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Embark for the North

I spent the remainder of the winter enjoying the good things of this life, and on the 28th of April received orders to proceed to Lachine, preparatory to embarking for the north. I embarked on the 29th, but the crews were so intoxicated that we were compelled to land on an island near by, to allow them to recover from the effects of their carousals.

I was joined here by Captain Stalk of the 71st, and Lieutenant Lefroy of the Artillery; the former accompanying us on a jaunt of pleasure, the latter on a scientific expedition. There were also four junior clerks in the Company's service. Our brigade consisted of three large canoes manned by about fifty Canadians, and Iroquois Indians.

We were detained in our insular encampment by stress of weather until the 2d of May, when we set out. Our crews being now perfectly sober, plied their paddles with the utmost good-will, singing and whooping, apparently delighted with their situation. Ignorance here was bliss; they little dreamed of the life that awaited them. I may here premise, that as I have already narrated the particulars of a similar voyage, I shall pass on to the different stages of our route without noticing the uninteresting incidents of our daily progress.

We arrived at Fort William on the 28th of May, where we exchanged our large Montreal canoes for smaller. Here Captain S. remained to await his passage back to Canada; not much disposed to try such a jaunt of pleasure again, I suspect,—and Lieutenant L., taking a canoe for himself with a view of prosecuting his scientific researches more at leisure than our go-a-head mode of traveling admitted, left us also. We were detained a day at Fort William, repairing canoes, arranging crews, &c., and on the 30th, I took leave of my excellent compagnons de voyage with sincere regret.

On descending Lac la Pluie River, we landed at an extensive Sauteux camp, where we found a Protestant (Methodist) Missionary, with a native interpreter as his only companion. I learned with much regret, that this gentleman's exertions in his vocation had been attended with little or no success, although he had been two years engaged in it; while the Romish priests, in the same space of time, had converted numbers.

The natives were occupied with the sturgeon fishing, and had apparently been tolerably successful. Having procured a supply for the use of our crews by barter, we set off, and without experiencing any accident, reached Bas de la Rivière on the 13th of June, where I found letters from the Governor, directing me to proceed with all possible speed to York Factory.

Having learned on my way coming up, that one of the gentlemen in McKenzie's River district had resigned, and would quit the country this year, I felt convinced I should be appointed his successor; that being one of the most wretched parts of the Indian country, it was quite a matter of course that I should be sent thither. Knowing from dear-bought experience, however, that my constitution could no longer bear the hardships and privations to which I had been so long subjected, I wrote the Governor on the subject, and requested that he would grant me an appointment where I might enjoy some degree of comfort—a favor which I humbly conceived my former services entitled me to—otherwise I should retire from the service. We had a fine passage across Lake Winnipeg, and I landed at Norway House with all my party safe and sound, on the 18th of June. I remained there till the 21st, and then set out for York Factory, where I had been about ten days, when an express arrived from Norway House with the Governor's final orders to me, and also his reply to my last communication, which I here insert at full length.

"Red River Settlement,
"June 22, 1843.

"Dear Sir,

"My eyes are so completely worn out, that I cannot give you a single private line under my own hand. I have perused with attention your private letter of the 14th instant, and should have been glad had it been in my power to have met your wishes in regard to an appointment; but from the few commissioned gentlemen disposable this season, it was quite impossible to consult wishes. You were, therefore, long before receipt of your letter, appointed to McKenzie's River. That is now one of the finest fields we have for extension of trade, and I count much on your activity for promoting our views in that quarter. But while directing your attention to the extension of your district, you must likewise use your best endeavors to curtail the indents, as they have of late been on a most alarming scale, comprehending nearly as many articles as appear in our Columbia requisition; if you look on my notes on the last requisition, you will find that I have been under the necessity of making some further curtailments. I am sorry the idea of retiring has entered your mind, as I was in hopes we could count upon some efficient services out of you while still young and vigorous.

"The Company have of late declined making any purchases of retired interests; it would be therefore quite unnecessary to make any application on that head, as they have lost money by all the recent purchases they have made in that way.

"I am at the Lower Fort, where Mr. Ross came in on me very unexpectedly, just as we were preparing to get on horseback for the upper part of the settlement, so that I am much pressed for time, which will account for the brevity of this communication.

"Pray let me hear from you in Canada by the last canoes, as I shall not then have taken my departure from Montreal.

"I remain, &c. &c.

(Signed) "George Simpson."

Judging, from the instructions contained in the above communication, that I was appointed to the charge of the district, I made up my mind to try how far my health could endure the hardships of which I already had had more than my share; and without a moment's delay, set out for Norway House in a light canoe, where I arrived on the 16th of July. My friend Mr. C—— arrived with his returns from Athabasca a few days afterwards, and his arrangements being completed on the 24th, I embarked as a passenger with him.

We reached the small river Mithai on the 4th of September, when we found the water so low as barely to admit of the passage of the light boats. It happened most fortunately that there were a number of Chippewayan Indians encamped on the spot at the time, else we should have been completely at a nonplus. The crews, good souls! hired those Indians at their own expense, to carry the greater part of the property in their small canoes to the upper part of the river. At the portage we found a number of half-breeds, with their horses, from the Saskatchewan, awaiting our arrival, in the expectation of being employed to transport the goods. Nor were they disappointed; sooner than undergo the harassing toil of carrying the outfit across a portage of twelve miles, the men hired the half-breeds, parting with their most valuable articles in payment.

