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MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie


"I SING arms and the hero," the words used by Virgil to introduce his great story of valour and heroism in the far Mediterranean may be as truly applied by us in beginning an account of deeds and men in the rise and struggles of frontier life in the far west of North America. The picturesque and heroic are not confined to any age or clime; indeed, they are characteristic in a peculiar degree of the early days of occupation of the American continent. The conflict of the two great cur companies, which carried on a trade covering the vast expanse of British North America, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, brings before us operations extending over distances before which Ceasar's invasions or even Alexander's great marches shrink into insignificance.

The now venerable Hudson's Bay Company, which we recognize to-day as having a history of two and a quarter centuries, had spent the first century of its rule satisfied with its place of pre-eminence on the shores of Hudson Bay, had declared several enormous dividends, and had begun to consider its right prescriptive to the trade brought by the Indians down the rivers, even from the Rocky Mountains, two thousand miles to the west. It was a beautiful thing to see the fealty with which the northern Indians, the Crees and Chipewyans, and the Eskimos as well, regarded the English traders, and brought to them at York Factory and Fort Churchill the marten, fox and beaver skins caught, by their shrewdness and ceaseless energy, on the rivers and in the forests of the vast interior. The taking of French Canada by the English relieved the company for one or two decades from any show of competition which may have affected them on their southern border during the French regime.

But as Canada began to receive adventurous spirits from Scotland, England, and the American colonies, it became evident to the traders of Hudson Bay that new opponents not to be despised would have to be met and dealt with. The Scottish merchants of Montreal, many of whom had the blood and spirit of the Highland clans that had fought at Culloden, and Englishmen, who had braved the hardships of the American frontier and had come to Canada to try their fortunes, looked towards the fur country as a new field for adventure and profit. Men of this class are proverbially men of daring and of self-confidence. In frequent contact with the Indians, encountering the big game of the Woods, crossing deep rivers, and running dangerous rapids, accustomed, in short, to all the hardships of the border country, the frontiersman is full of spirit and resource.

Accordingly, a few years after the conquest, Curry, Finlay, Henry, sen., and many others whose names are well known, started from Montreal with their companies of Indians and French-Canadians, and, going up the Ottawa River and Great Lakes, fixed their eyes on the star of hope in the far north. Verendrye, a French explorer, had led the way inland from Lake Superior, thirty or forty years before, though he and his followers had never gone north of the Saskatchewan. The merchants of Montreal thought nothing of penetrating farther to the north; so, leaving the Saskatchewan behind, they planned a flank movement on the Hudson's Bay Company, which would completely cut off from them the great bodies of Indians who came down the English River or the Saskateliewan to the forts on Hudson Bay.

True, a few years before this plan was undertaken, the Hudson's Bay Company, no doubt preparing to gird itself for the fray, had sent an ardent explorer, Samuel Hearne, afterwards known as the "'Mungo Park' of Canada," to explore the interior, conciliate the Indians, and ascertain the possibility of increasing trade. After two absolute failures, Hearne gained, on his third journey from Hudson Bay, Lake Atliapapuskow, probably Great Slave Lake; and, going north-eastward, he discovered the Copper Mine River, and reached the shore of the Arctic Sea. This was a worthy achievement, and it was three years after this that Thomas and Joseph Frobisher, two merchants from Montreal, in furtherance of the plan spoken of, built (1772) a fur trader's fort at Sturgeon Lake on the Saskatchewan River, where the northern lakes and watercourses make a connection with the Churchill or English River, which runs down to Hudson Bay.

This was a strategic point of first importance. North, east, and west it commanded the approaches; and it was a stroke of genius when the brothers Frobisher erected their simple log fort at this point, and prepared to wage a war worthy of the giants. Hearne and his colleagues at Fort Churchill were not long in hearing of the intruders and their plans; in fact, friendly Indians in a single season blazed the news on the very shore of Hudson Bay. Hearne lost no time in taking up the gage of battle thrown to him by the Frobishers. Going to Pine Island Lake, the western arm of the Sturgeon, within five hundred yards of the fort built by the Montrealers, he began (1774) the erection of Fort Cumberland, a trading-post well known to the present day.

It was a fateful year when first two forts, the embodiment of rival interests, stood face to face, a few hundred yards apart, on the Saskatchewan River, the great artery of Rupert's Land. Then and there was begun a conflict which for well-nigh half a century stirred the passions of violent and headstrong Then, urged to its height one of the most celebrated competitions of modern times, introduced the fire-water—the curse of the poor Indian —as a means of advancing trade, and dyed with the blood of some of the best men of both companies the snows of Athabaska, the banks of the Saskatchewan, the rocky shores of Lake Superior, and the fertile soil of the prairies on the Red River of the North.

