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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Harmon and his book—An honest man—"Straight as an arrow"— New views—An uncouth giant—"Gaelic, English, French, and Indian oaths"—McDonnell, "Le Pretre"—St. Andrew's Day— "Fathoms of tobacco"—Down the Assiniboine—An entertaining journal—A good editor—A too frank trader—"Gun fired ten yards away"—Herds of buffalo—Packs and pemmican—"The fourth Gospel"—Drowning of Henry—"The weather cleared up "—Lost for forty days—"Cheepe," the corpse—Larocque and the Mandans—McKenzie and his half-breed children.


To those interested in the period we are describing there is not a more attractive character than Daniel Williams Harmon, a native of Vermont, who entered the North-West Company's service in the year 1800, at the age of 22. After a number of years spent in the far West, he brought with him on a visit to New England the journal of his adventures, and this was edited and published by a Puritan minister, Daniel Haskel, of Andover, Massachusetts. Harmon and the book are both somewhat striking, though possibly neither would draw forth universal admiration. The youngest of his daughters was well known as a prominent citizen of Ottawa, and had a marked reverence for the memory of her father.

Leaving Lachine in the service of McTavish, Frobisher & Co., the young fur trader followed the usual route up the Ottawa and reached in due course Grand Portage, which he called "the general rendezvous for the fur traders." He thus describes the fort: "It is twenty-four rods by thirty, is built on the margin of the Bay, at the foot of a hill or mountain of considerable height. Within the fort there is a considerable number of dwelling-houses, shops, and stores; the houses are surrounded by palisades, which are about eighteen inches in diameter. The other fort, which stands about 200 rods from this, belongs to the X Y Company. It is only three years since they made an establishment here, and as yet they have had but little success." Harmon was appointed to follow John McDonald, of Garth, to the Upper Saskatchewan. On the way out, however, Harmon was ordered to the Swan River district. Here he remained for four years, taking a lively interest in all the parts of a trader's life. He was much on the Assiniboine, and passed the sites of Brandon, Portage la Prairie, and Winnipeg of to-day.

In October, 1805, Harmon, having gone to the Saskatchewan, took as what was called his "country wife" a French Canadian half-breed girl, aged fourteen. He states that it was the custom of the country for the trader to take a wife from the natives, live with her in the country, and then, on leaving the country, place her and her children under the care of an honest man and give a certain amount for her support. As a matter of fact, Harmon, years after, on leaving the country, took his native spouse with him, and on Lake Champlain some of his younger children were born. There were fourteen children born to him, and his North-West wife was to her last days a handsome woman, "as straight as an arrow."

During Harmon's time Athabasca had not only the X Y Company, but also a number of forts of the Hudson's Bay Company. Cumberland House was the next place of residence of the fur trader, and at this point the Hudson's Bay Company house was in charge of Peter Fidler. Harmon's journal continues with most interesting details of the fur trade, which have the charm of liveliness and novelty. Allusions are constantly made to the leading traders, McDonald, Fraser, Thompson, Quesnel, Stuart, and others known to us in our researches. In the course of time (1810) Harmon found his way over the Rocky Mountain portage and pursued the fur trade in McLeod Lake Fort and Stuart's Lake in New Caledonia, and here we find a fort called, after him, Harmon's Fort. His description of the Indians is always graphic, giving many striking customs of the aborigines. About the end of 1813 Harmon's journal is taken up with serious religious reflections. He had been troubled with doubts as to the reality of Christianity. But after reading the Scriptures and such books as he could obtain, he tells us that a new view of things was his, and that his future life became more consistent and useful. He records us a series of the resolutions which he adopted, and they certainly indicate a high ideal on his part.

In 1816 he had really become habituated to the upper country. He gives us a glimpse of his family :—

"I now pass a short time every day, very pleasantly, in teaching my little daughter Polly to read and spell words in the English language, in which she makes good progress, though she knows not the meaning of one of them. In conversing with my children I use entirely the Cree Indian language; with their mother I more frequently employ the French. Her native tongue, however, is more familiar to her, which is the reason why our children have been taught to speak that in preference to the French language." In his journal, which at times fully shows his introspections, he gives an account of the struggle in his own mind about leaving his wife in the country, as was the custom of too many of the clerks and partners. He had instructed her in the principles of Christianity, and by these principles he was bound to her for life. After eight and a half years spent on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, Harmon arrived at Fort William, 1819, having made a journey of three thousand miles from his far-away post in New Caledonia. Montreal was soon after reached, and the Journal comes to a close.


We have seen the energy and ability displayed by John McDonald, of Garth, known as "Le Bras Croch." Another trader, John McDonald, is described by Ross Cox, who spent his life largely in the Rocky Mountain region. He was known as McDonald Grand. "He was 6 ft. 4 in. in height, with broad shoulders, large bushy whiskers, and red hair, which he allowed to grow for years without the use of scissors, and which sometimes, falling over his face and shoulders, gave to his countenance a wild and uncouth appearance." He had a most uncontrollable temper, and in his rage would indulge in a wild medley of Gaelic, English, French, and Indian oaths.

But a third John McDonnell was found among the fur traders. He was a brother of Miles McDonnell, Lord Selkirk's first governor of the Red River Settlement. John McDonnell was a rigid Roman Catholic, and was known as "Le Pretre" ("The Priest"), from the fact that on the voyage through the fur country he always insisted on observing the Church fasts along with his French Canadian employes. McDonnell, on leaving the service of the North-West Company, retired to Point Fortune, on the Ottawa, and there engaged in trade.

We have his journal for the years 1793-5, and it is an excellent example of what a typical fur trader's Journal would be. It is minute, accurate, and very interesting. During this period he spent his time chiefly in trading up and down the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. A few extracts will show the interesting nature of his journal entries :—

Fort Esperance, Oct. 18th, 1793.—Neil McKay set out to build and winter at the Forks of the river (junction of the Qu'Appelle and Assiniboine), alongside of Mr. Peter Grant, who has made his pitch about seven leagues from here. Mr. N. McKay's effects were carried in two boats, managed by five men each. Mr. C. Grant set out for his quarters of River Tremblant, about thirty leagues from here. The dogs made a woeful howling at all the departures.

Oct. 19th.—Seventeen warriors came from the banks of the Missouri for tobacco. They slept ten nights on their way, and are emissaries from a party of Assiniboines who went to war upon the Sioux.

Oct. 20th.—The warriors traded a few skins brought upon their backs and went off ill pleased with their reception. After dark, the dogs kept up a constant barking, which induced a belief that some of the warriors were lurking about the fort for an opportunity to steal. I took a sword and pistol and went to sleep in the store. Nothing took place.

Oct. 31st.—Two of Mr. N. McKay's men came from the forts, supposing this to be All Saints' Day. Raised a flag-staff poplar, fifty feet above the ground.

Nov. 23rd.—The men were in chase of a white buffalo all day, but could not get within shot of him. Faignant killed two buffalo cows. A mild day.

Nov. 30th.—St. Andrew's Day. Hoisted the flag in honour of the titulary saint of Scotland. A beautiful day. Expected Messrs. Peter Grant and Neil McKay to dinner. They sent excuse by Bonneau.

Dec. 2nd.—Sent Mr. Peter Grant a Town and Country magazine of 1790. Poitras' wife made me nine pairs of shoes (mocassins).

Jan. 1st, 1794.—Mr. Grant gave the men two gallons of rum and three fathoms of tobacco, by the way of New Year's gift. (It is interesting to follow McDonnell on one of his journeys down the Assiniboine.)

May 1st.—Sent off the canoes early in the morning. Mr. Grant and I set out about seven. Slept at the Forks of River Qu'Appelle.

May 4th.—Killed four buffalo cows and two calves and camped below the Fort of Mountain à La Bosse (near Virden), about two leagues.

May 5th.—Arrived at Ange's River La Souris Fort (below Brandon).

May l7th.—Passed Fort Des Trembles and Portage La Prairie.

May 20th.—Arrived at the Forks Red River (present city of Winnipeg) about noon.

May 24th.—Arrived at the Lake (Winnipeg) at 10 a.m.

May 27th.—Arrived at the Sieur's Fort (Fort Alexander at the mouth of Winnipeg River).

McDonnell also gives in his journal a number of particulars about the Cree and Assiniboine Indians, describing their religion, marriages, dress, dances, and mourning. The reader is struck with the difference in the recital by different traders of the lives lived by them. The literary faculty is much more developed in some cases than in others, and John McDonnell was evidently an observing and quick-witted man. He belonged to a U. E. Loyalist Scottish family that took a good position in the affairs of early Canada.


That the first trader of the North-West whom we have described, Alexander Henry, should have been followed in the North-West fur trade by his nephew, Alexander Henry, Jr., is in itself a thing of interest; but that the younger Henry should have left us a most voluminous and entertaining journal is a much greater matter.

The copy of this journal is in the Parliamentary Library at Ottawa, and forms two large bound folio volumes of 1,642 pages. It is not the original, but is a well-approved copy made in 1824 by George Coventry, of Montreal. For many years this manuscript has been in the Parliamentary Library, and extracts have been made and printed. Recently an American writer, Dr. Coues, who has done good service in editing the notable work of Lewis and Clark, and also that of Zebulon S. Pike, has published a digest of Henry's journal and added to it very extensive notes of great value. The greatest praise is due to this author for the skill with which he has edited the journal, and all students of the period are indebted to one so well fitted to accomplish the task.

The journal opens, in 1799, with Henry on the waters of a tributary of Lake Manitoba, he having arrived from Grand Portage by the usual fur traders' route. In this place he built a trading house and spent his first winter. In the following year the trader is found on the Red River very near the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude, and is engaged in establishing a post at the mouth of the Pembina River, a tributary of Red River. At this post Henry remains until 1808, going hither and thither in trading expeditions, establishing new outposts, counter-working the rival traders of the X Y Company, and paying his visits from time to time to Grand Portage.

Henry's entries are made with singular clearness and realistic force. He recites with the utmost frankness the details of drunken debauchery among the Indians, the plots of one company to outdo the other in trading with the Indians, and the tricks of trade so common at this period in the fur trade.

A few examples of his graphic descriptions may be given.

"At ten o'clock I came to the point of wood in which the fort was built, and just as I entered the gate at a gallop, to take the road that led to the gate, a gun was fired about ten yards from me, apparently by a person who lay in the long grass. My horse was startled and jumped on one side, snorting and prancing; but I kept my seat, calling out, 'Who is there?' No answer was returned. I instantly took my gun from my belt, and cocked her to fire, forgetting she was not loaded and I had no ammunition. I could still see the person running in the grass, and was disappointed in not having a shot at him. I again called out, 'Who is there?' 'C'est moi, bourgeois.' It proved to be one of my men, Charbonneau. I was vexed with him for causing me such consternation."


"February 28th, 1801.—Wolves and crows are very numerous, feeding on the buffalo carcasses that lie in every direction. I shot two buffalo cows, a calf, and two bulls, and got home after dark. I was choking with thirst, having chased the buffalo on snow-shoes in the heat of the day, when the snow so adheres that one is scarcely able to raise the feet. A draught of water was the sweetest beverage I ever tasted. An Indian brought in a calf of this year, which he found dead. It was well grown, and must have perished last night in the snow. This was thought extraordinary; they say it denotes an early spring.

"March 5th.—The buffalo have for some time been wandering in every direction. My men have raised and put their traps in order for the spring hunt, as the raccoons begin to come out of their winter quarters in the daytime, though they retire to the hollow trees at night. On the 8th it rained for four hours; fresh meat thawed. On the 9th we saw the first spring bird. Bald eagles we have seen the whole winter, but now they are numerous, feeding on the buffalo carcasses."

During the Red River period Henry made a notable journey in 1806 across the plains to the Mandans on the Missouri. Two years afterward he bids farewell to Red River and the Assiniboine, and goes to carry on trade in the Saskatchewan. While on the Saskatchewan, which was for three years, he was in charge of important forts, viz. Fort Vermilion, Terre Blanche, and the Rocky Mountain House. His energy and acquaintance with the prairie were well shown in his exploration of this great region, and the long journeys willingly undertaken by him. His account of the western prairies, especially of the Assiniboines, is complete and trustworthy. In fact, he rejoices in supplying us with the details of their lives and manners which we might well be spared.

A gap of two years from 1811 is found in Henry's journal, but it is resumed in 1813, the year in which he crosses the Rocky Mountains and is found in the party sent by the North-West Company to check the encroachments on the Columbia of the Astor Fur Company. His account of the voyage on the Pacific is regarded as valuable, and Dr. Coues says somewhat quaintly: "His work is so important a concordance that if Franchere, Cox, and Ross be regarded as the synoptical writers of Astoria, then Henry furnishes the fourth Gospel."

After the surrender of Astoria to the North-West Company and its occupation by the British, some of the Nor'-Westers returned. John McDonald, of Garth, as we have seen, crossed the mountains. In his journal occurs a significant entry: "Mr. la Rogue brings the melancholy intelligence that Messrs. D. McTavish, Alexander Henry, and five sailors were drowned on May 22nd last, in going out in a boat from Fort George to the vessel called the Isaac Todd." Ross Cox gives a circumstantial account of this sad accident, though, strange to say, he does not mention the name of Henry, while giving that of D. McTavish.

It is somewhat startling to us to find that Henry continued his journal up to the very day before his death, his last sentence being, "The weather cleared up."


Lying before the writer is the copy of a letter of John Pritchard, of the X Y Company, written in 1805, giving an account of a forty days' adventure of a most thrilling kind. Pritchard was in charge of the X Y Fort at the mouth of the Souris River on the Assiniboine. He had on June 10th gone with one of the clerks up the River Assiniboine, intending to reach Qu'Appelle Fort, a distance of 120 miles. All went well till Montagne à la Bosse was reached, where there was a trading house. Going westward, the two traders were separated in looking for the horses. Pritchard lit fires for two days, but could attract no attention. Then he realized that he was lost. Misled by the belts of timber along the different streams, he went along the Pipestone, thinking ho was going towards the Assiniboine. In this he was mistaken. Painfully he crept along the river, his strength having nearly gone. Living on frogs, two hawks, and a few other birds, he says at the end of ten days, "I perceived my body completely wasted. Nothing was left me but my bones, covered with a skin thinner than paper. I was perfectly naked, my clothes having been worn in making shoes, with which I protected my bruised and bleeding feet."

Some days after, Pritchard found a nest of small eggs and lived on them. He says, "How mortifying to mo to see the buffalo quenching their thirst in every lake near to which I slept, and geese and swans in abundance, whilst I was dying of hunger in this land of plenty, for want of wherewith to kill." After trying to make a hook and line to fish, and failing ; after being tempted to lie down and give up life, he caught a hen grouse, which greatly strengthened him, as ho cooked and ate it. He had now crossed the Souris River, thinking it to be the Assiniboine, and came upon a great plain where the prairie turnip (Psoralea esculenta) grew plentifully. Pushing southward, being sustained by the bulbs of this "pomme blanche," as it is called by the French voyageurs, Pritchard came at length to Whitewater Lake, near Turtle Mountain, and here found two vacant wintering houses of the fur traders. Ho now was able to identify his locality and to estimate that he was sixty miles directly south of his trading post. His feet, pierced by the spear grass (Stipa spartea), were now in a dreadful condition. He found a pair of old shoes in the vacant fort and several pairs of socks.

He determined to move northward to his fort. Soon he was met by a band of Indians, who were alarmed at his worn appearance. The natives took good care of him and carried him, at times unconscious, to his fort, which he reached after an absence of forty days. He says, "Picture to yourself a man whose bones are scraped, not an atom of flesh remaining, then over these bones a loose skin, fine as the bladder of an animal; a beard of forty days' growth, his hair full of filth and scabs. You will then have some idea of what I was." The Hudson's Bay Company officer, McKay, from the neighbouring fort, was exceedingly kind and supplied his every want.

The Cree Indians after this adventure called Pritchard the Manitou or Great Spirit. The Assiniboines called him Cheepe —or the corpse, referring to his wan appearance. For weeks after his return the miserable trader was unable to move about, but in time recovered, and lived to a good old age on the banks of the Red River.

To the last day of his life he referred to his great deliverance, and was thoroughly of the opinion that his preservation was miraculous.


We are fortunate in having two very good journals of journeys made in the early years of the century from the forts at the junction of the Souris and Assiniboine River to the Missouri River. As was described in the case of David Thompson, this was a long and tedious journey, and yet it was at one time within the plans of the North-West Company to carry their trade thither. Few of the French Canadian gentlemen entered into the North-West Company. One of these, who became noted as an Indian trader, was Francois Antoine Larocque, brother-in-law of Quesnel, the companion of Simon Fraser. Of the same rank as himself, and associated with Mm, was a trader, Charles McKenzie, who entered the North-West Company as a clerk in 1803.

The expedition to the Mandans under these gentlemen, left Fort Assiniboine on November 11th, 1804, a party in all of seven, and provided with horses, five of which carried merchandise for trade. After the usual incidents of this trying journey, the Missouri was reached.

The notable event of this journey was the meeting with the American expedition of Lewis and Clark, then on its way to cross overland to the Pacific Ocean. Larocque in his journal gives information about this expedition. Leaving Philadelphia in 1803, the expedition, consisting of upward of forty men, had taken till October to reach the Mandans on the Missouri. The purposes of the expedition of Lewis and Clark were :—

(1) To explore the territory towards the Pacific and settle the boundary line between the British and American territories.

(2) To quiet the Indians of the Missouri by conference and the bestowment of gifts.

Larocque was somewhat annoyed by the message given him by Lewis and Clark, that no flags or medals could be given by the North-West Company to the Indians in the Missouri, inasmuch as they were American Indians. Larocque had some amusement at the continual announcement by these leaders that the Indians would be protected so long as they should behave as dutiful children to the great father, the President of the United States. In the spring the party returned, after wintering on the Missouri. In 1805, during the summer, another expedition went to the Missouri; in 1806, Charles McKenzie went in February to the Mandans, and, returning, made a second journey in the same year to the Missouri. The account given by McKenzie of the Journeys of 1804-6 is an exceedingly well written one, for this leader was fond of study, and, we are told, delighted especially in the history of his native land, the highlands of Scotland.

Charles McKenzie had married an Indian woman, and became thoroughly identified with the North-West. He was fond of his native children, and stood up for their recognition on the same plane as the white children. After the union of the North-West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, the English influence largely prevailed. Thinking that his son, who was well educated at the Red River Seminary, was not sufficiently recognized by the Company, McKenzie wrote bitterly, "It appears the present concern has stamped the Cain mark upon all born in this country. Neither education nor abilities serve them. The Honourable Company are unwilling to take natives, even as apprenticed clerks, and the favoured few they do take can never aspire to a higher status, be their education and capacity what they may."

McKenzie continued the fur trade until 1846, when he retired and settled on the Red River. His son, Hector McKenzie, now dead, was well known on the Red River, and accompanied one of the explorations to the far north.

Larocque did not continue long in the fur trade, but went to Montreal and embarked in business, in which he was very unsuccessful. He spent the last years of his life in retirement and close study, and died in the Grey nunnery in a Lower Canadian parish.

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