Several propositions have been made, of late years, to the Governor, for sparing the men the inhuman labor of this portage, which they must either perform, or sacrifice a considerable part of their paltry wages to avoid it. It was suggested, for instance, that a sufficient number of horses should be stationed at a certain locality, with the requisite conveniences, near the portage, and a couple of men hired on purpose to take care of them, whose wages the winterers should pay out of their own pockets, which they readily assented to; as the transport, by this arrangement, would only cost them one-third of what it cost them to employ the half-breeds. His Excellency, however, was quite "sick" of the Portage La Loche subject; he knew as much about it as anybody, and felt quite assured that it was the easiest part of the men's duties throughout the voyage! While canoes were used, the duty at Portage la Loche was not nearly so severe as at present; a canoe carried only twenty-five pieces, and was manned by six men; a boat's crew consists only of seven men, while the cargo consists of from sixty to seventy pieces.

The descent of the Clear Water and Athabasca rivers was effected without any accident, and we arrived at Athabasca on the 16th of September; whence I set out again, after a few days' delay, for Fort Resolution, on Great Slave Lake, where I was detained by stress of weather until the 29th.

I left the post late in the evening, and intended to encamp on an island at a convenient distance; but the season being far advanced, I felt anxious to proceed, and inquired of my pilot whether he thought there would be any risk in traveling all night? "Not the least," was the reply; and we rowed on accordingly till morning; when lo! the only objects to be seen were sea and sky. In vain we strained the organs of vision to discover land; there we were, as if in the midst of the ocean, surrounded on all sides by the unbroken circle of the horizon. I do not know that I ever felt more seriously alarmed than at this moment, thus to find myself exposed on an unknown sea, as it might well be termed, in an open boat, and at such an advanced period of the season, without any means of ascertaining what course to steer for land. It would appear our steersman had been napping at the helm in the course of the night, and thus allowed the boat to deviate from her course without noticing it; hence the awkwardness and even the danger of our present situation.

While considering with myself what was best to be done, a fine breeze sprang up; I ordered the sail to be hoisted immediately, determined on going before it until we made land, no matter where. Fortunately the wind continued steady all day, and we at length reached the land a little after sunset, having run at least forty miles. We put ashore at the first convenient landing we could find, and encamped for the night. Having consulted a map I had with me, and observing by the sun the direction in which we had crossed the lake, (for we had actually crossed it at its greatest width,) I could make out pretty clearly that we had turned our backs to our true course! We had, however, a good supply of provisions, and a voyageur is never discouraged while he has the provender before him. Having now learned, to my cost, what confidence my pilot was entitled to, I determined on keeping land in view for the future.

We embarked early next morning, and, after a tedious and laborious passage of seven days, arrived at Big Island fishery at the outlet of the Lake on the 8th of October, where I found a boat ready to start with a cargo of fish, in which I embarked; and landing finally at Fort Simpson on the 16th, my long trip of five months per mare et terram, was brought to a close; and high time it should, for the weather was become excessively cold, and the ice was forming along the beach.

I was much grieved to find Mr. Lewis confined to bed in consequence of a shocking accident he had lately met with, his right hand being blown off by the accidental discharge of his fowling piece.

Having perused the governor's official letter to Mr. Lewis, I found the following paragraph in it relating to myself: "On retiring from the district next season, you will be pleased to invest Mr. McLean with the management, handing to that gentleman all correspondence, papers, &c., connected with the public business." This paragraph, taken in conjunction with the instructions I had previously received, confirmed both Mr. L. and myself in the opinion that I was to succeed him in the charge; and we took our measures accordingly.

I was very agreeably surprised to find that the high latitude of this locality (61° north) did not prevent agricultural operations from being carried on with success. Although the season had been rather unfavourable, the farm yielded four hundred bushels of potatoes, and upwards of one hundred bushels of barley; the barnyard, with its stacks of barley and hay, and the number of horned cattle around it, had quite the air of a farm standing in the "old country." It is to be regretted that the gentlemen here should have paid so little attention to the cultivation of the soil in former times, as the produce would, ere now, not only have contributed to the support of the establishment, but have afforded assistance to the natives in years of scarcity.

For these three years past the distress of the natives in this quarter has been without parallel; several hundreds having perished of want in some instances, even at the gates of the trading post, whose inmates, far from having it in their power to relieve others, required relief themselves. Here, as in most other parts of the wooded country, rabbits form the principal subsistence of the natives, and when they fail, starvation is the sure and inevitable result; but no former period has been so productive of distress, to so fearful an extent, as the present. With the produce of the farm, Mr. L. was enabled to save the lives of all those who resorted to his own post; but at Forts Good Hope, Norman, and De Liard, no assistance could be given; as those posts, like most others in the Indian country, depend entirely on the means the country affords in fish, flesh, and fowl, for their subsistence.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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