At the very time when the thirteen English colonies on the Atlantic shore were precipitating a fratricidal conflict, in which families were divided, neighbours alienated, and English-speaking colonists separated into hostile camps, in the far north a company of Englishmen from Hudson Bay were turning their weapons against Englishmen in Canada, both speaking the salve tongue, respecting the same laws, and flying the same flag.

Seventeen hundred and seventy-four and its succeeding years thus presented the sad spectacle of Anglo-Saxon interests, both in the Atlantic colonies and in Rupert's Land, in a state of fiercest conflict and division, from the tropics to the Arctic circle, from the Gulf of Mexico to the icy sea.

The Hudson's Bay Company had been averse to entering on a conflict which promised to be so severe and destructive of successful trade, but the Montreal traders were aggressive. Frobisher's men had penetrated to Lake Athabaska and built forts in the surrounding region. But the English company, with enormous energy, pushed forward its plans and built its forts. It took hold of the Assiniboine and Red River country, and built famous forts, such as Brandon House, Edmonton House, Carlton House, and trading-posts at the mouth of Winnipeg River, on Rainy Lake, and even in the country now included in Minnesota. The great distance of these trading-houses from each other well shows how thoroughly the Hudson's Bay Company had covered the country, for each of these centres carried with it a number of subordinate posts.

The Montreal traders were no less energetic. In fact, though the Hudson's Bay Company had a higher reputation with the Indians, and though the English company could reach the interior earlier in the spring, yet the dash and spirit and acquaintance with the country of the Canadian traders made them, in organization and trading ability, more than a match for their rivals. Finding the need of strengthening themselves, the several firms of merchants who were trading from Montreal agreed to unite in 1783-4. The prospect of peace and cooperation was, however, immediately destroyed by some of the selfish and unworthy elements of the new company breaking away from it, and with the help of other Montreal merchants organizing an opposition.

Four years afterwards a cruel murder was perpetrated in the Saskatchewan region, by Pond, the marplot who had divided the company, and so great was the fear and confusion caused by this act that the three Montreal companies effected a union in 1787 into one North-West Company. New posts and a great impulse to trade resulted from this union. The trade, which at the time of union amounted to £40,000, by the end of the century had increased to three tinges that sum. The last quarter of the eighteenth century thus saw the English and the Canadian fur companies, side by side, occupying the vast interior of Rupert's Land, and even crossing the Rocky Mountains in search of trade.

Into the Canadian company, among the young Scotsmen who were attracted to Canada by the fur trade, entered a young Highland adventurer, Alexander Mackenzie by name. He at once rose to prominence, and became a determined and perhaps rather aggressive and irreconcilable element among the Nor'-Nesters in the Protean phases of their exciting history. The nineteenth century had just dawned as Alexander Mackenzie published in London an account of his great discovery. The book had ardent readers in Great Britain. One of these was a young Scottish nobleman, Thomas, Earl of Selkirk, who had a lofty imagination and a high public spirit. The book of travels excited in the young peer the spirit of adventure, and led to his embarking on a great scheme of emigration. In a few years, to further his emigration plans, Lord Selkirk gained a controlling interest in the Hudson's Bay Company, being opposed in this by Alexander Mackenzie, who held a quantity of stock in the English company. [The second part of this book narrates in detail the circumstances connected with Lord Selkirk's great project.] Lord Selkirk organized his colony under the auspices of the Hudson's Bay Company, though opposed by Mackenzie and others of the Nor'-Westers. But, as we shall presently learn, colonizer and fur trader could not at all agree. Their aims, methods, and interests were not to be reconciled, and blood ran plentifully on the bleak plains of Rupert's Land to the disgrace of both parties, who claimed the shelter of the British flag.

The imperial and Canadian authorities were both compelled to interfere. Lord Selkirk, wearied and harassed by conflicts, lawsuits, and misunderstandings, returned home to die. With sympathetic interest in this conflict from the other side, Alexander Mackenzie, far away in Britain, spent his declining years, until, in the same year, (1820) the opposing leaders passed away.

The following year saw more peaceable counsels prevail, and the two companies united under the name of the older organization as the Hudson's Bay Company. Just as the union was effected a new force appeared in the trader's clerk, George Simpson, who, as governor, was destined to unite the discordant elements, and in a career of nearly forty years to raise the united companies to a position of greatest influence.

We ask the patient attention of our readers, as with some detail we set forth the life, work, and influence of these three representatives of the great fur companies, viz., Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the Earl of Selkirk, and Sir George Simpson.

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