Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter 1
Early Explorers—Fur Traders

Alberta as a name in the annals of Canada was not known before 1882. In that year the North West Territory was divided into four provisional districts for the convenience of settlers and for postal purposes (0. C. May 8th, 1882.) The districts were Alberta, Assiniboia, Athabasca and Saskatchewan. This division continued until 1905 when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were organized to comprise the same territory included in the above mentioned districts. The province is named after the second daughter of Queen Victoria.

It is difficult to separate the history of Alberta from the rest of Western Canada. The object of this work is to trace the course of exploration and development in what is now Alberta, making such references to the rest of the North-West as are necessary to give setting to the narrative. Exploration and settlement began from the East, and most of the stirring events of the North West Territory and Rupert's Land were enacted in the Red River valley, the lower Saskatchewan valley and the vast network of lakes and rivers flowing into Hudson's Bay and the Arctic Ocean.

The history of the West begins with Radisson's journey to the Missouri in 1654, where he heard from the Crees and the Sioux of the sea of the north. Agnes Laut points out that he was the first man who realized the possibilities of the West as the home for the millions without homes in all countries. He was the first from Canada or the eastern seaboard to go overland to the sea of the north or Hudson's Bay, and the route he travelled from Lake Superior to the Bay may be called for all time, the line that divides the East from the West.

As far as known, the first white man to penetrate Alberta was Bouchier de Niverville in 1751. He accompanied Captain Legardeur de Saint Pierre, who was sent to the North-West by Governor La Jonquiere. The party left Montreal in 1750 and by way of Grand Portage and the line of forts previously made by La Verendrye and his sons, reached the Red and Assiniboine rivers and established his headquarters at Fort La Reine. From this point St. Pierre sent De Niverville to the Saskatchewan to build a fort beyond any Verendrye had built. De Niverville and his party crossed Lake Winnipeg to the north of the Saskatchewan River, which they ascended to Fort Pasquia (where the Pas now stands), also built by Verendrye. Thence they ascended the Saskatchewan to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Whether they travelled by the north or south branch of the Saskatchewan it is safe to say they reached the Province of Alberta. They built a stockaded fort and named it La Jonquiere in honor of the Governor of New France. The honor of this expedition, or at least the opportunity of undertaking it and exploring the Saskatchewan River, rightly belongs to Verendrye and his sons.

Sieur de La Verendrye is the pioneer pathfinder and explorer of the Canadian North-West. His great plans were frustrated by official ignorance, inertia and jealousy, but his achievements even in their incompleteness, remain one of the noblest efforts in the history of exploration. If he had received proper support from the Government of Quebec, he and his intrepid sons undoubtedly would have forced their way across the continent to the Pacific half a century before MacKenzie or Lewis and Clark completed the task, and would have solved the riddle of the North West passage.

In the summer of 1731 La Verendrye and his sons, Jean Baptiste, Pierre and Francois, and his nephew Jemeraye, set out from Montreal for the West. He was given little support except a license to pursue the fur trade in these remote regions. He was not a fur trader but was an explorer and empire builder. In August he reached Grand Portage and sent Jemeraye to build Fort St. Pierre at Rainy Lake. In 1732 he travelled from Fort St. Pierre down Rainy River to Lake of the Woods and built Fort Charles on the western shore of that lake. From this point he sent his eldest son and his nephew down the Winnipeg River in the winter of 1732-33. They reached the mouth of the Winnipeg River and built Fort Maurepas in the spring of 1733. These were the first white men to see Lake Winnipeg. Ascending the Red River they came to its junction with the Assiniboine, where they built a temporary fort on the site of the City of Winnipeg. From here they turned westward up the Assiniboine as far as the site of Portage La Prairie, where they built another fort, La Rome. This fort was the base of Verendrye's expedition to the Mandans of the Missouri in 1738, from which he returned in February 1739. Another expedition to the Mandans was made by his sons in 1742. The object of this expedition was to find a path to the Western Sea. By various means, the Verendrye brothers reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains, but at what point is not definitely known, notwithstanding the speculations of Parkman, Granville Stuart, Judge Prudhomme and others. The fear of their Indian guides to cross the path of the Snake Indians, reluctantly compelled the young explorers to retrace their steps. They arrived at Fort La Reine in July 1743. Some authorities contend that the Verendrye brothers reached Southern Alberta. This, however, is mere speculation.

About 1739 Verendrye notes in his journals: "I have discovered in these days a river that descends into the west." This was the Saskatchewan River, or as he calls it Paskoyac. Evidently he had been told by the Indians. By 1741 he had reached the river and had built Fort Bourbon at its mouth on Cedar Lake, and before the great explorer died in 1749 his sons Pierre and Francois examined the Saskatchewan to the forks and built a fort. These discoveries so briefly related here, close the career of the Verendyres in the vest. A new Governor was in power in Quebec with new favorites and new placemen to reward, and Mons. Legardeur de Saint Pierre and De Niverville reaped where La Verendrye had sown.

