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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Through tangled forests, and through dangerous ways;
Where beasts with man divided empire claim,
And the brown Indian marks with murderous aim.”


THIS district has a name which, though picturesque, appears to convey a reflection upon its climate. In reality, however, the name was not intended to do this, but was given by the French traders in the lake and stream, as “Lac* and “Riviere a la Pluie,” because they were connected by a perpendicular waterfall of such force that it raised a mist like rain. The voyageurs frequently seized upon such striking natural features to distinguish places in the wilderness, and it was they who dubbed the cataract itself the "Chaudiere,” or “Caldron,” as the falls on the Ottawa were named earlier.

It is 225 years since a young Frenchman, Jacques de Noyon, wintered, it is supposed, at the mouth of the Rainy River, where he heard from the Indians of a nation of dwarfs, “three and a half or four feet tall and very stout,” and of cities to the west inhabited by white men with beards, and of ships that fired great guns. Probably De Noyon reached the Lake of the Woods, but he did not discover the Indians’ land of marvels. A few years later a French officer, La Noue, was sent to establish a trading-post on Rainy Lake, with a view of intercepting the furs carried to the English on Hudson Bay.

In 1731, La Wrendrye, beginning his western explorations, sent his nephew, La Jemeraye, to build a fort for him on Rainy Lake. After some difficulty in persuading men to go with him, not only on account of the long and difficult portages but also for fear, it is said, of the demons that were supposed to haunt the little-known western solitudes, the young mail succeeded in building Fort St. Pierre, as he named the new post in honour of his uncle. After wintering there he returned with a rich harvest of furs, and, cheered by this good fortune, La Verendrye and the rest of the party proceeded to the new fort, which was situated in a delightful meadow, surrounded by a grove of oaks. After a short rest, the leader pushed on to the Lake of the Woods, escorted by a flotilla of fifty Indian canoes. On a peninsula, running far into the lake from its western shore (now Manitoba), was built another post, Fort St. Charles, consisting of a quadruple oblong of posts, from twelve to fifteen feet high, which enclosed several log-cabins. It was an excellent spot for the fur trade, and for several years La Verendrye, though he had by no means given up hope of pursuing his journey westward, made it his headquarters. Once he had to travel back to Montreal to persuade the merchants there to furnish him with additional supplies. Returning, he hastened forward in a light canoe, to find his people at Fort St. Charles approaching the starvation point. Then came his son Jean, from Lake Winnipeg, to report the death of La jemeraye, and it was decided to send the young man with some of the most active of the voyageurs to meet and hasten the provision boats. A Jesuit, Father Aulneau, joined the party, which started from the fort very early one morning. But, a day or two later, the supply boats arrived, and their crews reported that they had seen nothing of Jean and his comrades. At once, the anxious father sent out a search-party, and horrible was the discovery that they made.

On a little island, off what is now known as Oak Point, guarding the entrance to the Rainy River, the headless bodies of the whole company were found lying in a circle on the beach, where it was supposed that they had stopped to breakfast, and had been attacked suddenly by a band of Sioux. Afterwards it leaked oat that, during La Vrendrye’s absence, a party of Sioux visiting Fort St. Charles had been fired upon by some Crees who happened to be within. The French got the credit of this piece of treachery, and upon the French the Sioux took the first opportunity of wreaking vengeance. La Verendrye’s Indian allies pressed him to make war on the murderous Sioux, and at first the gallant Frenchman was sorely tempted to take their advice; but he knew that, if he did so, it was “good-bye” to all his plans of exploration, so he finally laid aside any thought of retaliation.

About 1765, the Indians of Rainy Lake made themselves so obnoxious to the traders, by plundering them of their goods and demanding blackmail, that they earned the name of “the Pillagers.” Two notable traders of Montreal, Benjamin and James Frobisher, suffered much at the hands of these thievish Indians, on their first expedition; but afterwards, by “a show of force and co-operation” with other traders, they managed to get their goods safely through the dangerous country.

The names of many remarkable men amongst the traders are connected with the Rainy River District. The elder and the younger Alexander Henry (uncle and nephew), David Thompson and Daniel Williams Harmon, all travelled by way of Rainy Lake and the Lake of the Woods westward. The last-mentioned traveller, when he reached Rainy River Fort on July 24th, in the year 1800, found many Chippewas encamped near by, living on the sturgeon and white fish they caught in the lake, and on wild rice, which though darker in colour than the “real rice,” was nearly as nourishing and palatable. About 1791, Peter Grant, then only in his twenties, but already a partner of the North-West Company, was in charge of the fort on Rainy Lake, and, at the request of that literary trader, Roderick Mackenzie, he wrote some interesting descriptions of the manners and customs of the Indians and the methods of the voyageurs.

It was Sir George Simpson, for forty years Governor of the Hudson Bay Company’s vast territories in North America, who named the Rainy River post Fort Frances, in honour of his wife, and in his account of his journey round the world he spoke of this district with less than the usual caution of the fur-trader when dealing with the resources of the country. “From the very brink of the river,” he says, “there rises a gentle slope of greenwood, crowned in many places with a plentiful growth of birch, poplar, beech, elm, and oak. Is it too much for the eye of philanthropy to discern, through the vista of futurity, this noble stream, connecting, as it does, the fertile shores of two spacious lakes, with crowded steamboats on its bosom and populous towns on its borders?”

In Captain Iluyshe’s account of the “The Red River Expedition,” he tells with what delight the toil-worn, ragged troops bound for Manitoba reached Fort Frances, “the long-expected half-way house.” The fort itself, consisting of "a collection of one-storied block-houses,” surrounded by a palisade, stood just opposite to the lovely falls of the Rainy River, and its surroundings seemed like “a glimpse of the Promised Land,” especially as the party had been detained for days on an island in Rainy Lake by a north-westerly gale, solacing themselves as best they could during their captivity by eating and gathering into every available receptacle the delicious blue-berries that grew on the island.

Anxious lest the Chippewas might attempt to prevent the passage of the troops through the wilds, the Government at Ottawa had sent on agents in advance to inform the Indians that the soldiers were on the way, and to arrange that they should allow them to pass peaceably.

A great council had been held at Fort Frances, and the Indians had lingered there for long, awaiting the arrival of the force, but the difficulties of the journey so delayed it that at last most of them grew impatient and left, and, when Colonel Wolseley arrived, only half a dozen lodges remained pitched beside the fort. But few as they were, the braves from these lodges did not permit the colonel and his officers to pass without a lengthy “pow-wow.” One Indian after another, with his hair plaited in long tails and his blanket draped about him like a Roman toga, inflicted his incomprehensible eloquence on the strangers; and the Englishmen, at first amused with the novelty of the scene, had more than enough of it before it was over. But the Chippewas gave no trouble; and Colonel Wolseley established at Fort Frances a depot of supplies and a hospital, to guard which a company of the 1st Ontario Rifles was left behind in a camp on the grassy bank of the river. Since those days Fort Frances has become a busy little place of several thousand inhabitants, having easy connection by means of the Canadian Northern Railway and steamboats with the world at large.

Rainy River District was of course involved in the boundary dispute between Ontario and the Dominion Governments; but the story can be told more conveniently in connection with Kenora.

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