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Expansion and Exploration

When the House of Orange came to the throne, it was deemed necessary that the Company's monopoly, originally granted by the Stuarts, should be confirmed. Nearly all the old shareholders, who had been friends of the Stuarts, sold out, and in 1697, the year of the disaster related in the last chapter, the Company applied for an extension of its royal charter by act of parliament. The fur buyers of London opposed the application on the grounds that:

(1) The charter conferred arbitrary powers to which a private company had no right;

(2) The Company was a mere stock-jobbing concern of no benefit to the public;

(3) Beaver was sold at an extortionate advance; bought at 6d. and sold for 6s.

(4) The English claim to a monopoly drove the Indians to the French;

(5) Nothing was done to carry out the terms of the charter in finding a North-West Passage.

All this, however, did not answer the great question: if the Company retired from the Bay, who or what was to resist the encroachments of the French? This consideration saved the situation for the adventurers. Their charter was confirmed.

The opposition to the extension of the charter compelled the Company to show what it had been doing in the way of exploration; and the journey of Henry Kelsey, the London apprentice boy, to the country of the Assiniboines, was put on file in the Company records. Kelsey had not at first fitted in very well with the martinet rules of fort life at Nelson, and in 1690, after a switching for some breach of discipline, he had jumped over the walls and run away with the Indians. Where he went on this first trip is not known. Some time before the spring of the next year an Indian runner brought word back to the fort from Kelsey: on condition of pardon he was willing to make a journey of exploration inland. The pardon was readily granted and the youth was supplied with equipment. Accordingly, on July 15, 1691, Kelsey left the camping-place of the Assiniboines—thought to be the modern Split Lake—and with some Indian hunters set off overland on foot. It is difficult to follow his itinerary, for he employs only Indian names in his narrative. He travelled five hundred miles west of Split Lake presumably without touching on the Saskatchewan or the Churchill, for his journal gives not the remotest hint of these rivers. We are therefore led to believe that he must have traversed the semi-barren country west of Lac du Brochet, or Reindeer Lake as it is called on the map. He encountered vast herds of what he called buffalo, though his description reminds us more of the musk ox of the barren lands than of the buffalo. He describes the summer as very dry and game as very scarce, on the first part of the trip; and this also applies to the half-barren lands west of Reindeer Lake. Hairbreadth escapes were not lacking on the trip of the boy explorer. Once, completely exhausted from a swift march, Kelsey fell asleep on the trail. When he awoke, there was not a sign of the straggling hunters. Kelsey waited for nightfall and by the reflection of the fires in the sky found his way back to the camp of his companions. At another time he awoke to find the high dry grass all about him in flames and his musket stock blazing. Once he met two grizzly bears at close quarters. The bears had no acquired instinct of danger from powder and stood ground. The Indians dashed for trees. Kelsey fired twice from behind bunch willows, wounded both brutes, and won for himself the name of honor—Little Giant. Joining the main camp of Assiniboines at the end of August, Kelsey presented the Indian chief with a lace coat, a cap, guns, knives, and powder, and invited the tribe to go down to the Bay. The expedition won Kelsey instant promotion.

Our old friend Radisson, from the time we last saw him—when 'the Committee had discourse with him till dinner'—lived on in London, receiving a quarterly allowance of £12 10S. from the Company; occasional gratuities for his services, and presents of furs to Madame Radisson are also recorded. The last entry of the payment of his quarterly allowance is dated March 29, 1710. Then, on July 12, comes a momentous entry: 'the Sec. is ordered to pay Mr Radisson's widow as charity the sum of £6.' At some time between March 29 and July 12 the old pathfinder had set out on his last journey. Small profit his heirs reaped for his labours. Nineteen years later, September 24, 1729, the secretary was again ordered to pay 'the widow of Peter Radisson £10 as charity, she being very ill and in great want.'

Meanwhile hostilities had been resumed between France and England; but the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 brought the game of war again to a pause and restored Hudson Bay to England. The Company received back all its forts on the Bay; but the treaty did not define the boundaries to be observed between the fur traders of Quebec pressing north and the fur traders of the Bay pressing south, and this unsettled point proved a source of friction in after years.

