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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Unyielding old Cadot—Competition—The enterprising Henry—Leads the way—Thomas Curry—The older Finlay—Plundering Indians —"Grand Portage"—A famous mart—The plucky Frobishers —The Sleeping Giant aroused—Fort Cumberland—Churchill River—Indian rising—The deadly smallpox—The whites saved.

The capture of Canada by General Wolfe in 1759 completely changed the course of affairs in the Western fur country. Michilimackinac and Sault Ste. Marie had become considerable trading centres under the French regime, but the officers and men had almost entirely been withdrawn from the outposts in the death struggle for the defence of Quebec and Montreal.

The conquest of Canada was announced with sorrow by the chief captain of the West, Charles de Langlade, on his return after the capitulation of Montreal. The French Canadians who had taken Indian wives still clung to the fur country. These French half-breed settlements at Michilimackinac and neighbouring posts were of some size, but beyond Lake Superior, except a straggler here and there, nothing French was left behind. The forts of the western post fell into decay, and were in most cases burnt by the Indians. Not an army officer, not a priest, not a fur trader, remained beyond Kaministiquia.

The French of Michilimackinac region were for a time unwilling to accept British rule. Old trader, Jean Baptiste Cadot, who had settled with his Indian wife, Anastasie, at Sault Ste. Marie, and become a man of wide influence, for years refused to yield, and a French Canadian author says: "So the French flag continued to float over the fort of Sault Ste. Marie long after the fleur-de-lis had quitted for over the ramparts of Quebec. Under the shadow of the old colours, so fruitful of tender memories, he was able to believe himself still under the protection of the mother-country." However, Cadot ended by accepting the situation, and an author tells us that like Cadot, "were the La Cornes, the Langlades, the Beaujeus, the Babys, and many others who, after fighting like lions against England, were counted a little later among the number of her most gallant defenders." For several years, however, the fur trade was not carried on.

The change of flag in Canada brought a number of enterprising spirits as settlers to Quebec and Montreal. The Highland regiments under Generals Amherst and Wolfe had seen Montreal and Quebec. A number of the military became settlers. The suppression of the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1745 had led to the dispersion of many young men of family beyond the seas. Some of these drifted to Montreal. Many of the Scottish settlements of the United States had remained loyal, so that after the American Revolution parties of these loyalists came to Montreal. Thus in a way hard to explain satisfactorily, the English-speaking merchants who came to Canada were largely Scottish. In a Government report found in the Haldimand papers in 1784, it is stated that "The greater part of the inhabitants of Montreal (no doubt meaning English-speaking inhabitants) are Presbyterians of the Church of Scotland." It was these Scottish merchants of Montreal who revived the fur trade to the interior.

Washington Irving, speaking of these merchants, says, "Most of the clerks were young men of good families from the Highlands of Scotland, characterized by the perseverance, thrift, and fidelity of their country." He refers to their feasts "making the rafters resound with bursts of loyalty and old Scottish songs."

The late Archbishop Taché, a French Canadian long known in the North-West, speaking of this period says, "Companies called English, but generally composed of Scotchmen, were found in Canada to continue to make the most of the rich furs of the forests of the North. Necessity obliged them at first to accept the co-operation of the French Canadians, who maintained their influence by the share they took in the working of these companies. . . . This circumstance explains how, after the Scotch, the French Canadian element is the most important,"

The first among these Scottish merchants to hie away from Montreal to the far West was Alexander Henry, whose "Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories between the years 1760 and 1766" have the charm of narrative of an Irving or a Parkman. He knew nothing of the fur trade, but he took with him an experienced French Canadian, named Campion. He appeared at Michilimackinac two years after the conquest by Wolfe, and in the following year visited Sault Ste. Marie with its stockaded fort, and formed a friendship with trader Cadot. In the following year, Henry was a witness of the massacre at Michilimackinac, so graphically described by Parkman in his "Conspiracy of Pontiac." Henry's account of his own escape is a thrilling tale.

In 1765 Henry obtained from the Commandant at Michilimackinac licence of the exclusive trade of Lake Superior. He purchased the freight of four canoes, which he took at the price of 10,000 good, merchantable beavers. With his crew of twelve men, and supplies of fifty bushels of prepared Indian corn, he reached a band of Indians on the Lake who were in poverty, but who took his supplies on trust, and went off to hunt beaver. In due time the Indians returned, and paid up promptly and fully the loans made to them. By 1768 he had succeeded in opening up the desired route of French traders, going from Michilimackinac to Kaministiquia on Lake Superior and returning. His later journeys we may notice afterwards.

