Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

A disputed boundary—Sources of the Mississippi—The fur traders push southward—Expedition up the Missouri—Lewis and Clarke meet Nor'-Westers—Claim of United States made—Sad death of Lewis—Lieutenant Pike's journey—Pike meets fur traders— Cautions Dakotas—Treaty with Chippewas—Violent death— Long and Keating fix 49 deg. N.—Visit Fort Garry—Follow old fur traders' route—An erratic Italian—Strange adventures— Almost finds source—Beltrami County—Cass and Schoolcraft fail—Schoolcraft afterwards succeeds—Lake Itasca—Curious origin of name—The source determined.

The Treaty of Paris was an example of magnanimity on the part of Great Britain to the United States, her wayward Transatlantic child, who refused to recognize her authority. It is now clearly shown that Lord Shelbourne, the English Premier, desired to promote good feeling between mother and daughter as nations. Accordingly the boundary line west of Lake Superior gave over a wide region where British traders had numerous establishments, and where their occupation should have counted for possession.

In the treaty of amity and commerce, eleven years afterward, it was agreed that a line drawn from Lake of the Woods overland to the source of Mississippi should be the boundary. But, alas ! the sources of the Mississippi for fifty years afterward proved as difficult a problem as the source of the Nile. In the first decade of this century it was impossible to draw the southern line of Rupert's Land. The United States during this period evinced some anxiety in regard to this boundary, and, as wo shall see, a number of expeditions were despatched to explore the country. The sources of the Mississippi naturally afforded much interest to the Government at Washington, even though the convention of London of 1818 had settled the 49 deg. N. as the boundary.

The region west of the Mississippi, which was known as Louisiana, extended northward to the British possessions, having been transferred by Spain to the United States in 1803. A number of expeditions to the marches or boundary land claim a short notice from us, as being bound up with the history and interests of the Hudson's Bay Company.


Of these, a notable and interesting voyage was that of Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke, of the United States army. This expedition consisted of nearly fifty men— soldiers, volunteers, adventurers, and servants. Being a Government expedition, it was well provided with stores, Indian presents, weapons, and other necessary articles of travel. Leaving Wood River, near St. Louis, the party started up the Missouri in three boats, and were accompanied by two horses along the bank of the River to bring them game or to hunt in case of scarcity. After many adventures the expedition, which began its journey on May 14th, 1804, reached the headquarters of the Mandan Indians on the Missouri on October 26th.

The Mandans, or, as they have been called, the White Bearded Sioux, were at this time a large and most interesting people. Less copper-coloured than the other Indians, agricultural in habit, pottery makers, and dwelling in houses partly sunk in the earth, their trade was sought from different directions. We have seen already that Verendrye first reached them; that David Thompson, the astronomer of the North-West Company, visited them; that Harmon and others, North-West traders, met them; that fur traders from the Assiniboine came to them; that even the Hudson's Bay Company had penetrated to their borders. The Mandans themselves journeyed north to the Assiniboine and carried Indian corn, which they grew, to Rupert's Land to exchange for merchandise. The Mandan trail can still be pointed out in Manitoba.

A fur trader, Hugh McCracken, met Lewis and Clarke at this point, and we read, "That he set out on November 1st on his return to the British fort and factory on the Assiniboine River, about one hundred and fifty miles from this place. He took a letter from Captain Lewis to the North-West Company, enclosing a copy of the passport granted by the British Minister in the United States."

This shows the uncertainty as to the boundary line, the leaders of the expedition having provided themselves with this permission in case of need.

In dealing with the Mandans, Captain Lewis gave them presents, and "told them that they had heard of the British trader, Mr. Laroche, having attempted to distribute medals and flags among them; but that these emblems could not be received from any other than the American nation, without incurring the displeasure of their Great Father, 'the President.' On December 1st the party was visited by a trader, Henderson, who came from the Hudson's Bay Company. He had been about eight days on his route in a direction nearly south, and brought with him tobacco, beads, and other merchandise to trade for furs, and a few guns which were to be exchanged for horses. On December 17th Hugh Harvey and two companions arrived at the camp, having come in six days from the British establishment on the Assiniboine, with a letter from Mr. Charles Chaboillez, one of the North-West Company, who, with much politeness, offered to render us any service in his power."

With the expedition of Lewis and Clarke we have little more to do. It successfully crossed from the sources of the Missouri, over the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia, descended it to the mouth, and returned by nearly the same route, reaching the mouth of the Missouri in 1806.

The expedition of Lewis and Clarke has become the most celebrated of the American transcontinental ventures. Its early presence at the mouth of the Columbia River gave strength to the claim of the United States for that region; it was virtually a taking possession of the whole country from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean; it had a picturesqueness and an interest that appealed to the national mind, and the melancholy death of Captain Lewis, who, in 1809, when the American Government refused to fulfil its engagements with him, blew out his brains, lends an impressiveness to what was really a great and successful undertaking.


The source or sources of the Mississippi was, as we have seen, an important matter in settling the boundary line between the possessions of Great Britain and the United States. The matter having occupied the authorities at Washington, Zebulon M. Pike, a lieutenant of the United States army, was sent to examine the country upon the Upper Mississippi and to maintain the interests of the Government in that quarter. Leaving St. Louis on August 9th, 1805, he ascended the "Father of Waters," and reached Prairie du Chien in September. Here he was met by the well-known free-traders who carried on the fur trade in this region. Their names were Fisher, Frazer and Woods. These men were in the habit of working largely in harmony with the North-West Company traders, and, on account of their British origin, were objects of suspicion to the United States authorities. Pushing on among the Indians, by the help of French Canadian interpreters, he came to Lake Pepin. On the shores of this lake Pike met Murdoch Cameron, the principal British free-trader on the upper Minnesota River. Cameron was a shrewd and daring Scotchman, noted for his generosity and faithfulness. He was received with distinction by Pike, and the trader as shown by his grave, pointed out many years afterward on the banks of the Minnesota, was in every way worthy of the attention. Shortly after this, Pike passed near where the city of St. Paul, Minn., stands to-day, the encampment of J. B. Faribault, a French Canadian free-trader of note, whose name is now borne by an important town south of St. Paul. Pike held a council with the Dakota Indians, and purchased from them a considerable amount of land for military purposes, for which the Senate paid them the sum of two thousand dollars. Pike seems to have cautioned the Dakotas or Sioux to beware of the influence of the English, saying, "I think the traders who come from Canada are bad birds among the Chippeway8, and instigate them to make war upon their red brothers, the Sioux."

About the end of October, unable to proceed further up the Mississippi on account of ice, Pike built a blockhouse, which he enclosed with pickets, and there spent the most severe part of the winter.

At his post early in December he was visited by Robert Dickson, a British fur trader, described by Neill as "a red-haired Scotchman, of strong intellect, good family, and ardent attachment to the crown of England, who was at the head of the Indian trade in Minnesota." Pike himself speaks of Dickson as a "gentleman of general commercial knowledge and of open, frank manners." Explanations took place between the Government agent and the trader as to the excessive use of spirits by the Indians.

On December 10th Pike started on a journey northward in sleds, taking a canoe with him for use so soon as the river should open. When Pike arrived near Red Cedar Lake, he was met by four Chippewa Indians, a Frenchman, and one of the North-West traders, named Grant. Going with Grant to his establishment on the shores of the lake, Pike tells us, "When we came in sight of the house I observed the flag of Great Britain flying. I felt indignant, and cannot say what my feelings would have excited me to had Grant not told mo that it belonged to the Indians."

On February 1st Pike reached Leech Lake, which he considered to be the main source of the Mississippi. He crossed the lake twelve miles to the establishment of the North-West Company, which was in charge of a well-known North-West trader, Hugh McGillies. While he was treated with civility, it is plain from his cautions to McGillies and his bearing to him, that he was Jealous of the influence which British traders were then exercising in Minnesota.

Having made a treaty with the Chippewa Indians of Rod Lake, Pike's work was largely accomplished, and in April he departed from this region, whore ho had shown great energy and tact, to give in his report after a voyage of some nine months.

A most melancholy interest attaches to this gentlemanly and much-respected officer of the United States. In the war of 1812-15, Pike, then made a general, was killed at the taking of York (Toronto), in Upper Canada, by the explosion of the magazine of the fort evacuated by General Sheaffe. Pike, as leader on this Mississippi expedition, as commanding an expedition on the Rio Grande, where he was captured by the Spaniards, and as a brave soldier, has handed down an honourable name and fame.


The successful journey of Lewis and Clarke, as well as the somewhat useful expedition of Lieutenant Pike, led the United States Government to send in 1823 an expedition to the northern boundary line 49 deg. N., which had been settled a few years before. In charge of this was Major Stephen H. Long. He was accompanied by a scientific corps consisting of Thomas Say, zoologist and antiquary; Samuel Seymour, landscape painter and designer; and William H. Keating, mineralogist and geologist, who also acted as historian of the expedition.