After the treaty the adventurers deemed it wise to strengthen all their forts. Moose, Albany, and Nelson, and two other forts recently established—Henley House and East Main—were equipped with stone bastions; and when Churchill was built later, where Munck the Dane had wintered, its walls of solid stone were made stronger than Quebec's, and it was mounted with enough large guns to withstand a siege of European fleets of that day.

The Company now regularly sent ships to Russia; and from Russia the adventurers must have heard of Peter the Great's plan to find the North Passage. The finding of the Passage had been one of the reasons for the granting of the charter, and the fur buyers' petition against the charter had set forth that small effort had been made in that direction. Now, at Churchill, Richard Norton and his son Moses, servants of the Company, had heard strange rumors from the Indians of a region of rare metals north-west inland. All these things the governor on the Bay, James Knight, pondered, as he cruised up and down from Albany to Churchill. Then the gold fever beset the Company. They sent for Knight. He was commissioned on June 3, 1719, to seek the North-West Passage, and, incidentally, to look for rare minerals.

Four ships were in the fleet that sailed for Hudson Bay this year. Knight went on the Albany with Captain Barlow and fifty men. He waited only long enough at Churchill to leave provisions. Then, with the Discovery, Captain Vaughan, as convoy, he sailed north on the Albany. On his ship were iron-bound caskets to carry back the precious metals of which he dreamed, and the framework for houses to be erected for wintering on the South Sea. With him went iron-forgers to work in the metals, and whalers from Dundee to chase the silver-bottoms of the Pacific, and a surgeon, to whom was paid the extraordinary salary of £50 on account of the unusual peril of the voyage.

What became of Knight? From the time he left Churchill, his journal ceases. Another threescore lives paid in toll to the insatiable sea! No word came back in the summer of 1720, and the adventurers had begun to look for him to return by way of Asia. Then three years passed, and no word of Knight or his precious metals. Kelsey cruised north on the Prosperous in 1719, and Hancock on the Success in 1720; Napper and Scroggs and Crow on other ships on to 1736, but never a trace did they find of the Argonauts. Norton, whaling in the north in 1726, heard disquieting rumors from the Indians, but it was not till Hearne went among the Eskimos almost fifty years later that Knight's fate became known. His ships had been totally wrecked on the east point of Marble Island, that white block of granite bare as a gravestone. Out of the wave-beaten wreckage the Eskimos saw a house arise as if by magic. The savages fled in terror from such a mystery, and winter—the terrible, hard, cutting cold of hyperborean storm—raged on the bare, unsheltered island. When the Eskimos came back in the summer of 1720, a great many graves had been scooped among the drift sand and boulders. The survivors were plainly starving, for they fell ravenously on the Eskimos' putrid whale meat. The next summer only two demented men were alive. They were clad in rabbit and fox skins. Their hair and beards had grown unkempt, and they acted like maniacs. Again the superstitious Eskimos fled in terror. Next summer when the savages came down to the coast no white men were alive. The wolves had scraped open a score of graves.

It may be stated here that before 1759 the books of the Hudson's Bay Company show £100,000 spent in bootless searching and voyaging for the mythical North-West Passage. Nevertheless study-chair explorers who journeyed round the world on a map, continued to accuse the Company of purposely refusing to search for the Passage, for fear of disturbing its monopoly. So violent did the pamphleteers grow that they forced a parliamentary inquiry in 1749 into the Company's charter and the Company's record, and what saved the Company then, as in 1713, was the fact that the adventurers were the great bulwark against French aggression from Quebec.

Arthur Dobbs, a gentleman and a scholar, had roused the Admiralty to send two expeditions to search for the North-West Passage. It is unnecessary for history to concern itself with the 'tempest in a teapot' that raged round these expeditions. Perhaps the Company did not behave at all too well when their own captain, Middleton, resigned to conduct the first one on the Furnace Bomb and the Discovery to the Bay. Perhaps wrong signals in the harbors did lead the searchers' ships to bad anchorage. At any rate Arthur Dobbs announced in hysterical fury that the Company had bribed Middleton with £5000 not to find the Passage. Middleton had come back in 1742 saying bluntly, in sailor fashion, that 'there was no passage and never would be.' At once the Dobbs faction went into a frenzy. Baseless charges were hurled about with the freedom of bombs in a battle. Parliament was roused to offer a reward of £20,000 for the discovery of the Passage, and the indefatigable Dobbs organized an opposition trading company—with a capital of £10,000—and petitioned parliament for the exclusive trade. The Dobbs Galley, Captain Moon, and the California, Captain Smith, with the Shark, under Middleton, as convoy for part of the way, went out in 1746 with Henry Ellis, agent for Dobbs, aboard. The result of the voyage need not be told. There was the usual struggle with the ice jam in the north off Chesterfield Inlet, the usual suffering from scurvy. Something was accomplished on the exploration of Fox Channel, but no North-West Passage was found, a fact that told in favour of the Company when the parliamentary inquiry of 1749 came on.

In the end, an influence stronger than the puerile frenzy of Arthur Dobbs forced the Company to unwonted activity in inland exploration. La Vérendrye, the French Canadian, and his sons had come from the St Lawrence inland and before 1750 had established trading-posts on the Red river, on the Assiniboine, and on the Saskatchewan. After this fewer furs came down to the Bay. It was now clear that if the Indians would not come to the adventurers, the adventurers must go to the Indians. As a beginning one Anthony Hendry, a boy outlawed from the Isle of Wight for smuggling, was permitted to go back with the Assiniboines from Nelson in June 1754.

Hendry's itinerary is not difficult to follow. The Indian place-names used by him are the Indian place-names used to-day by the Assiniboines. Four hundred paddlers manned the big brigade of canoes which he accompanied inland to the modern Oxford Lake and from Oxford to Cross Lake. The latter name explains itself. Voyageurs could reach the Saskatchewan by coming on down westward through Playgreen Lake to Lake Winnipeg, or they could save the long detour round the north end of Lake Winnipeg—a hundred miles at least, and a dangerous stretch because of the rocky nature of the coast and the big waves of the shallow lake—by portaging across to that chain of swamps and nameless lakes, leading down to the expansion of the Saskatchewan, known under the modern name of the Pas. It is quite plain from Hendry's narrative that the second course was followed, for he came to 'the river on which the French have two forts' without touching Lake Winnipeg; and he gave his distance as five hundred miles from York,4 which would bring him by way of Oxford and Cross Lakes precisely at the Pas.

The Saskatchewan is here best described as an elongated swamp three hundred miles by seventy, for the current of the river proper loses itself in countless channels through reed-grown swamps and turquoise lakes, where the white pelicans stand motionless as rocks and the wild birds gather together in flocks that darken the sky and have no fear of man. Between Lake Winnipeg and Cumberland Lake one can literally paddle for a week and barely find a dry spot big enough for a tent among the myriad lakes and swamps and river channels over washing the dank goose grass. Through these swamps runs the limestone cliff known as the Pasquia Hills—a blue lift of the swampy sky-line in a wooded ridge. On this ridge is the Pas fort. All the romance of the most romantic era in the West clings to the banks of the Saskatchewan—'Kis-sis-kat-chewan Sepie'—swift angrily-flowing waters, as the Indians call it, with its countless unmapped lakes and its countless unmapped islands. Up and down its broad current from time immemorial flitted the war canoes of the Cree, like birds of prey, to plunder the Blackfeet, or 'Horse Indians.' Between these high, steep banks came the voyageurs of the old fur companies—'ti-aing-ti-aing' in monotonous sing-song day and night, tracking the clumsy York boats up-stream all the way from tide water to within sight of the Rocky Mountains. Up these waters, with rapids so numerous that one loses count of them, came doughty traders of the Company with the swiftest paddlers the West has ever known. The gentleman in cocked hat and silk-lined overcape, with knee-buckled breeches and ruffles at wrist and throat, had a habit of tucking his sleeves up and dipping his hand in the water over the gunnels. If the ripple did not rise from knuckles to elbows, he forced speed with a shout of 'Up-up, my men! Up-up!' and gave orders for the regale to go round, or for the crews to shift, or for the Highland piper to set the bagpipes skirling.

Hither, then, came Hendry from the Bay, the first Englishman to ascend the Saskatchewan. 'The mosquitoes are intolerable,' he writes. 'We came to the French house. Two Frenchmen came to the water side and invited me into their house. One told me his master and men had gone down to Montreal with furs and that he must detain me till his return; but Little Bear, my Indian leader, only smiled and said, "They dare not."'