St. Pierre has left an interesting memoir of his activities respecting this expedition, found in the report of the Canadian Archives 1886. Referring to the establishment of Fort La Jonquiere, St. Pierre says: "The order which I gave to Chevalier de Niverville to establish a post three hundred leagues above that of Paskoyac, was executed on the 29th of May, 1751. He sent off ten men in two canoes, who ascended the river Paskoya as far as the Rocky Mountains, where they made a good fort which I named Fort La Jonquiere, and a considerable store of provisions in expectation of the arrival of De Niverville, who was to set out a month after them, but was prevented by a serious illness." From St. Pierre's narrative we presume that De Niverville finally reached the fort. St. Pierre set out for La Jonquiere in November, 1751, to pursue his discoveries, which, he says, "was my essential object." He was forced to abandon this mission on account of what he describes as the reason of the Assinipoels, "Going to where the French were newly established at the Rocky Mountains, and found the Yhatchelini there to the number of forty to forty-five cabins. For four or five days they were feasting together. At the end of that time the Assinipoels, seeing that they were much more numerous than the others, slaughtered them. This unfortunate event totally deranged my plans and compelled me most unwillingly to abandon them."

It was apparently Saint Pierre's plan to use La Jonquiere as a base for his explorations towards the western sea, for he says that when he dispatched de Niverville, he agreed with the Christenaux and Assinipoels that they should unite with him at the new post "to push my discoveries." Defeated in his purpose to reach La Jonquiere, St. Pierre attempted to gather as much information as possible from the Indians, respecting the far west. He found an old Indian of the Kinongeouilini, who told him that his nation went to trade at an establishment at a great distance, directly towards where the sun sets in the month of June. The traders brought merchandise, said the Indian, almost similar to that of Canada. They were not English and were not so white as the French. The Indian's story was confirmed by the report of De Niverville of what he had learned "at the settlement he had made near the Rocky Mountains." According to St. Pierre's memoir, "De Niverville met a party of Indians who were going to war, met with a nation loaded with beaver who were going by a river which issues from the Rocky Mountains to trade with the French, who had their first establishment on an Island at a small distance from the land, where there is a large storehouse. That when they arrived there they made signals and people came to them to trade for their beavers, in exchange for which they gave them knives, a few lances, but no firearms. That they sell them also horses and saddles which shelter them from arrows when they go to war. These Indians positively asserted that the traders were not English. The establishment is by compass west by west which cannot possibly belong to them."

All this is interesting and instructive to show that even in those early days, the Indians of the great plains had established commerce with the Pacific Coast, and to show what glory and honor was lost to the Government of New France, for sending a man like St. Pierre who was unable to win the sympathy and cooperation of the Indians, instead of a man like Verendrye who always succeeded in enlisting the support of the natives in all his enterprises. But in what age have government favorites ever accomplished much for the honor of the nation?

In 1753 St. Pierre left the West in disgust attributing his failure to the evil machinations of the English. It is not definitely known where La Jonquiere was situated. L. R. Masson, who had given much study to the subject, came to the conclusion that the fort stood on the site of the R. N. W. M. P. barracks at Calgary. Captain Brisbois, who founded the Calgary Barracks, told Benjamin Suite a few years ago, that he had found traces of a fort which he believed to be the old Fort Jonquiere. This view is supported by Dr. Eliot Coues, while James White, geographer of the Dominion, and J. B. Tyrrell of the Geological Survey of Canada are inclined to the view that De Niverville ascended the north Saskatchewan and therefore built his fort some distance below the site of the City of Edmonton. St. Pierre's reference to the English indicates that the rivalry that existed between the French and English in the forests of Canada and New England, had been transferred to the plains of the North-West.

It is not the intention of this work to give an account of the coming of the English traders to Hudson's Bay and the origin of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. Suffice it to say that the leaders of New France looked upon the Hudson's Bay Adventurers in the North with the same hostility as they regarded the English invasion of the Ohio valley and the territory beyond the Alleghanies in the South. They quickly perceived with Foch-like sagacity the meaning of two such gigantic flanking movements.

For a number of years the Hudson's Bay Company confined their activities to the territory bordering on the Bay, but the increased rivalry of the two races in North America, the desire to expand the fur trade, and the vision of the North West Passage, roused the Company to new energy and special expeditions were dispatched to realise one or all of those ends. Most important of these for the purpose of this book, was conducted by Anthony Hendry in 1754. Hendry is reputed to be the first Englishman to see the Saskatchewan River and to visit Alberta. He left York Factory on 26th, 1750 with a large fleet of canoes and 400 men. He reached the Saskatchewan July 21st, via Hayes River and Moose Lake and paddled up the stream twenty-two miles, where he came to the fort built previously by the French trader De La Corne. He left the Saskatchewan River and crossed country to the Carrot River, which he ascended for over fifty miles. On July 27th he left his canoes and journeyed overland, crossing the South Saskatchewan near Clark's Crossing. Continuing westward, he reached the North Saskatchewan somewhere, says Burpee, between Eagle Hill Creek and The Elbow. From here he turned southwest and probably about the 1st of October entered Alberta. From the evidence of his direction and distance, it is supposed that Hendry crossed the Red Deer River on 11th, somewhere between the Knee Hills Creek and the Three Hills Creek. Three days after crossing this river, he entered a camp of the Blackfeet comprising over three hundred lodges. After spending three days with the Indians, he continued southwest, crossing, it is supposed, the Knee Hills Creek. Turning northwest he travelled parallel to the Calgary and Edmonton Trail, until he reached some point between the present towns of Olds and Bowden. This was the farthest point west reached by November 21st. He spent the winter in the Blackfoot country, and in the spring went down the Red River to the Saskatchewan and thence to Hudson's Bay.

