Canadian Genealogy | Chronicles of Canada

 

Canadian Research

Alberta

British Columbia

Manitoba

New Brunswick

Newfoundland

Northern Territories

Nova Scotia

Nunavut

Ontario

Prince Edward Island

Quebec

Saskatchewan

Yukon

Canadian Indian Tribes

Chronicles of Canada

 

Free Genealogy Forms
Family Tree Chart
Research Calendar
Research Extract
Free Census Forms
Correspondence Record
Family Group Chart
Source Summary

 

New Genealogy Data
Family Tree Search
Biographies

Genealogy Books For Sale

Indian Mythology

US Genealogy

 

Other Websites
British Isles Genealogy
Australian Genealogy

 


FREE Web Site Hosting at
Canadian Genealogy

 

 

 

Hearne's Overland Journey to the Northern Ocean

In course of time the inaccurate knowledge and vague hopes of the early navigators were ex-changed for more definite ideas in regard to the American continent. The progress of discovery along the Pacific side of the continent and the occupation by the Spaniards of the coast of California led to a truer conception of the immense breadth of North America. Voyages across the Pacific to the Philippines revealed the great distance to be traversed in order to reach the Orient by the western route. At the same time the voyages of Captain Fox and his contemporary Captain James had proved Hudson Bay to be an enclosed sea. In consequence, for about a century no further attempt was made to find a North-West Passage.

In the meantime the English came into connection with the Far North in a different way.

The early explorers had brought home the news of the extraordinary wealth of America in fur-bearing animals. Soon the fur trade be-came the most important feature of the settlements on the American coast, and from both New England and New France enormous quantities of furs were exported to Europe. This commerce was with the Indians, and everything depended upon a ready and convenient access to the interior. Thus it came about that when the peculiar configuration of Hudson Bay was known to combine an access to the remotest parts of the continent with a short sea passage to Europe; its shores naturally offered themselves as the proper scene of the trade in furs. The great rivers that flowed into the bay the Severn, the Nelson, the Albany, the Rupert offered a connection in all directions with the dense forests and the broad plains of the interior.

The two competing nations both found their way to the great bay, the English by sea through Hudson Strait, the French overland by the portage way from the upper valley of the Ottawa. So it happened that there was established by royal charter in 1670 that notable body whose corporate title is 'The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England, trading into Hudson's Bay.' The company was founded primarily to engage in the fur trade. But it was also pledged by its charter to promote geographical discovery and both the honor of its sovereign rights and the promptings of its own commercial interest induced it to expand its territory of operations to the greatest possible degree. During its early years, necessity compelled it to cling to the coast. Its operations were confined to forts at the mouth of the Nelson, the Churchill, and other rivers to which the Indian traders annually descended with their loads of furs. Moreover, the hostility of the French, who had founded the rival Company of the North, cramped the activities of the English adventurers. During the wars of King William and Queen Anne, the territory of the bay became the scene of armed conflict. Expeditions were sent overland from Canada against the English company. The little forts were taken and retaken, and the echoes of the European struggle that was fought at Blenheim and at Malplaquet woke the stillness of the northern woods of America. But after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the whole country of the Bay was left to the English.

The Hudson's Bay Company were, therefore, enabled to expand their operations. By establishing forts farther and farther in the interior they endeavored to come into more direct relation with the sources of their supply. They were thus early led to surmise the great potential wealth of the vast region that lay beyond their forts, and to become jealous of their title thereto. Their aversion to making public the knowledge of their territory lent to their operations an air of mystery and secrecy, and their enemies accused them of being hostile to the promotion of discovery. For their own purposes, however, the company were willing to have their territory explored as the necessities of their expanding commerce demanded. As early as the close of the seventeenth century (1691) a certain Henry Kelsey, in the service of the company, had made his way from York Fort to the plains of the Saskatchewan. After the Treaty of Utrecht had brought peace and a clear title to the basin of the bay, the company endeavored to obtain more accurate knowledge of their territory and resources. It had long been rumored that valuable mines of copper lay in the Far North. The early explorers spoke of the Eskimos as having copper ore. Indians who came from the north-west to trade at Fort Churchill reported the existence of a great mountain of copper beside a river that flowed north into the sea; in proof of this, they exhibited ornaments and weapons rudely fashioned from the metal. It is probable that attempts were made quite early in the century by the servants of the company to reach this ' Coppermine River ' by advancing into the interior. But more serious attempts were made by sea voyages along the western shore of the bay. Such an expedition was sent out from England under Governor Knight of the Hudson's Bay Company, and Captains Barlow and Vaughan. In 1719 their two ships, the Albany and the Discovery, sailed from England, and were never seen again. Not until half a century later was the story of their shipwreck on Marble Island in the north of Hudson Bay and the protracted fate of the survivors learned from savages who had been witnesses of the grim tragedy. Other expeditions were sent northward from time to time, but without success either in finding copper or in finding a passage westward through the Arctic, which always remained at least an ostensible object of the search.

