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Pioneers in Canada by Sir Harry Johnston

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Atlantic to the Pacific, north of Mexico.


Mackenzie's Successors

The Spaniards of California had been aware in the middle of the
eighteenth century that there was a big river entering the sea to the
north of the savage country known as Oregon. The estuary of this river
was reached in May, 1792, by an American sea captain of a whaling
ship--ROBERT GRAY, of Boston. He crossed the bar, and named the great
stream after his own ship, the _Columbia_. Five months afterwards
(October, 1792) Lieutenant BROUGHTON, of the Vancouver expedition,
entered the Columbia from the sea, explored it upstream for a hundred
miles, and formally took possession of it for the King of Great
Britain. The news of this discovery reached Alexander Mackenzie (no
doubt after his return from his overland journey to the Pacific
coast), and he at once jumped to the conclusion that the powerful
stream he had discovered in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and had
partially followed on its way to the Pacific, must be the Columbia. As
a matter of fact it was the river afterwards called Fraser.

If you look at the map of British North America, and then at the map
of Russian Asia--Siberia--you will notice a marked difference in the
arrangement of the waterways. Those of the Canadian Dominion, on the
whole, flow more eastwards and westwards, or at any rate radiate in
all directions, so as to constitute the most wonderful system of
natural canals possessed by any country or continent. On the contrary,
the rivers of Siberia flow usually in somewhat parallel lines from
south to north. Siberia also is far less well provided than British
North America with an abundance of navigable rivers, streams, and
great lakes. Therefore the traveller in pre-railway days wishing to
cross Siberia from west to east or east to west was obliged to have
recourse to wheeled traffic, to ride, or to walk. Consequently, until
the beginning of the twentieth century, the "exploitation" (or turning
to useful account) of Siberia was a far more difficult process than
the development of North America, once the question of British
_versus_ French or Spanish was settled. Siberia at one time was almost
as rich in fur-bearing animals as British North America; yet so
difficult was transport (and so severe were the rigours of the
climate) that the Russians, once they reached the shores of the
Pacific at the beginning of the eighteenth century, began to stretch
out their influence to the opposite peninsula of Alaska mainly on
account of the fur trade. For it was easier and less expensive to
bring furs from Alaska round Cape Horn, or the Cape of Good Hope, to
Europe than to convey them overland from eastern Siberia. Then, also,
the Chinese market was becoming of importance to the fur trade.
Already Mackenzie, at the end of the eighteenth century, is found
considering whether a sea trade between China and a British port on
the North Pacific coast could not be arranged so as to develop a
profitable market among the mandarins and grandees of the Celestial
Empire for a good proportion of the North-west Company's skins.

[Illustration: Map of Part of the Coast Region of BRITISH COLUMBIA]

Peter Pond, already referred to on p. 278, is said to have expressed
his intention (in 1788) of going to treat with the Empress Catherine
II for a Russian occupation of the Alaskan and Columbian coasts. For
this reason, or the mere desire to have a proportion of this
fur-producing country, the Emperor Paul, in 1799, created a Russian
Chartered Company to occupy the Alaska and north Columbian coasts.
Great Britain offered no objection--in spite of having acquired some
rights here by an agreement with Spain--and that is why, when you look
at the map of the vast Canadian Dominion, you find with surprise that
it has been robbed (one might almost say) of at least half of its
legitimate Pacific seaboard. The Russian Company was allowed to claim
the north Columbian coast between Alaska proper and Queen Charlotte

In 1867 the Russian Government sold all Alaska and the north Columbian
coast to the United States, partly to annoy Great Britain, whom it had
not forgiven for the Crimean War.

You will have noticed that quite a number of United States citizens
(mostly born British subjects in New England) had taken part in the
north-west fur trade immediately after the British conquest of Canada
disposed of French monopolies. There were Jonathan Carver and Peter
Pond, for example; and a much more worthy person than the last
named--Daniel W. Harmon, a New Englander, who entered the service of
the North-west Company in 1800, and followed in Mackenzie's footsteps
to the upper Fraser River and the vicinity of the Skeena. Simon Fraser
also, whose tracing of the Fraser River from its upper waters to the
Pacific coast we shall presently deal with, was a native of Vermont,
though his father came from Scotland. The furs which began to
penetrate into the United States by way of Detroit and Niagara, the
rising scale of luxury in dress in the towns of the eastern seaboard
of the United States, the voyages of American whalers up the west
coast of North America (including the discovery of the Columbia River
in 1792 by Captain Robert Gray), the purchase of Louisiana from the
Emperor Napoleon in 1804--with the vague claim it gave to the coast
line of Oregon on the Pacific: all these circumstances inspired
far-sighted persons in the United States at the beginning of the
nineteenth century with a wish to secure for their Government and
commerce a share in the fur trade and in these wonderful new lands of
the Pacific watershed. American ships (whaling ships) had already
become accustomed to sail round Cape Horn and to visit the Oregon and
Alaskan coasts. The American Government therefore, immediately after
the Louisiana purchase, dispatched an American expedition under
Captains Meriwether Lewis and Jonathan Clarke to travel up the
Missouri River and so across the mountains to the coast of Oregon, a
wonderful expedition, which they carried out with great success in two
years (1804-6), reaching the lower Columbia River and following it
down to the sea.

Consequently, with all this in the air, it is not very surprising that
the far-sighted John Jacob Astor, a wealthy German merchant of New
York, should have conceived the idea of founding a great American
fur-trading company and of establishing it at the mouth of the
Columbia River.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century he had entered into
arrangements with an Anglo-Canadian Company (the Mackinaw), which
worked the southernmost part of Canada, to fuse its enterprise with
his, and thus founded the _South-west Company_, the name of which (at
any rate in current speech) was afterwards changed into the Pacific
Fur-trading Company. After attempting in vain to come to a working
arrangement with the great North-west Company, he decided to act quite
independently and to establish the headquarters of his new concern at
the mouth of the Columbia River. Accordingly, the expedition was sent
out in duplicate to the mouth of the Columbia River, one-half going a
six-months' voyage round Cape Horn in a sailing ship, the _Tonquin_,
and the other marching overland or canoeing on lakes and rivers in
eighteen months from Montreal via the Mississippi and Missouri. These
two parties together founded "Astoria", at the mouth of the Columbia.
But most of Astor's employees were British subjects derived from men
of the North-west and Mackinaw Companies; and when, in 1812, war
broke out between the United States and Great Britain, a British war
vessel came up the Pacific coast to Astoria and promptly turned it
into "Fort George". Forthwith the North-west Company bought up the
derelict property of Mr. Astor's Company from his not very honest
British employees, and the few Americans in the concern retreated
inland, and, after almost incredible sufferings from the attacks of
unfriendly Indians, succeeded in reaching the Mississippi.


This Columbia River had in reality been discovered at its sources, and
traced down to the sea, between 1807 and 1811 by DAVID THOMPSON (once
a Blue-coat boy in London; from 1784 to 1792 in the service of the
Hudson's Bay Company, and after that one of the most famous of the
Nor'-westers). The upper course of this river and its northern
affluents were annexed as British by David Thompson; the lower course
did not at once become the political property of the United States,
but was considered vaguely to be the joint property of both nations,
till the Oregon settlement of 1846. By the treaty of 1792, the
southern boundary of central Canada was agreed upon as being the 49th
degree of north latitude, but only between the Lake of the Woods and
the Rocky Mountains. The agreement of 1846 continued the 49th degree
boundary to the shore of the Pacific opposite Vancouver Island.

Prominent among the agents of the North-western Company who followed
Sir Alexander Mackenzie as a pioneer towards the Pacific shores was
ALEXANDER HENRY THE YOUNGER,[1] regarding whose journeys some extracts
may be given.

[Footnote 1: The nephew of the Alexander Henry already mentioned as an
explorer between 1761 and 1775.]

The first entry in his diary of 1799 is not particularly romantic, but
shows some of the unexpected dangers attending the life of an
adventurer in the far north-west. He had been riding through the
Assiniboin country in the autumn of 1799, probably after one of the
very indigestible meals which he describes here and there in his
pages. Alone, and crossing an open plain swarming with wolves, he was
seized suddenly with a violent colic, the pain of which was so
terrible that he could not remain in the saddle. He dismounted,
hobbled his horse, and threw himself on the grass, where he lay in
agony for two hours, expecting every moment would be his last, till,
quite exhausted, he fell asleep. He was awakened, however, by the
howling of the wolves advancing to tear him to pieces; yet he was so
weak that he was scarcely able to mount his horse, and then could only
proceed at a slow walk, with the wolves snapping at his horse's heels.

Near the site of the present city of Winnipeg, in the late summer of
1800, he and his expedition were much troubled by swarms of water
snakes. They were harmless but not pleasant in their familiarity, for
they entered the tents and took refuge in the explorers' beds; and as
they apparently came from their breeding places in Amerindian graves
which covered the remains of people who had died of smallpox in a
recent epidemic, they were additionally loathsome.

Smallpox indeed played a very important part in the historical
development of western North America. Prior to 1780 the Amerindian
tribes between the upper Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, and
between the Saskatchewans and the Missouri, were numerous and warlike.
At first, about 1765, they received in very friendly fashion the
pioneer British traders and French Canadians who attempted to resume
the fur trade where it had been dropped by the French monopolists in
1760. But fifteen years afterwards, enraged at the violence and
wrongdoing of the British and Canadian traders, and maddened by strong
drink, they were planning a universal massacre of the whites, when
suddenly smallpox (introduced by the Spaniards into New Mexico) came
on them as a scourge, which destroyed whole tribes, and depopulated
much of western North America.

Alexander Henry had many adventures with the bison of the plains. Here
is one of them.

"Just as I came up to him at full speed and prepared to fire, my horse
suddenly stopped. The bull had turned about to face my horse, which
was naturally afraid of buffaloes, and startled at such a frightful
object; he leaped to one side to avoid the bull. As I was not prepared
for this I was pitched over his head, and fell within a few yards of
the bull's nose; but fortunately for me he paid no more attention to
my horse than to me. The grass was long, and I lay quiet until a
favourable opportunity offered as he presented his placotte. I
discharged both barrels of my double gun at him; he turned and made
one plunge toward me, but had not time to repeat it before he fell,
with his nose not more than three paces off.... I had to return on
foot as my horse had bolted."

At this place--near the Red River (the season September)--the country
swarmed with big game such as North America will never see any more:
enormous numbers of bison, of wapiti or Canadian red deer, moose or
elk, prong-buck, and of grizzly bears and black bears who followed the
herds to attack them. The rivers swarmed with otters and beavers. The
ground along the banks of the river was worn into a smooth, hard
pavement by the hoofs of the thousands of buffaloes. Racoons, red
foxes, wolves, and pumas frequented the bush country and the chumps of
forest. A large white wolf, prowling rather imprudently, came within a
few yards of Henry, and was shot dead. "We observed on the opposite
beach no fewer than seven bears drinking all at the same time. Red
deer were whistling in every direction, but our minds were not
sufficiently at ease to enjoy our situation." Large flocks of swans
(_Cygnus columbianus_) rose out of the Red River apparently in a state
of alarm and confusion, possibly caused by the many herds of buffaloes
rushing down to the river to drink. At night everything was quiet
except the bellowing of buffaloes and the whistling of red deer. "I
climbed up a tall oak at the entrance of the plain, from the top of
which I had an extensive view of the country. Buffalo and red deer
were everywhere in sight passing to and fro."

But the prairie had its nuisances as well as its wonders of animal
life. From the end of April to the end of July the woods and grass
swarmed with ticks (_Ixodes_), which covered the clothes of the
Europeans and entered their ears and there caused serious
inflammations. They would in time get such a firm hold by the
insertion of their heads into the skin that they could not be removed
without pulling the body from the head, which caused a terrible
itching lasting for months. If left alone they adhered to the flesh
until they swelled to the size of a musket ball, when they fell off of
themselves. In the summertime gadflies were exasperating in their
attacks on men and cattle. Mosquitoes were a veritable plague, and
midges also, between June and the end of September.

Not the least of the terrors of life in the far north-west in those
days was the vermin that collected in the houses or huts built for a
winter sojourn. It is frequently mentioned, in the records of the
pioneers, how the lodges or tents of the Amerindians swarmed with
fleas and lice. Henry notes on the 19th of April, 1803: "The men began
to demolish our dwelling houses, which were built of bad wood, and to
build new ones of oak. The nests of mice we found, and the swarms of
fleas hopping in every direction, were astonishing."

Henry reached the Pacific coast in 1814, by way of the Kootenay,
Spokane, and Columbia River route, which had been discovered by David
Thompson. He describes well the forests of remarkable trees on this
portion of the Pacific coast, opposite the south end of Vancouver
Island: the crooked oaks loaded with mistletoe, the tall wild cherry
trees, the hazels with trunks thicker than a man's thigh, the
evergreen arbutus, the bracken fern, blackberries, and black
raspberries; and the game in these glades of trees and fern: small
Columbian _Mazama_ deer, large lynxes, bears, gluttons, wolves, foxes,
racoons, and squirrels. Overhead soared huge Californian condors

Henry was drowned in 1812 in the estuary of the Columbia River,
through the capsizing of a boat.

The question of the identity of the great river flowing to the Pacific
from near the headwaters of the Peace--the river which Mackenzie had
discovered and been forced to leave--was finally decided by SIMON
FRASER, one of the most celebrated among the North-west Company's
pioneers. Like Mackenzie, he believed this stream to be the upper

Accompanied by John Stuart and Jules Quesnel, he left the Fraser River
at its junction with the Nechaco on May 22, 1807, and, keeping as near
as he could to the course of the river, found himself in the country
of the Atna tribe, Amerindians of a diminutive size but active
appearance, from whom he obtained an invaluable guide and faithful
interpreter, Little Fellow, but for whose bravery, wise advice, and
clever diplomacy the journey must have ended in disaster or
disappointment--a remark which might be made about nearly all the
Amerindian guides of the pioneers.

The Atna Indians were dressed in skins with the hair outside, and were
armed with bows and arrows. They besmeared their bodies with fish oil
and red earth, and painted their faces in different colours. Bison
were quite unknown to them, being very seldom found in those latitudes
on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. The country of the Atna
Indians on the upper Fraser abounded in elk, wapiti, reindeer, bighorn
sheep, mountain goats,[2] and beaver.

[Footnote 2: This remarkable beast (_Oreamnus_) they called "Aspai",
and wove from its white wool an excellent cloth for their clothing.]

Here is a description by Fraser of some of the rapids in the upper
part of the river named after him.

"The channel contracts to about forty yards, and is enclosed by two
precipices of immense height, which bending towards each other make it
narrower above than below. The water which rolls down this
extraordinary passage in tumultuous waves and with great velocity has
a frightful appearance. However, it being impossible to carry canoes
by land, all hands without hesitation embarked, as it were, _a corps
perdu_ upon the mercy of this awful tide. Once engaged, the die was
cast. Our great difficulty consisted in keeping the canoes in the
middle of the stream, that is, clear of the precipice on the one side,
and of the gulfs formed by the waves on the other. Thus, skimming
along as fast as lightning, the crews, cool and determined, followed
each other in awful silence, and when we arrived at the end we stood
gazing at each other in silent gratification at our narrow escape from
total destruction.... I scarcely ever saw anything so dreary and
dangerous in any country (such precipices, mountains, and rapids), and
I still seem to see, whichever way I turn my eyes, mountains upon
mountains whose summits are covered with eternal snow."


They had to take to these same mountains, the river being unnavigable.
The Asketti Indians brought them different kinds of roots, especially
wild onions boiled into a syrup, excellent dried salmon, and some
berries. These Indians had visited the seacoast, and had seen ships of
war come there with white men, "very well dressed, and very proud,
for," continued the chief, getting up and clapping his two hands upon
his hips, and then striding about the place with an air of
importance, "this is the way they go". In this country of the Hakamaw
and Asketti Indians, dogs were much in use for carrying purposes, and
could draw from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds. They were
considered by the French Canadians very good eating, though only the
smaller kinds were eaten, the large dogs being of another race and
having a rank taste. They also shaved these dogs in the summer time,
and wove rugs from their hair. These rugs were striped in different
colours, crossing at right angles, and resembling at a distance a
Highland plaid.

The tombs of the Indian villages on this western side of the Rocky
Mountains were superior to anything that Fraser had ever seen amongst
savages. They were about fifteen feet long, and of the form of a chest
of drawers. Upon the boards and posts, beasts and birds were carved in
a curious but crude manner, and pretty well proportioned. Returning to
the river, when the worst of the rapids were passed, they descended it
rapidly, helped by a strong current, and at length entered a lake
where they saw seals, which showed that they had got near to the
Pacific Ocean. They also beheld a round mountain, the now celebrated
Mount Baker, which is visible from so much of the surrounding country
of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. The trees were splendid,
junipers thirty feet in circumference in their trunks and two or three
hundred feet high. Mosquitoes, however, were in clouds. Nearer to the
coast the Indians often appeared in the distance like white men, for
the very literal reason that they had covered their skins with white
paint. Their houses were built of cedar planks, and were six hundred
and forty feet long by sixty feet broad, all under one roof, but of
course separated into a great number of partitions for different
families. On the outside the boards (as Mackenzie had noticed) were
carved with figures of men, beasts, and birds as large as life. Simon
Fraser, however, when he reached sea water, near the site of New
Westminster, was greatly disappointed that any view of the main ocean
should be obstructed by distant lands. He had believed all along that
he was tracing the far-famed Columbia River to its entrance into the
Pacific Ocean; and now that, instead of this, he had discovered an
entirely new river, henceforth to be called after him but without so
long a course as the Columbia, his vanity was hurt.

The Amerindians of the sea coast, opposite Vancouver Island, showed
hostility to Fraser's party, as they had done farther north to
Mackenzie. The Canadian _voyageurs_ got alarmed, and told Fraser's
assistant, John Stuart, that they had made up their minds to return by
land across the Rocky Mountains. Fraser and the other officers of the
expedition joined in arguing with them and recalling them to their
senses. Finally each member of the party swore a solemn oath before
Almighty God that they would sooner perish than forsake in distress
any of the crew in the present voyage. After this ceremony was over
all hands dressed in their best apparel, and each took charge of his
own bundle. They therefore returned as much as possible by the Fraser
River, and only took to the mountains when obliged by the rapids. They
had to pass many difficult rocks, defiles, precipices, in which there
was a beaten path made by the natives, and made possible by means of
scaffolds, bridges, and ladders, so peculiarly constructed that it
required no small degree of necessity, dexterity, and courage in
strangers to undertake them. For instance, they had to ascend
precipices by means of ladders composed of two long poles placed
upright, with sticks tied crosswise with twigs; upon the end of these
others were placed, and so on to any height; add to this that the
ladders were often so slack that the smallest breeze put them in
motion, swinging them against the rocks, while the steps leading from
scaffold to scaffold were so narrow and irregular that they could
scarcely be traced by the feet without the greatest care and
circumspection; but the most perilous part was when another rock
projected over the one they were clearing.

The Hakamaw Indians certainly deserved Fraser's grateful remembrance
for their able assistance throughout these alarming situations. The
descents were, if possible, still more difficult; in these places the
white men were under the necessity of trusting their property to the
Indians, even the precious guns were handed from one Indian to
another; yet they thought nothing of it, they went up and down these
wild places with the same agility as sailors do on a ship. After
escaping innumerable perils in the course of the day, the party
encamped about sunset, being supplied by the natives with plenty of
dried fish.

Thus the main lines of the exploration of the great Canadian Dominion
were completed. Alexander Mackenzie went to England in 1799 and
received a knighthood for his remarkable achievements. On his return
he first definitely created the New North-west or "X.Y." Company, and
then brought about its fusion (after several years of bitter rivalry)
with the old North-west Company; and it was this united and
strengthened organization which, between 1804 and 1819, sent out so
many bold pioneers to fill in the details of the map between the
Columbia and Missouri on the south, and the Great Slave Lake and Liard
River on the north. But during these years the energies of the
Hudson's Bay Company were reviving under a strange personality--THOMAS
DOUGLAS, EARL OF SELKIRK. Lord Selkirk conceived the idea of putting
new life into the Hudson's Bay Company, reviving the monopolies of
trading granted in its old charter, and turning its vague rights to
land into the absolute ownership of the enormous area of North
America north and west of the Canadian provinces. No regard of course
was paid to any rights of the natives, who as a matter of fact were
dying out rapidly from the effects of bad alcohol and epidemic

His motive was to establish large colonies of stalwart Highlanders as
the tenants of a Chartered Company. Alexander Mackenzie had already
called the north-west country "New Caledonia". Lord Selkirk wished to
make it so in its population.

Already he had been instrumental in establishing a Scottish colony on
Prince Edward's Island,[3] which, after some difficulties at the
beginning, had soon begun to prosper. Two or three years later he came
to Montreal, and there collected all the information he could obtain
from the partners in the North-west Company regarding the prospects of
trade and colonization in the far west. In the year 1811 he had
managed to acquire the greater part of the shares in the Hudson's Bay
Company, and, placing himself at its head, he sent out his first
hundred Highlanders and Irish to form a feudatory colony in the Red
River district (the modern Manitoba). He also dispatched an official
to govern what might be called the Middle West on behalf of the
Hudson's Bay Company. This person, acting under instructions, claimed
the whole region beyond the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada as the
private property of the Hudson's Bay Company, on the strength of their
antiquated charter issued by Charles II. The agents of the North-west
Company were warned (as also the two or three thousand French
Canadians and half-breeds in their pay) that henceforth they must not
cut wood, fish or hunt, build or cultivate, save by the permission and
as the tenants of the Hudson's Bay Company.

[Footnote 3: Prince Edward's Island is off the north coast of New
Brunswick. It was named after Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of

It is not surprising that such an outrageous demand, when it was
followed up by the use of armed force, soon provoked bloodshed and a
state of civil war throughout the North-west Territories. Lord Selkirk
himself took command on the Red River, with a small army of
disciplined soldiers. At length, in 1817, the British Government
intervened through the Governor-General of Canada, and in 1818 Lord
Selkirk left North America disgusted, and two years afterwards died at
Pau, in France, from an illness brought on by grief at the failure of
his projects.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie also died suddenly in 1820, in Scotland. For
twelve years he had been member of parliament for Huntingdon, and
since 1812 had been the determined opponent in England of Lord
Selkirk's plans of forcible colonization. After his death, however, in
1821, a sudden movement for reconciliation took place between the two
Companies. Thenceforth the Hudson's Bay Company ruled over the vast
regions of British North America, beyond Newfoundland, New Brunswick,
Nova Scotia, and the two Canadian provinces. Under their government
the work of geographical exploration went on apace. In 1834 one of
their officers, J. M'Leod, discovered the Stikine River in northern
British Columbia, and by 1848 J. Bell and Robert Campbell had revealed
the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers. By the time Thomas Simpson, Warren
Dease, and Dr. John Rae, on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company; and
Franklin, Back, Parry, Richardson, and M'Clintock, for the Imperial
Government, had completed the explorations mentioned in Chapter VI,
all the main features of Canadian geography were made known. The next
series of pioneers were to be those of the mining industry--it was the
discovery of gold in 1856 which created British Columbia; of
agriculture--the wheat-growers of the Red River region made the
province of Manitoba; of the steamboat; and above all the railway.
Developments of science scarcely yet dreamt of will demand in further
time their pioneers, and these will not come from abroad, but will
assuredly be found in this splendid Canadian people, the descendants
of the men or of the types of men I have attempted to describe.

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