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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

A young Highlander—To rival Hearne—Fort Chipewyan built— French Canadian voyageurs—Trader Leroux—Perils of the route —Post erected on Arctic Coast—Return journey—Pond's miscalculations—Hudson Bay Turner—Roderick McKenzie's hospitality —Alexander Mackenzie—Astronomy and mathematics—Winters on Peace River—Terrific journey—The Pacific slope—Dangerous Indians—Pacific Ocean, 1793—North-West passage by land— Great achievement—A notable book.

One of the chiefs of the fur traders seems to have had a higher ambition than simply to carry back to Grand Portage canoes overflowing with furs. Alexander Mackenzie had the restless spirit that made him a very uncertain partner in the great schemes of McTavish, Frobisher & Co., and led him to seek for glory in the task of exploration. Coming as a young Highlander to Montreal, he had early been so appreciated for his ability as to be sent by Gregory, McLood & Co. to conduct their enterprise in Detroit. Then we have seen that, refusing to enter the McTavish Company, he had gone to Churchill River for the Gregory Company. The sudden union of all the Montreal Companies (1787) caused, as already noted, by Pond's murder of Ross, led to Alexander Mackenzie being placed in charge in that year of the department of Athabasca. The longed-for opportunity had now come to Mackenzie. He hoard from the Indians and others of how Samuel Hearne, less than twenty years before, on behalf of their great rivals, the Hudson's Bay Company, had returned by way of Lake Athabasca from his discovery of the Coppermine River. Ho longed to reach the Arctic Sea by another river of which he had heard, and eclipse the discovery of his rival. He even had it in view to seek the Pacific Ocean, of which he was constantly hearing from the Indians, where white men wearing armour were to be met—no doubt meaning the Spaniards,

Mackenzie proceeded in a very deliberate way to prepare for his long journey. Having this expedition in view, he secured the appointment of his cousin, Roderick McKenzie, to his own department. Reaching Lake Athabasca, Roderick McKenzie selected a promontory running out some three miles into the lake, and here built (1788) Fort Chipewyan, it being called from the Indians who chiefly frequented the district. It became the most important fort of the north country, being at the converging point of trade on the great watercourses of the north-west.

On June 3rd, 1789, Alexander Mackenzie started on his first exploration. In his own birch-bark canoe was a crew of seven. His crew is worthy of being particularized. It consisted of four French Canadians, with the wives of two of them. These voyageurs were Francois Barrieau, Charles Ducette, or Cadien, Joseph Landry, or Cadien, Pierre de Lorme. To complete the number was John Steinbruck, a German. The second canoe contained the guide of the expedition, an Indian, called the "English chief," who was a great trader, and had frequented year by year the route to the English, on Hudson Bay. In his canoe were his two wives, and two young Indians. In a third canoe was trader Leroux, who was to accompany the explorer as far north as Slave Lake, and dispose of the goods he took for furs. Leroux was under orders from his chief to build a fort on Slave Lake.

Starting on June 3rd, the party left the lake, finding their way down Slave River, which they already knew. Day after day they Journeyed, suffered from myriads of mosquitoes, passed the steep mountain portage, and, undergoing many hardships, reached Slave Lake in nine days.

Skirting the lake, they departed north by an unknown river. This was the object of Mackenzie's search. Floating down the stream, the Horn Mountains were seen, portage after portage was crossed, the mouth of the foaming Great Slave Lake River was passed, the snowy mountains came in view in the distance, and the party, undeterred, pressed forward on their voyage of discovery.

The usual incidents of early travel were experienced. The accidents, though not serious, were numerous ; the scenes met with were all new ; the natives were surprised at the bearded stranger ; the usual deception and fickleness were displayed by the Indians, only to be overcome by the firmness and tact of Mackenzie; and forty days after starting, the expedition looked out upon the floating ice of the Arctic Ocean. Mackenzie, on the morning of July 14th, erected a post on the shore, on which he engraved the latitude of the place (69 deg. 14' N.), his own name, the number of persons in the party, and the time they remained there.

His object having been thus accomplished, the important matter was to reach Lake Athabasca in the remaining days of the open season. The return journey had the usual experiences, and on August 24th they came upon Leroux on Slave Lake, where that trader had erected Fort Providence. On September 12th the expedition arrived safely at Fort Chipe-wyan, the time of absence having been 102 days. The story of this journey is given in a graphic and unaffected manner by Mackenzie in his work of 1801, but no mention is made of his own name being attached to the river which he had discovered.