Hendry's object was to intercept the Indian trade with the French and induce the Blackfeet and the Western Tribes to go down to Hudson's Bay. His representations made little impression on great Chief of the Blackfeet, who told Hendry that his young men were not used to canoes and could not live without buffalo flesh. His people, he said, did not want for anything. Why, therefore, should they undertake an arduous journey through all country and live on fish or be subject to the terrors of starvation? Altogether he seems to have had the best of the argument with Hendry. Hendry expresses a great admiration for the fine horses and expert horsemanship of the Blackfeet warriors, but when he reached York Factory and told the Hudson's Bay Company officials he had seen Indians on horseback, he was ridiculed as a romancer and storyteller. It was not the last time that officials objected to being told new things by their subordinates.

Very little is heard of the fur trade or exploration in the years immediately prior to, or after the conquest of Canada. After the conquest the French rivals of the Hudson's Bay Company passed away, but their places were taken by others as daring and resourceful. These were the independent traders from Montreal and Quebec, who developed the same faculty of winning the sympathy and cooperation of the Indians, that distinguished the best French explorers and traders. Moreover they enlisted the support of the numerous Couriers du Bois, who were left without leadership or occupation at the withdrawal of the French traders.

It is not definitely known who were the first Montreal traders to reach the Saskatchewan, though the honor seems to lie with Thomas Curry and James Finlay. From the Journal of Matthew Cocking, we learn that James Finlay from Montreal resided at an old trading post on the Saskatchewan in 1767. Roderick Mackenzie says that Finlay was the first to follow Mr. Curry, which would indicate that Curry was the first trader of the Saskatchewan after the conquest. These traders are invariably referred to by the Hudson's Bay Company men as "peddlers." They were soon followed by Thomas Frobisher, Joseph Frobisher, Alexander Henry, Benjamin Frobisher, Peter Pond, Peter Pangman and others. They were very successful and enterprising "peddlers," So much so that the Hudson's Bay Company found it necessary to send men to the interior to cover their movements. Matthew Cocking was sent in 1772 and in 1774, Samuel Hearne, the discoverer of the Coppermine River was sent to build Fort Cumberland beside the fort of the Frobishers, built in 1772. From this period until the union of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, the Hudson's Bay Company, to quote the words of Alexander Mackenzie, "followed the Canadians to their different establishments, while on the contrary there is not a solitary instance that the Canadians have followed them." As a result of this competition, we generally find two trading posts at the same point, the Hudson's Bay house and the North West house.

From the standpoint of this work our interest in the men of the group mentioned above, centres in Peter Pond. He came to the North-West in 1768. Alexander Henry, the older, who met him on the Saskatchewan in 1775, refers to him as "the trader of celebrity in the North-West." He was the first man to establish a permanent trading post in Alberta. The great fur resources of the Athabasca country attracted the Frobishers in 1775 as far as Isle a Ia Crosse, where they met the Chipewyan Indians and intercepted them on their way to Fort Churchill. The success of these gentlemen induced the independent traders in the country to pool their stock of goods and to send them into the Athabasca region under Peter Pond in the autumn of 1778. Pond loaded his goods in four canoes at Cumberland House, and following the path of the Frobishers, reached Isle a Ia Crosse, then the farthest 1point in that region reached by white man. He followed the course used by the Indians for generations before him, and by many of the most famous explorers of the north who followed him—Mackenzie, Harmon, Back, Franklin. After crossing Methy Portage he launched his canoes in the Clearwater River, the first white man to cast a paddle in North Western America in a river flowing westward. He continued his course to the Athabasca River past where Fort McMurray now stands, and descended the Athabasca to the Lake of the same name,— the first white man to stand on its shores. He built a fort about thirty miles above the mouth of the Athabasca River. The spot is marked on the maps of Alberta by the name "The Old Pond Fort" or "The Old Establishment." This fort may be called the first capital of the Province of Alberta, and continued so until 1788. Pond planted a garden and was very successful in growing large quantities of vegetables for his various crews. The venture was very successful. In the first year Pond secured as many furs as his canoes could carry, and was obliged to store such as he could not embark until the following season. During his residence in Alberta with the old fort as his headquarters, he explored many parts of this immense region from the Saskatchewan to Lake Athabasca and sent Cuthbert Grant and Laurent Leroux to build trading posts on Great Slave Lake in 1786.