It so happened that in 1768 the Northern Indians brought down to Churchill such striking specimens of copper ore that the interest of the governor, Moses Norton, was aroused to the highest point. A man of determined character, he took ship straightway to England and obtained from the directors of the company permission to send an expedition through the interior from Fort Churchill to the Coppermine River. The accomplishment of this task he entrusted to one Samuel Hearne, whose over-land journey, successfully carried out in the years 1769 to 1772, was to prove one of the great landmarks in the exploration of the Far North.

Hearne, a youth of twenty-four years, had been trained in a rugged school. He had gone to sea at the age of eleven and at this tender age had taken part in his first sea-fight. He served as a naval midshipman during the Seven Years' War. At its conclusion he became a mate on one of the ships of the Hudson's Bay Company, in which position his industry and ingenuity distinguished him among his associates. For some years Hearne was employed in the fur trade north of the Churchill, and gained a thorough knowledge of the coast of the bay. For the expedition inland Norton needed especially a man able to record with scientific accuracy the exact positions which he reached. Norton's choice fell upon Hearne.

The young man was instructed to make his way to the Athabaska country and thence to find if he could the river of the north whence the copper came, and to trace the river to the sea. He was to note the position of any mines, to prepare the way for trade with the Indians, and to find out from travel or enquiry whether there was a water passage through the continent. Two white men (a sailor and a lands-man) were sent in Hearne's service. He had as guides an Indian chief, Chawchinahaw, with a small band of his followers. On November 6, 1769, the little party set out, honored by a salute of seven guns from the huge fortress of Fort Prince of Wales, the massive ruins of which still stand as one of the strangest monuments of the continent.

The country which the explorer was to traverse in this and his succeeding journeys may be ranked among the most inhospitable regions of the earth. The northern limit of the great American forest runs roughly in a line north-westward from Churchill to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. East and north of this line is the country of the barren grounds, for the most part a desolate waste of rock. It is broken by precipitous watercourses and wide lakes, and has no vegetation except the mosses and grasses which support great wandering herds of caribou. A few spruce trees and hardy shrubs struggle northward from the limits of the great woods. Even these die out in the bitter climate, and then the explorer sees about him nothing but the wide waste of barren rock and running water or in winter the endless mantle of the northern snow.

It is not strange that Hearne's first attempt met with complete failure. His Indian companions had, indeed, no intention of guiding him to the Athabaska country. They deliberately kept to the north of the woods, along the edge of the barren grounds, where Hearne and his companions were exposed to the in-tense cold which set in a few days after their departure. When they camped at night only a few poor shrubs could be gathered to make a fire, and the travelers were compelled to scoop out holes in the snow to shelter their freezing bodies against the bitter blast. The Indians, determined to prevent the white men from reaching their goal, provided very little game. Hearne and his two servants were reduced to a ration of half a partridge a day for each man. Each day the Indian chief descanted at length upon the horrors of cold and famine that still lay before them. Each day, with the obstinate pluck of his race, Hearne struggled on. Thus for nearly two hundred miles they made their way out into the snow-covered wilderness. At length a number of the Indians, determined to end the matter, made off in the night, carrying with them a good part of the supplies. The next day Chawchinahaw himself announced that further progress was impossible. He and his braves made off to the west, inviting Hearne with mocking laughter to get home as best he might. The three white men with a few Indians, not of Chawchinahaw's band, struggled back through the snow to Fort Prince of Wales. The whole expedition had lasted five weeks.

In spite of this failure, neither Governor Norton nor Hearne himself was discouraged. In less than three months (on February 23, 1770) Hearne was off again for the north. Convinced that white men were of no use to him, he had the hardihood to set out accompanied only by Indians, three from the northern country and three belonging to what were called at Churchill the Home Guard, or Southern Indians. There was no salute from the fort this time, for the cannon on its ramparts were buried deep in snow.

