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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter IX The Peddlers

"When the forts which la Verendrye and his sons had built were abandoned by la Corne, the Indian trade passed north to the posts of the Hudson's Bay Company once more. The transfer of this trade foreshadowed a more important change. French sovereignty in the northern part of the American continent was nearing its end; and a few years after the fur trade of the west passed from the Canadian companies to the hands of their English rival, Canada itself was ceded to Britain by France. "When the cession was finally completed by the treaty of Paris in 1763, British merchants were not slow to avail themselves of the business opportunities which were offered by the newly acquired colony, and many of them settled in Montreal. Such men were not likely to neglect the fur trade, which had proved so profitable to the Canadian merchants in spite of the rapacity of government officials; and the Hudson's Bay Company soon found its monopoly challenged by competitors keener, more energetic, and more persistent than the French companies had ever been. Its factors might despise these independent traders and denounce them as "peddlers'';, but in a few years they were sapping its business in every part of its great territory.

Michilimackinac was the first objective point of these adventurous traders. Alexander Henry, a youth who had hardly reached his majority, had gone with General Amherst's army to the siege of Quebec in 1759; but before the end of 1761 he was in Michilimackinac with a cargo of goods to be bartered for furs. Young Henry was only one of the many who had reached the outlet of Lake Superior on the same quest. Beyond them lay the great west, and it cast its spell upon these energetic Britishers, just as it had done upon the French for more than a hundred years. The wealth which the French had found in the vast interior might be theirs also, the trails of the French were open to them; and so in a few years they had penetrated to the most remote points ever reached by their predecessors.

The early trading expeditions which started out from Michilimackinac did not reach the prairies. The Indians in the neighborhood of Rainy Lake had greatly appreciated the trading posts established there by the French, and greatly missed the articles sold at these posts, when the French abandoned them. So eager were they to secure a new supply that the first English traders, who reached Rainy Lake in 1765, were plundered by the natives and could not proceed further. Another attempt to reach the far west was made in the next year; but again the Rainy River Indians took all the goods, and the trader went back empty-handed. A third attempt, probably made by Thomas Curry, was more successful, for the Indians took only a part of the goods, and the trader was allowed to carry the remainder to a point on die Saskatchewan Curry spent some time traveling near Fort Bourbon and was so successful that he had no need to go further west. He returned to Canada with such a rich cargo of furs that he could retire from business with a comfortable fortune

James Finlav, a merchant of Montreal, spent the winter of In 1770-1 at Fort Bourbon, but in the spring he ascended the river to its tor*s and passed the following winter at Fort Nipawi. He, too, was very successful and in a few years went back to Montreal a wealthy man. He was the father of the James who became prominent in the North-West Company in the early part of the nineteenth century and whose name had been given to one of our- western rivers.

Of all the early British traders in the west none were more shrewd or enterprising than the three Frobislier brothers. They joined Nvth the firm of Todd & McGill to send a cargo of goods into the west in 1769, but the Rainy Lake Indians plundered it and would not permit the traders to go further. A year or two later a second attempt was made with greater success. Joseph Frobisher seems to have been in charge of the venture, and he tells us that Fort Bourbon was reached. We are told by others that he had a trading post, called Frobisher's Fort, at some point on the Red River, probably in the winter of 1771-2. We are also told that he went north to Hudson Bay in the summer of 1772, that he met the Indians at Pike (Jackfish) River soon after as they went north to trade at Fort Prince of Wales and induced them to sell their furs to him regardless of their obligations to the Hudson's Bay Company, and that in 1771 he was at Trade Portage, which lies 011 the route connecting the North Saskatchewan with the Churchill. There he secured such an immense quantity of furs that he had a clear profit of £10,000 on the cargo which he took to Montreal. During the summer of 1775 Thomas Frobisher explored the country west of Trade Portage as far as Lake He a la Crosse, but his older brother does not seem to have returned to the west, although he took an active interest in the fur trade for many years.

