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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

New route to Kaministiquia—Vivid sketch of Fort William—"Can-tine Salope"—Lively Christmas week—The feasting partners— Ex-Governor Masson's good work—Four great Mackenzies—A literary bourgeois—Three handsome demoiselles—"The man in the moon"—Story of "Bras Croche"—Around Cape Horn—Astoria taken over—A hot-headed trader—Sad case of "Little Labrie" —Punch on New Year's Day—The heart of a "Vacher."

The union of the opposing companies from Montreal led to a great development of trade, and, as we have already seen, to important schemes of exploration.

Roderick McKenzie, the cousin of Sir Alexander, in coming down from Rainy Lake to Grand Portage, heard of a new route to Kaministiquia. We have already seen that Umfreville had found out a circuitous passage from Nepigon to Winnipeg River, but this had been considered impracticable by the fur-traders.

Accordingly, when the treaty of amity and commerce made it certain that Grand Portage had to be given up, it was regarded as a great matter when the route to Kaministiquia became known. This was discovered by Mr. Roderick McKenzie quite by accident. When coming, in 1797, to Canada on leave of absence, this trader was told by an Indian family near Rainy Lake that a little farther north there was a good route for large canoes, which was formerly used by the whites in their trading expeditions. Taking an Indian with him, McKenzie followed this course, which brought him out at the mouth of the Kaministiquia. This proved to be the old French route, for all along it traces were found of their former establishments. Strange that a route at one time so well known should be completely forgotten in forty years.

In the year 1800 the North-West Company built a fort, called the New Fort, at the mouth of the Kaministiquia, and, abandoning Grand Portage, moved their headquarters to this point in 1803. In the year after the union of the North-West and X Y Companies the name Fort William was given to this establishment, in honour of the Hon. William McGillivray, who had become the person of greatest distinction in the united North-West Company.

As giving us a glimpse of the life of "the lords of the lakes and forests," which was led at Fort William, we have a good sketch written by a trader, Gabriel Franchere, who was a French Canadian of respectable family and began life in a business place in Montreal. At this stage, says a local writer, "the fur trade was at its apogee," and Franchere was engaged by the Astor Company and went to Astoria. Returning over the mountains, he passed Fort William. His book, written in French, has been translated into English, and is creditable to the writer, who died as late as 1856 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Franchere says of Fort William, rather inaccurately, that it was built in 1805. This lively writer was much impressed by the trade carried on at this point, and gives the following vivid description :—

"Fort William has really the appearance of a fort from the palisade fifteen feet high, and also that of a pretty village from the number of buildings it encloses. In the middle of a spacious square stands a large building, elegantly built, though of wood, the middle door of which is raised five feet above the ground plot, and in the front of which runs a long gallery. In the centre of this building is a room about sixty feet long and thirty wide, decorated with several paintings, and some portraits in crayon of a number of the partners of the Company. It is in this room that the agents, the clerks, and the interpreters take their meals at different tables. At each extremity of the room are two small apartments for the partners."

"The back part of the house is occupied by the kitchen and sleeping apartments of the domestics. On each side of this building there is another of the same size, but lower; these are divided lengthwise by a corridor, and contain each twelve pretty sleeping-rooms. One of these houses is intended for the partners, the other for the clerks.

"On the east side of the Fort there is another house intended for the same purpose, and a large building in which furs are examined and where they are put up in tight bales by means of a press. Behind, and still on the same side, are found the lodges of the guides, another building for furs, and a powder magazine. This last building is of grey stone, and roofed in with tin. In the corner stands a kind of bastion or point of observation.

"On the west side is seen a range of buildings, some of which serve for stores and others for shops. There is one for dressing out the employes; one for fitting out canoes; one in which merchandise is retailed; another where strong drink, bread, lard, butter, and cheese are sold, and where refreshments are given out to arriving voyageurs. This refreshment consists of a white loaf, a half pound of butter, and a quart of rum. The voyageurs give to this liquor store the name 'Cantine Salope,'

"Behind is found still another row of buildings, one of which is used as an office or counting-house, a pretty square building well lighted; another serves as a store; and a third as a prison. The voyageurs give to the last the name 'Pot au beurre.' At the south-east corner is a stone shed roofed with tin. Farther back are the workshops of the carpenters, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, and their spacious courts or sheds for sheltering the canoes, repairing them, and constructing new ones.

"Near the gate of the Fort, which is to the south, are the dwelling-houses of the surgeon and resident clerk. Over the entrance gate a kind of guard-house has been built. As the river is deep enough at its entrance, the Company has had quays built along the Fort as a landing-place for the schooners kept on Lake Superior for transporting peltries, merchandise, and provisions from Fort William to Sault Ste. Marie, and vice versa.

"There are also on the other side of the river a number of houses, all inhabited by old French-Canadian voyageurs, worn out in the service of the North-West Company, without having become richer by it. Fort William is the principal factory of the North-West Company in the interior and a general rendezvous of the partners. The agents of Montreal and the proprietors wintering in the north nearly all assemble here every summer and receive the returns, form expeditions, and discuss the interests of their commerce.

"The employes wintering in the north spend also a portion of the summer at Fort William. They form a great encampment to the west, outside the palisades. Those who are only engaged at Montreal to go to Fort William or to Rainy Lake, and who do not winter in the North, occupy another space on the east side. The former give to the latter the name 'mangeurs de lard.' A remarkable difference is observed between the two camps, which are composed of three or four hundred men each. That of the 'mangeurs de lard' is always very dirty and that of the winterers neat and clean."

But the fur-traders were by no means merely business men. Perhaps never were there assemblages of men who feasted more heartily when the work was done. The Christmas week was a holiday, and sometimes the jollity went to a considerable excess, which was entirely to be expected when the hard life of the voyage was taken into consideration. Whether at Fort William, or in the North-West Company's house in St. Gabriel Street, Montreal, or in later day at Lachine, the festive gatherings of the Nor'-Westers were characterized by extravagance and often by hilarious mirth. The luxuries of the East and West were gathered for these occasions, and offerings to Bacchus were neither of poor quality nor limited in extent. With Scotch story and Jacobite song, intermingled with "La Claire Fontaine" or "Malbrouck s'en va," those lively songs of French Canada, the hours of evening and night passed merrily away.

At times when they had been feasting long into the morning, the traders and clerks would sit down upon the feast-room floor, when one would take the tongs, another the shovel, another the poker, and so on. They would arrange themselves in regular order, as in a boat, and, vigorously rowing, sing a song of the voyage; and loud and long till the early streaks of the east were seen would the rout continue. When the merriment reached such a height as this, ceremony was relaxed, and voyageurs, servants, and attendants wore admitted to witness the wild carouse of the wine-heated partners.

We are fortunate in having the daily life of the fur-traders from the Lower St. Lawrence to the very shores of the Pacific Ocean pictured for us by the partners in the "Journals" they have left behind them. Just as the daily records of the monks and others, dreary and uninteresting as many of them at times are, commemorated the events of their time in the "Saxon Chronicle" and gave the material for history, so the journals of the bourgeois, often left unpublished for a generation or two, and the works of some of those who had influence and literary ability enough to issue their stories in the form of books, supply us with the material for reproducing their times. From such sources we intend to give a few sketches of the life of that time.

We desire to express the greatest appreciation of the work of ex-Governor Masson, who is related to the McKenzie and Chaboillez families of that period, and who has published no less than fourteen journals, sketches of the time; of the painstaking writing of an American officer, Dr. Coues, who has with great care and success edited the journals of Alexander Henry, Jr., and such remains as he could obtain of David Thompson, thus supplementing the publication by Charles Lindsey, of Toronto, of an account of Thompson. We acknowledge also the patient collection of material by Tassé in his "Canadiens de L'Ouest," as well as the interesting journals of Harmon and others, which have done us good service.


The name of McKenzie (Hon. Roderick McKenzie) was one to conjure by among the fur-traders. From the fact that there were so many well-known partners and clerks of this name arose the custom, very common in the Highland communities, of giving nicknames to distinguish them. Four of the McKenzies were "Le Rouge," "Le Blanc," "Le Borgne" (one-eyed), and "Le Picoté" (pock-marked). Sir Alexander was the most notable, and after him his cousin, the Hon. Roderick, of whom we write.

This distinguished man came out as a Highland laddie from Scotland in 1784. He at once entered the service of the fur company, and made his first journey to the North-West in the next year. His voyage from Ste. Anne, on Montreal Island, up the fur-traders' route, was taken in Gregory McLeod & Co.'s service. At Grand Portage McKenzie was initiated into the mysteries of the partners. Pushed into the North-West, he soon became prominent, and built the most notable post of the upper country, Fort Chipewyan.

On his marriage he became allied to a number of the magnates of the fur company. His wife belonged to the popular family of Chaboillez, two other daughters of which were married, one to the well-known Surveyor-General of Lower Canada, Joseph Bouchette, and another to Simon McTavish, "Le Marquis."

Roderick McKenzie was a man of some literary ability and taste. He purposed at one time writing a history of the Indians of the North-West and also of the North-West Company. In order to do this, he sent circulars to leading traders, and thus receiving a number of journals, laid the foundation of the literary store from which ex-Governor Masson prepared his book on the bourgeois.