Of the other merchants who followed Henry in reviving the old route, the first to make a notable adventure was the Scotchman Thomas Curry. Procuring the requisite band of voya-geurs and interpreters, in 1766 he pushed through with four canoes, along Verendrye's route, even to the site of the old French Fort Bourbon, on the west of Cedar Lake, on the lower Saskatchewan River. Curry had in his movement something of the spirit of Verendrye, and his season's trip was so successful that, according to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, his fine furs gave so handsome a return that "he was satisfied never again to return to the Indian country."

Junction of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence

Another valorous Scotchman, James Finlay, of Montreal, took up the paddle that Curry had laid down, and in 1768, with a force equal to that of Curry, passed into the interior and ascended the Saskatchewan to Nipawi, the farthest point which Verendrye had reached. He was rewarded with a generous return for his venture.

But while these Journeys had been successful, it would seem that the turbulent state of the Indian tribes had made other expeditions disastrous. In a memorial sent by the fur traders a few years later to the Canadian Government, it is stated that in a venture made from Michilimackinac in 1765 the Indians of Rainy Lake had plundered the traders of their goods, that in the next year a similar revolt followed, that in the following year the traders were compelled to leave a certain portion of their goods at Rainy Lake to be allowed to go on to Lake Ouinipique. It is stated that the brothers, Benjamin and James Frobisher, of Montreal, who became so celebrated as fur traders, began a post ten years after the conquest. These two merchants were Englishmen. They speedily took the lead in pushing forward far into the interior, and were the most practical of the fur traders in making alliances and in dealing successfully with the Indians. In their first expedition they had the same experience in their goods being seized by the thievish Indians of Rainy Lake ; but before they could send back word the goods for the next venture had reached Grand Portage on Lake Superior, and they were compelled to try the route to the West again. On this occasion they managed to defy the pillaging bands, and reached Fort Bourbon on the Saskatchewan. They now discovered that co-operation and a considerable show of force was the only method of carrying on a safe trade among the various tribes. It was fortunate for the Montreal traders that such courageous leaders as the Frobishers had undertaken the trade.

The trade to the North-West thus received a marvellous development at the hands of the Montreal merchants. Nepigon and the Kaministiquia, which had been such important points in the French régime, had been quite forgotten, and Grand Portage was now the place of greatest interest, and so continued to the end of the century. It is with peculiar interest a visitor to-day makes his way to Grand Portage. The writer, after a difficult night voyage over the stormy waters of Lake Superior, rowed by the keeper of a neighbouring lighthouse, made a visit a few years ago to this spot. Grand Portage ends on a bay of Lake Superior. It is partially sheltered by a rocky island which has the appearance of a robber's keep, but has one inhabitant, the only white man of the region, a French Canadian of very fair means. On the bay is to-day an Indian village, chiefly celebrated for its multitude of dogs. A few traces of the former greatness of the place may be seen in the timbers down in the water of the former wharves, which were extensive. Few traces of forts are now, a century after their desertion by the fur traders, to be seen.

The portage, consisting of a road fairly made for the nine or ten miles necessary to avoid the falls on Pigeon River, can still be followed. No horse or ox is now to be found in the whole district, where at one time the traders used this means of lightening the burden of packing over the portage. The solitary road, as the traveller walks along it, with weeds and grasses grown up, brings to one a melancholy feeling. The bustle of voyageur and trader and Indian is no more; and the reflection made by Irving comes back, "The lords of the lakes and forests have passed away."

And yet Grand Portage was at the time of which we are writing a place of vast importance. Here there were employed as early as 1783, by the several merchants from Montreal, 500 men. One half of these came from Montreal to Grand Portage in canoes of four tons burden, each managed by from eight to ten men. As these were regarded as having the least romantic portion of the route, meeting with no Indians, and living on cured rations, they were called the "mangeurs de lard," or pork eaters. The other half of the force Journeyed inland from Grand Portage in canoes, each carrying about a ton and a half. Living on game and the dried meat of the buffalo, known as pemmican, these were a more independent and daring body. They were called the "coureurs de bois."

For fifteen days after August 15th these wood-runners portaged over the nine or ten miles their burdens. Men carrying 150 lbs. each way have been known to make the portage and return in six hours. When the canoes were loaded at the west end of the portage with two-thirds goods and one-third provisions, then the hurry of the season came, and supplies for Lake Winnipeg, the Saskatchewan, and far distant Athabasca were hastened on apace. The difficulties of the route were at many a décharge, where only the goods needed to be removed and the canoes taken over the rapids, or at the portage. where both canoes and load were carried past dangerous falls and fierce rapids. The dash, energy, and skill that characterized these mixed companies of Scottish traders, French voy-ageurs, half-breed and Indian engagés, have been well spoken of by all observers, and appeal strongly to the lovers of the picturesque and heroic.

A quarter of a century after the conquest we have a note of alarm at the new competition that the Company from Hudson Bay had at last under taken. In the Memorial before us it is stated that disturbance of trade is made by "New Adventurers." It is with a smile we read of the daring and strong-handed traders of Montreal saying, "Those adventurers (evidently H. B. Co.), consulting their own interests only, without the least regard to the management of the natives or the general welfare of the trade, soon occasioned such disorders, &c. . . . Since that time business is carried on with great disadvantages."

This reference, so prosaically introduced, is really one of enormous moment in our story. The Frobishers, with their keen business instincts and daring plans, saw that the real stroke which would lead them on to fortune was to divert the stream of trade then going to Hudson Bay southward to Lake Superior. Accordingly, with a further aggressive movement in view, Joseph Frobisher established a post on Sturgeon Lake, an enlargement of the Saskatchewan, near the point known by the early French as Poskoiac.

A glance at the map will show how well chosen Sturgeon Lake Fort was. Northward from it a watercourse could be readily followed, by which the main line of water communication from the great northern districts to Hudson Bay could be reached and the Northern Indians be interrupted in their annual pilgrimage to the Bay. But, as we shall afterward see, the sleeping giant of the Bay had been awakened and was about to stretch forth his arms to grasp the trade of the interior with a new vigour. Two years after Frobisher had thrown down the pledge of battle, it was taken up by the arrival of Samuel Hearne, an officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, and by his founding Fort Cumberland on Sturgeon Lake, about two miles below Frobisher's Fort. Hearne returned to the Bay, leaving his new fort garrisoned by a number of Orkney men under an English officer.

During the same year an explorer, on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, visited Red River, but no fort was built there for some time afterward. The building of Fort Cumberland led to a consolidation on the part of the Montreal merchants. In the next year after its building, Alexander Henry, the brothers Frobisher, trader Cadot, and a daring trader named Pond, gathered at Sturgeon Lake, and laid their plans for striking a blow in retaliation, as they regarded it, for the disturbance of trade made by the Hudson's Bay Company in penetrating to the interior from the Bay.

Cadot, with four canoes, went west to the Saskatchewan; Pond, with two, to the country on Lake Dauphin ; and Henry and the Frobisher brothers, with their ten canoes and upwards of forty men, hastened northward to carry out the project of turning anew the Northern Indians from their usual visit to the Bay. On the way to the Churchill River they built a fort on Beaver Lake. In the following year, a strong party went north to Churchill or English River, as Joseph Frobisher now called it. When it was reached they turned westward and ascended the Churchill, returning at Serpent's Rapid, but sending Thomas Frobisher with goods on to Lake Athabasca.

From the energy displayed, and the skill shown in seizing the main points in the country, it will be seen that the Montreal merchants were not lacking in ability to plan and decision to execute. The two great forces have now met, and for fifty years a battle royal will be fought for the rivers, rocks, and plains of the North Country. At present it is our duty to follow somewhat further the merchants of Montreal in their agencies in the North-West.

There can be no doubt that the competition between the two companies produced disorder and confusion among the Indian tribes. The Indian nature is excitable and suspicious. Rival traders for their own ends played upon the fears and cupidity alike of the simple children of the woods and prairies. They represented their opponents in both cases as unreliable and grasping, and party spirit unknown before showed itself in most violent forms. The feeling against the whites of both parties was aroused by injustices, in some cases fancied, in others real. The Assiniboines, really the northern branch of the fierce Sioux of the prairies, were first to seize the tomahawk. They attacked Poplar Fort on the Assiniboine. After some loss of life, Bruce and Boyer, who were in charge of the fort, decided to desert it. Numerous other attacks were made on the traders' forts, and it looked as if the prairies would be the scene of a general Indian war.

The only thing that seems to have prevented so dire a disaster was the appearance of what is ever a dreadful enemy to the poor Indian, the scourge of smallpox. The Assiniboines had gone on a war expedition against the Mandans of the Missouri River, and had carried back the smallpox infection which prevailed among the Mandan lodges. This disease spread over the whole country, and several bands of Indians were completely blotted out. Of one tribe of four hundred lodges, only ten persons remained; the poor survivors, in seeking succour from other bands, carried the disease with them. At the end of 1782 there were only twelve traders who had persevered in their trade on account of the discourage-ments, but the whole trade was for two or three seasons brought to an end by this disease.

The decimation of the tribes, the fear of infection by the traders, and the general awe cast over the country turned the thoughts of the natives away from war, and as Masson says, "the whites had thus escaped the danger which threatened them."

Two or three years after the scourge, the merchants of Montreal revived the trade, and, as we shall see, made a combination which, in the thoroughness of its discipline, the energy of its operations, the courage of its promoters, and the scope of its trade, has perhaps never been equalled in the history of trading companies.

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