Pond was a great traveller and a minute enquirer. From his extensive knowledge of the country he made a map purporting to show the physical features of the country between Hudson's Bay and the Pacific Ocean. He was a better trader, however, than a geographer. He knew the longitude of the Bay and of the Pacific Coast. He made up his distances from the tales of Indians and voyageurs who measured a league in the time it took to smoke a pipe. These unconscious jokers apparently smoked faster than they walked, and thus got too many leagues from Hudson's Bay to Lake Athabasca. Acting on such information Pond placed the Lake so far west of Hudson's Bay that he left no room for the wide stretch of Rocky Mountains and made the unknown territory to the west much less than it really was.

The initial success of Pond on behalf of his associates was interrupted by the terrible outbreak of smallpox in 1781. Mackenzie, in his History of the Fur Trade refers to it in melancholy terms. The natives died by thousands. Reduced in numbers and afraid of coming in contact with the traders, they avoided the trading posts and the fur trade fell to almost nothing. Added to this was a widespread hostility which is said to have been engendered into the minds of some of the natives by the indiscreet use of liquor on the part of some of the traders. As an example the following instance is quoted by Mackenzie: Most of the traders who passed the winter of 1780 on the banks of the Saskatchewan, camped at Eagle Hills. Here they met a large number of Indians, who became so insistent and insolent in their demands for liquor, that one of the traders, Cole, mixed it with laudanum with fatal results to some of the redskins. The Indians took quick and terrible revenge and Mackenzie states that they had formed a resolution to exterminate the traders when the scourge of smallpox overtook them.

Other causes were at work besides liquor and the smallpox, to hinder the development of the fur trade. Unfair competition and the want of any organization policy among the traders, led to serious consequences and even to bloodshed and murder. In 1780 Fond was joined by a trader named Wadin, both representing their associates at Grand Portage. Pond, ambitious, unbalanced and sullen, soon quarrelled with Wadin. Towards the end of the year 1780 Pond and his clerk Le Sieur were dining with Wadin. During the course of the evening a dispute arose, and Wadin was fatally shot, it is believed, by the hand of Pond.

The wise heads at Montreal were not slow to realise the situation in the Indian Territories. Division and internal strife in the face of Indian hostility and the steady encroachment of the Hudson's Bay Company were folly. The feasible solution was the formation of a strong company embracing all private interests engaged in the western fur trade. Hence arose the North West Company. From this date until the union of the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company in 1821, the history of Alberta and the North-West is the history of the competition between the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company for the control of the fur trade. At times the conflict assumed the proportions of civil war and carried the rival traders to establish posts from the mouth of the Mackenzie River to the mouth of the Columbia River. The story of the conflict will be told in the following chapter. After the union of the two companies in 1821 the struggle changed into a struggle between the Hudson's Bay Company and the people, until the purchase of the whole territory by the Canadian Government in 1870.

In October 1784, the North West Company, through its directors, Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher and Peter Pond, petitioned Governor Haldimand for a monopoly of the fur trade of the North-West for ten years,— pointing out that the property of the company in the country exclusive of houses and stores was over 25,000 pounds. In return they were willing to undertake the exploration of the country at their own expense, between latitudes 55 degrees and 65 degrees: all that country west of Hudson's Bay to the Pacific Ocean; to make surveys and maps for the information of the Government of Quebec and the home government. They urged the necessity of preventing the Russians and Americans on the Pacific Coast and the Americans in the interior, from gaining control over these new regions to the detriment of British interests. Urged by these reasons the company a few months before, sent Edward Umfreville and Vincent St. Germain to discover and explore a new route from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg, because Grand Portage was found to be in American territory, by the treaty of 1783. This route was by the Kamanistiqua River, and Fort William, named after William McGillivray the senior partner of the North West Company, became what it has ever since remained, the port of entry of the Great North West. The monopoly was not granted to the Nor'westers but they succeeded in building up such a strong and influential company that they virtually made it impossible for any competitor to engage in the western fur trade except the Hudson's Bay Company.

A few of the merchants of Montreal, who were not included as partners in the North West Company, did not accept defeat without a struggle. A small but vigorous company was formed by Messrs. Alexander Norman Macleod, John Gregory, Alexander Mackenzie, John Finlay and Peter Pangmari. The new company had first included our old friend Peter Pond, who was dissatisfied with the organization of the North West Company, but he soon rejoined his old associates. The new company followed the tactics of the Hudson's Bay Company and as far as Possible built forts wherever it found those of the Nor'westers or Hudson's Bay Company.