Between him and his cousin, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, an extensive correspondence was kept up. Extracts from the letters of the distinguished partner form the burden of the "Reminiscences" published by Masson. Many of the facts have been referred to in our sketch of Sir Alexander Mackenzie's voyages.

For eight long years Roderick McKenzie remained in the Indian country, and came to Canada in 1797. Some two years afterward Sir Alexander Mackenzie left the old Company and headed the X Y Company. At that time Roderick McKenzie was chosen in the place of his cousin in the North-West Company, and this for several years caused a coolness between them.

His "Reminiscences" extend to 1829, at which time he was living in Terrebonne, in Lower Canada. He became a member of the Legislative Council in Lower Canada, and he has a number of distinguished descendants. Roderick McKenzie closes his interesting "Reminiscences" with an elaborate and valuable list of the proprietors, clerks, interpreters, &c, of the North-West Company in 1799, giving their distribution in the departments, and the salary paid each. It gives us a picture of the magnitude of the operations of the North-West Company.


Few of the Nor'-Westers aimed at collecting and preserving the folk-lore of the natives. At the request of Roderick McKenzie, George Keith, a bourgeois who spent a great part of his life very far North, viz. in the regions of Athabasca, Mackenzie River, and Great Bear Lake, sent a series of letters extending from 1807 onward for ten years embodying tales, descriptions, and the history of the Indian tribes of his district. His first description is that of the Beaver Indians, of whom he gives a vocabulary. He writes for us a number of tales of the Beaver Indians, viz. "The Indian Hercules," "Two Lost Women." "The Flood, a Tale of the Mackenzie River," and "The Man in the Moon." One letter gives a good account of the social manners and customs of the Beaver Indians, and another a somewhat complete description of the Rocky Mountains and Mackenzie River country. Descriptions of the Filthy Lake and Grand River Indians and the Long Arrowed Indians, with a few more letters with reference to the fur trade, make up the interesting collection. George Keith may be said to have wielded the "pen of a ready writer." We give his story of

A Tale, or Tradition, of the Beaver Indians.

"In the primitive ages of the world, there was a man and his wife who had no children. The former was very singular in his manner of living. Being an excellent hunter, he lived entirely upon the blood of the animals he killed. This circumstance displeased his wife, who secretly determined to play him a trick. Accordingly one day the husband went out hunting, and left orders with his wife to boil some blood in a kettle, so as to be ready for supper on his return. When the time of his expected return was drawing nigh, his wife pierced a vein with an awl in her left arm and drew a copious quantity of blood, which she mixed with a greater quantity of the blood of a moose deer, that he should not discover it, and prepared the whole for her husband's supper.

"Upon his return the blood was served up to him on a bark dish; but, upon putting a spoonful to his mouth, he detected the malice of his wife, and only saying that the blood did not smell good, threw the kettle with the contents about her ears.

"Night coming on, the man went to bed and told his wife to observe the moon about midnight. After the first nap, the woman, awaking, was surprised to find that her husband was absent. She arose and made a fire, and, lifting up her eyes to the moon, was astonished to see her husband, with his dog and kettle, in the body of the moon, from which he has never descended. She bitterly lamented her misfortunes during the rest of her days, always attributing them to her malicious invention of preparing her own blood for her husband's supper."


Among all the Nor'-Westers there was no one who had more of the Scottish pride of family than John McDonald, of Garth, claiming as he did to be descended from the lord of the isles. His father obtained him a commission in the British army, but he could not pass the examination on account of a blemish caused by an accident to his arm. The sobriquet, "Bras Croche" clung to him all his life as a fur trader.

Commended to Simon McTavish, the young man became his favourite, and in 1791 started for the fur country. He was placed under the experienced trader, Angus Shaw, and passed his first winter in the far-off Beaver River, north of the Saskatchewan. Next winter he visited the Grand Portage, and he tells us that for a couple of weeks he was feasting on the best of everything and the best of fish. Returning to the Saskatchewan, he took part in the building of Fort George on that river, whence, after wintering, the usual summer journey was made to Grand Portage. Here, he tells us, they "met the gentlemen from Montreal in goodfollowship." This life continued till 1795.

He shows us the state of feeling between the Companies. "It may not be out of the way to mention that on New Year's Day, during the customary firing of musketry, one of our opponent's bullies purposely fired his powder through my window. I, of course, got enraged, and challenged him to single combat with our guns ; this was a check upon him ever after."

Remaining in the same district, by the year 1800 he had, backed as he was by powerful influence, his sister being married to Hon. William MacGillivray, become a partner in the Company. Two years afterward he speaks of old Cuthbert Grant coming to the district, but in the spring, this officer being sick, McDonald fitted up a comfortable boat with an awning, in which Grant went to the Kaministiquia, where he died.

In 1802, McDonald returned from Fort William and determined to build another fort farther up the river to meet a new tribe, the Kootenays. This was "Rocky Mountain House." Visiting Scotland in the year after, he returned to be dispatched in 1804 to English River, where he was in competition with a Hudson's Bay Company trader. In the next year he went back to the Saskatchewan, saying that, although a very dangerous department, he preferred it. Going up the south branch of the Saskatchewan, he erected the "New Chesterfield House" at the mouth of the Red Deer River, and there met again a detachment of Hudson's Bay Company people.

In 1806 he, being unwell, spent the year chiefly in Montreal, after which he was appointed to the less exacting field of Red River. One interesting note is given us as to the Red River forts. He says, "I established a fort at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and called it 'Gibraltar,' though there was not a rock or a stone within three miles." As we shall see afterwards, the building of this fort, which was on the site of the city of Winnipeg, had taken place in the year preceding.

With his customary energy in erecting forts, he built one a distance up the Qu'Appelle River, probably Fort Esperance. While down at Fort William in the spring, the news came to him that David Thompson was surrounded in the Rocky Mountains by Blackfoot war parties. McDonald volunteered to go to the rescue, and with thirty chosen men, after many dangers and hardships, reached Thompson in the land of the Kootenays.

McDonald was one of the traders selected to go to Britain and thence by the ship Isaac Todd to the mouth of the Columbia to meet the Astor Fur Company. He started in company with Hon. Edward Ellice. At Rio Janeiro McDonald shipped from the Isaac Todd on board the frigate Phoebe. On the west coast of South America they called at "Juan Fernandez, Robinson Crusoe's Island." They reached the Columbia on November 30th, 1813, and in company with trader McDougall took over Astoria in King George's name, McDonald becoming senior partner at Astoria.

In April, 1814, McDonald left for home across the mountains, by way of the Saskatchewan, and in due time arrived at Fort William. He came to Sault Ste. Marie to find the fort built by the Americans, and reached Montreal amid some dangers. The last adventure mentioned in his journal was that of meeting in Terrebonne Lord Selkirk's party who were going to the North-West to oppose the Nor'-Westers.

The veteran spent his last days in the County of Glengarry, Ontario, and died in 1860, between eighty-nine and ninety years of age. His career had been a most romantic one, and he was noted for his high spirit and courage, as well as for his ceaseless energy as a trader.


James McKenzie, brother of Hon. Roderick McKenzie, was a graphic, though somewhat irritable writer with a good style. He has left us "A Journal from the Athabasca Country," a description of the King's posts on the Lower St. Lawrence, with a journal of a jaunt through the King's posts. This fur trader joined the North-West Company.

In 1799 he was at Fort Chipewyan. His descriptions are minute accounts of his doings at his fort. He seems to have taken much interest in his men, and he gives a pathetic account of one of these trappers called "Little Labrie." Labrie had been for six days without food, and was almost frozen to death. He says: "Little Labrie's feet are still soaking in cold water, but retain their hardness. We watched him all last night; he fainted often in the course of the night, but we always brought him to life again by the help of mulled wine. Once in particular, when he found himself very weak and sick, and thought he was dying he said, 'Adieu; je m'en vais; tout mon bien a ceux qui ont soin de moi.' 10th, about twelve o'clock, Labrie was freed from all his agonies in this world." McKenzie evidently had a kind heart.

The candid writer gives us a picture of New Year's Day, January 1st, 1890. "This morning before daybreak, the men, according to custom, fired two broadsides in honour of the New Year, and then came in to be rewarded with rum, as usual. Some of them could hardly stand alone before they went away ; such was the effect of the juice of the grape on their brains. After dinner, at which everyone helped themselves so plentifully that nothing remained to the dogs, they had a bowl of punch. The expenses of this day, with fourteen men and women, are: 61½ fathoms Spencer twist (tobacco), 7 flagons rum, 1 ditto wine, 1 ham, a skin's worth of dried meat, about 40 white fish, flour, sugar, &c."

McKenzie had many altercations in his trade, and seems to have been of a violent temper. He found fault with one of the X Y people, named Perroue, saying it was a shame for him to call those who came from Scotland "vachers" (cowboys). He said he did not call all, but a few of them "vachers." "I desired him to name one in the North, and told him that the one who served him as a clerk was a 'vacher,' and had the heart of a 'vacher' since he remained with him."

McKenzie has frequent accounts of drunken brawls, from which it is easy to be seen that this period of the opposition of the two Montreal Companies was one of the most dissolute in the history of the fur traders. The fur trader's violent temper often broke out against employes and Indians alike. He had an ungovernable dislike to the Indians, regarding them simply as the off-scourings of all things, and for the voyageurs and workmen of his own Company the denunciations are so strong that his violent language was regarded as "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

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