Hearne's second expedition, though more protracted than the first, was doomed also to failure. The little party followed on the former trail along the Seal river, and thence, with the first signs of opening spring,


Samuel Hearne
From an engraving in the Dominion Archives

struck north-wards over the barren grounds. Leaving the woods entirely behind, Hearne found himself in the broken and desolate country between Fort Churchill and the three or four great rivers, still almost unknown, that flow into the head-waters of Chesterfield Inlet. In the be-ginning of June, as the snow began to melt, progress grew more and more difficult. Snow-shoes became a useless encumbrance, and on the loth of the month even the sledges were abandoned. Every man must now shoulder a heavy load. Hearne himself staggered under a pack which included a bag of clothes, a box of papers, a hatchet and other tools, and the clumsy weight of his quadrant and its stand. This article was too precious to be entrusted to the Indians, for by it alone could the position of the explorers be recorded. The party was miserably equipped. Unable to carry poles with them into a woodless region, they found their one wretched tent of no service and were compelled to lie shelterless with alternations of bitter cold and drenching rain. For food they had to depend on such fish and game as could be found. In most cases it was eaten raw, as they had nothing with which to make a fire.

Worse still, for days together, food failed them. Hearne relates that for four days at the end of June he tramped northward, making twenty miles a day with no other sustenance than water and such support as might be drawn from an occasional pipe of tobacco. Intermittent starvation so enfeebled his digestion that the eating of food when found caused severe pain. Once for seven days the party had no other food than a few wild berries, some old leather, and some burnt bones. On such occasions as this, Hearne tells us, his Indians would examine their wardrobe to see what part could be best spared and stay their hunger with a piece of rotten deer skin or a pair of worn-out moccasins. As they made their way northward, the party occasionally crossed small rivers running north and east, but of so little depth that they were able to ford them. Presently, however, one great river proved too deep to cross on foot. It ran northeast. Hearne 's Indians called it the Cathawachaga, and the Canadian explorer Tyrrell identifies it with the river now called the Kazan. Here the party fell in with a band of Indians who carried them across the river in their canoes. On the northern side of the Cathawachaga, Hearne and his men rested for a week, finding a few deer and catching fish. As the guides now said that in the country beyond there were other large rivers, Hearne bought a canoe from one of the Indians, and gave in exchange for it a knife which had cost a penny in England.

In July the travelers moved on north-west-ward with better fortune. Deer became plentiful. Bands of roving Indian hunters now attached themselves to the exploring party. Hearne's guide declared that it would be im-possible to reach the Coppermine that season, and that they must spend a winter in the Indian country. The truth was that Hearne 's followers had no intention of going farther to the north, but preferred to keep company with the bands of hunters. It was useless for Hearne to protest. He and his Indians drifted along to the west with the hunting parties, now so numerous that by the end of July about seventy deer-skin tents were pitched so as to form a little village. There were about six hundred persons in the party. Each morning as they broke camp and set out on the march 'the whole ground for a large space around wrote Hearne, ' seemed to be alive with men, women, children, and dogs.

The country through which Hearne travelled, or wandered, in this mid-summer of 1770, between the rivers Kazan and Dubawnt, was barren indeed. There were no trees and no vegetation except moss and the plant called by the Indians wish-a-capucca the ' Labrador tea ' that is found everywhere in the swamps of the northern forests. Animal life was, however, abundant. The caribou roaming the barren grounds in the summer, to graze on the moss, were numerous. There was ample food for all the party, and the animals were, indeed, slaughtered recklessly, merely for the skins and the more delicate morsels of the flesh.

The Dubawnt river midway in its course expands into Dubawnt Lake, a great sheet of water some sixty-five miles long and forty miles broad. It lies in the same latitude as the south of Greenland. No more desolate scene can be imagined than the picture revealed by modern photographs of the country. The low shores of the lake offer an endless prospect of barren rock and broken stone. In the century and a half that have elapsed since Hearne's journey, only one or two intrepid explorers have made their way through this region. It still lies and probably will lie for centuries unreclaimed and un-reclaimable for the uses of civilization.