We have stated that Peter Pond had prepared a map of the north country, with the purpose of presenting it to the Empress of Russia. Being a man of great energy, he was not deterred from this undertaking by the fact that he had no knowledge of astronomical instruments and little of the art of map-making. His statements were made on the basis of reports from the Indians, whose custom was always to make the leagues short, that they might boast of the length of their Journeys. Computing in this way, he made Lake Athabasca so far from Hudson Bay and the Grand Portage that, taking Captain Cook's observations on the Pacific Coast four years before this, the lake was only, according to his calculations, a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The effect of Pond's calculations, which became known in the Treaty of Paris, was to stimulate the Hudson's Bay Company to follow up Hearne's discoveries and to explore the country west of Lake Athabasca. They attempted this in 1785, but they sent out a boy of fifteen, named George Charles, who had been one year at a mathematical school, and had never made there more than simple observations. As was to have been expected, the boy proved incompetent. Urged on by the Colonial Office, they again in 1791 organized an expedition to send Astronomer Philip to Turner to make the western journey. Unaccustomed to the Far West, and poorly provided for this journey, Turner found himself at Fort Chipewyan entirely dependent for help and shelter on the Nor'-Westers. He was, however, qualified for his work, and made correct observations, which settled the question of the distance of the Pacific Ocean. Mr. Roderick McKenzie showed him every hospitality. This expedition served at least to show that the Pacific was certainly five times the distance from Lake Athabasca that Pond had estimated.

After coming back from the Arctic Sea, Alexander Mackenzie spent his time in urging forward the business of the fur trade, especially north of Lake Athabasca; but there was burning in his breast the desire to be the discoverer of the Western Sea. The voyage of Turner made him still more desirous of going to the West.

Like Hearne, Alexander Mackenzie had found the want of astronomical knowledge and the lack of suitable instruments a great drawback in determining his whereabouts from day to day. With remarkable energy, he, in the year 1791, journeyed eastward to Canada, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to London, and spent the winter in acquiring the requisite mathematical knowledge and a sufficient acquaintance with instruments to enable him to take observations.

He was now prepared to make his journey to the Pacific Ocean. He states that the courage of his party had been kept up on their reaching the Arctic Sea, by the thought that they were approaching the Mer de l'Ouest, which, it will be remembered, Verendrye had sought with such passionate desire.

In the very year in which Mackenzie returned from Great Britain, his great purpose to reach the Pacific Coast led him to make his preparations in the autumn, and on October 10th, 1792, to leave Fort Chipewyan and proceed as far up Peace River as the farthest settlement, and there winter, to be ready for an early start in the following spring. On his way he overtook Mr. Finlay, the younger, and called upon him in his camp near the fort, where he was to trade for the winter. Leaving Mr. Finlay "under several volleys of musketry." Mackenzie pushed on and reached the spot where the men had been despatched in the preceding spring to square timber for a house and cut palisades to fortify it. Here, where the Boncave joins the main branch of the Peace River, the fort was erected. His own house was not ready for occupation before December 23rd, and the body of the men went on after that date to erect five houses for which the material had been prepared. Troubles were plentiful; such as the quarrelsomeness of the natives, the killing of an Indian, and in the latter part of the winter severe cold. In May, Mackenzie despatched six canoes laden with furs for Fort Chipewyan.

The somewhat cool reception that Mackenzie had received from the other partners at Grand Portage, when on a former occasion he had given an account of his voyage to the Arctic Sea, led him to be doubtful whether his confreres would fully approve the great expedition on which ho was determined to go. He was comparatively a young man, and he knew that there were many of the traders jealous of him. Still, his determined character led him to hold to his plan, and his great energy urged him to make a name for himself.

Mackenzie had found much difficulty in securing guides and voyageurs. The trip proposed was so difficult that the bravest shrank from it. The explorer had, however, great confidence in his colleague, Alexander Mackay, who had arrived at the Forks a few weeks before the departure. Mackay was a most experienced and shrewd man. After faithfully serving his Company, he entered, as we shall see, the Astor Fur Company in 1811, and was killed among the first in the fierce attack on the ship Tonquin, which was captured by the natives. Mackenzie's crew was the best he could obtain, and their names have become historic. There were besides Mackay, Joseph Landry and Charles Ducette, two voyageurs of the former expedition, Baptiste Bisson, Francois Courtois, Jacques Beauchamp, and Francois Beaulieu, the last of whom died so late as 1872, aged nearly one hundred years, probably the oldest man in the North-West at the time. Archbishop Taché gives an interesting account of Beaulieu's baptism at the age of seventy. Two Indians completed the party, one of whom had been so idle a lad, that he bore till his dying day the unenviable name of "Cancre"—the crab.

Having taken, on the day of his departure, the latitude and longitude of his winter post, Mackenzie started on May 9th, 1793, for his notable voyage. Seeing on the banks of the river elk, buffalo, and bear, the expedition pushed ahead, meeting the difficulties of navigation with patience and skill. The murmurs of his men and the desire to turn back made no impression on Mackenzie, who, now that his Highland blood was up, determined to see the journey through. The difficulties of navigation became extreme, and at times the canoes had to be drawn up stream by the branches of trees.

At length in longitude 121° W. Mackenzie reached a lake, which he considered the head of the Ayugal or Peace River. Here the party landed, unloaded the canoes, and by a portage of half-a-mile on a well-beaten path, came upon another small lake. From this lake the explorers followed a small river, and here the guide deserted the party. On June 17th the members of the expedition enjoyed, after all their toil and anxiety, the "inexpressible satisfaction of finding themselves on the bank of a navigable river on the west side of the first great range of mountains."

Running rapids, breaking canoes, re-ascending streams, quieting discontent, building new canoes, disturbing tribes of surprised Indians, and urging on his discouraged band, Mackenzie persistently kept on his way. He was descending on Tacoutche Tesse, afterwards known as the Fraser River. Finding that the distance by this river was too great, he turned back. At the point where he took this step (June 23rd) was afterwards built Alexandria Fort, named after the explorer. Leaving the great river, the party crossed the country to what Mackenzie called the West Road River. For this land journey, begun on July 4th, the explorers were provided with food. After sixteen days of a most toilsome journey, they at length came upon an arm of the sea. The Indians near the coast seemed very troublesome, but the courage of Mackenzie never failed him. It was represented to him that the natives "were as numerous as mosquitoes and of a very malignant character."

His destination having been reached, the commander mixed up some vermilion in melted grease and inscribed in large characters on the south-east face of the rock, on which they passed the night, "Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three."

After a short rest the well-repaid explorers began their homeward journey. To ascend the Pacific slope was a toilsome and discouraging undertaking, but the energy which had enabled them to come through an unknown road easily led them back by a way that had now lost its uncertainty. Mackenzie says that when "we reached the downward current of the Peace River and came in view of Fort McLeod, we threw out our flag and accompanied it with a general discharge of firearms, while the men were in such spirits and made such an active use of their paddles, that we arrived before the two men whom we left in the spring could recover their senses to answer us. Thus we landed at four in the afternoon at the place which we left in the month of May. In another month (August 24th) Fort Chipewyan was reached, where the following winter was spent in trade.

It is hard to estimate all the obstacles overcome and the great service rendered in the two voyages of Alexander Mackenzie. Readers of the "North-West Passage by Land" will remember the pitiable plight in which Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle, nearly seventy years afterwards, reached the coast. Mackenzie's journey was more difficult, but the advantage lay with the fur-traders in that they were experts in the matters of North-West travel. Time and again, Mackenzie's party became discouraged. When the Pacific slope was reached, and the voyageurs saw the waters begin to run away from the country with which they were acquainted, their fears were aroused, and it was natural that they should bo unwilling to proceed further.

Sir Alexander MacKenzie and Danial William Harmon

Mackenzie had, however, all the instincts of a brave and tactful leader. On one occasion he was compelled to take a stand and declare that if his party deserted him, he would go on alone. This at once aroused their admiration and sympathy, and they offered to follow him. At the point on the great river where he turned back, the Indians were exceedingly hostile. His firmness and perfect self-control showed the same spirit that is found in all great leaders in dealing with savage or semi-civilized races. Men like Frontenac, Mackenzie, and General Gordon seemed to have a charmed life which enabled them to exercise a species of mesmeric influence over half-trained or entirely uncultivated minds.

From the wider standpoint, knowledge was supplied as to the country lying between the two great oceans, and while it did not, as we know from the voyages seeking a North-West Passage in this century, lay the grim spectre of an Arctic channel, yet it was a fulfilment of Verendrye's dream, and to Alexander Mackenzie, a Canadian bourgeois, a self-made man, aided by his Scotch and French associates, had come the happy opportunity of discovering "La Grande Mer de l'Ouest."

Alexander Mackenzie, filled with the sense of the importance of his discovery, determined to give it to the world, and spent the winter at Fort Chipewyan in preparing the material. In this he was much assisted by his cousin, Roderick McKenzie, to whom he sent the Journal for revision and improvement. Early in the year 1794, the distinguished explorer left Lake Athabasca, journeyed over to Grand Portage, and a year afterward revisited his native land. He never returned to the "Upper Country," as the Athabasca region was called, but became one of the agents of the fur-traders in Montreal, never coming farther toward the North-west than to be present at the annual gatherings of the traders at Grand Portage. The veteran explorer continued in this position till the time when he crossed the Atlantic and published his well-known "Voyages from Montreal," dedicated to "His Most Sacred Majesty George the Third." The book, while making no pretensions to literary attainment, is yet a clear, succinct, and valuable account of the fur trade and his own expeditions. It was the work which excited the interest of Lord Selkirk in Rupert's Land and which has become a recognized authority.

In 1801 this work of Alexander Mackenzie was published, and the order of knighthood was conferred upon the successful explorer. On his return to Canada, Sir Alexander engaged in strong opposition to the North-West Company and became a member of the Legislative Assembly for Huntingdon County, in Lower Canada. He lived in Scotland during the last years of his life, and died in the same year as the Earl of Selkirk, 1820. Thus passed away a man of independent mind and of the highest distinction. His name is fixed upon a region that is now coming into greater notice than ever before.

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