Somewhere between the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan, Hendry's Assiniboines met Indians on horseback, the Blackfeet, or 'Archithinues,' as he calls them. The Blackfeet Indians tell us to-day that the Assiniboines and Crees used to meet the Blackfeet to exchange the trade of the Bay at Wetaskiwin, 'the Hills of Peace.' This exactly agrees with the itinerary, described by Hendry, after they crossed the south branch in September and struck up into the Eagle Hills. Winter was passed in hunting between the points where Calgary and Edmonton now stand. Hendry remarks on the outcropping of coal on the north branch. The same outcroppings can be seen to-day in the high banks below Edmonton.

It was on October 14 that Hendry was conveyed to the main Blackfeet camp.

The leader's tent was large enough to contain fifty persons. He received us seated on a buffalo skin, attended by twenty elderly men. He made signs for me to sit down on his right hand, which I did. Our leaders (the Assiniboines) set several great pipes going the rounds and we smoked according to their custom. Not one word was spoken. Smoking over, boiled buffalo flesh was served in baskets of bent wood. I was presented with ten buffalo tongues. My guide informed the leader I was sent by the grand leader who lives on the Great Waters to invite his young men down with their furs. They would receive in return powder, shot, guns and cloth. He made little answer; said it was far off, and his people could not paddle. We were then ordered to depart to our tents, which we pitched a quarter of a mile outside their lines. The chief told me his tribe never wanted food, as they followed the buffalo, but he was informed the natives who frequented the settlements often starved on their journey, which was exceedingly true.

Hendry gave his position for the winter as eight hundred and ten miles west of York, or between the sites of modern Edmonton and Battleford. Everywhere he presented gifts to the Indians to induce them to go down to the Bay. On the way back to York, the explorers canoed all the way down the Saskatchewan, and Hendry paused at Fort La Corne, half-way down to Lake Winnipeg. The banks were high, high as the Hudson river ramparts, and like those of the Hudson, heavily wooded. Trees and hills were intensest green, and everywhere through the high banks for a hundred miles below what is now Edmonton bulged great seams of coal. The river gradually widened until it was as broad as the Hudson at New York or the St Lawrence at Quebec. Hawks shrieked from the topmost boughs of black poplars ashore. Whole colonies of black eagles nodded and babbled and screamed from the long sand-bars. Wolf tracks dotted the soft mud of the shore, and sometimes what looked like a group of dogs came down to the bank, watched the boatmen land, and loped off. These were coyotes of the prairie. Again and again as the brigades drew in for nooning to the lee side of some willow-grown island, black-tailed deer leaped out of the brush almost over their heads, and at one bound were in the midst of a tangled thicket that opened a magic way for their flight. From Hendry's winter camp to Lake Winnipeg, a distance of almost a thousand miles, a good hunter could then, as now, keep himself in food summer and winter with but small labor.

Most people have a mental picture of the plains country as flat prairie, with sluggish, winding rivers. Such a picture would not be true of the Saskatchewan. From end to end of the river, for only one interval is the course straight enough and are the banks low enough to enable the traveler to see in a line for eight miles. The river is a continual succession of half-circles, hills to the right, with the stream curving into a shadowy lake, or swerving out again in a bend to the low left; or high-walled sandstone bluffs to the left sending the water wandering out to the low silt shore on the right. Not river of the Thousand Islands, like the St Lawrence, but river of Countless Islands, the Saskatchewan should be called.

More ideal hunting ground could not be found. The hills here are partly wooded and in the valleys nestle lakes literally black with wild-fowl—bittern that rise heavy-winged and furry with a boo-m-m; grey geese holding political caucus with raucous screeching of the honking ganders; black duck and mallard and teal; inland gulls white as snow and fearless of hunters; little match-legged phalaropes fishing gnats from the wet sand.

The wildest of the buffalo hunts used to take place along this section of the river, or between what are now known as Pitt and Battleford. It was a common trick of the eternally warring Blackfeet and Cree to lie in hiding among the woods here and stampede all horses, or for the Blackfeet to set canoes adrift down the river or scuttle the teepees of the frightened Cree squaws who waited at this point for their lords' return from the Bay.

Round that three-hundred mile bend in the river known as 'the Elbow' the water is wide and shallow, with such numbers of sand-bars and shallows and islands that one is lost trying to keep the main current. Shallow water sounds safe and easy for canoeing, but duststorms and wind make the Elbow the most trying stretch of water in the whole length of the river. Beyond this great bend, still called the Elbow, the Saskatchewan takes a swing north-east through the true wilderness primeval. The rough waters below the Elbow are the first of twenty-two rapids round the same number of sharp turns in the river. Some are a mere rippling of the current, more noisy than dangerous; others run swift and strong for sixteen miles. First are the Squaw Rapids, where the Indian women used to wait while the men went on down-stream with the furs. Next are the Cold Rapids, and boats are barely into calm water out of these when a roar gives warning of more to come, and a tall tree stripped of all branches but a tufted crest on top—known among Indians as a 'lob-stick,—marks two more rippling rapids. The Crooked Rapids send canoes twisting round point after point almost to the forks of the South Saskatchewan. Here, five miles below the modern fur post, at a bend in the river commanding a great sweep of approach, a gay courtier of France built Fort La Corne. Who called the bold sand-walls to the right Heart Hills? And how comes it that here are Cadotte Rapids, named after the famous voyageur family of Cadottes, whose ancestor gave his life and his name to one section of the Ottawa?


A Camp In The Swamp Country
From a photograph

Forty miles below La Corne is Nepawin, the 'looking-out-place' of the Indians for the coming trader, where the French had another post. And still the river widens and widens. Though the country is flat, the level of the river is ten feet below a crumbling shore worn sheer as a wall, with not the width of a hand for camping-place below. On a spit of the north shore was the camping-place known as Devil's Point, where no voyageur would ever stay because the long point was inhabited by demons. The bank is steep here, flanked by a swamp of huge spruce trees criss-crossed by the log-jam of centuries. The reason for the ill omen of the place is plain enough—a long point running out with three sides exposed to a bellowing wind.

East of Devil's Point, the Saskatchewan breaks from its river bed and is lost for a hundred and fifty miles through a country of pure muskeg, quaking silt soft as sponge, overgrown with reed and goose grass. Here are not even low banks; there are no banks at all. Canoes are on a level with the land, and reeds sixteen feet high line the aisled water channels. One can stand on prow or stern and far as eye can see is naught but reeds and waterways, waterways and reeds.

Below the muskeg country lies Cumberland Lake. At its widest the lake is some forty miles across, but by skirting from island to island boatmen could make a crossing of only twenty-three miles. Far to the south is the blue rim of the Pas mountain, named from the Indian word Pasquia, meaning open country.

Hendry's canoes were literally loaded with peltry when he drew in at the Pas. There he learned a bitter lesson on the meaning of a rival's suavity. The French plied his Indians with brandy, then picked out a thousand of his best skins, a trick that cost the Hudson's Bay Company some of its profit.

On June 1 the canoes once more set out for York. With the rain-swollen current the paddlers easily made fast time and reached York on June 20. James Isham, the governor of the fort, realized that his men had brought down a good cargo of furs, but when Hendry began to talk of Indians on horseback, he was laughed out of the service. Who had ever heard of Indians on horseback? The Company voted Hendry £20 reward, and Isham by discrediting Hendry's report probably thought to save himself the trouble of going inland.

But the unseen destiny of world movement rudely disturbed the lazy trader's indolent dream. In four years French power fell at Quebec, and the wildwood rovers of the St Lawrence, unrestricted by the new government and soon organized under the leadership of Scottish merchants at Montreal, invaded the sacred precincts of the Company's inmost preserve.

In other volumes of this Series we shall learn more of the fur lords and explorers in the great West and North of Canada; of the fierce warfare between the rival traders; of the opening up of great rivers to commerce, and of the founding of colonies that were to grow into commonwealths. We shall witness the gradual, stubborn, and unwilling retreat of the fur trade before the on marching settler, until at last the Dominion government took over the vast domain known as Rupert's Land, and the Company, founded by the courtiers of King Charles and given absolute sway over an empire, fell to the status of an ordinary commercial organization.

Footnotes:

4. Nelson. Throughout this narrative Nelson, the name of the port and river, is generally used instead of York, the name of the fort or factory.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914

 

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