Hearne and his Indian hunters moved westward and southward, passing in a circle round the west shore of Lake Dubawnt, though at a distance of some miles from it. The luckless travelers had now but little chance of reaching the object of their search. They were hundreds of miles away even from the head waters of the Coppermine. The season was already late: the Indian guides were quite unmanageable, while the natives whom Hearne met clamored greedily for European wares, ammunition and medicine, and cried out in disgust at his inability to supply their wants.

Then came an accident, fortunate perhaps, that compelled Hearne to abandon his enterprise. While he was taking his noon observations, which showed him to be in latitude 63 10' north, he left his quadrant standing and sat down on the rocks to eat his dinner. A sudden gust of wind dashed the delicate instrument to the ground, where it lay in fragments. This capped the climax. Unable any longer to ascertain his exact whereabouts, with no trustworthy guidance and no prospect of winter supplies or equipment, Hearne turned back towards the south. This was on August 12, after a journey of nearly six months into the unknown north.

The return occupied three months and a half. They were filled with hardship. On the very first day of the long march, a band of Indians from the north, finding Hearne defenseless, plundered him of well nigh all he had. 'Nothing can exceed. wrote Hearne, 'the cool deliberation of the villains. A committee of them entered my tent. The ringleader seated himself on my left hand. They first begged me to lend them my skipertogan1 to fill a pipe of tobacco. After smoking two or three pipes, they asked me for several articles which I had not, and among others for a pack of cards; but, on my answering that I had not any of the articles they mentioned, one of them put his hand on my baggage and asked if it was mine. Before I could answer in the affirmative, he and the rest of his companions (six in number) had all my treasure spread on the ground. One took one thing and one another, till at last nothing was left but the empty bag, which they permitted me to keep.' At Hearne's urgent request, a few necessary articles were restored to him. From his Indian guides also the marauders took all they had except their guns, a little ammunition, and a few tools.

Thus miserably equipped, Hearne and his


followers set out for home. Their only tent consisted of a blanket thrown over three long sticks. They had no winter clothing, neither snow-shoes nor sleds, and their food was such as could be found by the way. The month of September was unusually severe, and when the winter set in, the party suffered intensely from the cold, while the want of snow-shoes made their march increasingly difficult. The marvel is that Hearne ever reached the fort at all. He would not have done so very probably had it not been his fortune to fall in with an Indian chief named Matonabbee, a man of strange and exceptional character, to whom he owed not only his return to Fort Prince of Wales, but his subsequent successful journey to the Coppermine.

This Indian chief, when he fell in with Hearne (September 20, 1770), was crossing the barren grounds on his way to the fort with furs. As a young man, Matonabbee had resided for years among the English. He had some knowledge of the language, and was able to understand that a certain merit would attach to the rescue of Hearne from his predicament. Moreover, the chief had himself been to the Coppermine River, and it was partly owing to his account of it that Governor

Norton had sent Hearne into the barren grounds.

Matonabbee hastened to relieve the young explorer's sufferings. He provided him with warm deer-skins and, from his ample supplies, prepared a great feast for the good cheer of his new acquaintance. An orgy of eating followed, dear to the Indian heart, and after this, without fire-water to drink, the Indians sang and danced about the fires of the bivouac. Matonabbee and Hearne travelled together for several days towards the fort, making only about twelve miles a day. The Indian then directed Hearne to go eastward to a little river where wood enough could be found for snow-shoes and sledges, while he himself went forward at such a slow pace as to allow Hearne and his party to overtake him. This was done and Hearne, now better equipped, rejoined Matonabbee, after which they continued together for a fort-night, making good progress over the snow. As they drew near the fort their ammunition was almost spent and the game had almost disappeared. By Matonabbee's advice, Hearne, accompanied by four Indians, left the main party in order to hasten ahead as rapidly as possible. The daylight was now exceedingly short, but the moon and the aurora borealis illuminated the brilliant waste of snow. The weather was intensely cold. One of Hearne's dogs was frozen to death. But in spite of hardship the advance party reached Fort Prince of Wales safe and sound on November 25, 1770. Matonabbee arrived a few days later.