It is in the activities of the new company that the next great explorer identified with Alberta, appears. This is Alexander Mackenzie. Born in Stornoway in 1763 he came to Canada in 1779. He joined the firm of Macleod and Gregory of Montreal also engaged in the western fur trade. After spending five years with the firm, in Montreal, young Mackenzie was sent to Detroit. Becoming a partner of the new company he left Detroit in 1785 to take charge of the Churchill district, taking with him his cousin Roderick Mackenzie, whose reminiscences throw considerable light on the events in this region at that time. In the Athabasca district to the west, Peter Pond looked after the new company's interests while a Mr. Ross represented the Nor'westers. Pond, true to his sullen and variable nature, quarrelled with Ross and finally in a scuffle between the parties, Ross was fatally shot. This tragedy led to the amalgamation of the two companies in 1787, the partners of the new company being absorbed in the North West Company. Mackenzie was now given charge of the Athabasca district. Following the usual route by the Methy Portage, the Clearwater River, he reached Pond's Old Establishment in the autumn of 1788. As we have seen, this was the point where the outfits for the several posts in the Athabasca district were made up, and from which they were dispatched from Lake Athabasca, Peace River and Great Slave Lake since Pond entered the country ten years before. Here Mackenzie settled for the winter and matured his plans for his dash down the great river that bears his name. He sent his cousin Roderick down the river to erect a new post on the shores of Lake Athabasca. This fort was called Fort Chipewyan and was built a short distance east of the mouth of the Athabasca River. In after years the Fort was moved to the north side of the lake, its present situation. For many years in the history of Alberta, old Fort Chipewyan may be regarded as the capital and the most important centre of the Province. Roderick Mackenzie who had a Scotchman's taste for learning and culture established here the first library, and many of the books are still in existence at the post, so that for a number of years Chipewyan was known as "The Athens of the North."

Let us now turn to the great exploits of Mackenzie. Though the scenes of his achievements lie outside the boundaries of the Province, yet they comprise the vast hinterland of Alberta, the development of which, since Mackenzie's triumph to the present and for the future, is virtually identified with the growth and expansion of this Province. Edmonton, the capital, is the base of supply for the great northland which comprises nearly one quarter of the area of the Dominion of Canada. In his preface to his History of the Fur Trade, Mackenzie tells us he was of an inquisitive mind and enterprising spirit; that he possessed a constitution and frame of body equal to the most arduous undertakings. From the time he entered the North-West he says he contemplated the practicability of penetrating across the continent of America and was confident of his ability to accomplish his great task. Rarely has a man's estimate of himself been so justified by success as Mackenzie's estimate of his capabilities. His voyages down the river that bears his name solved the question of the North-West Passage and his trip overland to the Pacific won the Province of British Columbia to the British Empire.

Though it was usual for the wintering partners of the North West Company to go down to Fort William in the spring with the fur brigades to meet the Montreal partners, Mackenzie resolved after establishing his post at Chipewyan during the winter of 1788-89, to remain in the Interior and pursue his explorations. Accordingly he sent out Roderick, his cousin, with the fur that Spring. He prepared for his voyage to the Arctic Ocean. Knowing the difficulties of such an undertaking Mackenzie organized a crew of picked men. For a guide he secured an Indian called English Chief who had often made the journey from Lake Athabasca to Hudson's Bay to trade with the English, and thus gained his name. With his two wives and other Indians who acted as hunters and interpreters, the Chief occupied one canoe. Mackenzie and four French Canadians, two of them accompanied by their wives, led the way in his own canoe. These four Canadians deserve to have their names recorded. They were Francois Barrieau, Charles Ducette, Joseph Landry and Pierre De Lorme. He also had a young German named John Steinhruck. Laurent Leroux, who had established a post at the Great Slave Lake in 1786, accompanied the expedition to his own Post situated on the northern arm of Slave Lake and now known as Fort Providence.

Mackenzie has left a detailed account of his trip. He modestly begins his Journal thus:—"Journal of a Voyage, etc., June, 1789, Wednesday, 3. We embarked at nine in the morning, at Fort Chipewyan -------- in a canoe made of birch bark." Passing the mouth of the Peace River he entered the Slave River and reached Great Slave Lake on June 9th. In his Journal he notices Portage des Noyes where five men were drowned in 1786 on their way to Slave Lake under Cuthbert Grant and Laurent Leroux. After spending some time at Leroux post where he met Yellow Knife Indians, he set out again. He found some difficulty in locating the outlet of the lake by the great river, but finally succeeded on July 1st. In five days he reached the mouth of the Great Bear River. On the way down he met the Slave and Dogrib Indians who told weird tales of horned monsters and evil spirits to be encountered before the sea was reached. These tales greatly alarmed the Indians of his party and Mackenzie had difficulty in urging them on, though their fears increased as they approached the land of the Eskimaux. As they continued down the river they met new tribes, the Hare Indians and the Quarrellers. From the latter he learned that he was near the sea. On Sunday, July 11th, Mackenzie sat up all night to observe the sun. At half past twelve he called one of his men to view a spectacle he had never seen. On seeing the sun the man called the rest of the crews, thinking it was time to embark, but he was informed by Mackenzie that the sun had not sunk behind the horizon, and that they were now in the land of the Midnight Sun. On the evening of the 12th, Mackenzie and English Chief went to the top of an Island, from which they discovered that solid ice extended from the southwest to the eastward. No sooner had the party retired to rest that night, than they were compelled to arise and remove the baggage on account of the rising water. The following morning they caught a fish in their nets, which English Chief recognized as being of a kind that abounds in Hudson's Bay. On the 14th they saw whales and tried to kill one. On the 16th Mackenzie began his return and on August 22nd paddled into Great Slave Lake. Here he met Leroux. After spending a few days with Leroux he proceeded up the Slave River, reaching Lake Athabasca and Fort Chipewyan, his starting place, on September 12th. He ends his Journal as modestly as he began: "Thus we concluded this voyage, which had occupied the considerable space of 102 days."

Mackenzie spent the winter of 1789-90 at Fort Chipewyan and went out in the spring with the fur brigades to Grand Portage. The North West Company partners showed little enthusiasm over his great discovery. "My expedition was hardly spoken of," he says in one of his letters to Roderick Mackenzie, written from Grand Portage. But the indifference of his fellow partners did not dampen his enthusiasm for further exploration. On his way clown from the Athabasca country, he met Philip Turner, a surveyor, at Cumberland House. He learned that Turner was being sent by the Hudson's Bay Company on an expedition of discovery and was to winter in the Athabasca country. He knew the Hudson's Bay Company, which had done no exploration since Hearn's discovery of the Copper Mine twenty years before, was being urged by the British Government to pursue exploration and to ascertain all the knowledge possible even to the Pacific Ocean. At Grand Portage he learned of the encroachment of the Americans on the west of the Great Lakes and of the Russians on the Pacific Coast from Alaska. On his return to Chipewyan in the fall of 1790, he adopted vigorous measures to pursue the fur trade and increase the output. Old Simon McTavish had growled about the output, and no doubt thought Mackenzie was spending too much of the Company's time in visionary explorations. At the same time Mackenzie instructed his traders to "make all possible enquiry regarding the country of the Beaver Indians and more particularly regarding the great river which is reported to run parallel with and falls into the sea to the westward of the river in which I voyaged, and commit such to paper." (Letter to Roderick Mackenzie, March 2nd, 1791).

Meanwhile he kept his eye on Philip Turner, who was then completing his survey of Lake Athabasca and the Slave River. On his way down to Grand Portgage in 1791 he met Turner and Ross at Lake La Loche and decided that the party was ill prepared to undertake difficult exploration work. During his discovery of the Mackenzie River, the great explorer found the want of astronomical training and instruments. So in the winter of 1791-92 we find him in the Old Country learning astronomy. In August 1792 he was back at Grand Portage for the annual meeting of the Nor'Westers. At this meeting the partnership was continued for a further period of seven years, and Mackenzie was sent back to the Athabasca district. In October we find him at Fort Chipewyan again, determined on his second great exploration.

Before we follow Mackenzie to the Pacific, let us advert to the conditions in the Athabasca Region since Pond entered in 1778. As we have noticed, Pond's Fort was for a time the centre of commercial enterprise in Alberta and the north, until the establishment of Fort Chipewyan in 1788. During the interval of ten years much local exploration had been done by the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. Cuthbert Grant and Laurent Leroux had established a post on the north arm of Great Slave Lake to trade with the Red Knives and the Slave Indians. This was a difficult post from which to get out the fur in time to proceed with the Athabasca Brigade to Grand Portage. It was afterwards removed to the south side of the Lake near the site of the present Fort Resolution. In 1788 Mackenzie sent Boyer up the Peace River to build a fort at the mouth of the Boyer River, a little below the site of the present Fort Vermilion. Vandrieul accompanied Boyer and surveyed the river up to this point. Another fort further up the river was in charge of John Finlay, who subsequently explored the Finlay River. This was the most westerly point reached by the traders of the east at the time Mackenzie set out for the Pacific Ocean.

Up to the time of the opening of Pond's Fort and Fort Chipewyan, the Indians usually went down to Hudson's Bay to trade, but by the establishment of posts in the Athabasca and Peace River regions, with Fort Chipewyan as a centre, the trade of the country passed into the hands of the Nor'Westers. Attempts were made on different occasions to find a better canoe route into the Athabasca country so as to avoid the back-breaking portage La Loche, which was 11¼ miles long. Roderick Mackenzie made two exploratory trips for this purpose, but without success. This portage long remained a terror to the traders of the Athabasca country. Boats were required to be dragged back and forth across 11 miles of sand and muskeg, over a hill 800 feet high. Subsequently two sets of boats were kept, one on each side of the portage, which, however, did not obviate the transport of goods and furs by whatever means possible, mostly the backs of the canoe men and voyageurs.

Of his expedition to the Pacific Ocean, Mackenzie has left us a very detailed account, which indicates how much greater the task was than his Arctic Expedition. With the prudence of the practical man he made careful preparations and picked a faithful crew. Two of his men were our old friends Joseph Landry and Charles Ducette. The others were Baptiste Bison, Francis Courtois, Jacques Beauchamp, Francis Bealieu with two Indians, one of whom Mackenzie says, turned out so lazy that he was ever afterwards known as "The Crab." On October 10th he left Fort Chipewyan and proceeded up the Peace River to the forks of the Peace with the Smoky, a few miles above where the town of Peace River now stands. His lieutenant was Alexander McKay, one of the shrewdest and most resourceful men in the service of the North West Company. Men had been sent ahead to build a Fort at this point and here Mackenzie wintered and traded with the Indians. Oil 29th the camp was struck by a Chinook wind, which melted all the snow. Here the explorer spent a Profitable winter trading with the Indians. Like Verendrye, he was one of those masterful men that impressed the Indians, knowing as if by instinct when to humour them and when to be firm. his Journal describing life at the Post with the Indians in 1792-93 is very instructive and must be read to be appreciated. One day the Indians brought him a young man who had nearly lost his thumb by the bursting of a gun. The wound was badly infected and threatened the life of the young man. Mackenzie risked his surgical reputation and by a poultice of bark, stripped from the roots of the spruce fir and by a salve made of Canadian Balsam, wax and tallow dropped from a burning candle into water, perfectly healed the wound in a few weeks.

On May 8th he dispatched six canoes loaded with furs to Fort Chipewyan and the next day started up the Peace River on untracked journey to the Pacific Ocean. As he ascended he met several Indians but none of them knew anything of the country beyond the mountains. He made careful notice of the country on each side, and the varieties of the animals. In one place he says the country was so crowded with animals as to have the appearance of a stall yard. These statements of the wealth of animal life in the Peace River Valley, are confirmed by Harmon fifteen years later. The Rocky Mountains appeared on the 17th. When he arrived at Hudson's Hope on 21st, his men were dismayed and wanted to turn back but the leader was of that heroic mould that what he dared to dream, he dared to do, so instead of turning back they set to work to cut a road over the mountains to where the river was smooth again. By the 26th they completed the portage and embarked. He reached the forks of the Finlay and the Parsnip on the 31st and, acting on advice of the old Indian, he turned up the Parsnip and reached Macleod Lake on June 12th, which he regarded as the source of the Peace River or the Unjigah River. This latter name has been used to describe the Peace as late as 1888 in a railway charter. He was now close to the height of land between the Arctic and the Pacific Ocean and he must have felt proud that he had travelled this waterway through its entire course to the Arctic Ocean.

We shall not trace his course further, beyond the observation that he continued meeting greater difficulties than any yet encountered and finally reached the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Bellacoola River July 20th, 1793, the first white man to cross the continent of British North America. Before he returned he left a brief memorial of his exploit painted on the rocks. He used a mixture of vermilion and grease and wrote these words: "Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land 22nd July, 1793." In less than one month he was back at his own fort at the mouth of the Smoky River, arriving there at 4 p.m., August 20th, 1793.

The discoveries of Mackenzie marked a turning point in the history of the North-West, in fact of Canada. For the first time man began to know its extent and configuration. All the great rivers except the Fraser and the Columbia had been explored. The Dominion of Canada, as we know it today, was circumscribed and preempted for the British Empire. From this period Canadians settled down to a minute exploration of the country and to a systematic development of its vast resources. David Thompson, the next great man identified with the early history of the North-West, began the work that in our generation has been so splendidly continued by men of the Geological Survey of Canada—Macoun, Tyrell, Selwyn, Dawson, Dowling and McConnell.

We must now divert our attention from the Peace and Athabasca to the Saskatchewan. So far we have traced no one up the North Saskatchewan beyond the expeditions of Alexander Henry, Thomas Curry and John Finlay. None of these ever reached Alberta, but by the end of the century the North Saskatchewan was thoroughly explored and numerous forts established from Fort Vermilion near the inter-provincial boundary between Alberta and Saskatchewan, to Rocky Mountain House. Most of our information of this period is derived from the Journals of David Thompson and Alexander Henry, the Younger. In his book "Search for the Western Sea," Lawrence J. Burpee says: "Three names must ever stand first in the annals of exploration of Western Canada,—La Verendrye, Mackenzie and Thompson." They are indeed a distinguished trio, of whom any nation might be proud and whose travels and achievements are as great as those of the mythical characters of Homer. Of the three, possibly Thompson is the least known to those who study Canadian history in our schools and colleges. The students and people of Canada are therefore much indebted to Mr. J. B. Tyrell for his excellent summary of Thompson's Journals, published by the Champlain Society. The original Journals are preserved in the Crown Lands Department at Toronto, and comprise forty-five volumes of foolscap in Thompson's own handwriting. They cover his life from 1784 to 1850. It is pathetic to find that this great man was reduced to penury and even want in his old age. Moreover, it is reprehensible that such is the way a nation often rewards its great benefactors.

David Thompson was born in London, April 30th, 1770, of Welsh parentage. He was educated at the Grey Coat School, Westminster, within five minutes' walk of Westminster Abbey, where many men of inferior ability and achievements are immortalised. He spent several years at this school, 1777-1784, and on May 20th of the latter year, the Governors of the school bound young Thompson over to the Hudson's Bay Company and paid the Gentlemen Adventurers five pounds for taking off their hands this fourteen year old lad, who was to become the greatest geographer of North America. In due time Thompson landed at Fort Churchill. Next year he tramped fifty miles along the shores of the Hudson's Bay to York Factory, the first of many journeys he was destined to make. On July 21st, 1786, he left York Factory fitted out with a trunk, handkerchiefs, shoes, shirts, a gun, powder, tin pot or cup, in company with forty-six other "Englishmen", in charge of Robert Longmore, to establish posts on the Saskatchewan River. At this time the most westerly Hudson's Bay post on this river was Hudson's House on the north branch. This last was likely built by John Tomson and Philip Turner in 1776. It was situated on Section 32, Township 46, R. 3, W. 3rd Meridian, a short distance below the site of Fort Carlton. The party ascended the Saskatchewan to a point forty-two miles above Battleford and built Manchester House. Forty miles farther up the river was the North-West post under Edward Umfreville which was at that time the most westerly point reached on the North Saskatchewan by a white man and continued so until Peter Pangman, for the North West Company, ascended to Rocky Mountain house three years later.

We have noticed that Anthony Hendry thirty years before visited the Blackfeet in Southern Alberta to induce them to go down to the Bay. Nothing resulted from Hendry's visit as we have seen. The next step therefore, was to induce the Blackfeet tribes to come to the inland posts on the North Saskatchewan. Accordingly Thompson, though but a lad of seventeen years, was sent with six others to the Blackfeet country. He left Manchester House in the autumn of 1786 and traveled southwest, reaching the Bow River in the vicinity of Calgary, and spent the winter with the Peigans, lodging a great part of the time in the tent of Chief Saukamappee. Returning to Manchester House in the spring of 1787 he spent the summer on the Saskatchewan and wintered 1787-88 at Cumberland House. Here he began his survey work, which, Tyrell says, was to make him the greatest practical land geographer that the world has produced. The following winter (1789-90) he was again at Cumberland House in company with Philip Turner, the official surveyor of the Hudson's Bay Company. No doubt he received many lessons from Turner, but the pupil far outstripped the master.

For the next seven years Thompson was engaged in the country between Cumberland House and York Factory, though it seems to have been the policy of the directors in London that Thompson should be sent inland to the Athabasca country to pursue his explorations and keep watch over the Nor'Westers. The officials of the Bay, however, were tardy in carrying out the policy of the London office, so that it was not until 1796 that Thompson was able to reach Lake Athabasca by Reindeer and Wollaston Lakes and down Black River. This was his last expedition for the Hudson's Bay Company. On May 23rd, 1797, he left the Company and joined the Nor'Westers. He now began his real work of exploration and survey. His new masters seem to have given him the greatest liberty. No doubt the brilliant exploits of Alexander Mackenzie and the consequent prestige to the North West Company caused a change in the policy of the Company since the days when old Simon McTavish growled about Mackenzie's visions and explorations. The work assigned to him at the big meeting at Grand Portage in the summer of 1797 included:

(a) Determination of the position of the 49th Parallel of north latitude.
(b) A visit to the Mandan villages on the Missouri River.
(c) Search for fossils of large animals.
(d) Determination of the position of the trading posts of the North West Company.

We have not the space to devote to all these undertakings and shall confine the narrative to Thompson's travels in Alberta.

After making the trip to the Mandan villages and returning to Grand Portage by the south shore of Lake Superior, he was dispatched on July 4th, 1798, to Lac La Biche and built a house on the east end of the lake, latitude 54 degrees, 46 minutes, 32 seconds north. Here he spent the winter. Towards the end of March, 1799, he proceeded overland to Fort Augustus, then situated a mile and a half above the mouth of the Sturgeon River, within the present settlement of Fort. Saskatchewan, and built in 1794, by Angus Shaw of the North West Company, to attract the trade of the Blackfeet. Towards the end of this year Peter Fidler of the Hudson's Bay Company reached Lac La Biche and built Greenwich House beside the one built by Thompson.

From Fort Augustus, Thompson set out on April 19th for the Pembina River and reached it where the fifth meridian crosses it between townships 60 and 61, on the 21st. He descended the Pembina by canoe built by one of his men, Durand, who had preceded him to the Pembina, and reached the Athabasca on the 25th. He explored Lesser Slave Lake and continued down the Athabasca to the mouth of the Clearwater where Fort McMurray now stands. He left this point May 10th and surveyed the Clearwater River, the Methy Portage and the entire route to Isle a la Crosse. On June 10th he married Charlotte Small, the half-breed daughter of Patrick Small, in charge of the North West Company post at Isle a Ia Crosse. She was fourteen and he was twenty-nine years old. He then set out for Grand Portage where he received a new stock of drawing paper for his maps. With John Macdonald of Garth, he returned to Fort George on the North Saskatchewan, a post of the North West Company, situated in Section 19, Township 56, Range 5, W. 4th, built by Angus Shaw in 1792 and close to Buckingham House, the post of the Hudson's Bay Company, built later. These were the first posts built in the province of Alberta on the North Saskatchewan River.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus