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The Descent of the Fraser River

American traders were not slow to follow up the discovery of Robert Gray on the Pacific. Spain, the pioneer pathfinder, had ceded Louisiana to France; and France, by way of checkmating British advance in North America, had sold Louisiana to the United States for fifteen million dollars. What did Louisiana include? Certainly, from New Orleans to the Missouri. Did it also include from the Missouri to Gray's river, the Columbia? The United States had sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark overland from the Missouri to the Columbia, ostensibly on a scientific expedition, but in reality to lay claim to the new territory for the United States. This brings the exploration of the Pacific down to 1806.

Take a look at the map! Mackenzie had crossed overland from the Peace River to Bella Coola. Who was to own the great belt of empire - a third larger than Germany - between Mackenzie's trail westward and Lewis and Clark's trail to the mouth of the Columbia? In 1805 Simon Fraser, who as a child had come from the United States to Canada with his widowed mother in the Loyalist migration, and now in his thirtieth year was a partner in the North-West Company of Montreal, had crossed the Rockies by way of the Peace River. He had followed Mackenzie's trail over the terrible nine mile carrying place and had built there a fur post - Rocky Mountain Portage. He had ascended that same Parsnip River, which Mackenzie had found so appalling, to a little emerald lake set like a jewel in the mountains. There he had built another fur trading post, and named it after his friend, Archibald Norman M'Leod. This was the first fur post known to have been erected in the interior of New Caledonia, now British Columbia. The new fort had been left in charge of James M'Dougall; and during the winter of 1806 M'Dougall had crossed the heavily drifted carrying place and descended the Bad River as far as the south fork of the Fraser, which all traders at that time mistook for the upper reaches of Gray's Columbia. Instead of going down the main stream of the Fraser, M'Dougall ascended both the Nechaco and the Stuart; and if he did not actually behold the beautiful alpine tarns since known as Fraser Lake and Stuart Lake, he was at least the first white man to hear of them.

In May of 1806, after sending the year's furs from Rocky Mountain Portage east to Fort Chipewyan, Simon Fraser set out to explore this inland empire concerning which M'Dougall had reported. John Stuart accompanied Fraser as lieutenant. They crossed from the headwaters of the Parsnip to the south fork of the Fraser, and on June 10 camped at the mouth of the Nechaco. Towards the end of July the Carriers camped on Stuart Lake were amazed to see advancing across the waters, with rhythmic gallop of paddles, two enormous birch canoes. When the canoes reached the land Fraser and Stuart stepped ashore, and a volley was fired to celebrate the formal taking possession of a new inland empire. What to do with the white men's offerings of tobacco the Carriers did not know. They thought the white men in smoking were emitting spirits with each breath. When the traders offered soap to the squaws, the women at once began to devour it. The result was a frothing at the mouth as amazing to them as the smoke from the men. History does not record whether the women became as addicted to soap as the men to the fragrant weed.

Active trading with the Indians began at once. The lake was named Stuart in honor of Fraser's companion, and the ground was cleared for a palisaded fort, which, when erected, they named Fort St James. The scene was enchanting. The lake wound for a distance of fifty miles amid the foothills of the mighty forested mountains. It was four or five miles wide, and was gemmed with green islets; and all round, appearing through the clouds in jagged outline, were the opal summits of the snowy peaks. No wonder the two Scotsmen named the new inland empire New Caledonia - after their native land.

It will be remembered that M'Dougall had heard of another mountain tarn. This was forty miles south of Stuart Lake, at the headwaters of the Nechaco, the north fork of the Fraser. Stuart went overland south to spy out the southern lake; and his report was of such an entrancing region - heavily forested, with an abundance of game and fish - that Fraser glided down the Stuart river and poled up the Nechaco to the lake which Stuart had already named after his chief. Again a fort was erected and named Fort Fraser, making three forts in the interior of New Caledonia.

Fraser had sent a request to the directors of the North-West Company to be permitted to fit out an expedition down the great river, which he thought was the Columbia; and in the spring of 1807 two canoes under Jules Quesnel were sent out with goods. Quesnel arrived at Fort St James in the autumn, bringing from the east the alarming word that Lewis and Clark had gone overland and taken possession of all the territory between the Missouri and the mouth of the Columbia. No time was to be lost by Fraser in establishing a claim to the region to the west of the Rockies between the Peace and the Columbia. Fraser went down the river and strengthened British possession by building a fourth fort - Fort George at the mouth of the Nechaco. This was to be the starting point of the expedition to the Pacific. Then, towards the end of May 1808, he set out down the great river with four canoes, nineteen voyageurs, and Stuart and Quesnel as first assistants.

Fifteen miles below the fort the river walls narrowed and the canoes swept into the roaring cataract of Fort George canyon.

The next day they shot through the Cottonwood canyon, and paused at the point thenceforth to be known as Quesnel. On the third day they passed Mackenzie's farthest south - the site of the present Alexandria. Below this the river was unexplored and unknown. Suddenly the enormous floodwaters swollen by melting mountain snows contracted to a width of only forty yards, and with a fearful roar swept into a rock walled gorge. In sublime unconsciousness of heroism Fraser records:

As it was impossible to carry the canoes across the land owing to the height of the steep hills, we resolved to venture down. I ordered the five best men of the crews into a canoe lightly loaded; and in a moment it was under way. After passing the first cascade she lost her head and was drawn into an eddy, where she was whirled about, in suspense whether to sink or swim. However, she took a turn from this vortex, flying from one danger to another; but, in spite of every effort, the whirlpool forced her against a low rock. Upon this the men scrambled out, saving their lives; but the greatest difficulty was still ahead. To continue by water would be certain destruction. During this distressing scene we were on shore looking on; but the situation rendered our approach perilous. The bank was high and steep. We had to plunge our daggers into the ground to avoid sliding into the river. We cut steps, fastened a line to the front of the canoe, and hauled it up. Our lives hung upon a thread, as one false step might have hurled us into eternity. However, we cleared the bank before dark. The men had to ascend the immense hills with heavy loads on their backs.

Indians warned the white men to desist from their undertaking. Better, they advised, go overland eastward to a great peaceful river and descend that to the sea. Fraser, of course, did not know that the peaceful river they spoke of was really the Columbia. He thought the river he was following was the Columbia. With the help of Indians the canoes were pulled uphill, and horses were hired from them to carry the provisions overland. Below this portage, as they continued the descent, an enormous crag spread across the river, appearing at first to bar the passage ahead. This was Bar Rock. Beyond it several minor rapids were passed without difficulty; and then they came upon a series of great whirlpools which seemed impassable. But the men unloaded the canoes and - 'a desperate undertaking '- ran them down the rapids with light ballast. They then came back overland for the packs.

This task [says Fraser] was as dangerous as going by water. The men passed and re-passed a declivity, on loose stones and gravel, which constantly gave way under foot. One man, who lost the path, got in a most intricate and perilous position. With a large package on his back, he got so wedged amid the rocks that he could move neither forward nor backward, nor yet unload himself. I crawled, not without great risk, to his assistance, and saved his life by cutting his pack so [that] it dropped back in the river. On this carrying place, which was two miles long, our shoes became shattered.

For several days after this the advance was by a succession of rapids and portages. On June 9 the stream again narrowed to forty yards and swept violently between two overhanging precipices.

The water, which rolls down this passage in tumultuous waves and with great velocity, had a frightful appearance. However, it being absolutely impossible to carry canoes by land, all hands without hesitation embarked on the mercy of the awful tide. Once on the water, the die was cast; and the difficulty consisted in keeping the canoes clear of the precipice on one side and clear 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 congratulation on our narrow escape from total destruction. After breathing a little, we continued our course to the point where the Indians camped.

The natives here warned Fraser that it would be madness to go forward. At the same time they furnished him with a guide. The same evening the party reached the place described by Fraser as 'a continual series of cascades cut by rocks and bounded by precipices that seemed to have no end.' Never had he seen 'anything so dreary and dangerous.' Towering above were 'mountains upon mountains whose summits are covered with eternal snow.' An examination of the river for some distance below convinced Fraser that it was impossible of navigation, and he decided to make the remainder of the journey on foot. After building a scaffold, on which the canoes and some provisions were placed and covered with underbrush and moss, the party, on June II, began their tramp down the riverbank. Each man carried on his back a ninety pound pack, supported by a strap across the forehead. Again and again on the journey Indians confronted Fraser with hostile show of weapons, but the intrepid trader disarmed hostility by gifts. The Indians declared that the sea lay only ten 'sleeps ' distant. One of the chiefs said that he had himself seen white men, who were great 'tyees,' because ' they were well dressed and very proud and went about this way' clapping his hands to his hips and strutting about with an air of vast importance. The Indians told Fraser of another great river that came in from the east and joined this one some distance below. He had passed the site of the present Lillooet and was approaching the confluence of the Thompson with the Fraser. Farther down European articles were seen among the Indians. It was the fishing season, and the tribes had assembled in great hordes. Here the river was navigable, and three wooden dugouts were obtained from the natives for the descent to the sea. The voyageurs again embarked, and swept down the narrow bends of the turbulent floods at what are now Lytton, Yale, and Hope. There were passes where the river was such a raging torrent that the dugouts had to be carried overland. There were places where Fraser's voyageurs had to climb precipices by means of frail ladders, made of poles and withes that swayed to their tread and threatened to precipitate them into the torrent beneath.

When the river turned sharply west, Fraser could not help noticing that the Indians became more violently hostile. Far south could be seen the opal dome of Mount Baker, named by Vancouver after one of his lieutenants. As they advanced, the banks lowered to reedy swamps and mosquitoes appeared in clouds. What troubled Fraser most vas the fact that the river lay many miles north of the known latitude of the Columbia. It daily grew on him that this could not possibly be the Columbia. The tide rose and fell in the river. The Indian guide begged the white men not to go on; he was afraid, he said, of the Indians of the seacoast. The river channel divided. Natives along the shore began singing war songs and beating the war drum; then they circled out threateningly round the white men's boats. Signs were seen of the sea ahead; but the Indians were 'howling like wolves and brandishing war clubs,' and Fraser concluded that it would be unwise to delay longer amid such dangers. To his intense disappointment he had established the latitude as 49, whereas the Columbia was in latitude 46 20'. 'This river is therefore not the Columbia,' he declared. 'If I had been convinced of this when I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned.'

The return journey was fraught with danger. Always one man stood guard while the others slept; and again and again the little party was surrounded by ferociously hostile bands. Between apprehension of the dangers of the wild trail of the Fraser canyons and fear of hostile natives, the men became so panic stricken that they threw down their paddles and declared their intention of trying to escape overland through the mountains. Fraser reasoned and remonstrated, and finally threatened. After so much heroism he would not permit cowardly desertion. Then he forced each voyageur to swear on the Cross: ' I do solemnly swear that I will sooner perish than forsake in distress any of our crew during the present voyage.' With renewed self respect they then paddled off, singing voyageurs' songs to keep up their courage. Imagine, for a moment, the scene! The turbid, mad waters of the Fraser hemmed in between rock walls, carving a living way through the adamant; banks from which red savages threw down rocks wherever the wild current drove the dugout inshore; and, tossed by the waves - a chip like craft containing nineteen ragged men singing like schoolboys! Once away from the coastal tribes, however, the white men were aided by the inland Carriers. They found the canoes and supplies in perfect condition and unmolested, though hundreds of Carrier Indians must have passed where lay the belongings of the white strangers. On August 5, to the inexpressible relief of Fort George, the little band once more were at their headquarters in New Caledonia.

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.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915


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