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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Peter Pond reaches Athabasca River—Fort Chipewyan established— Starting-point of Alexander McKenzie—The Athabasca library —The Hudson Bay Company roused—Conflict at Fort Wedder-burn—Suffering—The dash up the Peace River—Fort Dunvegan —Northern extension—Fort Resolution—Fort Providence—The great river occupied—Loss of life—Fort Simpson, the centre— Fort Reliance—Herds of cariboo—Fort Norman built—Fort Good Hope—The Northern Rockies—The Yukon reached and occupied—The fierce Liard River—Fort Halkett in the mountains —Robert Campbell comes to the Stikine—Discovers the Upper Yukon—His great fame—The districts—Steamers on the water stretches.

(The map on page 384 should be consulted while this chapter is being read,)

Less than twenty years after the conquest of Canada by the British, the traders heard of the Lake Athabasca and Mackenzie River district. The region rapidly rose into notice, until it reached the zenith as the fur traders' paradise, a position it has held till the present time.

As we have seen, Samuel Hearne, the Hudson's Bay Company adventurer—the Mungo Park of the North—first of white men, touched, on his way to the Coppermine, Lake Athapuscow, now thought to have been Great Slave Lake.

It was the good fortune, however, of the North-West Company to take possession of this region first for trade.


The daring Montreal traders, who had seized upon the Saskatchewan and pushed on to Lake Ile à la Crosse, having a surplus of merchandise in the year 1778, despatched one of their agents to Lake Athabasca, and "took seisin" of the country. As already stated, the man selected was the daring and afterwards violent trader Peter Pond. On the River Athabasca, some thirty miles south of the Lake, Pond built the first Indian trading post of the region, which, however, after a few years was abandoned and never afterwards rebuilt.


Less than ten years after this pioneer led the way, a fort was built on the south side of Lake Athabasca, at a point a few miles east of the entrance of the river. To this, borrowing the name of the Indian nation of the district, was given the name Fort Chipewyan. This old fort became celebrated as the starting-place of the great expedition of Alexander Mackenzie, when he discovered the river that bears his name and the Polar Sea into which it empties. At this historic fort also, Roderick McKenzie, cousin of the explorer, founded the famous "Athabasca Library," for the use of the officers of the Company in the northern posts, and in its treasures Lieutenant Lefroy informs us he revelled during his winter stay.

At the beginning of the century the X Y Company aggressively invaded the Athabasca region, and built a fort a mile north of Fort Chipewyan, near the site of the present Roman Catholic Mission of the Nativity.

As the conflict between the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies waxed warm, the former Company, no doubt for the purpose of being more favourably situated for carrying on the trade with the Mackenzie River, removed their fort on Lake Athasbaca to the commanding promontory near the exit of Slave River from the lake. Renewed and often enlarged, Fort Chipewyan has until recently remained the greatest depot of the north country.


The fierceness of the struggle for the fur trade may be seen in the fact that the Hudson's Bay Company (1815) with vigour took up a site on an island in front of Fort Chipewyan and built Fort Wedderburn, at no greater distance than a single mile, and though it was not their first appearance on the lake, yet they threw themselves in considerable force into the contest, numbering, under John Clark, afterward Chief Factor, ten clerks, a hundred men, and fourteen large canoes loaded with supplies. Many misfortunes befell the new venture of the Company. A writer of the time says, "No less than fifteen men, one woman, and several children perished by starvation. They built four trade posts on the Peace River (lower) and elsewhere in the autumn ; but not one of them was able to weather out the following winter. All were obliged to come to terms with their opponents to save the party from utter destruction. That year the Athabasca trade of the North-West Company was four hundred packs against only five in all secured by the Hudson's Bay Company.

Three years afterward the old Company, with British pluck, again appeared on this lake, having nineteen loaded canoes. Trader Clark was now accompanied by the doughty leader, Colin Robertson, whose prowess we have already seen in the Red River conflict.

It will be remembered that in the year before the union of the Companies, George Simpson, the young clerk, arrived on Lake Athabasca with fifteen loaded canoes. He was chiefly found at Fort Wedderburn and a short distance up the Peace River. It is not certain that the prospective Governor ever visited Slave Lake to the north. He gives, however, the following vivid summary of his winter's experience in Athabasca: "At some seasons both whites and Indians live in wasteful abundance on venison, buffalo meat, fish, and game of all kinds, while at other times they are reduced to the last degree of hunger, often passing several days without food. In the year 1820 our provisions fell short at the establishment, and on two or three occasions I went for two or three whole days and nights without having a single morsel to swallow, but then again, I was one of a party of eleven men and one woman which discussed at one sitting meal no less than three ducks and twenty-two geese!" This winter's knowledge was of great value to the man afterwards called to be the arbiter of destiny of many a hard-pressed trader.

Map of MacKenzie River and the Yukon

Other forts are mentioned as having been established by both Companies at different points on the Athabasca River, but their period of duration was short. In some cases these abandoned forts have been followed by new forts, in recent times, on the same sites.


Soon after the arrival of the first traders in the Athabasca district, the fame of the Peace River—the Indian "Unjijah," a mighty stream, whose waters empty into the river flowing from Lake Athabasca—rose among the adventurers. An enterprising French Canadian trader, named Boyer, pushed up the stream and near a small tributary—Red River—established the first post of this great artery, which flows from the West, through the Rocky Mountains. Long abandoned, this post has in late years been re-established.

The Peace River has ever had a strange fascination for trader and tourist, and a few years after Boyer's establishment became known, a trading house was built above the "Chutes" of the river. This was afterwards moved some distance up stream and became the well-known Fort Vermilion. This fort has remained till the present day.

Farther still up the Peace River, where the Smoky River makes its forks, a fort was erected whose stores and dwelling-houses were on a larger scale than those of the mother establishment of Fort Chipewyan, having had stockaded walls; a good powder magazine, and a good well of water. This fort for a time was known as McLeod's Fort, but in the course of events its site was abandoned. Fort Dunvegan, famous to later travellers, was first built on the south side of the river, and was the head-quarters of the Beaver Indians, from whom the North-West Company received a formal gift of the site. The present fort is on the opposite side of the Peace River.

It will be remembered, however, that it was from the post -at the mouth of Smoky River that Alexander Mackenzie, having wintered, started on his great Journey to the Pacific. In later years the Hudson's Bay Company has maintained a fort at this point as an outpost of Dunvegan.

Early in the century we find allusions to the fact that the catch of beaver was, from over-hunting, declining in the Peace River country, and that, in consequence, the North-West Company had been compelled to give up several of their forts. Around Fort St. John's a tragic interest gathers. John McLean, in his "Notes of a Twenty-five Years' Service," speaks of reaching on his journey—1833—the "tenantless fort," where some years before a massacre had taken place. It had been determined by the Hudson's Bay Company to remove the fort to Rocky Mountain Portage. The tribe of Tsekanies, to whom the fort was tributary, took this as an insult. At the time of removal the officer in charge, Mr. Hughes, had sent off a part of his men with effects of the fort intended for the new post. Hughes was shot down on the riverside by the Indians. The party of boatmen, on returning, "altogether unconscious of the fate that awaited them, came paddling towards the landing-place, singing a voyageur's song, and Just as the canoe touched the shore, a volley of bullets was discharged at them, which silenced them for ever. They were all killed on the spot." An expedition was organized by the traders to avenge the foul murder, but more peaceful counsels prevailed. Most of the fugitives paid the penalty of their guilt by being starved to death. The deserted fort was some twenty miles below the present Fort St. John's. The present fort was built in the latter half of the century, and its outpost of Hudson's Hope, together with the trade station at Battle River, below Dunvegan, was erected about a generation ago.


The extension of the fur trade to Great Slave Lake dates back to within seven years after the advent of Peter Pond on the Athabasca River. The famous trader, Cuthbert Grant, father of the "Warden of the Plains," who figured in the Seven Oaks fight, led the way, and with him a Frenchman, Laurent Loroux. Reaching this great lake, these ardent explorers built a trading post on Slave River, near its mouth. A short time afterwards the traders moved their first post to Moose Deer Island, a few miles from the old site, and here the North-West Company remained until the time of the union of the Companies. The impulse of union led to the construction of a new establishment on the site chosen by the Hudson's Bay Company for the erection of their post some six years before. The new post was called Fort Resolution, and was on the mainland two miles or more from the island. This post marked the extreme limit of the operations of the Hudson's Bay Company up to the time of the union.

When Alexander Mackenzie determined to make his first great voyage, he started from Fort Chipewyan and bravely pushing out into the unknown wilds, left Great Slave Lake and explored the river that bears his name. Here he promised the tribe of the Yellow Knife Indians to establish a post among them in the next year. The promise was kept to the letter. The new post, built at the mouth of the Yellow Knife River, was called Fort Providence. It was afterwards removed to a large island in the north arm of the lake, and to this the name Fort Rae, in honour of the celebrated Arctic explorer, John Rae, was given. Near this new station there has been for years a Roman Catholic Mission. It was from the neighbourhood of these forts on the lake that Captain Franklin set out to build his temporary station, Fort Enterprise, one hundred miles from his base of supplies. Fort Rae has remained since the time of its erection a place of some importance. It formed the centre of the northern operations of Captain Dawson, R.A., on his expedition for circumpolar observation in recent times.

After the Hudson's Bay Company had transferred Rupert's Land to Canada, a new post was opened on the Slave River, midway between Athabasca and Great Slave Lake. It was called Fort Smith, in honour of Chief Commissioner Donald A., Smith, now Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal. Near the site of Fort Smith are the dangerous Noyé Raids of Slave River, where Grant and Leroux, on their voyage to Great Slave Lake, lost a canoe and five of its occupants. From Fort Smith southward to Smith Landing a waggon or cart road has been in use up to the present time. Now this is to be converted into a tramway.


Northward the course of the fur traders' empire has continually made its way. Leaving Great Slave Lake four years before the close of the eighteenth century, along the course of Alexander Mackenzie's earlier exploration, Duncan Livingston, a North-West Company trader, built the first fort on the river eighty miles north of the lake. Three years later the trader, his three French-Canadian voyageurs and Indian interpreter, were basely killed by the Eskimos on the Lower Mackenzie River. A year or two afterward a party of fur traders, under John Clark, started on an expedition of exploration and retaliation down the river, but again the fury of the Eskimos was roused. In truth, had it not been for a storm of fair wind which favoured them, the traders would not have escaped with their lives.

Very early in the present century, Fort Simpson, the former and present head-quarters of the extensive Mackenzie River district, was built, and very soon after its establishment the prominent trader, and afterwards Chief Factor, George Keith, is found in charge of it. It is still the great trading and Church of England Mission centre of the vast region reaching to the Arctic Sea.

During the first half of the century, Big Island, at the point whore the Mackenzie River leaves Great Slave Lake, was, on account of its good supply of white fish, the wintering station for the supernumerary district servants of the Hudson's Bay Company. Though this point is still visited for fishing in the autumn, yet in later years the trade of this post has been transferred to another built near the Roman Catholic Mission at Fort Providence, forty miles farther down the river. On Hay River, near the point of departure of the Mackenzie River from the lake, several forts have been built from time to time and abandoned, among them a Fort George referred to by the old traders. The eastern end of the lake, known as Fond du Lac, became celebrated, as we have already seen, in connection with the Arctic explorers, Sir George Back and Dr. Richard King, for here they built Fort Reliance and wintered, going in the spring to explore the Great Fish River. In after years, on account of the district being the resort for the herds of cariboo, Fort Reliance was rebuilt, and was for a time kept up as an outpost of Fort Resolution for collecting furs and "country provisions." It may be re-occupied soon on account of the discoveries of gold and copper in the region.

Journeying down the Mackenzie River, we learn that there was a fur traders' post of the Montreal merchants sixty miles north of Fort Simpson. In all probability this was but one of several posts that were from time to time occupied in that locality. At the beginning of the century the North-West Company pushed on further north, and had a trading post on the shore of Great Bear Lake, but almost immediately on its erection they were met here by their rivals, the X Y Company. At this point, reached by going up the Bear River from its junction with the Mackenzie on the south-west arm of the lake, Chief Factor Peter Dease built Fort Franklin for the use of the great Arctic explorer, after whom he named the fort.


To explore new ground was a burning desire in the breasts of the Nor'-Westers. Immediately in the year of their reunion with the X Y Company, the united North-West Company established a post on the Mackenzie River, sixty miles north of the mouth of Bear River. Indeed, the mouth of Bear River on the Mackenzie seems to have suggested itself as a suitable point for a post to be built, for in 1810 Fort Norman had been first placed there. For some reason the post was moved thirty or forty miles higher up the river, but a Jam of ice having occurred in the spring of 1851, the fort was mainly swept away by the high water, though the occupants and all the goods were saved. In the same year the mouth of the Bear River came into favour again, and Fort Norman was built at that point. After this time the fort was moved once or twice, but was finally placed in its present commanding position. It was in quite recent times that, under Chief Factor Camsell's direction, a station half-way between Fort Norman and Fort Simpson was fixed and the name of Fort Wrigley given to it.


Not only did the impulse of union between the North-West and X Y Companies reach Bear River, but in the same year, at a point on the Mackenzie River beyond the high perpendicular cliffs known as "The Ramparts," some two hundred miles further north than Fort Norman, was Fort Good Hope erected. Here it remained for nearly a score of years as the farthest north outpost of the fur trade, but after the union of the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies it was moved a hundred miles southward on the river and erected on Manitoulin Island. After some years (1836) an ice jam of a serious kind took place, and though the inmates escaped in a York boat, yet the fort was completely destroyed by the rushing waters of the angry Mackenzie. The fort was soon rebuilt, but in its present beautiful situation on the eastern bank of the river, opposite the old site on Manitoulin Island.

During Governor Simpson's time the extension of trade took place toward the mouth of the Mackenzie River. A trader, John Bell, who not only faced the hardships of the region within the Arctic Circle, but also gained a good name in connection with Sir John Richardson's expedition in search of Franklin, built the first post on Peel's River, which runs into the delta of Mackenzie River. Bell, in 1846, descended the Rat River, and first of British explorers set eyes on the Lower Yukon.

In the following year the Hudson's Bay Company established La Pierre's House in the heart of the Rocky Mountains toward the Arctic Sea, and Chief Trader Murray built and occupied the first Fort Yukon. This fort the Hudson's Bay Company held for twenty-two years, until the territory of Alaska passed into the hands of the people of the United States. Rampart House was built by the Hudson's Bay Company within British territory. Both Rampart House and La Pierre's House were abandoned a few years ago as unprofitable. A similar fate befell Fort Anderson, two degrees north of the Arctic Circlo, built for the Eastern Eskimos on the Anderson River, discovered in 1857 by Chief Factor R. MacFarlane, a few years before the transfer of the territory of the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada. No doubt the withdrawal from Fort Anderson was hastened by the terribly fatal epidemic of scarlatina which prevailed all over the Mackenzie River district in the autumn and early winter of 1865. More than eleven hundred Indians and Eskimos, out of the four thousand estimated population, perished. The loss of the hunters caused by this disease, and the difficulties of overland transport, led to the abandonment of this out-of-the-way post.


The conflict of the North-West and X Y Companies led to the most extraordinary exploration that Rupert's Land and the Indian territories have witnessed. At the time when the Mackenzie River, at the beginning of the century, was being searched and occupied, a fort known as The Forks was established at the junction of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers. This fort, called, after the union of the Hudson's Bay and North-West Companies, Fort Simson, became the base of operations for the exploration of the Liard River. We have followed the course of trade by which the Mackenzie itself was placed under tribute; it may be well also to look at the occupation of the Liard, the most rapid and terrible of all the great eastern streams that dash down from the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

The first post to be established on this stream was Fort Liard, not far below the junction of the western with the east branch of the river. There was an old fort between Fort Liard and Fort Simpson, but Fort Liard, which is still occupied by the Hudson's Bay Company, began almost with the century, and a few years afterwards was under the experienced trader, George Keith. Probably, at an equally early date, Fort Nelson, on the eastern branch of the river, was established. In the second decade of the century, Alexander Henry, the officer in charge, and all of his people were murdered by the Indians. The post was for many years abandoned, but was rebuilt in 1865, and is still a trading post.

It was probably shortly after the union of the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies that Fort Halkett, far up the western branch of the river, was erected. After forty or fifty years of occupation, Fort Halkett was abandoned, but a small post called Toad River was built some time afterward, half way between its site and that of Fort Liard. In 1834, Chief Trader John M. McLeod, not the McLeod whose journal we have quoted, pushed up past the dangerous rapids and boiling whirlpools, and among rugged cliffs and precipices of the Rocky Mountains, discovered Dease River and Dease Lake from which the river flows.

Robert Campbell, an intrepid Scottish officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1838, succeeded in doing what his predecessors had been unable to accomplish, viz. to establish a trading-post on Dease Lake. In the summer of the same year Campbell crossed to the Pacific Slope and reached the head waters of the Stikine River.

In opening his new post Campbell awakened the hostility of the coast Indians. He and his men became so reduced in supplies that they subsisted for some time on the skin thongs of their moccasins and snow shoes and on the parchment windows of their huts, boiled to supply the one meal a day which kept them alive. In the end Campbell was compelled to leave his station on the Dease Lake, and the fort was burnt by the Indians.


Under orders from Governor Simpson, Campbell, in 1840, undertook the exploration that has made his name famous. This was to ascend the northern branch of the wild and dangerous Liard River. For this purpose he left the mountain post, Fort Halkett, and passing through the groat gorge arrived at Lake Francos, where he gave the promontory which divides the lake the name "Simpson's Tower." Leaving the Lake and ascending one of its tributaries, called by him Finlayson's River, he reached the interesting reservoir of Finlayson's Lake, of which, at high water, one part of the sheet runs west to the Pacific Ocean and the other to the Arctic Sea. With seven trusty companions he crossed the height of land and saw the high cliffs of the splendid river, which he called "Pelly Banks," in honour of the then London Governor of the Company. The Company would have called it Campbell's River, but the explorer refused the honour. Going down the stream a few miles on a raft, Campbell then turned back, and reached Fort Halkett after an absence of four months.

Highly complimented by Governor Simpson, Campbell, under orders, in the next year built a fort at Lake Frances, and in a short time another establishment at Pelly Banks. Descending the river, the explorer met at the junction of the Lewis and Pelly Banks a band of Indians, who would not allow him to proceed further, and indeed plotted to destroy him and his men. Eight years after his discovery of Pelly Banks, Campbell started on his great expedition, which was crowned with success. Reaching again the junction of the Pelly and Lewis Rivers, he erected a post, naming it Fort Selkirk, although it was long locally known as Campbell's Fort. Two years after the building of Fort Selkirk, Campbell, journeying in all from the height of land for twelve hundred miles, reached Fort Yukon, where, as we have seen, Trader Murray was in charge. Making a circuit around by the Porcupine River and ascending the Mackenzie River, Campbell surprised his friends at Fort Simpson by coming up the river to Fort Simpson.

In 1852, a thievish band of coast Indians called the Chilkats plundered Fort Selkirk and shortly afterward destroyed it. Its ruins remain to this day, and the site is now taken up by the Canadian Government as a station on the way to the Yukon gold-fields.

Campbell went home to London, mapped out with the aid of Arrowsmith the country he had found, and gave names to its rivers and other features. A few years ago an officer of the United States army, Lieutenant Schwatka, sought to rob Campbell of his fame, and attempted to rename the important points of the region. Campbell's merit and modesty entitle him to the highest recognition.

The trading posts of the great region we are describing have been variously grouped into districts. Previous to the union of the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies, from Athabasca north and west was known as the "Athabasca-Mackenzie Department," their returns all being kept in one account. This northern department was long under the superintendency of Chief Factor Edward Smith.

A new district was, some time after the transfer of the Indian territories to Canada, formed and named "Peace River." The management has changed from time to time, Fort Dunvegan, for example, for a period the head-quarters of the Peace River district, having lost its pre-eminence and been transferred to be under the chief officer on Lesser Slave Lake.

The vast inland water stretches of which we have spoken have been the chief means of communication throughout the whole country. Without these there could have been little fur trade. The distances are bewildering. The writer remembers seeing Bishop Bompas, who had left the far distant Fort Yukon to go to England, and who by canoe, York boat, dog train, snow shoe, and waggon, had been nine months on the journey before he reached Winnipeg.

The first northern inland steamer in these remote retreats was the Graham (1882), built by the Company at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, by Captain John M. Smith. Three years later the same captain built the screw-propeller Wrigley, at Fort Smith, on the Slave River ; and a few years afterward, this indefatigable builder launched at Athabasca landing the stern-wheeler Athabasca, for the water stretches of the Upper Athabasca River.

How remarkable the record of adventure, trade, rivalry, bloodshed, hardship, and successful effort, from the time, more than a century ago, when Peter Pond started out on his seemingly desperate undertaking!

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