accordingly despatched the Chevalier de Troyes with four or five score of Canadians, from Montreal, to strike a blow at the English trading-posts. Working their way up the Ottawa, by river and lake, they at last arrived at Fort Hayes, the nearest of the English depots. "It was a stockade, with four bastions, mounted with cannon. There was a strong block house within, in which the sixteen occupants of the place were lodged, unsuspicious of danger." [See Parkman: Frontenac, pp. 132-135.] The surprise was complete, and the inmates of the fort were captured in their shirts. Fort Rupert, forty leagues along the shore, was also taken after a slight resistance, and Troyes then turned his attention to Fort Albany on the other side of Fort Hayes, at the south-west angle of James’ Bay. Here there was no surprise, for the French doings at Fort Hayes were known at the mouth of the Albany River. Henry Sargent and his thirty men made an attempt to defend the place, but they were attacked both from the land and water sides. The French had ten captured pieces of ordnance with them, and soon succeeded in making the place untenable. Satisfied with these triumphs, Troyes, after razing the forts to the ground, sent his prisoners home in an English vessel, and returned to Montreal with his booty. Of course Louis XIV. and James II. engaged in some controversy, and finally agreed to enjoin strict neutrality upon their colonial representatives.

Amongst those who were engaged in the raid upon the Hudson Bay forts were the two brothers Iberville and St. Hélène, and they were destined to reap still further glory in the struggle of France for supremacy. ["No Canadian, under the French rule, stands in a more conspicuous or more deserved eminence than Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. In the seventeenth century, most of those who acted a prominent part in the colony were born in Old France; but Iberville was a true son of this soil. He and his brothers, Longueuil, Serigny, Assigny, Maricourt, Sainte-Helene, and two Chatenugays, and the two Bienvilles, were, one and all, children worthy of their father, Charles Le Moyne, of Montreal, and favourable types of that noblesse, to whom adventurous hardihood half the continent bears witness." Frontenac, p. 388. See also an interesting account of the several members of this illustrious family in Le Moine: Maple Leaves, 1st series, chap. viii.] Iberville had been engaged in the conquest of Newfoundland in 1697, when he received peremptory orders from France, through his brother Serigny, to attack the English in Hudson Bay. The two brothers had captured Fort Nelson, or Fort Bourbon as they called it, three years before, but it had been retaken during the summer of 1696. In July, 1697, Iberville and his brother left Placentia with four vessels of war and one store-ship, bound for the Arctic Seas. When the little fleet entered the Bay it was at once entangled in the ice. The store-ship was crushed and lost, and Iberville, who was on the Pelican, lost sight of his three consorts. He had nearly reached Fort Nelson, when three sail appeared, and the gallant Frenchman prepared to welcome his missing comrades. They turned out to be armed English merchantmen mounting altogether one hundred and twenty guns. A furious battle ensued, from which Iberville finally emerged victorious, through his superior seamanship. The Pelican, however, was badly damaged, and she finally stranded, parted amidships, and was a total loss. Notwithstanding all his misfortunes, however, the brave Iberville captured Fort Nelson, and returned homeward in triumph. ["Iberville had triumphed over the storms, the icebergs, and the English. The North had seen his prowess, and another fame awaited him in the regions of the sun; for he became the father of Louisiana, and his brother Bienville founded New Orleans." Frontenac, p. 393.]