Fort Churchill or Prince of Wales
From a drawing by Samuel Hearne


Strange as it may seem, Hearne was off again in less than a fortnight on his third quest of the Coppermine. The time that he had spent in Matonabbee's company had given him a great opinion of the character of the chief; 'the most sociable, kind, and sensible Indian I have ever met ' so Hearne described him. The chief himself had offered to lead Hearne to the great river of the north. Governor Norton willingly furnished ammunition, supplies, and a few trading goods. The expedition started in the depth of winter. But this time, with better information to guide them, the travelers made no attempt to strike directly northward. In-stead, they moved towards the west so as to cross the lower reaches of the barren grounds as soon as possible and proceed northward by way of the basin of the Great Slave Lake, where they would find a wooded country reaching far to the north. A glance at the map will show the immensity of the task before them. The distance from Fort Churchill to the Slave Lake, even as the crow flies, is some seven hundred miles, and from thence to the Arctic sea four hundred and fifty, and the actual journey is longer by reason of the sinuous course which the explorer must of necessity pursue. The whole of this vast country was as yet unknown: no white man had looked upon the Mackenzie River nor upon the vast lakes from which it flows. It speaks well for the quiet intrepidity of Hearne that he was ready alone to penetrate the trackless waste of an unknown country, among a band of savages and amid the rigor of the northern winter.

The journey opened gloomily enough. The month of December was spent in toiling painfully over the barren grounds. The sledges were insufficient, and Hearne as well as his companions had to trudge under the burden of a heavy load. At best some sixteen or eighteen miles could be traversed in the short northern day. Intense cold set in. Game seemed to have vanished, and Christmas found the party plodding wearily onward, foodless, moving farther each day from the little outpost of civilization that lay behind them on the bleak shores of Hudson Bay.

I must confess (wrote Hearne in his journal) that I never spent so dull a Christmas; and when I recollected the merry season which was then passing, and reflected on the immense quantities and great variety of delicacies which were then expending in every part of Christendom, I could not refrain from wishing myself again in Europe, if it had only been to have had an opportunity of alleviating the extreme hunger that I suffered with the refuse of the table of one of my acquaintances.

At the end of the month (December 1770), they reached the woods, a thick growth of stunted pine and poplar with willow bushes growing in the frozen swamps. Here they joined a large party of Matonabbee's band, for the most part women and children. The women were by no means considered by the chief as a hindrance to the expedition. Indeed, he attributed Hearne's previous failure to their absence.' Women/ he once told his English friend, 'were made for labor; one of them can carry or haul as much as two men can do; they pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, and in fact there is no such thing as travelling in this country for any length of time without their assistance. 'Women.' he added, 'though they do everything are maintained at a trifling expense; for as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers in scarce times is sufficient for their subsistence.' Acting on these salutary opinions, the chief was a man of eight wives, and Hearne was shocked later on to find the Indian willing to add to his little flock by force without the slightest compunction.

The two opening months of the year 1771 were spent in travelling westward towards Wholdaia Lake. The country was wooded, though here and there, the observer, standing on the higher levels, could see the barren grounds to the northward. The cold was intense, especially when a frozen lake or river exposed the travelers to the full force of the wind. But game was plentiful. At intervals the party halted and killed caribou in such quantities that three and four days were some-times spent in camp in a vain attempt to eat the spoils of the chase. The Indians, Hearne remarked, slaughtered the game recklessly, with no thought of the morrow.

Wholdaia Lake was reached on March 2, This is a long sheet of water lying some thirty miles north of the parallel of sixty degrees. At the point where Hearne crossed it on the ice, it was twenty-seven miles broad; its length appears to be four or five times as great. It is still almost unknown, for it lies far beyond the confines of present settlement and has been seen only by explorers.

From Wholdaia Lake the course was continued westward. The weather was moderate. There was abundant game, the skies overhead were bright, and the journey assumed a more agreeable aspect. Here and there bands of roving Indians were seen, as also were encampments of hunters engaged in snaring deer in the forest. In the middle of April, the party rested for ten days in camp beside a little lake which marked the westward limit of their march. From here on, the course was to lie northward again. The Indians were therefore employed in gathering staves and birch-bark to be used for tent poles and canoes when the party should again reach the barren grounds on their northern route.

The opening of May found the party at Lake Clowey, whose waters run westward to the Great Slave Lake. Here they again halted, and the Indians built birch-bark canoes out of the material they had carried from the woods. In traversing the barren grounds, where both the direction and the nature of the rivers render them almost useless for navigation, the canoe plays a part different from that which is familiar throughout the rest of Canada. During the greater part of the journey, often for a stretch of a hundred miles at a time, the canoe is absolutely useless, or worse, since it must be carried. Here and there, however, for the crossing of the larger rivers, it is indispensable. Large numbers of Indians were assembling at Clowey Lake during Hearne's stay there, and were likewise engaged in building canoes. A considerable body of them, hearing that Matonabbee and his band were on the way to the Coppermine, eagerly agreed to travel with them. It seemed to them an excellent opportunity for making a combined attack on their hereditary enemy, the Eskimos at the mouth of the river. The savages thereupon set themselves to make wooden shields about three feet long with which to ward off the arrows of the Eskimos.

On May 20, a new start was made to the north. Matonabbee and his great company of armed Indians now assumed the appearance of a war party, and hurried eagerly towards the enemy's country. Two days after leaving Lake Clowey, they passed out of the woods on to the barren grounds. To facilitate their movements most of the women were presently left behind together with the children and dogs. A number of the braves, weary already of the prospect of the long march, turned back, but Matonabbee, Hearne, and about one hundred and fifty Indians held on with all speed towards the north. Their path as traced on a modern map runs by way of Clinton-Golden and Aylmer lakes and thence northward to the mouth of the Coppermine. By the latter part of June the ice was breaking up, and on the 22nd the party made use of their canoes (which had been carried for over a month) in order to cross a great river rejoicing in the ponderous name of the Congecathawachaga. On the farther side, they met a number of Copper Indians who were delighted to learn of Matonabbee's hostile design against the Eskimos. They eagerly joined the party, celebrating their accession by a great feast. The Copper Indians expressed their pleasure at learning from Hearne that the great king their father proposed to send ships to visit them by the northern sea. They had never seen a white man before and examined Hearne with great curiosity, disapproving strongly of the color of his skin and comparing his hair to a stained buffalo tail.

The whole party moved on together. The weather was bad, with alternating sleet and rain, and the path broken and difficult. July 4 found them at the Stony Mountains, a rugged and barren set of hills that seemed from a distance like a pile of broken stones. Nine days more of arduous travel brought the warriors in sight of their goal. From the elevation of the low hills that rose above its banks, Hearne was able to look upon the foaming waters of the Coppermine, as it plunged over the broken stones of its bed in a series of cascades. A few trees, or rather a few burnt stumps, fringed the banks, but the trees which here and there remained unburned were so crooked and dwarfish as merely to heighten the desolation of the scene.

Immediately on their arrival at the Coppermine, Matonabbee and his Indians began to make their preparations for an attack upon the Eskimos, who were known to frequent the mouth of the river. Spies were sent out in advance towards the sea, and the remainder of the Indians showed an unwonted and ominous energy in building fires and roasting meat so that they might carry with them a supply so large as to make it unnecessary to alarm the Eskimos by the sound of the guns of the hunters in search of food. Hearne occupied himself with surveying the river. He was sick at heart at the scene of bloodshed which he anticipated, but was powerless to dissuade his companions from their design. Two days later (July 15, 1771), the spies brought back word that a camp of Eskimos, five tents in all, had been seen on the further side of the river. It was distant about twelve miles and favorably situated for a surprise. Matonabbee and his braves were now filled with the fierce eagerness of the savage; they crossed hurriedly to the west side of the river, where each Indian painted the shield that he carried with rude daubs of red and black, to imitate the spirits of the earth and air on whom he relied for aid in the coming fight. Noiselessly the Indians proceeded along the banks of the river, trailing in a serpentine course among the rocks so as to avoid being seen upon the higher ground. They seemed to Hearne to have been suddenly transformed from an un-disciplined rabble into a united band. Northern and Copper Indians alike were animated by a single purpose and readily shared with one another the weapons of their common stock. The advance was made in the middle of the night, but at this season of the year the whole scene was brilliant with the light of the mid-night sun. The Indians stole to within two hundred yards of the place indicated by the guides. From their ambush among the rocks they could look out upon the tents of their sleeping victims. The camp of the Eskimos stood on a broad ledge of rock at the spot where the Coppermine, narrowed between lofty walls of red sandstone, roars foaming over a cataract some three hundred yards in extent.

The Indians, sure of their prey, paused a few moments to make final preparations for the onslaught. They cast aside their outer garments, bound back their hair from their eyes, and hurriedly painted their foreheads and faces with a hideous coating of red and black. Then with weapons in hand they rushed forth upon their sleeping foe.

Hearne, unable to leave the spot, was compelled to witness in all its details the awful slaughter which followed.

In a few seconds (he wrote in his journal) the horrible scene commenced; it was shocking beyond description; the poor unhappy victims were surprised in the midst of their sleep, and had neither time nor power to make any resistance; men, women, and children, in all upwards of twenty, ran out of their tents stark naked, and endeavored to make their escape; but the Indians, having possession of all the land-side, to no place could they fly for shelter. One alternative only remained, that of jumping into the river; but, as none of them attempted it, they all fell a sacrifice to Indian barbarity. The shrieks and groans of the poor expiring wretches were truly dreadful.

But it is needless to linger on the details of the massacre, which Hearne was thus compelled to witness, and the revolting mutilation of the corpses which followed it. To Matonabbee and the other Indians the whole occurrence was viewed as a proper incident of tribal war and the feeble protests which Hearne contrived to make only drew down upon him the expression of their contempt.

After the massacre followed plunder. The Indians tore down the tents of the Eskimos and with reckless folly threw tents, tent poles, and great quantities of food into the waters of the cataract. Having made a feast of fresh fish on the ruins of the camp, they then announced to Hearne that they were ready to assist him in going on to the mouth of the river. The desolate scene was left behind the broad rock strewn with mangled bodies of the dead and the broken remnants of their poor belongings. Half a century later the explorer Franklin visited the spot and saw the skulls and bones of the Eskimos still lying about. One of Franklin's Indians, then an aged man, had been a witness of the scene.

From the hills beside the Bloody Falls, as the cataract is called, the eye could discern at a distance of some eight miles the open water of the Arctic and the glitter of the ice beyond. Hearne followed the river along its precipitous and broken course till he stood upon the shore of the sea. One may imagine with what emotion he looked out upon that northern ocean to reach which he had braved the terrors of the Arctic winter and the famine of the barren grounds. He saw before him about three-quarters of a mile of open sea, studded with rocks and little islands: beyond that the clear white of the ice-pack stretched to the farthest horizon. Hearne viewed this scene in the bright sunlight of the northern day: but while he still lingered, thick fog and drizzling rain rolled in from the sea and shut out the view. For the sake of form, as he said, he erected a pile of stones and took possession of the coast in the name of the Hudson's Bay Company. Then, filled with the bitterness of a vain quest, Hearne turned his face towards the south to commence his long march to the settlements.

Up to this point nothing had been seen of the supposed mountains of copper which formed the principal goal of Hearne's undertaking. The eagerness of the Indians had led them to hasten directly to the camp of the Eskimos regardless of all else. But on the second day of the journey home, the guides led Hearne to the site of this northern Eldorado. It lay among the hills beside the Coppermine River at a spot thirty miles from the sea, and almost directly south of the mouth of the river. The prospect was strange. Some mighty force, as of an earthquake, seemed to have rent asunder the solid rock and strewn it in a confused and broken heap of boulders. Through these a rivulet ran to join the Coppermine. Here, said the Indians, was copper so great in quantity that it could be gathered as easily as one might gather stones at Churchill. Filled with a new eagerness, Hearne and his companions searched for four hours among the rocks. Here and there a few splinters of native copper were seen. One piece alone, weighing some four pounds, offered a slight reward for their quest. This Hearne carried away with him, convinced now that the mountain of copper and the inexhaustible wealth of the district were mere fictions created by the cupidity of the savages or by the natural mystery surrounding a region so grim and inaccessible as the rocky gorge by which the Coppermine rushes to the cold seas of the north.

After Hearne's visit no explorer reached the lower waters of the Coppermine till Captain (afterwards Sir John) Franklin made his memorable and marvelous overland journey of 1821. Since Franklin's time the region has been crossed only two or three times by explorers. They agree in stating that loose copper and copper ore are freely found. But it does not seem that, since 1771, any white man has ever looked upon the valley of the great boulders which the Indians described to Hearne as containing a fabulous wealth of copper. The solitary piece of metal which he brought home is still preserved by the Hudson's Bay Company.

There is no need to follow in detail the long journey which Hearne had to take in order to return to the fort. The march lasted nearly a year, during which he was exposed to the same hardship, famine and danger as on his way to the sea. The route followed on the return was different. The party ascended the valley of the Coppermine as far as Point Lake, a considerable body of water visited later by Franklin, and distant one hundred and sixty miles from the sea. This was reached on September 3, 1771. Four months were spent in travelling almost directly south. They passed over a rugged country of stone and marsh, buried deep in snow, with here and there a clump of stunted pine or straggling willow. Bitter weather with great gales and deep snow set in October. Snowshoes and sledges were made. Many small lakes and rivers, now fast frozen, were traversed, but the whole country is still so little known that Hearne's path can hardly be traced with certainty. By the middle of November the clumps of trees thickened into the northern edge of the great forest. The way now became easier. They had better shelter from the wind, and firewood was abundant. For food the party carried dried meat from Point Lake, and as they passed into the thicker woods they were fortunate enough to find a few rabbits and wood partridges.

Some fish were caught through the ice of the river. But in nearly two months of walking only two deer were seen.

On Christmas Eve Hearne found himself on the shores of a great frozen lake, so vast that, as the Indians rightly informed him, it reached three hundred miles east and west. This is the Great Slave Lake; Hearne speaks of it as Athaspuscow Lake. The latter name is the same as that now given to another lake (Athabaska of Canadian maps) the word being descriptive and meaning the lake with the beds of reeds.

Hearne and his party crossed the great lake on the ice. A new prospect now opened. Deer and beaver were plentiful among the islands. Great quantities of fine fish abounded in the waters under the ice. As they reached the southern shore, the jumble of rocks and hills and stunted trees of the barren north was left behind, and the travellers entered a fine level country, over which wandered great herds of buffalo and moose. For about forty miles they ascended the course of the Athabaska River, finding themselves among splendid woods with tall pines and poplars such as Hearne had never seen. From the Athabaska they struck eastward, plunging into so dense a forest that at times the axes had to be used to clear the way. For two months (January and February of 1772) they made their way through the northern forest. The month of March found them clear of the level country of the Athabaska and entering upon the hilly and broken region which formed the territory of the Northern Indians. At the end of March the first thaws began, rendering walking difficult in the bush. In traversing the open lakes and plains they were frequently exposed to the violent gales of the equinoctial season. By the middle of April the signs of spring were apparent. Flocks of waterfowl were seen overhead, flying to the north. Their course was shaped directly to the east, so that the party was presently traversing the same route as on their outward journey and making towards Wholdaia Lake. The month of May opened with fine weather and great thaws. Such intense heat was experienced in the first week of this month that for some days a march of twelve miles a day was all that the travellers could accomplish. Canoes were now built for the passage of the lakes and rivers. By May 25 the expedition was clear of all the woods and out on the barren grounds. They passed the Cathawachaga River, still covered with ice, on the last day of May. A month of travel over the barren grounds brought them on the last day of June 1772 to the desolate but welcome surroundings of Fort Prince of Wales. Hearne had been absent on his last journey one year, six months, and twenty-three days. From his first journey into the wilderness until his final return, there had elapsed two years, seven months, and twenty-four days.

Hearne was not left without honor. The Hudson's Bay Company retained him in their service at various factories, and three years after his famous expedition they made him governor of Fort Prince of Wales. During his service there he had the melancholy celebrity of surrendering the great fort (unfortunately left without men enough to defend it) to a French fleet under Admiral La Perouse. Among the spoils of the captors was Hearne's manuscript journal, which the generous victors returned on the sole condition that it should be published as soon as possible. Hearne returned to England in 1787, and was chiefly busied with revising and preparing his journal until his death in 1792.

No better appreciation of his work has been written than the words with which he concludes the account of his safe return after his years of wandering. 'Though my discoveries,' he writes, 'are not likely to prove of any material advantage to the nation at large, or indeed to the Hudson's Bay Company, yet I have the pleasure to think that I have fully complied with the orders of my masters, and that it has put a final end to all disputes concerning a North- West Passage through Hudson's Bay.'

Footnotes:

1. Bag for flint and steel, tobacco, etc.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Adventurers of the Far North, Pioneers of the North and West, By Stephen Leacock, Hunter-Rose Co., Limited, Toronto

 

Chronicles of Canada


Add/Correct a Link

Comments/Submit Data


Copyright 2002-2017 by Canadian Genealogy
The WebPages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission.