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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Fort Edmonton and Jasper House

Fascination of an unknown land—Adventure, science, or gain— Lieutenant Lefroy's magnetic survey—Hudson's Bay Company assists—Winters at Fort Chipewyan—First scientific visit to Peace River—Notes lost—Not "gratuitous canoe conveyancen —Captain Palliser and Lieutenant Hector—Journey through Rupert's Land—Rocky Mountain passes—On to the coast—A successful expedition—Hind and Dawson—To spy out the land for Canada—The fertile belt—Hind's description good—Milton and Cheadle—Winter on the Saskatchewan—Reach Pacific Ocean in a pitiable condition—Captain Butler—The horse Blaeie and dog "Cerf Vola"—Fleming and Grant—"Ocean to ocean"— "Land fitted for a healthy and hardy race"—Waggon road and railway.

The vast area of Rupert's Land and the adjoining Indian territories have always had a fascination for the British imagination ; and not alone its wide extent, but its being a fur traders' paradise, and in consequence largely a "terra incognita," has led adventurous spirits to desire to explore it.

Just as Sir John Mandeville's expedition to the unknown regions of Asia in the fourteenth century has appealed to the hardy and brave sons of Britain from that early day ; and in later times the famous ride of Colonel Burnaby to Khiva in our own generation has led Central Asia to be viewed as a land of mystery ; so the plains of Rupert's Land, with the reputed Chinese wall thrown around them by the Hudson's Bay Company's monopoly, have been a favourite resort for the traveller, the mighty hunter, and the scientist.

It is true no succeeding records of adventure can have the interest for us that gathers around those of the intrepid Verendrye, the mysterious Hearne, or the heroic Alexander Mackenzie, whose journeys we have already described, yet many daring adventurers who have gone on scientific or exploratory expeditions, or who have travelled the wide expanse for sport or for mere curiosity, may claim our attention.


The discovery of the magnetic pole by Sir John Ross, and the continued interest in the problems connected with the Arctic Sea, the romance of the North land, and the dream of a North-West Passage, led to the desire to have a scientific survey of the wide expanse of Rupert's Land. The matter was brought to the notice of the Royal Society by Major, afterwards General Sir Edward Sabine, a noted student of magnetism. Sir John Herschell, the leading light on the subject of physics, succeeded in inducing the Society to pronounce a favourable opinion on the project, and the strong influence of the Royal Society, under the presidency of the Marquis of Northampton, induced the Lords of the Treasury to meet the estimated expenses, nine hundred and ten pounds, with the understanding that, as stated by the President, gratuitous canoe conveyance would be provided by the Hudson's Bay Company in the territories belonging to them.

Lieutenant, afterwards General Sir Henry Lefroy, a young artillery officer, was selected to go upon the journey. A circu lar letter was sent to the Hudson's Bay Company posts by Governor Simpson, directing that every assistance should be given to the survey. Lefroy, having wintered in Montreal, was given a passage on May 1st, 1842, on the canoes for the North-West. Passing up the Ottawa and along the fur traders' route, he soon reached Sault Ste. Marie and Fort William; magnetic observations, accurate observations of latitude and longitude being made at the Hudson's Bay Company posts along the route. Kakabeka Falls and the various points along the Kaministiquia route were examined, and exchanging the "canot de maitre" for the "canot de Nord," by way of Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnipeg, the observer arrived at Fort Garry on June 29th, having found Sir George Simpson at Lower Fort Garry.

After a close examination of the Red River Valley and some geological observations on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, Lefroy made his way to Norway House, and then by the watercourses, four hundred miles, to York Factory. Having done good work on the Bay, he made the return journey to Norway House, and on August 22nd, Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan was gained. Here he adopted the latitude and longitude taken by Franklin's two land expeditions, and here took seven independent observations of variation and dip of the magnetic needle.

Now striking energetically northward, and stopping long enough at the posts to take the necessary observations, the explorer arrived at Fort Chipewyan on September 23rd. It was twelve years since the dwellers on Lake Athabasca had been visited by any traveller from the south, and Lefroy's voyageurs, as they completed their three thousand miles of Journey, decked out in their best apparel, made the echoes of the lake resound with their gay chansons. Lefroy wintered in the fort, where the winter months were enjoyed in the well-selected library of the Company and the new experiences of the fur trader's life, while his voyageurs went away to support themselves at a fishing station on the lake.

The summer of 1843 was spent in a round of thirteen hundred and forty miles, going from Lake Athabasca, up the Peace River to Fort Dunvegan, then by way of Lower Slave Lake to Edmonton, and down the Saskatchewan to Cumberland. Lefroy claims that no scientific traveller had visited the Peace River since the time of Alexander Mackenzie, fifty-five years before. Unfortunately, Lefroy's notes of this Journey and some of his best observations were lost in his return through the United States, and could not be replaced.

In March, 1844, Lieutenant Lefroy left Lake Athabasca, and travelled on snow shoes to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, and thence to Fort Simpson, four hundred and fifty miles, having his instruments for observation borne on dog sleds. This Journey was made in nineteen days. Waiting at the Fort till May, he accomplished the descent of the Mackenzie River after the breaking up of the ice, and reached Fort Good Hope. The return Journey to Fort Resolution was made at a very rapid rate, and the route thence to Lake Athabasca was followed. The diary ends June 30th, 1844.

At the close of the expedition some misunderstanding arose as to the settlement of the accounts. The Hudson's Bay Company had promised to give "gratuitous canoe conveyance." The original plan of the journey was, however, much changed, and Lieutenant Lefroy was a much greater expense to the Company than had been expected. A bill of upwards of twelve hundred pounds was rendered by the Hudson's Bay Company to the Royal Society. After certain explanations and negotiations a compromise of eight hundred and fifty pounds was agreed on, and this was paid by the Treasury Department to the Company.

The work done by Lieutenant Lefroy was of the most accurate and valuable kind. His name is remembered as that of one of the most trustworthy of the explorers of the plains of Rupert's Land and the North, and is commemorated by Fort Lefroy in the Rocky Mountains. It is true his evidence, recorded in the Blue Book of 1857, was somewhat disappointing, but his errors were those of judgment, not of prejudice or intention.


The approach of the time when the twenty-one years' lease of the Indian territories granted by the Imperial Parliament to the Hudson's Bay Company was drawing near a close in 1857, when the Committee of the House of Commons met in February of this year to consider the matter. A vast mass of evidence was taken, and the consideration of the Blue Book containing this will afford us material for a very interesting chapter. The interest in the matter, and the necessity for obtaining expert information, led the Imperial Government to organize an expedition under Captain John Palliser, R.N.A., of the Royal Engineers. With Captain Palliser, who was to go up the Canadian lakes to the interior, was associated Lieutenant Blakiston, R.N., who received orders to proceed by ship to York Factory and meet the main expedition at some point in Rupert's Land. The geologist of the expedition was James Hector, M.D. (Edin.). J. W. Sullivan was secretary and M. E. Bourgeau, botanist.

After the usual incidents of an ocean voyage, some difficulty with the Customs authorities in New York arose as to the entry of astronomical instruments, which was happily overcome, and after a long Journey by way of Detroit, Sault Ste. Marie was reached, where Palliser found two birch bark canoes and sixteen voyageurs awaiting him, as provided by the Hudson's Bay Company. Sir George Simpson had lately passed this point. Journeying along the fur traders' route, the explorers found themselves expected at Fort Frances, on Rainy River.

Here a deputation of Indians waited upon them, and the old chief discoursed thus: "I do not ask for presents, although I am poor and my people are hungry, but I know you have come straight from the Great Country, and we know that no men from that country ever came to us and lied. I want you to declare to us truthfully what the Great Queen of your country intends to do to us when she will take the country from the fur company's people. All around me I see the smoke of the white men to rise. The 'Long Knives' (the Americans) are trading with our neighbours for their lands and they are cheating them and deceiving them. Now, we will not sell nor part with our lands."

Having reached Fort Garry, Captain Palliser divided his party, sending one section west, and himself going south to the boundary line with the other. Going west from Pembina, Palliser reached the French half-breed settlement of St. Joseph (St. Jo.), and some days afterwards Turtle Mountain. Thence he hurried across country to Fort Ellice to meet the other portion of his expedition.

While the tired horses rested here he made an excursion of a notable kind to the South-West. This was to the "Roches Percées" on the Souris River. This is a famous spot, noted for the presence of Tertiary sandstone exposures, which have weathered into the most fantastic shapes. It is a sacred spot of the Indians. Here, as at the "Red Pipestone Quarry," described by Longfellow, and not more than one hundred and fifty miles distant from it, Sioux, Assiniboines, and Crees meet in peace. Though war may prevail elsewhere, this spot is by mutual agreement kept as neutral. At this point Palliser saw a great camp of Assiniboines.

Returning from this side excursion, the Captain resumed his command, and having obtained McKay, the Hudson's Bay Company officer at Fort Ellice, with Governor Christie's permission, set off by way of Qu'Appelle Lakes for the elbow of the Saskatchewan.

On the South Saskatchewan Palliser came to the "heart of the buffalo country." The whole region as far as the eye could reach was covered with the buffalo in bands varying from hundreds to thousands. So vast were the herds, that he began to have serious apprehensions for his horses, as "the grass was eaten to the earth, as if the place had been devastated by locusts."

Crossing the Saskatchewan the explorers went northward to Fort Carlton on the north branch, where the party wintered while Captain Palliser returned to Canada, paying 65/. to a Red River trader to drive him five hundred and twenty miles from Fort Garry to Crow Wing, the nearest Minnesota settlement. Palliser's horse, for which he had bargained, was killed at Pembina, and he walked the four hundred and fifty miles of the journey, which was made with painful slowness by the struggling horses and sleds of the traders.

In June of the following year Palliser left Fort Carlton, part of his command going to the Red Deer River, the other part to visit Fort Pitt and Edmonton House. From Edmonton the explorer reports that during the summer, his men had succeeded in finding a pass through the Rocky Mountains, one not only practicable for horses, but which, with but little expense, could be rendered available for carts also.

He also states the passes discovered by him to be:—

(1) Kananaskis Pass and Vermilion Pass;
(2) Lake Pass and Beaver Foot Pass;
(3) Little Fork Pass;
(4) Kicking Horse Pass—six in all, which, with the North Kootenay (on British territory), make up seven known passes.

Having wintered at Edmonton, he satisfied himself that this region so far north and west is a good agricultural region, that the Saskatchewan region compares favourably with that of the Red River Valley, that the rule of the country should be given over by the Hudson's Bay Company to the general Government, and that a railway could be built easily from the Red River to the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains.

Orders having reached Palliser to proceed, he undertook, in the summer of 1859, a journey across the Rocky Mountains, following in part the old Hudson's Bay Company trail. On St. Andrew's Day, the party arrived at the Hudson's Bay Company post at Vancouver on the Columbia, and was welcomed by Mr. Graham, the officer in charge.

Taking steamer down the Columbia with his assistant Sullivan, Captain Palliser went to Victoria, a Hudson's Bay Company establishment on Vancouver Island, whither they were followed by Dr. Hector. Journeying south-west to San Francisco, he returned, via Isthmus of Panama, to New York and England.

The expedition was one of the best organized, best managed, and most successful that visited Rupert's Land. The report is a sensible, well-balanced, minute, and reliable account of the country passed over.


In the same year that Palliser's expedition was despatched by the British Government to examine the resources and characteristics of Rupert's Land, a party was sent by the Canadian Government with similar ends in view, but more especially to examine the routes and means of access by which the prairies of the North-West might be reached from Lake Superior.

The staff of the party was as follows: George Gladman, director; Professor Henry Youle Hind, geologist; W. H. E. Napier, engineer; S. J. Dawson, surveyor. These, along with several foremen, twelve Caughnawaga Iroquois, from near Lachine, and twelve Ojibeway Indians from Fort William, made up a stirring canoe party of forty-four persons.

In July, 1857, the expedition left Toronto, went by land to Collingwood on Lake Huron, embarked there on the steamer Collingwood, and passing by Sault St. Marie, reached on August 1st Fort William at the mouth of the Kaministiquia. Mr. John McIntyre, the officer of the Hudson's Bay Company in charge of Fort William, has given to the writer an account of the arrival of the party there with their great supply canoes, trading outfit, and apparatus, piled up high on the steamer's deck—a great contrast to the scanty but probably more efficient means of transport found on a Hudson's Bay Company trading journey. The party in due time went forward over the usual fur traders' route, which we have so often described, and arrived at Fort Garry early in September.

As the object of the expedition was to spy out the land, the Red River settlement, now grown to considerable size, afforded the explorers an interesting field for study. Simple though the conditions of life were, yet the fact that six or seven thousands of human beings were gaining a livelihood and were possessed of a number of the amenities of life, made its impress on the visitors, and Hind's chapters VI. to X. of his first volume are taken up with a general account of the settlement, the banks of the Red River, statistics of population, administration of justice, trade, occupations of the people, missions, education, and agriculture at Red River.

Having arrived at the settlement, the leaders devised plans for overtaking their work. The approach of winter made it impossible to plan expeditions over the plains to any profit. Mr. Gladman returned by canoE to Lake Superior early in September, Napier and his assistants took up their abode among the better class of English-speaking half-breeds between the upper and lower forts on the banks of the Red River. Mr. Dawson found shelter among his Roman Catholic co-religionists half a mile from Fort Garry. Ho and his party were to be engaged during the winter between Red River and the Lake of the Woods, along the route afterwards called the Dawson Road, while Hind followed his party up the western bank of Red River to Pembina, and his own account is that there was of them "all told, five gentlemen, five half-breeds, six saddle horses, and five carts, to which were respectively attached four poor horses and one refractory mule."

This party was returning to Canada, going by way of Crow Wing, thence by stage coach to St. Paul, on the Mississippi, then by rail unbroken to Toronto, which was reached after an absence of three and a half months.

The next season Hind was placed in charge of the expedition, and with new assistants went up the lakes in May, leading them by the long-deserted route of Grand Portage instead of by Kaministiquia. The journey from Lake Superior to Fort Garry was made in about twenty-one days. On their arrival at Red River the party found that Mr. Dawson had gone on an exploring tour to the Saskatchewan. Having organized his expedition Hind now went up the Assiniboine to Fort Ellice. The Qu'Appelle Valley was then explored, and the lake reached from which two streamlets flow, one into the Qu'Appelle and thence to the Assiniboine, the other into the Saskatchewan. Descending the Saskatchewan, at the mouth of which the Grand Rapids impressed the party, they made the journey thence up Lake Winnipeg and Red River to the place of departure. The tour was a most interesting one, having occupied all the summer. Hind was a close observer, was most skilful in working with the Hudson's Bay Company and its officers, and he gained an excellent view of the most fertile parts of the country. His estimate of it on the whole has been wonderfully borne out by succeeding years of experience and investigation.


The world at large, after Hind's expedition and the publication of his interesting observations, began to know more of the fur traders' land and showed more interest in it. In the years succeeding Hind's expedition a number of enterprising Canadians reached Fort Garry by way of St. Paul, Minn., and took up their abode in the country. A daring band of nearly 200 Canadians, drawn by the gold fever, started in 1862, on an overland journey to Cariboo; but many of them perished by the way. Three other well-known expeditions deserve notice.

The first of these was in 1862 by Viscount Milton and Dr. Cheadle. Coming from England by way of Minnesota to Fort Garry, they stopped at Red River settlement, and by conveyance crossed the prairies in their first season as far as Fort Carlton on the North Saskatchewan, and wintered there. The season was enjoyable, and in spring the explorers ascended the Saskatchewan to Edmonton, and then, by way of the Yellow Head Pass, crossed the Rocky Mountains. Their descent down the Thompson River was a most difficult one. The explorers were nearly lost through starvation, and on their arrival by way of Fraser River at Victoria their appearance was most distressing and their condition most pitiable. A few years ago, in company with a party of members of the British Association, Dr. Cheadle visited Winnipeg, and at a banquet in the city expressed to the writer his surprise that the former state of scarcity of food even on Red River had been so changed into the evident plenty which Manitoba now enjoys. Milton and Cheadle's "The North-West Passage by Land" is a most enjoyable book.


In the early months of the year 1870, when Red River -settlement was under the hand of the rebel Louis Riel, a tall, distinguished-looking stranger descended the Red River in the steamer International. News had been sent by a courier on horseback to the rebel chief that a dangerous stranger was approaching. The stalwart Irish visitor was Captain W. F. Butler, of H.M. 69th Regiment of Foot. As the International neared Fort Garry, Butler, with a well-known resident of Red River settlement, sprang upon the river-bank from the steamer in the dark as she turned into the Assiniboine River.

He escaped to the lower part of the settlement, but the knowledge that he had a letter from the Roman Catholic Archbishop Tach6 led to the rebel chief sending for and promising him a safe-conduct. Butler came and inspected the fort, and again departed to Lake Winnipeg, River Winnipeg, and Lake of the Woods, where he accomplished his real mission, in telling to General Wolseley, of the relief expedition coming to drive away the rebels, the state of matters in the Red River.

Captain Butler then went west, crossed country to the Saskatchewan, descended the river, and in winter came through, by snow-shoe and dog train, over Lakes Winnipegoosis and Manitoba to the east, and then to Europe.

Love of adventure brought Captain Butler back to the North-West. In 1872 he journeyed through the former fur traders' land, reaching Lake Athabasca in March, 1873. Ascending the Peace River, he arrived in Northern British Columbia in May. Through three hundred and fifty miles of the dense forests of New Caledonia he toiled to reach Quesnel, on the Fraser, four hundred miles north of Victoria, British Columbia, where he in due time landed.

Captain Butler has left a graphic, perhaps somewhat embellished, account of his travels in the books, "Great Lone Land" and "Wild North Land." The central figure of his first book is the faithful horse "Blackie" and of the second the Eskimo dog "Cerf-Vola." The appreciative reader feels, however, especially in the latter, the spirit and power of Milton's and Cheadle's "North-West Passage by Land" everywhere in these descriptive works.


Third of these expeditions was that undertaken in 1872, under the leadership of Sandford Fleming, which has been chronicled in the work "Ocean to Ocean," by Rev. Principal Grant. The writer saw this expedition at Winnipeg in the summer of its arrival. It came for the purpose of crossing the plains, as a preliminary survey for a railway. The party came up the lakes, and by boat and portage over the traders' route, and the Dawson Road from Lake of the Woods to Red River, and halted near Fort Garry. Going westward, they for the most part followed the path of Milton and Cheadle. Fort Carlton and then Edmonton House were reached, and the Yellow Head Pass was followed to the North Thompson River. The forks of the river at Kamloops were passed, and then the canoe way down the Fraser to the sea was taken. The return journey was made by way of San Francisco. The expedition did much to open the way for Canadian emigration and to keep before the minds of Canadians the necessity for a waggon road across the Rocky Mountains and for a railway from ocean to ocean as soon as possible. Dr. Grant's conclusion was: "We know that we have a great North-West, a country like old Canada—not suited for lotus-eaters to live in, but fitted to rear a healthy and hardy race."

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