Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

MacKenzie, Selkirk, Simpson
Sir Alexander McKenzie

Chapter VII - Winter on Peace River

HIS object in Great Britain having been gained, Alexander Mackenzie returned during the summer in time for the great meeting at Grand Portage in August; and the affairs of the traders being arranged for another year, he hurried back to Athabaska to meet his cousin and talk over future plans. His design, until then kept secret, was made known. He had early in the season sent word to Fort Chipewyan that a small party should be sent on to Peace River to cut square timber for a house, go on with its construction, and surround it with palisades.

This was not the first expedition to Peace River, for it will be remembered Alexander Mackenzie sent, in 1788, trader Boyer to found a post on the Peace River, where the soil is exceedingly fertile and the climate mild enough to allow the growth of turnips, carrots, parsnips, and potatoes. The spot selected by Boyer had in the four intervening years already gained the name of the "Old Establishment."

On October 10th, 1792, Mackenzie, having arranged to leave Fort Chipewyan under his cousin Roderick's control, prepared to push on to his winter quarters on Peace River. Steering west his two canoes, which were laden with his men and the necessary articles for trade, Mackenzie came to the Vail River, which afforded a passage to Peace River, and in two days was on his way up the Peace River itself. Peace Point was soon reached, this name having been given to a portion of the bank of the river formerly in dispute between the Kinistilicaux (Crees) and the Beaver Indians. Here the quarrel had been settled, and the spot was henceforth memorable. The falls of Peace River, twenty feet high, were avoided by a portage, and the party soon came to the Old Establishment. Mr. Finlay, the Nor'-West trader who had just reached the fort over which he was placed, was overtaken by Mackenzie's party.

On the tenth day after his departure from Fort Chipewyan Alexander Mackenzie reached Finlay's Fort, and was received with the firing of guns and. much demonstration. About this fort, under Finlay's charge, there was an Indian population of three hundred, sixty of whom were hunters. Waiting for two or three days Mackenzie found them coming in till their full numbers were well-nigh reached. During the whole summer it was the custom of the Nor'-westers to give no spirits to the Indians, but now on the approach of winter they made known their desires to the great white chief. Mackenzie thus describes his method of dealing with them:-

"As they very soon expressed their desire of the expected regale, I called them together to the number of forty-two hunters, or men capable of bearing arms, to offer some advice, which would be equally advantageous to them and to us, and I strengthened my admonition with a nine-gallon cask of reduced rum, and a quantity of tobacco. At the same time I observed that as I should not often visit them I had instanced a greater degree of liberality than they had been accustomed to."

As the ice was beginning to set on the river, Mackenzie, after spending five days with Finlay, took his leave amid the firing of musketry, having sent on his two loaded canoes two days in advance for fear of the ice.

The next place of interest reached by the explorer was the forks of the Peace River. Here the river was seen to come from two directions, one east, the other, twice its size, from the west. Pursuing the larger branch for six miles to the south-west, the spot already selected for -winter quarters was reached. the place was well chosen, on the high banks of the Peace River. Cypress, arrowwood, and thorn trees covered the banks. On either side of the river, though hidden by the trees, were extensive plains, and on these buffaloes, elks, wolves, foxes, and bears abounded. Far to the -vest was to be seen a ridge called Deer Mountain, and here, as the name implied, great numbers of deer were found.

As soon as the explorer's tent was pitched he gathered the Indians together, and sought to gain their favour by giving each four inches of Brazil tobacco and a dram of spirits, and by smoking the pipe of peace with them. He then addressed them, saying that he understood they had troubled the former bourgeois, and reproved them for this, though assuring them that lie would treat them kindly if they deserved it, but severely if they shoved carelessness or opposition. After bestowing more presents of the same kind, lie had assurance from them of the greatest devotion and of pride that lie had seen fit to visit them.

The explorer was kept busy till November 7th settling matters with the Indian hunters, and fitting them out for the winter catch. This done he immediately began the erection of his houses. The men sent on early in the season had been most industrious, and had cut and squared enough palisades eighteen feet long and seven inches in diameter to enclose a. square of one hundred and twenty feet; they had dug a ditch three feet wide to receive the pickets ; and had also prepared timber and planks enough for the erection of a house.

On the sixteenth of the month the ice stopped running in the other branch of the river, the tongue between the two being only a league across. The same thing happened to the stream in front of their fort six days afterwards, and the freezing of the streams enabled the hunters to move about more freely, and to secure a plentiful supply of fresh meat, although as there was no sleighing, the game had to be carried home in a very toilsome manner on the shoulders of the men.

Mackenzie was called upon to exercise his medical skill in curing his people of several acute diseases, but all those in health were kept hard at work upon the houses. A young Indian had lost the use of his right hand by the bursting of a gun. He was brought to Mackenzie in a very bad state. Poulticing, salveing, and burning away the proud flesh with vitriol, the explorer succeeded, by this most heroic treatment, in saving the young man's life and gaining the confidence of all his friends. A murder occurred among the Indians and threw out the trader's plans for gathering furs, as all disappeared for a time lest they should be punished by the masterful man.

Until November 2nd Mackenzie took observations of the temperature with the thermometer; upon the coldest morning it registered 160 below zero. He was, however, much gratified during this inclement season, to be saluted by the singing of birds as he walked through the woods. Two days before Christmas the explorer's house was ready, and he willingly deserted his tent to occupy the rugged mansion.

Towards the end of the month what is known as a Chinook wind came sweeping down the Peace River from the west side of the mountains. It carne with the force of a hurricane, licked up every particle of snow, and covered with water the ice on the river. New Year's Day, which was not quite so wild, was observed according to the usual western custom of firing guns at the break of day. A moderate allowance of ruin and cakes was provided for all.

Early in February the weather became very cold, and continued so for six weeks. None too soon for the impetuous and impatient explorer, the middle of April brought the marvellous season so well known in the North-West when winter merges suddenly into summer. The trees were in bud, and many plants were in bloom. On the twenty-fifth of that month the river was clear of ice.

A preliminary step to the great exploration he had in view was to settle up the fur trade for the winter. The furs were all gathered and packed securely for the long transport to Grand Portage. The two old canoes were repaired, and four new ones built. On May 8th the hunters and canoemen who could be spared were dispatched in these six canoes, which were filled with furs and provisions, and with a full bundle of public and private despatches to his cousin Roderick on Lake Athabaska, to be transmitted by him to the great assize of the traders at Grand Portage.

Now for the West! Mackenzie's astronomical observations were now of some value. He tested carefully the instruments which he was to use on his long ,journey to the western sea. He was now ready for embarkation, for he had worked out the details thoroughly during the winter. A monster canoe, twenty-five feet long, of twenty-six inches hold and four feet nine inches beam, and yet light enough for two men to carry without fatigue for miles, was to transport the whole party and their belongings, provisions, goods for presents, arms, ammunition and baggage to the weight of three thousand pounds.
The crew was to consist of ten persons. Their names deserve to be mentioned. After the great explorer came his lieutenant—Alexander Mackay, of Reay—who relieved Mackenzie of much responsibility. He was an able man, and was chief among the notable traders who afterwards carried out the plans of John Jacob Astor on the Pacific coast. Mackay's career was afterwards arrested all too soon ; he was killed on the Tonquin—a story of the coast known to all. Two of Mackenzie's faithful French-Canadians—Joseph Landry and Charles Ducette, who had accompanied him on his former voyage were ready to follow him on the present occasion. Four others also stood willing to go. These were Baptiste Bissoii, Francois Courtois, .Jacques Beauchamp, and Francois Beaulieu, the last of whom died as late as 1872, aged nearly one hundred years, probably the oldest man in the North-West at the time. Archbishop Tache gives an interesting account of Beaulieu's baptism at the age of seventy. Two Indians complete the list. One of these was so indolent that he bore the name of cancre—the crab.

One of the things that constantly causes our wonder as we read the records of North-West exploration, both by Nor'-Westers and their rivals from Hudson Bay, is the magnitude of the results achieved by men so poorly provided with even the necessaries of life and travel. Here were ten men about to undertake a terrific journey of more than three hundred leagues through a country partly unknown, and such of it as was known presenting enormous difficulties. Mountain torrents must be stemmed or circumvented, vast regions must be traversed where game was reported scarce, and Indians, famed for fierceness and deceit, must for the first time be taught fear or respect for the adventurous intruders upon their hitherto unmolested domain.

That man was of heroic mould who could originate such an expedition, and could inspire other men to face such dangers, where lofty purpose and over-mastering ambition could alone nerve him through the discouraging and even desperate periods of his journey. And yet how simple and natural the explorer's account of the beginning of so great and difficult an expedition: "My winter interpreter, with another person, whom I left here to take care of the fort, and supply the natives with ammunition during the summer, shed tears on the reflection of those dangers which we might encounter iii our expedition, while my own people offered up their prayers that we might return safely from it."

Return to Book Contents Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.