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Camping in the Canadian Rockies
Chapter XIII

Origin and Rise of the Fur Trade— The Coureurs des Bois and the Voyageurs—Perils of the Canoe Voyages—The Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Company—Intense Rivalry—Downfall of the Northwest Company—Sir Alexander Mackenzie—His Character and Physical Endowments— Cook's Explorations—Mackenzie Starts to Penetrate the Rockies—The Peace River—A Marvellous Escape —The Pacific Reached by Land—Perils of the Sea and of the Wilderness.

THE history of the early explorations in the Canadian Rockies centres about the fur trade. From the date of the very earliest settlements in Canada, the quest of furs had occupied a position of chief importance, to which the pursuits of agriculture, grazing, or manufacture had been subordinate. The search for gold, which throughout the history of the world has ever been one of the most powerful incentives to hardy adventure and daring exploit, did not at first occupy the attention of those who were ready to hazard their lives for the sake of possible wealth quickly acquired.

The unremitting and often ruthless destruction of the fur-bearing animals, in the immediate vicinity of the settlements, caused them to become' exceedingly scarce, and at length to disappear altogether. But fortunately it was not difficult to induce the Indians to bring their furs from more distant regions, until at length even those who lived in the most remote parts of Canada became accustomed to barter their winter catch at the settlements.

As the trade gradually became more extensive, there sprang up two slightly different classes of men, the cozireurs des bois, or wood rangers, and the voyageurs, each of Canadian birth, but who, by reason of constant contact with the Indians and long-continued separation from the amenities and refinements of civilized life, came at length to have more in common with the rude savages, than with the French settlers from whom they were sprung. Many of these wilderness wanderers married Indian wives, and, moreover, their plastic nature, a result of their French extraction, helped them quickly to assume the manners and customs of the swarthy children of the forest. The voyageurs, like the cotireurs des bois, were accustomed to take long canoe voyages, under the employ of some fur company, or even of private individuals ; sometimes alone, but more often several banded together, carrying loads of ammunition, provisions, and tobacco from the settlements and returning with their canoes laden down with beaver, marten, and other furs collected among the Indians. The vast domain of Canada is so completely watered by a network of large streams, rivers, and lakes, more or less connected, that it is not difficult to make canoe voyages in almost any direction throughout the length and breadth of this great territory. It is indeed possible to start from Montreal and journey by water to Hudson Bay, the Arctic Ocean, or the base of the Rocky Mountains.

The voyageurs were a hardy race, possessed of incredible physical strength and untiring patience, remarkable for an implicit obedience to their superiors, and endowed with a happy, careless nature, regardless of the morrow, so long as they were well-off to-day. While making their long and arduous journeys, the voyageurs would arouse their flagging spirits with merriment and laughter, or awaken echoes from the wooded shores and rocky cliffs along the rivers and lakes, by their characteristic songs, to the accompaniment of the ceaseless and rhythmic movement of their paddles.

How much of romance and poetry filled up the measure of their simple lives ! Nature in all its beauty and grandeur was ever around them, and nature’s people—the Indians—were those with whom they most associated. They loved all men, and all men loved them, whether civilized or barbarian. The stranger among them was called Cousin, or Brother, and the great fur barons, the partners in the fur companies, on whom they gazed with awe and admiration, as they travelled in regal state from post to post, and to whom they bore almost the relation of serf to feudal lord, they called by their Christian names. The melodies which they chanted in unison as they glided along quiet rivers, with banks of changing outlines and constant variety of forest beauty, would hardly cease as they dashed madly down some roaring, snow-white rapid, beset with dangerous rocks, where a single false stroke would be fatal. For many days continuously they were wont to travel, with short time for sleep, working hour after hour at the paddle, or making the toilsome portages, when they were accustomed to carry on their backs loads of almost incredible weight. - Nevertheless, on any opportunity for relaxation, they were ever ready for revelry, music, and the dance, which they would prolong throughout the night.

The usual dress of the voyageur consisted of a coat or capote cut from a blanket, a cotton shirt, moccasins, and leather or cloth trousers, held in place by a belt of colored worsted. A hunting knife and tobacco-pouch, the latter a most indispensable adjunct to the happiness of the voyageur, were suspended from his belt. Sometimes they would be absent from the settlements twelve or fifteen months, and many never returned from their perilous trips. Some were drowned while attempting to run dangerous rapids. Others were overtaken by the approach of winter, or were stopped by ice-bound rivers impossible to navigate, and perished miserably from exposure and starvation.

Those who returned, however, would be amply rewarded by the wealth suddenly acquired from the result of their long toil. The dissipation of their gains in the course of a few weeks, accompanied by all manner of revelry, licentiousness, and mad extravagance, was their compensation for long periods of privation. At length, their means being exhausted, a longing for the old manner of life returned, and with renewed hopes they would recommence their long journeys into the wilderness.

The value of the fur trade soon aroused the attention of a number of wealthy and influential traders, and in 1670 a charter was granted to Prince Rupert and a company of fourteen others, to “the sole trade and commerce” throughout all the regions watered by streams flowing into Hudson or James Bay. This region was henceforth known as Rupert’s Land. In addition to the right of trade, the Hudson Bay Company had the authority of government and the dispensation of justice throughout this vast territory.

During the winter of 1783-4, however, a number of Canadian merchants, previously engaged in the fur trade, joined their several interests, and formed a coalition which assumed the name of the Northwest Company.

This organization, governed, as it was, by different principles from that of the Hudson Bay Company, soon became a powerful rival. The younger men in the Northwest Company were fired with ambition and assured of an adequate reward for their services. While for many years their older rivals had slumbered, content with the limits of their territory, the more enterprising Northwest Company, with infinite toil and danger, extended their posts throughout the interior and western parts of Canada, and opened up a new and hitherto undeveloped country. Another great advantage that the Northwest Company had over the Hudson Bay Company resulted from their employment of the suave and plastic voyageurs, in whose blood the French quality of ready adaptability to surroundings was especially well shown in their dealings with the Indians, with whom they had the greatest influence.

On the other hand, the greater part of the Hudson Bay canoe men were imported from the Orkney Islands. What with their obstinate, unbending nature, and mental sluggishness, these men presented a most unfavorable contrast to the genial voyageurs.

The establishment of the Northwest Company aroused the utmost jealousy and animosity of the Hudson Bay Company. While the various parties were engaged in dealings with the Indians, there not infrequently occurred open conflicts, bloodshed, and murder among the agents, in their attempts to outwit and circumvent one another.

At length the partners of the Northwest Company in the interior of Canada, realizing that all the profits were more than balanced by their endless and painful contest, determined to open a negotiation with their rivals, and for this purpose sent two delegates to London with full authority to close whatever agreement would be for the best interests of the company. Just at this time the directors of the two companies were about to sign a contract most favorable to the Northwest Company. Unfortunately, on the eve of this event, the two delegates from Canada made their appearance, and instead of communicating at once with their own directors, they showed their papers to the officers of the Hudson Bay Company. The Hudson Bay Company took advantage of the opportunity, and, instead of receiving terms from the other, now proceeded to dictate them. The outcome of this unfortunate manoeuvre was, that the Northwest Company became merged in that of the Hudson Bay Company, together with the privileges and trade of all of the vast territory which the Northwest Company had developed by superior enterprise. Thus, in 1821, the Northwest Company ended its career.

The Hudson Bay Company’s territory was at length, from time to time, encroached upon as the colonies of British Columbia, Vancouver’s Island, and Manitoba were established. Finally, in 1869, the Company ceded all their governmental and territorial rights to the •Dominion, receiving ,£300,000 in compensation. Their forts or posts, together with a small amount of land in the immediate vicinity, were reserved by them. The Hudson Bay Company still exists as a commercial organization, carrying on a thriving business in many of the principal cities and towns of Canada.

So much by way of introduction to the exploration of the Canadian Rockies.

Let us now turn to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the hardy explorer who first crossed the continent of North America, after penetrating the grim and inhospitable array of mountains which had hitherto presented an impassable barrier to all further westward progress.

Mackenzie was born in the northern part of Scotland, in the picturesque and historic town of Inverness. The year of his birth is usually set down as 1755. In his youth he emigrated to Canada, and found employment as a clerk to one of the partners in the great Northwest Fur Company. Later on he went to Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, and became one of the principal partners in the Northwest Company.

Mackenzie was endowed by nature with a powerful physique and a strong constitution, which enabled him to undergo the unusual hardships of his explorations in the wilderness. Beside these physical qualifications, he was inspired with the ambition necessary to the formation of great plans, and with an enterprising spirit which impelled him to carry them through to a successful termination. Great versatility of idea enabled him to oppose every novel and sudden danger with new plans, while a rugged perseverance, indomitable patience, and a boldness often bordering on recklessness, carried him through all manner of physical and material obstacles. In his dealings with the Indians and his own followers, he showed an unusual tact, a quality which more than any other contributed to his success. Nothing so quickly saps the strength and tries the courage of the explorer, be he ever so bold and persevering, as cowardice and unwillingness among his followers. •

Nevertheless, Mackenzie was not a scientific explorer. Outside of the manners and customs of the various tribes with which he came in contact, only the most patent and striking phenomena of the great nature-world impressed him. No better idea of his views on this subject could be obtained than from a passage in the preface to his Voyages:

“I could not stop,” says Mackenzie, “to dig into the earth, over whose surface I was compelled to pass with rapid steps; nor could I turn aside to collect the plants which nature might have scattered on the way, when my thoughts were anxiously employed in making provision for the day that was passing over me. I had to encounter perils by land and perils by water; to watch the savage who was our guide, or to guard against those of his tribe who might meditate our destruction. I had, also, the passions and fears of others to control and subdue. To-day, I had to assuage the rising discontents, and on the morrow, to cheer the fainting spirits of the people who accompanied me. The toil of our navigation was incessant, and oftentimes extreme; and, in our progress overland, we had no protection from the severity of the elements, and possessed no accommodations or conveniences but such as could be contained in the burden on our shoulders, which aggravated the toils of our march, and added to the wearisomeness of our way.

“Though the events which compose my journals may have little in themselves to strike the imagination of those who love to be astonished, or to gratify the curiosity of such as are enamoured of romantic adventures; nevertheless, when it is considered that I explored those waters which had never before borne any other vessel than the canoe of the savage; and traversed those deserts where an European had never before presented himself to the eye of its swarthy natives; when to these considerations are added the important objects which were pursued, with the dangers that were encountered, and the difficulties that were surmounted to attain them, this work will, I flatter myself, be found to excite an interest and conciliate regard in the minds of those who peruse it.”

Thus Mackenzie writes in the preface to his journal. Nevertheless, there is no evidence throughout his works that he was learned or even interested in the sciences of botany or geology. The scientific mind becomes so much absorbed in the search for information, when surrounded by the infinite variety of nature’s productions, especially in regions hitherto unknown, that mere inconvenience, physical suffering, or imminent peril is incapable of withdrawing the attention from the chosen objects of pursuit. Whoever reads Humboldt’s narrative of travels in the equinoctial regions of South America, especially that part which pertains to his voyage on the Orinoco, will appreciate the truth of this. The stifling, humid heat of a fever-laden atmosphere, the ever present danger of sudden death from venomous serpents, ferocious alligators, or the stealthy jaguar, the very air itself darkened by innumerable swarms of mosquitoes and stinging insects, with changing varieties appearing at every hour of the day and night, were unable to force this great naturalist to resign his work.

Unfortunately, the explorer and the naturalist are not often combined in one person, notwithstanding that the fact of being one, implies a tendency toward becoming the other.

Mackenzie mentions one or two attempts previous to 1792 to cross the Rocky Mountains. No record of these expeditions is available, a circumstance that implies their termination in failure or disaster.

Up to this time the Rocky Mountains, with their awful array of saw-edged peaks covered with a dazzling white mantle of perpetual snow, had stood as the western limit of overland exploration, beyond which no European had ever passed. The Pacific Coast had already been explored by Captain Cook in 1778, and a few years later so accurately charted by Vancouver, that his work is still standard among navigators. The eastern border of the Rockies was vaguely located, but between these narrow strips there remained a vast region, four hundred miles wide, extending to the Arctic Ocean, about which little or nothing was known.

As in the case of other unexplored regions, there were vague and conflicting rumors among the Indians concerning the dangers of these upland fastnesses, accounts of hostile tribes, men partly human, partly animal in form and nature, and colossal beasts, endowed with fabulous strength and agility, from which escape was next to impossible. These Indian tales, though in great part the product of imagination or superstition, unfortunately did but partial justice to the reality, for although the reported dangers and terrors were mythical, there were real and material obstacles in the form of mountain ranges bewildering in their endless extent and complexity, between which were valleys blocked by fallen timber, and torrential streams rendered unnavigable by roaring rapids or gloomy canyons of awful depth. In fact, this region was one of the most difficult to penetrate and explore that the world could offer at that time.

Nevertheless, Mackenzie now turned his attention toward this region, resolved to traverse and explore it till he should reach the Pacific. Moreover, he was confident of success, perhaps realizing his many qualifications for such an enterprise, and certainly encouraged by the remembrance of the difficulties he had overcome during his former voyage, in 1789, to the mouth of that great river which bears his name.

Leaving Fort Chipewyan on Lake, Athabasca, he soon reached that great waterway, the Peace River, and with several canoes began to stem the moderate current of this stream, which is at this point about one fourth of a mile in width and quite deep.

The origin of names is always interesting, and that of the Peace River is said to be derived from a circumstance of Indian history. The tribe of Indians called the Knisteneux, who originally inhabited the Atlantic seaboard and the St. Lawrence valley, migrated in a northwesterly direction. In the course of this tribal movement, after reaching the centre of the continent, they at length came in contact with the Beaver Indians, and a neighboring tribe called the Slaves, at a point some fifty leagues due south from Lake Athabasca. The Knisteneux drove these tribes from their lands, the Slave Indians moving northward down the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, from wrhich circumstance the lake derives its name. The term, Slave was not applied to indicate servitude, but by .way of reproach on their unusual barbarity and destitution. The Beaver Indians moved in another direction, more to the westward, and on the ratification of peace between them and the Knisteneux, the Peace River was assigned as the boundary between them.

After proceeding for three weeks up the Peace River, Mackenzie camped for the winter at a point previously decided on, and early in the following spring recommenced his “voyage,” as these inland water journeys are called. Mackenzie was accompanied by Alexander Mackay, one of the officers of the Northwest Company. The crew consisted of six Canadian voyageurs, and the party was completed by two Indians, who, it was intended, should act as interpreters and hunters. A single canoe, twenty-five feet long and not quite five feet in extreme breadth, served to carry the entire party, in addition to three thousand pounds of baggage and provisions.

It would be entirely aside from our purpose to narrate in detail the many interesting adventures and narrow escapes of the party. A single incident will serve to throw some light on the perils and toils that were encountered. At the time of the incident in question, they had crossed the watershed by following the south branch of the Peace River to its source, and were now descending a mad torrent which runs westward, and is tributary to the Fraser River, which latter Mackenzie mistook for the Columbia.

It was on the morning of the 13th of June, and the canoe had proceeded but a short distance, when it struck, and, turning sidewise, broke on a stone. Mackenzie and all the men jumped into the water at once, and endeavored to stop the canoe and turn it round. But almost immediately she was swept into deeper water, where it became necessary for everybody to scramble aboard with the greatest celerity. In this uncertain contest, one of the men was left in mid-stream to effect a passage to shore in the best way he could.

“We had hardly regained our situations,” writes Mackenzie, “when we drove against a rock, which shattered the stern of the canoe in such a manner that it held only by the gunwales, so that the steersman could no longer keep his place. The violence of this stroke drove us to the opposite side of the river, which is but narrow, when the bow met with the same fate as the stern. At this moment the foreman seized on some branches of a small tree, in the hope of bringing up the canoe, but such was their elasticity that, in a manner not easily described, he was jerked on shore in an instant, and with a degree of violence that threatened his destruction. But we had no time to turn from our own situation to inquire what had befallen him; for, in a few moments, we came across a cascade, which broke several large holes in the bottom of the canoe, and started all the bars, except one behind the scooping seat. If this accident, however, had not happened, the vessel must have been irretrievably overset. The wreck becoming flat on the water, we all jumped out, while the steersman, who had been compelled to abandon his place, and had not recovered from his fright, called out to his companions to save themselves. My peremptory commands superseded the effects of his fear, and they all held fast to the wreck; to which fortunate resolution we owed our safety, as we should otherwise have been dashed against the rocks by the force of the water, or driven over the cascades. In this condition we were forced several hundred yards, and every yard on the verge of destruction ; but, at length, we most fortunately arrived in shallow water and a small eddy, where we were enabled to make a stand, from the weight of the canoe resting on the stones,' rather than from any exertions of our exhausted strength. For, though our efforts were short, they were pushed to the utmost, as life or death depended on them.”

At this juncture, the Indians, instead of making any effort to assist the others, sat down and shed tears, though it is considered a mortal disgrace among Indians to weep except when intoxicated.

On the 22d of July, after encountering countless trials and the dangers of savage foes, no less than the obstacles of nature, Mackenzie reached an arm of the sea in latitude 520 20' 48", where on a rocky cliff he inscribed this brief legend in vermilion: “Alexander Mackenzie from Canada by land, the 22d of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three.”

The next day, when alone, he was nearly murdered by a band of Indians, but escaped by his agility and by a fortunate momentary hesitation on the part of the savages.

Mackenzie’s return journey was over the same route that he had first taken, and required but four weeks to traverse the mountains.

In reading a detailed account of this voyage, one is impressed with the many perils encountered, no less than the ofttimes remarkable and fortunate escapes from them. It is so with the journals of nearly all great travellers. They recount an endless succession of dangers and adventures by sea and land, from which, though often in the very jaws of death by reason of the operations of nature and the elements, the traveller ever eventually escapes, apparently in defiance of the laws of chance and probability. But we must bear in mind the great host of travellers who have never returned, and whose unfinished journals are lost forever to mankind.

The remotest corners of the earth have been mute witnesses to these tragedies. The inhospitable, rock-bound shores of lonely islands, or low-lying sands of coral reefs, where the ceaseless ocean billows thunder in everlasting surf, have beheld the expiring struggles of many a bold navigator. The colossal bergs and crushing ice of polar seas ; hurricanes and typhoons in tropic latitudes; the horrors of fire at sea; the broad wastes of continents; trackless desert sands, where, under a scorching sun, objects on the distant horizon dance in the waving air, and portray mirage pictures of lakes and streams to the thirsty traveller; deep, cool forests bewildering in the endless maze of trees; piercing winter storms, with cutting winds and driving snows; the blood-thirsty pack of famishing wolves; rivers, dangerous to navigate, with impetuous current swirling and roaring in fearful rapids,— all these have their records of death and disaster.

But of them all, man has ever been the worst destroyer. The hostile savage, the mutinous crew, or treacherous guide have proved far more cruel, revengeful, and cunningly destructive than the catastrophes of nature, whose mute, dead forces act out their laws in accordance with the great plan of the universe, unguided by motives of hate, and envy, and the wicked devices of human passions.

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