The interval between the close of the seventeenth century and the treaty of cession in 1763, may be passed over without remark. The French continued their explorations in the North-West to the Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains; but they never again attempted to dispossess the Hudson Bay Company by force of arms. New France had fallen upon evil days, and was compelled to contract her lines and concentrate her strength for the deadly struggle in which she was foredoomed to be the loser. A few years after Canada passed into British hands a number of Montreal merchants, chiefly Scots, conceived the idea of re-opening the North-Western fur-trade on the old French routes. It was in 1766, according to Sir Alex. Mackenzie, [Voyage – General History of the Fur Trade, p. viii.] that the trade was recommenced from Michillimackinac (Mackinac) at the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan. At first, the adventurers only travelled to the mouth of the Kaministiquia on Lake Superior, and to the Grand Portage thirty miles further down. The pioneer who first resolved to penetrate to the furthest limits of the French discoveries was Thomas Curry, a Scottish merchant. With guides and interpreters, and four canoes, he made his way to Fort Bourbon, an old French post at Cedar Lake, on the Saskatchewan. Mackenzie observes that "his risk and toil were well recompensed, for he came back the following spring with his canoes filled with fine furs, with which he proceeded to Canada, and was satisfied never again to return to the Indian country." [Ibid.] The first who followed Curry’s example was James Finlay, another Scot, who made his way to Nipawee, the last French settlement on the Saskatchewan (lat. 53 1/2, long. 103 W.). His success was equal to that of Curry, and from that time the fur-traders gradually spread themselves over that vast and almost unknown region. Meanwhile the Hudson Bay Company had not advanced far from the waters to which they owed their name. It was in the year 1774, "and not till then," writes Mackenzie, that the Company thought proper to move from home to the east bank of Sturgeon Lake, in latitude 53° 56" North, and longitude 102° 15’ West, and became more jealous of their fellow-subjects, and perhaps with more cause, than they had been of those of France." [Ibid. p. ix. – misprinted xi.] Our author has a strong feeling against the Hudson Bay Company and complains bitterly that they followed the Canadians from settlement to settlement, annoying and obstructing them. It may be well to note here a fact which will appear more clearly hereafter, that not only the Canadian traders, but most of the Hudson Bay Company’s servants, were from an early period Scots, and have always remained so up to the present time. ["It is a strange fact that three-fourths of the Company’s servants are Scotch Highlanders and Orkney men. There are very few Irishmen and still fewer Englishmen. A great number, however, are half-breeds and French Canadians, especially among the labourers and voyageurs." Hudson’s Bay. By R. M. Ballantyne: London, 1857, p. 42. Mr. Ballentyne is a Scotsman, who spent six years in the H.B. Co.’s service.]

The half-breeds are scattered over most of the North-West, from Hudson Bay and Algoma to the Rocky Mountains. Principal Grant in his entertaining volume, "Ocean to Ocean" (p. 157), remarks of this class: "They are farmers, hunters, fishermen, voyageurs, all in one; the soil is scratched, three inches deep, early in May, some seed is thrown in, and then the whole household go off to hunt the buffalo. They get back about the first of August, spend the month in haying and harvesting, and are off to the fall hunt early in September. Some are now so devoted to farming that they only go to one hunt in the year. It is astonishing that, though knowing so well ‘how not to do it,’ they raise some wheat, a good deal of barley, oats and potatoes." It is necessary here to notice the marked distinction between the Scottish and French half-breeds or Metis, as they are called. The contrast, which has been often noticed by travellers, is so marked as to merit particular attention, since it serves to illustrate what has been said of the sterling worth and persistency of the Scottish character, even under the most trying of all tests—contact and admixture with an inferior race. The Frenchman, like the Spaniard, of more southern latitudes, always sinks in the scale of civilization by intermarriage with the Indians. "His children," says Dr. Grant, "have all the Indian characteristics, and habits, weaknesses, and ill-regulated passions of nomads." When a Frenchman weds a squaw, "her people become his people but his God her God," and he gradually sinks to her level. When a Scotchman married a squaw, her position, on the contrary, was frequently not much higher than a servant’s. He was ‘the superior person’ of the house. He continued Christian after his fashion, she continued a pagan. The granite of his nature resisted fusion, in spite of family and tribal influences, the attrition of all surrounding circumstances, and the total absence of civilization; and the wife was too completely separated from him to raise herself to his level. The children of such a couple take more after the father than the mother. As a rule, they are shrewd, steady and industrious. A Scotch half-breed has generally a field of wheat before or behind his house, stacks, barn, and provisions for a year ahead in his granary. The Metis has a patch of potatoes or a little barley, and in a year of scarcity draws his belt tighter or starves. It is interesting, as one travels in the great North-West, to note how the two old allies of the middle ages have left their marks on the whole of this great country. The name of almost every river, creek, mountain or district is either French or Scotch." [Ocean to Ocean, pp. 175, 176.] It is the intelligence, industry, and perseverance born with the Scot, often the only, and yet the noblest, heritage bequeathed him by his forbears, that makes him the most valuable settler in any land where his lot is cast. That even when far removed from the refining influences which encompass him in his native land, and thrown into intimate relations with inferior and uncivilized tribes, both he and his children of a mixed race should still exhibit the providence, dignity and self-respect which seem innate in the Scottish people, is surely a crucial instance of "the survival of the fittest."

During the later years of the eighteenth century, the prospect of serious rivalry from Canada stimulated the Hudson Bay Company, as already observed, to renewed exertions. The irregular way in which the fur-trade was carried on by the Canadians led to many abuses, and after a few years, it became unprofitable and almost ruinous to the adventurers. They had the great Company well-organized, and possessing ample governmental powers to contend with; the Indians were, for the most part, hostile and always untrustworthy, and the time had obviously arrived for a co-operative efforts by the Montreal traders. Accordingly, in the winter of 1783-4, the Canadian merchants united together in a body corporate, known as the North-West Company, and the battle between it and the Hudson Bay people began, which continued for thirty-eight years. At its head as managers were placed Messrs. Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, partners in one house, and Mr. Simon McTavish, a name, which occupies a conspicuous place in the subsequent history of the North-West. Unfortunately, there was considerable disagreement over the shares allotted to some of the partners in the new company, and one of them, for a time, succeeded in detaching Messrs. Gregory and Macleod from their fellow adventurers. In the counting-house of the former, a clerk had served for five years, and was in 1784 seeking his own fortune at Detroit. This young settler was Alexander (afterwards Sir Alexander) Mackenzie, the explorer of the North and West of British North America. Mackenzie was a native of Inverness, born about 1760, who early emigrated to America, and found employment at Montreal with Mr. Gregory. He was now asked to become a partner in the trading venture, and, having made his arrangements, set out for the Grand Portage in the spring of 1785. The dissensions amongst the partners, the superior organization of the new company, and its determined hostility to the recalcitrants, proved serious obstacles in Mackenzie’s way; but in 1787, the differences were healed, and a union effected, much to the satisfaction of all parties.

The North-West chiefly followed upon the tracks of the old French traders. These, as the reader will remember, traversed two routes, the one by the lakes, by Fort Frontenac (Kingston), Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac and the Grand Portage; and the other by the Ottawa, the French River, St. Mary’s (the Sault Ste Marie), and so westward to the same point on Lake Superior. Sir Alex. Mackenzie boasts that, after the union in 1787, the "commercial establishment was founded on a more solid basis than any hitherto known in the country; and it not only continued in full force, vigour and prosperity, in spite of all interference from Canada, but maintained at least an equal share of advantage with the Hudson Bay Company, notwithstanding the superiority of their local situation" (p. xx). "In 1788, the gross amount of the adventure for the year did not exceed forty thousand pounds; but, by the exertion, enterprise, and industry of the proprietors, it was brought in eleven years to triple that amount and upwards; yielding proportionate profits and surpassing, in short, anything known in America" (p. xxii). It has been estimated that in 1815 this company had four thousand servants in its employment, and occupied sixty trading posts. A new route was opened on an old Indian trail from Penetanguishene and Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario at first to the Humber Bay, and subsequently down Yonge Street, the military road constructed by Col. Simcoe to York (now Toronto) the Capital of Upper Canada. Westward the Company’s operations extended to and beyond the old French establishments on the Saskatchewan. Sir Alexander Mackenzie names five chief factories on that river—Nepawi House, South-branch House, Fort George House, Fort Augustus House, and Upper Establishment (p. lxix).

But trading was not the only occupation of these adventurous Scots. They were the great explorers of Western North America to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Mackenzie himself was engaged in two great expeditions, during the years 1789 and 1793. In the former year he started from Fort Chipewyan at the western extremity of Lake Athabasca or the Lake of the Hills, as he terms it in his "Voyages" with a little band of retainers, Canadian and Indian. Travelling in a generally north-western direction by the Slave River, the party entered the Great Slave Lake. Thence with some vicissitudes of fortune, Mackenzie traversed the chain of lakelets and streams to the Great Bear Lake, an so to the great river which bears his name to the Arctic Sea. In October, 1792, from the same starting-point, the explorer ascended the Unjigah or Peace River which he explored to its source, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and made his way to the Pacific Ocean. The journey was full of perils and perplexities, and at times even the brave Highland heart of Mackenzie seems to have sunk within him. The story, as told by himself, in the simple and unaffected language of his "journal" is full of information regarding the country, as it was when visited by him and his friend Mackay. At the end of his weary journey of nine months, he erected a simple memorial of his achievement. "I now mixed up some vermillion in melted grease," he says, and inscribed, in large characters, on the south-east of the rock on which we had slept last night, this brief memorial: ‘Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, the twenty second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety- three.’" He reached Fort Chipewayan, and safely relieved Roderick Mackenzie, whom he had left in charge, and "resumed," as he modestly observes, "the character of a trader," "after an absence of eleven months."

The character of the class which achieved so much for British progress in the North-West could hardly be better given than in the words of Mr. S. J. Dawson, then M. P. P. for Algoma, uttered in the Ontario Legislature in 1876. "At the formation of this (the North-West) Company, there were in Canada a number of men remarkable for their energy and enterprise. Many of those whose fortunes had been lost at Culloden, and even some of the Scottish chiefs who had been present at that memorable conflict, were then in the country. They were men accustomed to adventure, and had been trained in the stern school of adversity. They joined the North-West Company, and soon gave a different complexion to the affairs of the North-West. Under their management, order succeeded to the anarchy which prevailed under the French régime. Warring tribes and rival traders were reconciled. Trading posts sprang up on the Saskatchewan and Unjiga; every post became a centre of civilization, and explorations were extended to the shores of the Arctic Sea, and the coasts of the Pacific Ocean. It has been the custom to ascribe to the Hudson Bay Company the admirable system of management which brought peace and good government to the then distracted regions of the North-West; but it was due to these adventurous Scotchmen. Sir Alexander Mackenzie traced out the great river which now bears his name, and was the first to cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean. Fraser followed the river now called after him, and a little later, Thompson crossed further to the south, and reached Oregon by the Columbia." It may be added that Vancouver explored the British Columbian archipeligo, and gave his name to its largest island in 1797; four years after Mackenzie’s overland journey. Simon Fraser—a name illustrious in war as well as discovery — sailed down his river in the year 1808. Thompson, who discovered the Columbia, which rises in British territory, gave his name to the Thompson River in British Columbia.

All would have gone well with British trade and exploration, if the jealousies of the two rival companies and of a third, the X. Y. which split off from the North-West Company had not caused incessant turmoil and some blood shed throughout the territory. The Hudson Bay Company had the prior claim in point of time, and were not prepared to tolerate competitors in the fur-trade, even in regions where their employees had never set foot. Still less could they brook the presence of intruders, on the Assiniboine and Red Rivers or Lake Winnipeg. The results of the jealousies and animosities of these competing corporations were eminently disastrous in every aspect. The fur-trade was almost ruined, the Indians bought over and coaxed into alliance by both parties and thoroughly demoralized. Mr. Hind, in the work already cited (p. 280) observes that "the interests of the Hudson Bay Company suffered to such an extent that between 1800 and 1821, a period of twenty-two years, their dividends were, for the first eight years, reduced to four per cent. During the next six years they could pay no dividend at all, and for the remaining eight they could only pay four per cent." It will now be necessary to give some account of these unhappy feuds, and also of the establishment of the Red River settlement by Lord Selkirk and the troubles which arose in consequence.


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