The amazing success of Curry and Finlav could not fail to incite the other traders to greater ventures in the far west. So we find that Alexander Henry, whose enterprises on the shores of Lake Superior had not proved very remunerative, left Michilimackinac on June 10, 1775, with twelve small canoes and goods worth £3,000, and took the route of the old French voyageurs to the western wilds. Late in July he reached the site of la Verendrye's fort at the outlet of Rainy Lake, and on the 30th he reached the Lake of the Woods. He crossed the Portage du Rat on August 4, descended the Winnipeg River, following the Pinawa channel, and halted at a Cree village near the old French fort, Maurepas. On August 18 he set out on the voyage of three hundred miles down Lake Winnipeg, and before it was completed, he had been joined by another trader, Peter Pond. They reached Jackfish River on September 1 and on the 7tli were overtaken by Joseph Frobisher, his brother Thomas, and another trader named Patterson. The combined parties numbered one hundred and thirty men with thirty canoes. They entered the Saskatchewan on October 1, reached Lake Bourbon (Cedar Lake) on the 3d, and the site of the present Pas Mission on the 6th, finding a band of Wood Crees encamped there. On October 26 they reached Cumberland House, near Sturgeon Lake, the fort which Hearne had built for the Hudson's Bay Company about a year earlier to divert the Indian


trade of that district to the bay. The post was garrisoned by Orkneymen under the command of Mr. Cockings. Being at the junction of the canoe routes to the north and the west, it soon became one of the most important posts of the company.

At this point the traders separated, having divided the territory so that each would practically' have a monopoly of the trade of the district to which he went. Gadotte went with four canoes to Fort des Prairies (Nipawi) not far from the forks of the Saskatchewan; Pond look two canoes to Fort Dauphin beside Lake Manitoba; while the Frobishers with six canoes and Henry with four went westward and camped for the winter at Beaver Lake. On New-Year's Day, 1776, Henry and Joseph Frobisher set out for Cumberland House, and after a short stay there, went west on a long trip of exploration. The snow was deep, the cold was severe, and their provisions were soon exhausted. For several days they had nothing in the way of food except water in which k little chocolate had been dissolved; and had they not been fortunate enough to find a deer frozen in the ice of the river, they would have perished from starvation. Finally they reached Fort des Prairies, where they remained several days. Leaving the hospitality of the fort, the two hardy travelers wandered far across the Saskatchewan plains, hoping to find new bands of Indians whose trade they might secure. At last they met a party of Assiniboines and were conducted to their village, where they were well entertained until the 20th of February. Then they returned to Fort des Prairies, where they stayed for four weeks, and, continuing their journey to their own post, reached it on the 9th of April.

Three days later Thomas Frobisher was dispatched with six men to build a post on the Churchill River, where the Indians could be intercepted on their way to Fort Prince of Wales. The rest of the party remained to fish until May 22, when it followed the advance detachment. On June 15 it reached the fort which Frobisher had erected, and on the next day a small party was sent forward toward Lake Athabasca to find a certain tribe of Indians with whom the traders wished to establish friendly relations. They met these Indians coming down to the post, and all returned together. The Indians had brought down great quantities of fur, and a brisk trade was soon going on. Henry says, ''On the third morning this little fair was closed; and, on making up our packs, we found that w_e had purchased twelve thousand beaver skins, besides large numbers of otter and marten." Leaving Thomas Frobisher in charge of the unsold goods, Henry and the elder Frobisher then set out on their return journey and reached Montreal on October 15. Their venture had been so successful that neither of these men had any need to return to the west.

Peter Pond, who spent the winter of 1775-6 near Port Dauphin, passed the next two years on the Sturgeon River, probably near Fort Saskatchewan. He went north to Lake Athabasca in 1779 and remained in the vicinity for several years. This was a district to which Canadian traders had not penetrated before, and Pond's post beside the Elk River was a wel1 known landmark for some time. He went there as the representative of several traders, who had united in the venture - and stored goods in this post in 1779 to he used in the next year's trade, thus imitating in a small way the practice of the large companies. Pond was far more successful than his principals had anticipated, and in 1780 a new supply of goods was sent out in charge of Mr. Wadin, who was to act as Pond's colleague. The two men soon quarreled, and Wadin was shot and died from the wound. Bond and his clerk were tried in Montreal for the murder, hut were acquitted.

The remarkable success of such men as Henry and Frobisher drew an ever increasing crowd of traders into the west, and many of them were simply unprincipled adventurers. A party of such men had crossed from the Saskatchewan River to the Eagle Hills in .1780. Annoyed by an Indian's repeated requests for liquor, one of these men gave him laudanum. The savage dropped dead a few minutes later, and his friends took swift vengeance on his murderer. When the skirmish was over the trader and six of his men were killed, and the others were glad to escape with their lives, leaving their goods in the hands of the enraged Indians. There was trouble at two of the posts on the Assiniboine during the same season. Both posts were attacked by the hostile. Indians, and several men, both white and red, were killed. The Montreal traders gave the natives poorer goods than they had formerly received from the Hudson's Bay Company, and often crazed them by giving them the vilest kind of liquor in large quantities.

The hostility of the Indians, which had been provoked by the unscrupulous methods of the white traders, might have resulted in a long series of atrocities, had it not been for a terrible epidemic of smallpox. In the summer of 1781 a band of Assiniboines went to the Mandan country to procure horses and brought back the disease which has always proved so fatal to Indians. It spread with great rapidity among the tribes living west and north and prevailed for two years. At the end of that time many thousands of the natives were dead, the fur trade was almost destroyed, and nearly all the traders had fled from the country.

When the fur trade was resumed after this interruption, it was conducted on a new plan. The individual trader, taking a small quantity of goods so far and meeting the competition of traders like himself, found the enterprise hazardous and expensive; and he was helpless against the hostility of the Indians. The plan adopted by Henry and his fellow-traders in the winter of 177o had shown the value of co-operation, and Joseph Frobisher and Simon McTavish were busy carrying the idea a little further. During the winter of 1783-4 they organized the North-West Company to carry on the fur trade in the west. In the spring McTavish and Benjamin Frobisher went to Grand Portage and persuaded nearly all the traders congregated there to join the new company; hut Peter Pond and Peter Pangman, both New Englanders, were not satisfied with the terms offered by McTavish, and they organized another company whose leading members were John Gregory, a merchant of Montreal, and his partner, Alexander Norman McLeod.

The North-West Company was very energetic and ambitious. In a memorial presented to Governor Haldimand in October, 1784, it recites the discoveries it had made and the benefits it had conferred on the country in less than a year, and asks that it may be granted a monopoly of the old French route from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg for ten years, a perpetual monopoly of a new route which it was about to open between the two lakes, and a monopoly of the trade in the remote west for ten years. It also asked for the privilege of building its own ships for carrying goods and furs up and down the Great Lakes.

The fact that these requests were refused did not deter the company from pushing its business with great energy.

Nor was the opposing company less ambitious or less energetic. McLeod was left in charge of all its business in Montreal, and most of the other partners took charge of districts in the west. Alexander Mackenzie was sent to the Churchill River to compete with "William McGillivray whom the North-West Company had sent there as its representative; and when they came out together in 1786, both had been very successful. Ross was sent to Lake Athabasca, Pangman went to the Saskatchewan, Roderick McKenzie was ordered to lie a la Crosse, Pollack had charge of the Red River district. Not content with opposing its rival in nearly every district in the west, the new company established a post of its own at Grand Portage.

The unprincipled Pond soon deserted the company he had helped to organize and was sent by the North-West managers to oppose Ross in the Athabasca district. He immediately stirred up a bitter strife between his own men and those of his rival, and in one of their conflicts Ross was killed. Pond was arrested and sent east, and thereafter he plays no part in the story of the fur companies. These and similar troubles hastened the amalgamation of the two companies which was consummated in 1787. McLeod, McTavish, and the Frobishers were the principal directors of the new company in Montreal. Alexander Mackenzie was sent to take the place of Ross on Lake Athabasca, and the information which came to him there led him to the explorations that afterwards made him famous.

Between 1789 and 1793 Mackenzie followed to the Arctic the great river which bears his name and crossed the mountains to the Pacific. These splendid achievements brought him fame and promotion; but after a few years he disagreed with his partners and retired from the North-West Company. The arbitrary methods of McTavish had alienated many of the other shareholders, and these men, led by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, organized the new North-West Com -pany, more commonly know n as the X. Y. Company. For three years the keenest rivalry existed between the two companies, each sending agents into new and remote districts and building forts wherever possible; but their keen competition does not seem to have reduced the profits of either. Simon McTavish died in 1804, and this made a reunion of the companies possible. An agency was established in London, and business in the Canadian west was pushed more energetically than ever before. The independent traders having been taken into the reunited North West Company or driven from the field, it could give all its strength to its contest with the Hudson's Bay Company for the control of the fur trade in British America.

The fur trade, as conducted by the French companies of Quebec, had bred a class of men who were almost indispensable in carrying it on when it passed into the hands of the British merchants of Montreal. These men were Frenchmen, adventurous, fond of the free, roving life of the voyageur or the coureur des hois, and ready to adopt the life of the aboriginal inhabitants of the forests and the plains. Many of them took Indian wives, and in time a considerable number of French half-breeds enlisted in the calling followed by their fathers. The independent traders employed many of these men, and it was only natural for the North-West Company to retain their services when it absorbed the business of the individual traders. In his letter to Governor Haldimand, dated October 4, 1784, Joseph Frobisher says that the North-West Company then employed more than five hundred of these men in the transportation of goods, furs, and provisions, about half being engaged on the Great Lakes and the other half in the interior It required more than ninety canoes in its operations between Montreal and the Lake of the Woods. Those used on the Great Lakes were manned by eight or ten men and carried about four tons; but those employed in the interior would carry only about one and a half tons. The canoes with goods for -he more distant posts left Montreal in May, carrying provisions to last their crews to Michilimakinae, Here they took on a new supply to meet the needs of the canoemen on the inland trip and provide some food for the men in charge of the interior posts. On the inland trip about one third of the cargo would be provisions and the remainder goods for the Indian trade. Sir Alexander Mackenzie tells us that by the end of the century the company employed twelve hundred canoemen, fifty clerks, seventy-one interpreters and clerks, and thirty-five guides.

No small share of the success of the North-West Company was due to the character of the men in charge of its posts in the west. Some of the company's bourgeois, or partners, and its clerks may have been men of low morals and vicious lives, and they may have often resorted to the most unscrupulous methods in trade; but almost without exception they were men of wonderful energy and determination. And there were some men of ideals higher than large cargoes of fur and great profits. Perhaps the first place must be given to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, but high honor is also due to men like David Thompson and James Finlay. Of the incessant activity of the bourgeois, whether Scotch, English, French, or Metis, we have abundant evidence in the records of the company and the journals of its employees, such as Harmon and the younger Henry.

Daniel William Harmon entered the service of the North-West Company in the year 1800, being twenty-two years of age at the time. In April of that year he was sent west from Montreal and travelled by the usual route to Lake Winnipeg. There he received orders from Alexander N. McLeod, who had charge of the trade of the surrounding district, to proceed to a point west of Lake Manitoba where a new post was to be opened. He explored the country around this lake, establishing friendly relations with the Indians as far as possible. The winter was spent at a fort on the Swan River, and the spring found him at Fort Alexandria. The next two years were spent between the posts at Swan River and Bird Mountain and Fort Alexandria; but in the spring of 1804 Harmon went on to Fishing Lake and thence to Last Mountain Lake, The remainder of that year was spent on the Qu'Appelle River, at Fort Dauphin, and on the Assiniboine.

In the spring of 1805 Harmon was on the Souris. and later in the year went down the Assiniboine and the Red, visited Rainy Lake, and by September was at Cumberland House, where he remained nearly two years, trading with Crees, Assiniboines, Chippewas. and a few Blackfeet, Midsummer of 1807 saw him at Fort William, whence he went to the Nepigon for the balance of the year. In the next year he was sent west again, visiting the posts at Rainy Lake, Bas de la Riviere, Cumberland House, Beaver Lake, Portage, du Traite, lie a la Crosse and elsewhere. September found him at Fort Chippewayan on Lake Athabasca, October at Fort Vermillion, and the winter at Dunvegan Fort in the remote west where he remained until October, 1810. Then he went to St. John's Fort on the upper Peace River with. Mr. Stuart and. crossed the Rocky

Mountains into British Columbia. For three years he worked at various posts in the heart of the mountain region and did not return to Dunvegan until Mareh of 1813. But a month later he went back to the mountains once more and spent the next six years of his life at different posts there. It was August, 1819, when Harmon reached Fort "William on the last of his long trips. lie had spent nineteen years in almost incessant travel among trading posts scattered over half a continent and was ready to retire from the service of the company and spend his remaining years with his Indian wife and their children in his quiet home in Vermont.

Alexander Henry the younger was a nephew of that Alexander Henry who went to the Saskatchewan with the Frobishers in 1775. His life does not command our respect as does that of Harmon, but it was just as full of activity, change, and strange experiences as that of his fellow bourgeois in the North-West Company. His first winter in the west, that of 1799-1800, was spent at Fort Dauphin beside Lake Manitoba. In the spring he went down to Grand Portage and was sent, back with goods for the trade along the Red River. The autumn and winter were spent at various points along the river and its branches as far south as Grand Forks. The temper of the Indians appears to have been very uncertain, and there was some danger of war between the different tribes; so Henry does not seem to have thought it wise to establish any permanent posts in the district. He showed himself more than a mere trader however, for he procured a stallion and a mare which were sent to Mr. Grant at a post on Rainy River, probably the first horses in that region, and at some place on the east side of Red River he planted potatoes from seed obtained at Portage la Prairie.

A few years later we find Henry in charge of various posts in the Saskatchewan district, and then he is sent further and further west—to Vermillion, Terre Blanche, and Rocky Mountain House. Then follow some years at posts beyond the mountains, and finally his death by drowning in the mouth of the Columbia during the spring of 1814.

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