Leaving Philadelphia in April, the company passed overland to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi, ascended this river, and going up its branch, the Minnesota, reached the town of Mendota in the month of July. A well-known French half-breed, Joseph Renville, acted as guide, and several others joined the party at this point. After journeying up the Minnesota River, partly by canoe, and partly by the use of horses, they reached in thirteen days Big Stone Lake, which is considered to be the source of the river. Following up the bed of a dried-up stream for three miles, they found Lake Traverse, the source of the Red River, and reached Pembina Village, a collection of fifty or sixty log huts inhabited by half-breeds, numbering about three hundred and fifty. We have already seen how the North-West and Hudson's Bay Companies had posts at this place, and that it had been visited regularly by the Selkirk settlers as being in proximity to the open plains where buffalo could be obtained. On the day after Long's arrival he saw the return of the buffalo hunters from the chase. The procession consisted of one hundred and fifteen carts, each loaded with about eight hundred pounds of the pressed buffalo meat. There were three hundred persons, including the women. The number of horses was about two hundred. Twenty hunters, mounted on their best steeds, rode abreast, giving a salute as they passed the encampment of the expedition.

One of Major Long's objects in making his journey was to ascertain the point where the parallel of 49 deg. N. crossed the Red River. For four days observations were taken and a flagstaff planted a short distance south of the 49th parallel. The space to the boundary line was measured off, and an oak post fixed on it, having on the north side the letters G. B., and on the south side U. S. This post was kept up and was seen by the writer in 1871. In 1872, a joint expedition of British and American engineers took observations and found Long's point virtually correct. They surveyed the line of 49 deg. eastward to Lake of the Woods and westward to the Rocky Mountains. Posts were erected at short distances along the boundary line, many of them of iron, with the words on them, "Convention of London, 1818."

His work at Pembina having been accomplished, Major Long gave up, on account of the low country to be passed, the thought of following the boundary line eastward to the Lake of the Woods. He sold his horses and took canoes down the river to the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Garry, where he was much interested in the northern civilization as well as in the settlers who had Fort Douglas as their centre.

It was August 17th when Long's expedition left Fort Douglas and went down the Red River. It took but two days to reach the mouth of the river and cross Lake Winnipeg to Fort Alexander at the mouth of the Winnipeg River. Six days more brought the swift canoe-men up the river to Lake of the Woods. At the falls of Rainy River was the Hudson's Bay Company establishment, then under the charge of fur trader McGillivray. On the opposite side of the river was the fort of the American Fur Company. Following the old route, they reached Grand Portage, September 12th, and thence the expedition returned to the East. Major Long's expedition was a well-conducted and successful enterprise. Its members were of the highest respectability, and the two volumes written by Secretary Keating have the charm of real adventure about them.


When Major Long was leaving Fort Snelling, on the Mississippi, to go upon the expedition we have just described, an erratic but energetic and clever Italian, named J. C. Beltrami, asked to be allowed to accompany him. This aspiring but wayward man has left us a book, consisting of letters addressed to Madame la Comtesse Compagoni, a lady of rank in Florence, which is very interesting. On starting he wrote, "My first intention, that of going in search of the real source of the Mississippi, was always before my eyes."

Beltrami, while clever, seems to have been a man of insufferable conceit. On the journey to Big Stone Lake and thence along the river, in the buffalo hunts, in conferences with the Sioux, the Italian adventurer awakened the resentment of the commander of the expedition, who refused to allow him to accompany his party further. This proved rather favourable to the purpose of Beltrami, who, with a half-breed guide and Chippewa Indians, started to go eastward, having a mule and a dog train as means of transport. After a few days' journey the guide left him, returning with the mule and dog train to Pembina. Next his Indian guide deserted him, fearing the Sioux, and Beltrami was left to make his way in a canoe up the river to Red Lake. Inexperienced in the management of a birch bark canoe, Beltrami was upset, but he at length proceeded along the bank and shallows of the river, dragging the canoe with a tow line after him, and arrived in miserable plight at Red Lake.

Here he engaged a guide and interpreter, and writes that he went "where no white man had previously travelled." He was now on the highway to renown. He was taken from point to point on the many lakes of Northern Minnesota, and affixed names to them. On August 20th, 1823, he went over several portages, led by his guide to Turtle Lake, which was to him a source of wonder, as he saw it from the flow of waters south to the Gulf of Mexico, north to the Frozen Sea, east to the Atlantic, and west toward the Pacific Ocean. His own words are: "A vast platform crosses this distinguished supreme elevation, and, what is more astonishing, in the midst of it rises a lake. How is this lake formed ? Whence do its waters proceed? This lake has no issue! And my eyes, which are not deficient in sharpness, cannot discover in the whole extent of the clearest and widest horizon any land which rises above it. All places around it are, on the contrary, considerably lower."

Beltrami then went to examine the surrounding country, and found the lake, to which he gave the name of Lake Julia, to be bottomless. This lake he pronounces to be the source of the Mississippi River. This opinion was published abroad and accepted by some, but later explorations proved him to be wrong. A small lake to the south-west, afterwards found to be the true source, was described to him by his guide as Lac La Biche, and he placed this on his chart as "Doe Lake," the west source of the Mississippi. It is a curious fact that Lake Julia was the same lake surveyed twenty-five years before by astronomer Thompson.

After further explorations, Beltrami returned to Fort Snelling, near St. Paul, Minn., being clothed in Indian garments, with a piece of bark for a hat.

The intrepid explorer found his way to New Orleans, where he published "La Découverté des Sources du Mississippi." Though the work was criticized with some severity, yet Beltrami, on his arrival at London in 1827, published "A Pilgrimage in Europe and America " in two volumes, which are the source of our information. The county in Minnesota, which includes both Julia and Doe Lakes, is appropriately called Beltrami County.


Lewis Cass, of New Hampshire was appointed Governor of Michigan in 1813. Six years after this he addressed the Secretary of War in Washington, proposing an expedition to and through Lake Superior, and to the sources of the Mississippi. It was planned for an examination of the principal features of the North-West tributary to Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. This was sanctioned in 1820, and the expedition embarked in May of that year at Detroit, Michigan, Henry Schoolcraft being mineralogist, and Captain D. B. Douglas topographer and astronomer.

The expedition, after much contrary weather, reached Sault Ste. Marie, and the Governor, after much difficulty, here negotiated a treaty with the Indians. Going by way of the Fond du Lac, the party entered the St. Louis River, and made a tiresome portage to Sandy Lake station. This fur-trading post the party left in July, and ascended the Upper Mississippi to the Upper Cedar Lake, the name of which was changed to Lake Cassina, and afterwards Cass Lake. From the Indians Governor Cass learned that Lac La Biche—some fifty miles further on—was the true source of the river, but he was deterred by their accounts of the lowness of the water and the fierceness of the current from attempting the journey any further- The expedition ingloriously retired from the project, going down to St. Anthony Falls, ascending the Wisconsin River, and thence down Fox River. The Governor himself in September arrived in Detroit, having crossed the Southern Peninsula of Michigan on horseback.

Hon. J. W. Brown says: "When Governor Cass abandoned his purpose to ascend the Mississippi to its source, he was within an easy distance, comparatively speaking, of the goal sought for. Less timidity had often been displayed in canoe voyages, even in the face of low water, and an O-z-a-win-dib or a Keg-wed-zis-sag, Indian guides, would have easily won the battle of the day for Governor Cass."


Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, of good family, was born in New York State, and was educated in that State and in Vermont. His first expedition was in company with De Witt Clinton in a journey to Missouri and Arkansas. On his return he published two treatises which gave him some reputation as an explorer and scientist. We have already spoken of the part taken by him in the expedition of Governor Cass. He received after this the appointment of "Superintendent of Indian Affairs" at Sault Ste. Marie, and to this we are indebted for the treasury of Indian lore published in four large quarto volumes, from which Longfellow obtained his tale of "Hiawatha," In 1830 Schoolcraft received orders from Washington, ostensibly for conference with the Indians, but in reality to determine the source of the Mississippi. The Rev. W. T. Boutwell, representing a Board of Missions, accompanied the expedition.

Lac La Biche was already known to exist, and to this Schoolcraft pointed his expedition. On their journey outward Schoolcraft suddenly one day asked Boutwell the Greek and Latin names for the headwaters or true source of a river. Mr. Boutwell could not recall the Greek, but gave the two Latin words—veritas (truth) and caput (head). These were written on a slip of paper, and Mr. Schoolcraft struck out the first and last three letters, and announced to Boutwell that "Itasca shall be the name." It is true that Schoolcraft wrote a stanza in which he says, "By fair Itasca shed," seemingly referring to an Indian maiden. Boutwell, however, always maintained his story of the name, and this is supported by the fact that the word was never heard in the 0jibeway mythology.

The party followed the same route as that taken by Governor Cass on his journey, reaching Cass Lake on July 10th, 1832. Taking the advice of Ozawinder, a Chippewa Indian, they followed up their journey in birch bark canoes, went up the smaller fork of the Mississippi, and then by portage reached the eastern extremity of La Biche or Itasca Lake.

The party landed on the island in the lake which has since been known as Schoolcraft Island, and here raised their flag. After exploring the shores of the lake, he returned to Cass Lake, and, full of pride of his discovery, journeyed home to Sault Ste. Marie. On the map drawn to illustrate Schoolcraft's inland journey occurs, beside the lake of his discovery, the legend, "Itasca Lake, the source of the Mississippi River; length from Gulf of Mexico, 3,160 miles; elevation, 1,500 ft. Reached July 13th, 1832."

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus